I have just read the book that I think should win the Booker Prize and it didn’t even get on the longlist. At Last by Edward St Aubyn is the fifth in a series of books that follows Patrick Melrose through his often very unhappy life. It is, as Alan Hollinghurst said to me in Burton (sorry for the name drop but can’t quite resist, and also can’t resist popping in the location of the conversation as the conjunction of Alan Hollinghurst and Burton was of itself miraculous) excoriating. It is also often very funny. It shifts constantly between despair and hope and the last paragraph is a thing of beauty and a possible way to live for anyone who has done battle with life’s demons.
I didn’t get cross when my two favourite books didn’t make the short list but talked a lot about how reading is so miraculous precisely because there is no right opinion. I never particularly feel that I am equipped to say a book is ‘better’ than another, I can only say that I liked it more. Or, actually, it is the opposite. I feel very equipped to say when books are good, I feel a lot less comfortable dismissing them as less than good. I think this is something to do with accepting that I am a bookseller rather than a critic. It is my job to find the books that I think people will want to read. I shout loudly when I make a wonderful discovery and tend to keep quiet when I don’t think something is much cop. ‘Not really up my street,’ I tend to say, ‘not quite my cup of tea.’
Or perhaps it is humility, or lack of confidence. Or being a softie. I would always rather be nice about things than not. Or, perhaps because I try to write and know that it is a bit trickier than it looks, I tend to have a fair old whack of respect for anyone who gets to the end.
But, having said all that, I do find it very difficult to see how anyone could have read At Last and not thought it a better book than most/almost all/all of the others on the long list. Just staggering.
Back to the shortlist. I was disappointed with the absence of Hollinghurst and Barry but pleased with my 50% hit rate and delighted to see The Sister’s Brothers and Half Blood Blues on the shortlist. I’d be very happy with either of them as the winner though The Sense of An Ending just edges it for me. I also think the judges were right to include Jamrach’s Menagerie. Sometimes I find a book grows on me and this is one that I keep thinking about. The wonderful character of Jaffy Brown often pops into my head, when he can get past all those squabbling Melroses.
Patrick Melrose’s story starts off with Some Hope, a one volume edition of the first three novels. I am still pondering the title. Some Hope like fat chance? Or Some Hope like, well, some hope? Or, as all the books do, a shifting between the two?
Please go and read it so that there are more people in the world who can talk to me about it…
I have much more to say about these books. I want to talk about series novels, about novels with funerals in them, about how sometimes a writer can take their own torn limb and turn it into art. These are the things I am thinking about when I wake in the night. Do they sound interesting? Shall I write a part two to this?