The Betrayal – Helen Dunmore

I’ve lost something.  I’m not sure what it is, so beginning the process of looking for it is proving to be somewhat problematic.  I suspect it’s my enthusiasm, though other likely candidates include my nerve, confidence, fervour and gusto.  Whatever it is, its loss has resulted in a recent brevity of blog posts, for which I apologise – aortically, if not wholeheartedly. 

Now that the Booker prize is done and dusted, the thought of sitting down to hack-out articles about the remaining un-reviewed longlisters fills me with dread.  Well, perhaps ‘dread’ is the wrong word; but the anticipated boredom of it all is proving to be an insurmountable obstacle to my output.  The lavishly decorated tables around which the hopeful (and the hopeless) nominees sat three weeks ago have long since been cleared, the confetti swept away (if confetti there was), and I imagine that the gong itself is already gathering dust on Howard Jacobson’s much-adorned mantelpiece. And now, so far away from the buzz and bet-making of the build up, I just can’t bring myself to review the out-standing nominees. 

I should have seen this coming.  Post-facto reviews of books that were nominated for (but didn’t win) literary awards can so easily be accused of pointlessness.  They’ve missed the boat.  Their ship has sailed.  And, disposing of further nautical clichés: nobody cares.  After all, we know that The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore didn’t win the Booker prize, so why should I invest my increasingly precious time and energy in writing about it?  Well, for two reasons: firstly, I’m a fervent completionist, and the thought of leaving the remaining Booker nominees un-reviewed is starting to irritate me, causing an itching in my mind: like a literary eczema.  Secondly: I don’t want to give the impression that, just because a book didn’t win an award, it’s not valuable or worthy of time and consideration.

The problem is: I’m desperate to leave this ‘Booker prize challenge’ behind me, and move on to something new.  At the same time, I don’t want to just ‘phone in’ the remaining book reviews, especially as my recent efforts have been so long and loquacious.

After explaining my predicament to a friend, they suggested that I should stop being so airy-fairy (or was it arty-farty?) and take a more ‘scientific’ approach to review writing, in order to systematically churn-out the remaining reviews.  The idea seemed to imply that 1) science is antithesis to art and, by association, 2) that my blog posts are in some way artistic.  Clearly both implications are utterly preposterous.  However, I thought there was merit in the idea that I change my approach; a change being as good as a rest… at least proverbially.

But don’t panic; I’m not going to use this review to espouse some abstract New Critical formalism – an approach so often (and wrongly, I think) described as literature done scientifically.  I’ve decided, instead, to take my friend’s advice entirely literally. So while I’m sure that this isn’t exactly what my friend had in mind, what follows is my “scientific” review of The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore.  Enjoy.  Or not.

 

Apparatus

396 grams of The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

3 x 500ml Orange Lucozade

1 x bic biro

1 x old notebook

1 x green armchair

1 x pack of post-it strips (multicoloured)

3 x quiet afternoons – concentrated.

 

Process

An experiment was carried out to measure the effectiveness of The Betrayal on a reader. 

I read The Betrayal over the course of three days in late September; the kind of crisp and slightly cold days when you can almost feel the knees of summer finally starting to buckle and bend to the restless shunt of the coming autumn.  Which was appropriate, as much of the novel takes place during this kind of weather. 

The Process of reading required a muster of both patience and dedication – fuelled by a constant supply of Lucozade (this particular formula was a dilution of 16mg of caffeine per 100ml).  Notes were taken using a bic biro (blue), and significant moments during the process were marked with post-it strips applied directly to the subject.  Moments of severe frustration were noted by my throwing the subject against the floor – this did not damage the apparatus in any significant way; it being of such low quality to begin with. 

The reading, ingestion of Lucozade, taking of notes and physical abuse of the subject were repeated until all 396 grams of The Betrayal had been examined.

Prediction

The Betrayal is set in post-war Soviet Russia, specifically: Leningrad, 1952.  Andrei is a young doctor forging a life with his wife, Anna, and her much younger brother Kolya, whom they are raising since the death of Anna’s parents during the siege of Leningrad.  The ‘blurb’ informs us that Volkov – a member of the “secret police”- sends his terminally ill son to Andrei for treatment. 

I predict that Volkov’s son will die very early in the novel.  Volkov, seemingly a judgemental, conservative and quick-to-anger secret-police type, will probably blame Andrei for the death of his son, and (being an unreasonable secret-police type) have him arrested/his family spied upon/ his wife taken from him – or some such unjust course of autocratic yet state-sanctioned action which exposes the corruption rampant at the core of the “secret police”.

As a work of historical fiction, I also predict much period detail demonstrable of intricate research and a dedication to narrative realism.

My unrivalled powers of foresight also lead me to expect that, at some point, somebody will be betrayed.

Observations

Not as predicted.  The Betrayal betrays itself — the lazy process of its own creation is exposed by an almost alarming lack of historical detail.  I have nothing but the most meagre, popular-history understanding of Soviet Russia, yet I could probably write a more historically informative and complex novel than Helen Dunmore has.  The only hints to period or place are irritatingly simplistic catch-alls, such as the nebulous phrase ‘Soviet Russia’ or the anachronistic ‘secret police’.  Whether these “police” are the Cheka, the MVD or the ‘People’s Commissariat’ (or any of the other myriad state enforcers working under police jurisdiction at the time) is never divulged to the reader.  We just have to settle for the ill-defined moniker “secret police”.  This is simplification to a detrimental extent.  Other than being (constantly) told that we are in “Soviet Russia”, there is very little information here: almost nothing about the organisations, politicians and bureaucracy that the novel is supposedly about is supplied in any detail.

Further to this simplicity of context is a simplicity of narrative style.  Dunmore constantly underestimates the intelligence of her readership by spelling out, in patronising detail, the most clear-cut and obvious of procedures and events.  At best the reader will find this irritating, at worst – grossly offensive:

 “You’re lucky you only got ten years; the rest of us got quarters and even halves!”

A half was fifty years, a quarter was twenty five.

Thank God you explained that to me, Helen.  Further to this condescending narrative approach is a smugness of tone that undermines even the novel’s most heartfelt and emotional moments.  For example: early in the novel a desperate mother visits the hospital to spend a final few hours with her dying child.  The bare facts of this encounter are heartbreaking, and need no elaborate or embellished description to move the reader.  Yet Dunmore manages to bathetically subsume the emotional tone of the entire scene with this ugly, unnecessary observation:

 “I felt it go through me” she said “here” And she touched the place where most people seem to think their heart is.

It’s an astonishing act of linguistic tapinosis (language that debases a moment of beauty): a rhetorical technique usually reserved for comedic farce or satire.

Narrative style aside, the plot of the novel enfolded entirely as predicted.  Volkov’s son (under the care of protagonist Andrei) does die – Volkov blames Andrei for the death, and a long process of unjust incrimination, spying, false accusations and confession under duress ensues.

Put simply; The Betrayal is a novelisation of the ‘Doctors Plot’ of 1952; during which many physicians were spied upon, arrested, imprisoned and even executed for no more valid reasons than the suspicions, fear and whimsy of the authoritarian state.  The problem is that Helen Dunmore examines the Plot through clichéd characters and predictable story telling.  Andrei is Doctor Zhivago in all but name: “I wish I were a poet” he states at one point, as if Dunmore is self-consciously trying to ensure some distinction between her own persecuted physician, and Pasternak’s.  Volkov, as mentioned, is an archetype in print: the too-powerful secret police official whose personal failings and insecurities are manifested in acts of arbitrary murder and persecution of the innocent.  I saw the major plot-twist of this novel coming right from page one: and that it takes so long to get there only added to my irritation.

All of these observations, however, are made with caution.  After all, this is a scientific review, and maybe in observing The Betrayal, I changed it.

Results

Not good.  The Betrayal is the worst kind of historical fiction: predictable, derivative, lacking in detail and patronising.  All of this is made even more upsetting by the fact that Helen Dunmore is usually such a wonderful, moving writer.  It’s almost painful to type, but maybe this book is beyond her.  I’m also amazed that the Booker judges saw fit to nominate the book to their longlist; it just doesn’t compare to the other pieces of historical fiction that were listed.

At this point in a scientific report, I would usually comment on how I would improve the experiment in future attempts.  This time, however, such comments are entirely unnecessary.  I won’t be reading The Betrayal again. 

Tomcat

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Tomcat’s Bookerthon: a conclusion.

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.  Several weeks ago I threw the gauntlet of literary fiction at my own feet, and set myself a challenge; of reading, and of writing.  Attempting to report on the entire 2010 Booker Prize longlist was a noble undertaking, but one which, regrettably, fell beyond my powers of endurance.  However, my failure wasn’t total. I did manage to read all thirteen nominated novels; it’s merely in the writing of reviews that I’ve been unsuccessful.

Circumstance hasn’t allowed me the time I need to sit down and write about all of the books I’ve read, and for that I apologise.  But these blog posts don’t write themselves.  Unbelievably, it takes many hours of blood, sweat, tears and toil to churn out such poor-quality pieces of clunk and cliché.  Soaring to the giddy heights of reviewerly mediocrity doesn’t come easy to me; yet I press on, and I will review all of the out-standing Booker nominees in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, I’d like to use this article to make some final comments on the Booker prize, as well as to commit some sickening and vainglorious acts of self-praise, as I congratulate myself on having read twelve pieces of serious literary fiction, and The Slap, in just eight weeks.  Haven’t I done well?

My Bookerthon journey has transported me literarily (not literally) to: Canada, Australia, Eighteenth-Century Japan, Russia, Greece, India, Holland, France, Ireland, Egypt, Africa, Nineteenth-Century Jamaica, and that favourite staple of the English metropolitan literati: South London.  I’ve never felt more well-travelled, or well-read.  A book-by-book tour of the longlist’s settings would show you half the world; I may even suggest a Booker Prize Cruise to P&O.  Next year, if I find myself richer and more eccentric, I could read every nominated novel while journeying through the country of its setting.  Though now I’ve stated this as my pre-facto modus operandi, the Booker judges will inevitably put-paid to the idea by nominating twelve books set in North Korea, Tibet, Iran and Atlantis.

But does breadth of time and place equate to breadth of style and theme?  The answer, you won’t be surprised to learn, is: no.  The Booker prize enjoys a prestigious reputation as the pantheon of modern English literary writing.  When Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer dominate the bestsellers, we can always rely on the Booker judges to point us in the direction of quality, depth of emotion and profundity of thought.  At least, that’s what they’d like us to believe.  Ostensibly the prize represents the best literary fiction of the past twelve months; but if reading the entire longlist has taught me anything, it’s that the Booker committee’s definition of ‘literary’ is shockingly narrow.

Admittedly, I don’t pander to any stringent classification of ‘literariness’ whatsoever.  I like Simon Schama more for the lyricism of his prose than the content of his history.  Conversely, I find much of Dickens to be border-line unreadable.  ‘Literary’, to me, has always been an elastic and ambivalent critical term, a bit messy and hard to define.  However, the Booker judges are untroubled by such mitigating quandaries, and seem to have pinned down this ever elusive moniker with alarming precision.  If this year’s longlist is representative of the ouvre, then “literary fiction” is much narrower in scope than I ever imagined.

For the judges of the Booker prize seem to consider “literary fiction” to be a very specific brand of uber-realistic, psychologically sober, historically-informed utilitarianism: social fiction; Big Fiction.  Nothing about the longlist is non-linear, speculative, genre-defying or experimental.  What do the Booker nominated novels all have in common?  They all carry with them the cumbersome weight of plausibility.

Maybe I over-egged that a bit, so don’t get me wrong – narrative realism isn’t a bad thing, far from it; but it’s not the only stylistic idiosyncrasy that’s conducive to good writing. The judges don’t so much play it fast and loose with their choices as they do slow and tight.  None of this year’s nominees would be out-of-place as adaptations on the BBC’s autumn line-up.  With the possible exception of C, all are staid and familiar.  Accomplished, but unthreatening.  The 2010 Booker prize longlist felt like a place I’ve visited many times before.

In a previous post, I bemoaned the exclusion of such writers as Alastair Reynolds, Philip Pullman, China Mieville and Ian Banks from nomination; I even began to question the value of my own taste.  But having read the entire longlist for myself, the truth is now clear to me.  These books were excluded not because they’re bad fiction, but because they’re the wrong type of fiction.  The title of “Man Booker Prize for Fiction” is really a daring deceit; a misnomer of nomenclature.  The Booker Prize espouses such a narrow definition of ‘literary fiction’ that it has, in a way, spawned its own genre of writing.  It’s somewhat worrying that the adjective ‘Bookeresque’ could be used to define the narrative style of the entire longlist; so homogenised are the nominees.  China Mieville may compose the most sublime and insightful piece of writing ever produced, but if it’s a work of his transgressive experimentalism, then he’ll never be nominated.

 So maybe it’s time that the Booker Prize FOR FICTION either re-defines its terms, or re-titles its…err…title.  Let’s be frank: the Booker is a genre prize, in much the same capacity as the Arthur C. Clarke or the CWA awards.  My laboured point, condensed, is this: the Booker Prize doesn’t represent the best of English language fiction, but the best of a certain type of English language fiction.  And this, I think, is a shame.  Alastair Reynolds’ books contain all the colours of human emotion; he just has space ships too.  If only the judges would give a nod-of-the-head to a work of crime, or horror, or sci-fi (or any of the portmanteau works of transgressive fiction currently doing the rounds), then I’m sure people’s eyes would be opened to the real breadth of brilliant, brilliant writing that’s out there.  The Booker judges could be responsible for banishing this new myth that literary fiction is a specific kind of realistic, safe writing.  Many of the Booker nominees are brilliant, but they’re all of a type.  I’m taking issue with the spread of the longlist, rather than any of its individual titles  And thus the Booker, despite how it’s marketed, isn’t a prize for all of fiction, but for a comfortable brand of predictable MOR narrative.

It wouldn’t take an implausible paradigm shift for the Booker to incorporate the weirder and more speculative aspects of literary writing; and in doing so it would  truly earn the right to bear the title ‘prize for fiction’.  All fiction.  As things stand, the Booker institution is perpetuating a false notion that weird, unrealistic or experimental writing isn’t literary or valuable.  The Booker Prize is a bully by neglect.

Sorry about that rant, something more melodramatic than British took hold of me.  But I hope that my point stands.  Of course, none of this means that the books which have been shortlisted are inadequate or poor; they’re just not the complete picture of current English literary writing.

Anyway; enough of what could have been, and on to what is.

Of the thirteen novels originally nominated, six were chosen to form this year’s shortlist:

C – Tom McCarthy

The Long Song – Andrea Levy

The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson

In a Strange Room – Damon Galgut

Room – Emma Donoghue

Parrot and Olivier in America – Peter Carey

I’ve already taken issue with the quality of several of these books, and I’m wary of repeating myself, so please peruse my previous posts if you’re at all interested in mythoughts.   Suffice and sufficient to say; I think that C by Tom McCarthy should win this year’s gong.  It’s a masterwork; its themes of transmission and loss are explored with a fearless devotion to intricacy, and a refusal to simplify or condense.  Parts of the novel manage to conduct a wonderfully violent attack upon the precepts of organised language.  In it the lexicon of technology is converged with that of grief in an unusual yet moving way.  It’s never contrived, and through constant yet subtle literary references, C manages to make extraordinary points about the interconnectedness of language, literature, life and loss.  It kicks-ass and you should read it.

 And so I am glad that I decided to embark upon this ill-fated but interesting reading project.  It’s been a learning experience.  Without it, I probably wouldn’t have come across such brilliant books as C, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, or Room.

Yet despite discovering these novels, I won’t ever be undertaking such a reading project again.  Unless it’s for money.  The more I read, the less I enjoyed myself; and as the weeks progressed, this challenge began to feel more like a test of my readerly stamina than a quest to discover new, great literature.  I did enjoy several of the books on the longlist; but many others I disliked, even hated.  I forced myself to spend many long hours ploughing through books that would otherwise never have interested me.  And I regret having to fritter away my time on such literary abortions as The Slap or Helen Dunmore’s The Betrayal.  Yet being the conscientious tyke that I am, I was determined to finish every book, no matter how tedious the reading experience.  See? I suffer for my art.  Or, rather, for certain writers’ lack thereof.

 Another point that stuck me, like a crowbar to the back of the head, was the utter futility of comparing so many books.  Examining such contrasting novels as Howard Jacobson’s Jewish comedy of manners and Emma Donoghue’s thriller of childhood incarceration, then attempting to resolve which one is ‘best’, seems a somewhat facile undertaking.  I’m aware that it’s the only way that one can judge a prize such as the Booker; but I don’t envy the judges their task.

So here’s another of the lessons this experience has taught me: many books are incomparable, and arguing ( for example) that Trespass is a better murder story than The Long Song is a slave narrative just strikes me as…stupid.  In the free country of the Redroom, at least, it’s not how things are done.

 —

Ultimately, the deeper I dug, the more frustrated I became.  Firstly, with the limited scope of the books that were selected for the longlist (the usual spread of historical fiction, family dramas and books by Peter Carey); secondly, and by association, with the amount of my favourite fiction of the year that wasn’t nominated; and thirdly, with the complete banality of comparing so many different books, in order to discern an individual winner.  I know the Booker prize is a force for good; if nothing else, it draws attention to niche writing that would otherwise never find its way into the bestsellers chart.  And I am glad that I didn’t detect any vein of misguided political correctness running through the judges’ choices; as is so often rumoured to be the case.

But mostly, I just couldn’t wait for the process to be over, so I could once again walk in the free gardens of literary choice, where my taste isn’t dictated to me, and where I can read whatever I choose, whenever I choose it.   If the judges ever decide to shake things up by nominating fewer works of historical fiction and family saga in favour more left-field and experimental novels, then give me a call.  But as things stand, my final realisation is this: I couldn’t give a crap about the Booker prize.

Tomcat