‘Divine blood flows differently in each god-born child. Orpheus’ voice made the trees weep, Heracles could kill a man by clapping him on the back. Achilles’ miracle was his speed. His spear, as he began the first pass, moved faster than my eye could follow. It whirled, flashing forward, reversed, then flashed behind. The shaft seemed to flow in his hands, the dark grey point flickered like a snake’s tongue. His feet beat the ground like a dancer, never still’
Patrocles’ admiration for Achilles in Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles is boundless, after all he becomes Achilles’ lover and will remain his best friend until he dies. This observation of Achilles’ speed is made when he observes Achilles for the very first time at his private drill. At that time they are still boys and Achilles declares that he never fights with others, but knows that the prophecy is true: he will become a renowned fighter, stronger and quicker than anyone else.
The Song of Achilles on the Orange Fiction Prize list stands out for me, it is beautifully written, evoking scenes and pictures as if you are there, as if all this might have been true: Achilles the son of a king and a goddess, the story of Patrocles and Achilles who befriend each other when Patrocles is banned from home after he accidentally kills a boy who taunts him, and is sent to the kingdom of King Peleus, the father of Achilles. Patrocles is the narrator, whose fate is sealed with that of Achilles from the moment he sets eyes on him for the first time. The story is magic, the unravelling of the relationships between heroes and villains, gods, goddesses, kings and sons of kings, traitors and friends, wives, lovers and princesses. It is the story of Odysseus, Prince of Ithaca who tricks Achilles into agreeing to join the army to lay siege to Troy in order to revenge the abduction of Helen,wife of Menelaus. Achilles is destined for fame, a fighter who will eventually kill Hector, Helen’s abductor, only to be killed in turn as ordained by the gods. Fate, trust and redemption are all part of this ancient tale.
Esi Eduguyan’s Half Blood Blues was the finalist of the Man Booker Prize and is a very unusual second world war story in that the main protagonists are African-Americans and an African-German, who find themselves first in Germany and then in Paris at the outbreak of the second world war. Hieronymous Falk (Hiero) is a ‘Mischling’ (half German half African), and is an extremely gifted jazz trumpeter. He and the band players Sid and Chip escape to Paris in 1939, and when the Germans enter Paris they go into hiding. Hiero is however arrested when he and Sid rather unwisely roam the streets in search of milk for Hiero. The story moves between 1992 and these early war years, with Sid as narrator, moving backwards and forwards. He tells the story, giving his point of view, and it becomes clear that he is an unreliable narrator, holding back some of the truth, a terrible secret. He comes across as an increasingly unpleasant character, in fact both he and Chip come across as unsympathetic, with Sid telling half truths and Chip providing an account of what happened in a setting and circumstances that comes as a real shock, both to Sid and the reader. In fact, I held my breath when reading this part. Sid’s grumpiness and total lack of sympathy with anything or anyone seems to dominate all interactions; friends lie and betray each other and the reader only gets a tantalising picture of Hiero, who never really comes to his own in this book. This is another story of ultimate redemption, however. The one drawback for me was the relentless vernacular in which the story is told, through Sid. It slowed down my reading and at times took away some of my appreciation of the story telling. Fair enough though, it created the character Sid very clearly. I liked the book and was fascinated by the story, however, it is not my favourite on the list.
Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies is somehow a rather inconsequential story related from the point of view of Beatrice (Bea), a teacher who has not been in touch with her brother for years. In fact, they have barely been in contact since Marvin, the brother, married his well-to-do wife and Bea married and later divorced her artist (musician / composer) husband Leo. Marvin however suddenly ‘tasks’ Bea by letter – this is 1952 – to locate his son Julian who is in Paris. Bea happens to be on holiday in Paris and she must bring Julian back to America.
Apparently Ozick is a great admirer of Henry James and this book clearly is inspired by James’ writing and style. The New York Times Book review suggests that Foreign Bodies is a retelling of James’s Ambassadors ‘from a very unJamesian point of view’ . The writing is beautiful, no doubt about that, but because of this focus on style, rather than story, I found it a bit tiresome at times: the characters somehow seemed terribly unreal and fairly tedious and this is perhaps also due to the time in which the story is set: 1952. I felt like shaking them all out of their torpor and isolationism – each character seemed so completely absorbed by their own existence which was neither inspiring nor one that anyone would want to aspire to. So, although well written, I probably read it in the wrong environment (Singapore…) and the Paris and America depicted, the characters walking around in it, could as well have been on the moon. I read the book till the end, but unlike any of the other shortlisted books, I’m afraid I skipped lots of pages without having the sense that I had missed much. Perhaps I should have read it on a rainy day in Norfolk and I might have taken to it better…
Georgina Harding’s Painter of Silence is another second world war story, this time the setting is Romania. Harding’s writing is beautiful – the story is of August an emaciated character found on the steps of a hospital after the war and recognised by a nurse as the deaf and dumb son of her parents’ cook, who was brought up alongside and with her at times. Poiana is the estate they grew up in, prior to the war, and where they were born six months apart: Safta the daughter of the house and August the son of the cook. This is a different world again, one that evokes the pre-world war class system in Bulgaria that is pulled apart and the terrible effect of the horrors inflicted by war on people across Europe.
Finally, I read Anne Patchet’s State of Wonder some time ago now and although I thought I had reviewed it I now realise I haven’t… I loved the book, and there is a great review in the Guardian – all I can add is that it is definitely one of my favourites to win the Orange Prize, together with Madeline Miller’s the Song of Achilles. Patchet’s is a complicated and vast ranging story, and is a ‘ novel that tries to be more alive to the nerve ends of philosophical life than to the simpler machinery of character motivation’ (Guardian Review, 24th June 2011).
However, I have not yet read Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz, so may still change my view. I’ll try and read it before the winner is announced. Let’s wait and see what happens on 30th May!
- Orange Fiction Prize reads (51stories.wordpress.com)
- Orange Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2012 (booktopia.com.au)