The Birds On The Trees
Nina Bawden is generally better known for her work as a children’s writer than as a novelist, though she's been nominated for two Booker Prizes. The Birds on the Trees tells the story of Toby Flower, the bohemian son of an editor and a novelist who fails to live up to his parent’s academic aspirations. The family’s situation worsens after Toby is expelled from school following the discovery of his drug use. Eventually, he flees to London, where he lives with as little contact with his family as possible. From there, anything else we can say would spoil things a bit, so we’ll move on.
Where The Birds on the Trees genuinely fascinates is less in its plot than in its incisive look into the lives of its characters. While most of the narration is in the third person, the book is periodically related from the points of view of Toby's family, including both parents and Toby’s younger sister, Lucy. The result is an impression of Toby that is to some extent fractured and distributed. We have an opportunity to see Toby Flower through the lens of other characters’ beliefs and expectations, presenting the reader with momentary snapshots of him. This is a particular discomfort given that it gives us such close insight into the book’s characters and their viewpoints, despite their apparent failure to communicate those things succinctly to one another.
The Bay Of Noon
Famed short story author Shirley Hazzard produced just four novels, the second of which, The Bay of Noon, was nominated for the Lost Booker Prize. As you might expect from someone who spent much of their life writing short stories, Hazzard’s prose is sparse and direct, never wasting a word. The result is a novel that is both eventful and almost deceptively slim.
Set in post-war Naples, the novel tells the story of Jenny, a young woman who finds herself alone in the city. The Bay of Noon manages to convey a wonderful sense of place, and it's often said that Naples itself is one of the novel's central characters. There, Jenny meets a writer, Gioconda, a director, Gianni, and a biologist, Justin, who she finds unaccountably appealing. The characters, from the self-absorbed Gianni to the gently-enigmatic Justin, are communicated in terms that are spare enough to enjoy without giving away their every motivation. The end result is that rare feeling of simultaneously enjoying the book for its sense of place and for the company along the way.
Hazzard was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2004, for The Great Fire.
Fire from Heaven
Mary Renault’s Fire from Heaven is a historical fiction that tells the story of the early years of Alexander of Macedon, or Alexander the Great. While Alexander only lived to 33, he also managed to fit in enough adventure and achievement to fill many ordinary lives. A large portion Fire from Heaven takes place before the events that we tend to focus on in Alexander’s life, and as a result its treatment of these early years are a captivating account of the young Alexander’s development.
Those of you who are already familiar with Alexander the Great’s life story will probably know that he was generally just a larger-than-life character. As a result, books about him tend to skew either in favour of presenting him as a very driven but ultimately ordinary man succeeding against extraordinary odds, or to fully buy into the legend and run with the idea of an Alexander who borders on the superhuman. Fire from Heaven falls very much in the second category, but it also undercuts the typical legendary depiction Alexander with a sense of threat, an impression that he is a dangerous figure to be around. It’s a strange combination, particularly given the tone of other writing about Alexander, but one that works very well.
Fire from Heaven is followed by two more novels about Alexander, 1972’s The Persian Boy and 1981’s Funeral Games.
Patrick White’s The Vivisector is a biography of the fictional Australian artist Hurtle Duffield. While it gives some fantastic insights into the mind of an artist as they work, it can be unremittingly brutal in its depiction of Duffield himself. Indeed, the artist is often presented in such negative terms that when the book was first released many assumed that the work must have been written about a specific person (though White has denied it).
The novel examines, in great detail, Duffield’s life and artistic endeavor. It is a story of repeat personal sacrifice, beginning with Duffield's being effectively sold to a wealthy family as a child in an effort to better his opportunities. By the time he achieves success as an artist, he is jaded and so totally dedicated to his art that his success seems almost an afterthought.
If any of this sounds like it might be boring, it's worth pointing out that the book is carried by White’s incredible prose. Indeed, he won the Nobel Prize in 1973, with the announcement specifically referencing The Vivisector’s relentless scrutiny of its fictional artist and his motives.
The Driver's Seat
Muriel Spark is the author of a number of books that put strange new twists on the typical mystery novel format. In the case of The Driver’s Seat, Spark described the book as being less of a whodunnit than a “whydunnit,” a kind of existential detective novel. Early in the book, it is revealed that its protagonist, Lise, is to be killed, though it is not immediately clear why or by whom. Having come to the realisation that she will be killed, Lise sets about finding her killer.
What follows is a narrative that is repeatedly interspersed with flash-forwards, giving the reader insight into how future events will unfold. Lise seems to approach her own murder in a manner that seems more typical of a romance than a killing. To say too much more would detract from the charm of this strange inversion of a murder mystery.
In a way, it’s a tremendous shame that The Driver’s Seat didn’t win the Lost Booker Prize, not only because of its virtues as a novel, but also because of its format. Given the book’s playful approach to chronology, it would have been fitting for it to have won a temporally disjointed award. Instead, that honour went to the last book on our list...
The final entry on the Lost Booker list is J.G. Farrell’s second novel, Troubles. Where Farrell’s first novel, A Man from Elsewhere, focusses on two differing schools of French existentialism, Troubles tracks the downward trajectory of the Majestic hotel during the Irish war of independence.
As you might expect from its name and the year it was published, Troubles is set in an Ireland undergoing rapid social and economic change as the country nears independence. The setting is the fictional south-eastern town of Kilnalough. The book follows an English major, Brendan Archer, who returns from World War One to marry the hotel owner’s daughter.
There’s a chance that all of this sounds a bit dour, so it’s worth mentioning that the book itself is darkly comic and often laugh-out-loud funny. For example, Archer doesn't actually remember ever having proposed to Angela, but she seems very sure they are to be married, and so he assumes it must be the case. Moreover, the Majestic hotel itself is often described in such absolutely meandering and ruinous terms that it’s hard to consider the physical space without it seeming vaguely ridiculous.
Troubles is the first part of Farrell’s empire trilogy, which focuses on the decline of the British empire. It is followed by 1973’s The Siege of Krishnapur and 1978’s The Singapore Grip.