Shuggie Bain won the 2020 Booker prize. I’m sure it was a worthy winner but the back cover quotes mean I won’t be reading it. “… as intense and excruciating to read as any novel I have ever held in my hand..” Not for me right now. Probably never would have been.
But it won the Booker. Thus I decided that my first link would be to the last Booker prize-winning book that I read, which led to some awkward squirming when I discovered that the most recent Booker I’ve read is The Life of Pi by Yann Martell which won in 2002. This surely means I am now marked as devoid of all cultural and literary good taste. (Several more from the last twenty years sit on my ‘to be read’ list. I add them religiously and they seem extremely comfortable there, unlikely I fear, to move up any time soon.)
I’m fairly sure Life of Pi has featured in an earlier chain but never mind. In addition to its prize-winning status, it has the tenuous link to Shuggie Bain through its child protagonist struggling to survive, but in this case it is a child adrift in a boat with a man-eating tiger rather than in a run-down housing estate in Thatcher’s Glasgow. To be fair, Pi is more a young man than a child when he finds himself in that predicament but his childhood is described in the novel: his family owned a zoo in the Indian city of Pondicherry.
Lee Langley wrote The House in Pondicherry (1995) which was the third of a loose trilogy of novels set in India. I haven’t read it and I don’t plan to because I have read the middle book in the trilogy, Persistent Rumours (1992), which forms my second link. This was a book club read and although it was rated highly by the majority of my fellow members if I recall, it didn’t work for me at all. Much of the story centres around the Andaman Islands, off the coast of India, which are protected and remain home to its indigenous people, who I believe remain hostile to intrusion from outsiders. They were certainly hostile in the course of this novel.
Rumer Godden (I rather like that link!) is an author I enjoy very much who has also authored several novels set in India. Leaving the open seas for calmer waters, The River (1946) is a coming-of-age novella describing that pause in Harriet’s life where she is caught between a sister who is no longer a playmate and a brother who is not yet old enough to fill that void. I remember it as vivid with sensory description, bright, light and colourful.
We remain on a river with my next choice but we move from an Indian summer to an English winter. Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River lifts us from the sun-filled vibrancy of an Indian riverbank to the dark mid-winter depths of the Thames. The child in the tale is dead when brought into The Swan Inn, then she breathes into life, mute and unable to tell her story. I planned to read this one last winter. It’s a strong hopeful for December this year now.
Once Upon a River is set in 1887. In 1889, Jerome K Jerome’s timeless classic was published: Three Men in a Boat. We’re back in a boat and we’re still on the Thames. No child in the boat and no tiger mercifully, though there is Montmorency, the fox terrier who believes himself to be easily as ferocious as Richard Parker. I’m confident that Jerome and his hapless companions would have passed The Swan Inn, had it existed. Inns and public houses featured regularly in their watery jaunt.
They also fished, with limited success, and my final link returns us to oceans rather than rivers, where fishing is a means of survival and not an idle passtime. We also return to Shuggie’s Scotland: not to the deprived areas of Glasgow but to the harsh north-east and the Highlands. The Silver Darlings (1941) by Neil Gunn tells of the struggles faced by families after the Clearances and their efforts to eke a livelihood from the seas, silver darlings being the herrings they caught from their boats. I learned of this book from Fiction Fan and there may still be a plan for a review-along which I shall follow with interest. (Or I may have missed it entirely.) At the moment the book is waiting for me to begin and I hope I’ll reach it before too long. The first review I read on Amazon noted with reference to The Silver Darlings: “This author would most definitely have won the Booker prize if it had been available during his writing years.” An unanticipated link which left me insufferably smug.
This month we’ve sailed in a variety of boats from Glasgow to India and back to Scotland. We’ve travelled via oceans and rivers, sharing the voyage with a medley of child protagonists and a menagerie of animals. I would never have guessed that’s where Shuggie Bain would take me, but I’m glad that my chain led me for the most part to brighter and more colourful climes.