The Booker Prize

Reading the Booker Prize winners (1): Something to Answer for by P.H. Newby

Since apparently my to-be-read pile is not high enough, I’ve decided to take on a new personal challenge: reading all of the winners of the Booker Prize, from 1969 to present. I want to venture out of my favourite genres and read some things that are considered “good literature”, just to see what the fuss is about; I also want to read some backlist titles that I might never know about otherwise, and since these books won a pretty famous award, it looks like a good place to start.
Maybe I’ll find new favourites, or maybe I’ll hate all of them. Who knows?

Title: Something to Answer for

Author: P.H. Newby

Genre: Fiction

Year: 1969

He liked forgetting. You had to forget all manner of things just to survive.

Townrow is summoned to Port Said by his old friend’s widow, Mrs Khoury. She believes her husband’s death was in fact a murder, and she wants Townrow’s help to find out the truth. Determined to con the old woman into handing all her assets to him, Townrow decides to go along with this farce of an investigation. While his memories start to fail him and he falls in love with a married woman, the president of Egypt is nationalising the Suez Canal, and when the British and French start to retaliate, the situation in Port Said will become more dangerous than Townrow could ever imagine.

A closer look

I wish I knew what this book is actually about. The interesting thing is that is written in such a way that you could probably analyse it under ten different lenses, and it would somehow always fit. Let me try to explain.

Townrow, our protagonist, starts off being quite unlikeable. He doesn’t want to go to Egypt after his friend’s death, and the only reason he finally concedes is so that he can trick the old widow into giving him all of her possessions. He lies very often and without reason, inventing reasons for his travel to Egypt, taking on different names when people mistake him for other people, even though every single time he lies the situation backfires. He also has a very strong and positive view of the British government, to the point where he fights with perfect strangers to defend it from accusations of helping the nazis to deport innocent people.

Which is all nice and well until, on his first night in Port Said, he is attacked and left with a head injury that makes his memories and thoughts quite confused. So now not only he is unlikeable, he is also completely unreliable. He forgets things, to the point where he ends up questioning his own nationality more than once: is he really Irish, or is he English? Or maybe he’s actually American, and he’s been really Leah’s husband all along. For the duration of the novel, we will keep going back to events to see them in a different light, sometimes with different protagonists, sometimes with events unfolding in a new direction, wondering which one was true and which ones aren’t; we will be told fragments of events that have already happened but were never mentioned at the right time, and we’ll keep wondering if they really happened or are only Townrow’s hallucinations.
We will watch his attempt at redemption, all the while wondering how much of it is real, how much is delusion, and how much is a lie.

I have tried to make sense of this book. I let it sit in my head for a few days before going back and reading other people’s review, both positive and negative, to try and understand what was I really missing. And the truth is that I still don’t know.

The plot is erratic at best. The jumps between past and present events are confusing, missing a clear separation; and given how many times the same event is narrated – always in a different way – it’s also impossible to distinguish what’s real and what’s not. We even experience the characters in different ways depending on Townrow’s interpretation: Mrs Khoury is at times a sour woman, at times a kind one; Leah is a faithful wife, or a cold, calculating femme fatale. During his time in Port Said, Townrow will pretend to be people he doesn’t know, will hide for weeks in the swamps, will laugh at the British pilots’ failed attempt of blocking the canal; and then he will realise what’s really going on around him, and will finally question his beliefs about the British government while doing what’s in his power to save Leah, Mrs Khoury, and even his friend’s coffin from the Egyptian government. Being in his mind is like walking through a dream: events follow each other without a clear order, thoughts and questions repeat themselves at random times, past and present mix and become entangled together with no logic. It’s confusing, hard to follow, and frustrating at times. What is it that Townrow really wants? He started his journey to go after the money, then he wanted Leah, then suddenly he was looking for redemption for a life lived with a bad moral compass. Does he even get any of those things in the end? Honestly, I don’t think so.

So is this a bad book, or a good one?

Townrow is the perfect example of an unreliable narrator, and it’s done extremely well, so if you like that trope this book might be for you. The book also manages to make the history relevant to the plot, instead of just using it as background, so I guess it gets a few extra points for that. It also has a few examples of really good writing here and there, and some of the scenes are truly memorable.

That said, it’s also confused, rambling, and none of the characters is even a little bit likeable. Or maybe that’s just another consequence of the protagonist’s state of mind, since we are firmly set in his head from start to finish.

I would like to say that I understand why this book won the first Booker Prize, but honestly at this point I’m just trying to imagine what else had been shortlisted that year and judged somehow inferior to this.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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