Another week, another couple of Booker contenders ...
"The Moor's Account" by Laila Lalami tells the story of an ill-fated expedition to the Americas by the Spanish. After 8 years of the struggle for survival, only four make it out - the Moor, his Spanish master and two other spanish gentlemen.
The Moor - known as Estebanico - is a well-educated muslim and was a successful merchant before falling on hard times, at which time he sells himself into slavery in order to provide for his family. He has a talent for language and as the members of the expedition get lost and die out, his ability in communicating with the indigineous Indians increases his value to his companions. But when their lengthy ordeal is finally over, Estebanico's master reneges on his promise to grant him freedom. As a result, the Moor gives up on his long-held dream to return home, decides to tell the full and truthful tale of the failed expedition (unlike that presented by his spanish companions) and finds a way to return to a life with his Indian wife and her people.
The narrative is told from a single point of view in a strong and original voice. We see a decent man, one with human failings, but also one who can see them when hindsight offers him the opportunity of re-assessment and modification. His position as slave to a senior member of the expedition allows him to observe the players; this allied to his trading experience enables him to reads them well. The secondary characters are also well-drawn, easy to "see" and engage with.
History has informed us of the negative impact of the Spanish expeditions to the Americas and this is a fictional telling of that history.
This was a time in history where I have a fairly sketchy knowledge, so it was especially enjoyable to have it fleshed out. The decision to tell the tale from the view of an 'outsider who's on the inside' is what gives it strength. I feel this has potential as a "Booker" and I'd not be surprised to find it on the short-list. But, for now, Marlon James is still ahead in my view ...
Anne Tyler's "A Spool of Blue Thread" was a surprising inclusion in the long-list to me. She is a very successful and popular author who's rightly famed for writing well-observed tales of ordinary people with ordinary lives, whereas the Booker has previously tended towards the unusual, or to big weighty tomes.
In this case, its the story of a family and a house - the tale of three generations of Whitshanks and their house with the porch. It's the tale of Junior, a master craftsman who builds the house for clients but manages to purchase it later; of Linnie-Mae his quietly determined wife; his very different children - Merrick and Red. Merrick marries the rich man who was engaged to her best friend, whilst her brother Red inherits the house and, with his wife Abby, brings up 4 children there. When they become old and start to struggle mentally and physically, their children worry and eventually both sons move in to care for them.
As one would expect with Anne Tyler, family dynamics are beautifully observed and sensitively described. We see snippets of the children's own relationships, of their relationships with each other, but mostly the details of their relationships with their parents. An unusual aspect to those relationships is slowly revealed and a related secret emerges following the death of Abby. Finally, the house is sold and with that, a veil is drawn over the continuing lives of the Whitshanks.
This book is not the best Anne Tyler I've read, but it was a decidedly pleasing read nevertheless. As to its potential progression - I cannot make a call, as I found its inclusion thus far to be out of character. I'll be very interested to see the judge's decision on the next stage.
I try to stay away from reviews until I've finished reading, so please do share your views and reviews - links to websites most happily received for my extended reading pleasure!