The Birdcage Archives

Sunday 24 September 2023

The Booker Prize Shortlist 2023

Hello Gentle Reader,

The Booker Prize much like any to all literary prizes has its peaks and valleys. Zeniths and nadirs. Highs and lows. Like any literary award, the judging panel discusses, debates, argues, pettishly resists, and eventually compromises. Some compromises are more eyebrow raising then others. This years Booker Prize Shortlist is one such list:

Sarah Bernstein – "Study for Obedience,"
Jonathan Escoffery – "If I Survive You,"
Paul Harding – "This Other Eden,"
Paul Murray – "The Bee Sting,"
Chetna Maroo – "Western Lane,"
Paul Lynch – "Prophet Song,"

The omission of both Sebastian Barry and Tan Twan Eng compromised my first observations of the prizes shortlist. Both of these writers had been nominated before and have been considered favourites in years past. Their omission from this year's shortlist is a surprise. Raising questions of what is considered the measuring stick for literature. This years shortlist carries the airs of the judges trying to be relevant dealing with issues and concerns that could be considered contemporary concerns, with a kind eye towards debut novelists.

Of the shortlist, only Sarah Bernstein has maintained my attention with her dark horse gothic novel "Study for Obedience." While the others, though interesting in their own right and with plenty of merit, fail to (as Marie Kondo would put it) spark joy.

Congratulations to this years shortlisted writers.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

– XX –

The moment you become unconcerned with everyone else's life; you realize your own has so much more to offer.

Thursday 7 September 2023


Hello Gentle Reader,

Summer is a youthful season. Full of fallacies and vanities. Much like youth, it exists within flirtatious and trembling light that is easily flighty and fair-weather oriented. This past summer has been more scorched earth, then carefree and jubilant. The heat a ferocious demon dog, oppressively burning down on the world. One of the heatwaves in Europe this past summer was aptly named: Cerberus. In line with the heat came the unstoppable and uncontrollable fires. Canada this year for example, had its fair shares of blazes burning across the country, from the semi-arid interior of British Columbia; into the prairies where the boreal forests in Alberta and Saskatchewan are singed and blackened; the North West Territories up in the Canadian Artic, continues to battle forest fires raving through the tree line onto the artic mainline border; while out east, both Ontario and Quebec, with their ancient hardwood forests have succumbed to a christening through flame; and the watery Maritimes were not spared either, with Nova Scotia seared in the summer heat. Else where in the world the story was similar if not more brutal as the thermometer rose higher and higher. Maui was devasted by a fire; while Greece's wildfire has been declared the largest in the European Union's history. During this summer, many municipal regional districts, counties, and parishes have declared agricultural disasters due to a lack of precipitation and unrelenting heat; while further reports have declared grasshoppers now ravaging what little crops are available for farmers to salvage. As August wanes, the summers lion roar begins to recede, slowly, ever so slowly.

Rivers have not been immune from the heat and drought conditions either. Due to insufficient snowpacks, river sources, reservoirs, and basins have experienced significant drops in water levels. Municipal districts have instituted water conservation measures. A recent walk amongst the river provided further evidence to these water conservation efforts. Where the river usually full of blue ripples and white cap waves, gushing forward unperturbed, ripping downstream with a single-minded purpose; the currents lapping against the river banks with snake tongue punctuality; is now, drowsily slinking by, its speed and spirit evaporated by an unrelenting and unforgiving sun. River embankments—normally submerged—find themselves dried up and exposed. Their clay like soil brittle and unstable. Fly fishermen wade further and further out into the currents, as the water recedes further and further away. Rain resides on everyone's lips, like an unanswered prayer. The need for rain. The lack of rain. They mention the grass burning up, leaves curling, flowers heat beaten. It's been a brutal summer. Standing on the river banks, however, one begins to understand how the history of civilization includes a history of water, be it river or coastline. How many cities of sprung up along the banks of rivers? Countless. Rivers, though an aesthetically pleasing fixture of the geography, are also utilitarian for logistics, transportation, resource extraction, among a host of many other economic purposes. Rivers have been the lifeblood of kingdoms; witnessed coronations and civilizations rise; been the wellspring of empires. Rivers have also been the great destroyers, overflowing and raging, immersing and baptizing cities with unforgiving waters, drowning the unsuspecting, uninitiated, and innocent all the same. Esther Kinsky once remarked that rivers are water scripts of history; and considering how human civilization has happily settled alongside rivers, they have inevitably become the watery scribes of our history.

Esther Kinsky is a German language poet, novelist, and translator. Language is her material and form, becoming the anvil, the metal, and the hammer. Kinsky has translated Henry David Thoreau, Olga Tokarczuk, and Lewis Grassic Gibbon. These three writers in particular have a strong sense of place, an attachment to landscape. Be it the still unspoiled forest and pond of Massachusetts. The esoteric and eccentric Kłodzko Valley in Poland, a land of borders, folkloric traditions, and forgotten saints. To the harsh north-east Kincardineshire (the Mearns) of Scotland in the early 20th century, that rugged landscape of fertile farmland, but not immune to the early century's hardships and social changes. Esther Kinsky refutes the term nature writer or travel writer, seeing both forms as exceptional niche literary formats, limited by prescribed structures and subject materials. Having the background as both poet and translator, provides Esther Kinsky an appreciative understanding of language, both its material and mechanical functions, the dry engagement regarding all the grammatical rules; but as a poet, Kinsky is able to explore the oceanic possibilities beyond the dry scaffolding of grammar, and enrich language with depth and robust character. Kinsky's literary language is meditative as it is expressive. Often compared to the late great German writer WG Sebald, there is a Sebaldian aesthetic to Esther Kinsky's work, a cerebral sense of wistfulness that gropes through the vagueness of half-recollections and uncertain memory. While the prose is in continual motion, a perpetual state of moving and wandering. In languid prose a patchwork of memory, rumination, miscellaneous photographs, fragments and recalled readings, pieces of writing from cinema or plays, a cut and paste blend of macro cultural essay and personal recollection. The form was not unique to Sebald, having first germinated through the classic confessional addict and essayist Thomas De Quincey, who understood the flexibility of the essay as a literary form in its own right, capable of moving beyond the conventionality of the novel; which was further expanded on by Thomas Bernhard, whose plays and novels were expositions of manic and deranged psyches, delivering breathless digressive monologues. Yet, Sebald gathered the dust and fragments of these two writers, and much like Saturn, spun his own work layering meditations of landscape, history and personal reflection into a form that became quintessentially his own.

Where Esther Kinsky diverges from WG Sebald, is the sense of personable interest and intimate observation of other people within the landscape. Everyday people. Pedestrians and bystanders. Where Sebald cared to meditate on gravitas of history and its spreading tendril reach. Kinsky is more in tune and interested with the immediate, the present in its wavering shifts between the corporeal present and the afterimage of yesterday. Personal interactions remain detached and even distant. As the populace is equal parts component of the landscape. In "River," Esther Kinsky traces a nomadic edgeland alongside the River Lea in east London. A landscape of misfits, refugees, people in a state of continued transit. Everything in the Lea Valley exists within a state of undefined impermanence, as if locals have found themselves washed ashore or haphazardly abandoned. Kinsky's narrator in "River," has in turn abandoned her own life within London, for reasons not known, and in her own words:

"After many years I had excised myself from the life I had led in town, just as one might cut a figure out of a landscape or group photo. Abashed by the harm I had wreaked on the picture left behind, and unsure where the cut-out might end up next, I lived a provisional existence. I did so in a place where I knew none of my neighbours, where the street names, views, smells and faces were all unfamiliar to me, in a cheaply appointed flat where I would be able to lay my life aside." 

In what can only be described as a backwater suburb, the narrator has set aside her life, or at least its material concerns. Passages of her flat describe a state of household still packed, already aware its residence is limited. In this Kinsky's narrator is not interested in settling, but instead drift by, and in turn undertakes a period of exploration, observation, meditation, contemplation, with added reminiscence regarding the relationship between landscape and inhabitants. The descriptions are exceptionally luxurious, keen wandering eyes reveal further and further treasures, like a magpie spy:

"Sometime before I left London I happened upon the King. I saw him in the evening, in the turquoise twilight. He was standing at the park entrance gazing east, where a deep, blue haze was already scending, while behind him the sky was still aglow."

I originally wrote the King off as an abandoned statue. An installation art piece, who like other shipwrecked souls, had found itself washed up or discarded on the shores of the River Lea. A figure and unofficial mascot of this urban backyard—despot and forgotten.

"The King wore a magnificent headdress of stiff, brocaded cloths, held together by a clasp adorned by feathers. The gold thread of the brocade and the clasp itself still gleamed in the declining light. He was attired in a short robe, with gold embroiled edgings shimmering around his neck and wrists. The robe, which hung to his thighs, was bluey-green and fashioned from a taut, heavy fabric with a woven feather pattern. His long black legs protruded beneath the cloth. They were naked."

The King is yet very mortal and alive, despite his silence, with only the ravens as his allies and company, with their "sooty flutter and fading croaks." I found the observations and descriptions of the orthodox Jewish community perhaps the most fascinating. Their corralled existence within this no-man's-land. Their adherence to both cultural and religious practices, creating an everyday sense of liturgy, both enlivens the community, while fortifying themselves from it. Though small rebellions happen.

"The park was empty at this hour. The observant Jewish women and children who walked here during the afternoon had long since gone home, as had the Hasidic boys, who I sometimes espied at lunchtime nervously giggling and smoking behind the bushes. Their side-locks trembled when they were cold, and, as I saw from the length of the red glow in front of each mouth in turn, they drew too hurriedly on the cigarette they were passing around, while a hubbub of voices and children's singing carried in waves from the windows of their school beyond the park hedge, rising and falling in the wind."

            [ . . . ]

"On Saturdays and holidays, when windows were open in warmer weather, the sing-song of blessing could be heard on the street. There was the clatter of china, children's voices, small groups of pious passing to and fro between temple and home. In the evening the men stood in the glow of the street lamps laughing, their faces relaxed, the feast behind them." 

The River Lea traces its course through a varied landscape before spilling into the Thames. Esther Kinsky's narrator, however, reminisces of a variety of different rivers which have touched and influenced her life, from the Rhine, to the Tisza, to the St. Lawrence; but also, how landscape is shaped and defined by the rivers course, with portraits of the weather and meteorological digressions can become quite common. One of my favourite chapters: "XX. WIND," is a short surreal chapter riddled with an offbeat humour and exceptional descriptions of one of the most obstructive meteorological phenomena: wind, in all of its incarnations.

"River," is an exceptional novel. Difficult to classify but an absolute pleasure to slip into and swept away amongst the currents, discovering a tidal universe and singular estuary script. Esther Kinsky's never shrinks or shirks its form. It continues to trawl and drift alongside the unremarkable, the discarded, the otherwise lost and beyond retrieval, which is suddenly reclaimed and remediated, fixated into the landscape. Atmosphere is curated and conducted with careful attention to detail. How light, weather, and season will dictate the scene and sentiment of place, and how place permeates the person. "River," in turn provided pause and reflection on my own childhood river, which I recall being forewarned (like many other children) to steer clear from. It was not capricious but unapologetically forceful, who unforgivingly drowned trespassers. As Kinsky's narrator recalls the Rhine from her childhood:

"In primary school we had to learn sayings about Father Rhine, none of which had anything to do with the river I had walked along in the years before starting school. These sayings left an unpleasant aftertaste, which became much bitterer one day when the bow wave of a huge barge dragged a child my class of the end of a breakwater. The Rhine had revealed Himself to be a nasty character. For days it seemed the river had taken our tongue and weighed so heavily in our clothes we could barely move."

Readers should be forewarned, however, that "River," is not a novel that skips like rocks across a placid surface. It’s a slow burn. Deliberate in its delivery. Awash with detailed observations that bubble, churn, and course with contemplation. There is no narrative. Very little dialogue. It’s a novel of introspective inwardness, which ultimately will submerge readers into its endless watery depths. Surfacing and resurfacing for breath is a point of necessity, and it is recommended that one reads at the pace of the novel, simmering and stewing within its endless expanse. Esther Kinsky is that enviable writer, whose prose is never dragged or burdened by its own luxuriousness, but is further enriched by it, as it swells and floods; recedes and flows, all the while maintaining a steady current and pace. Kinsky's prose is textured and layered, with a defined colour palette and scheme providing portraits of both landscape and atmosphere, revealing a new world through the veneer of an ever-observant narrator, who sees the world afresh and anew, and in our own way wishes we had taken up our own weather-beaten suitcase and umbrella and set off, to excise oneself from their own life and be cast adrift be it windswept or lost in the tides.    

Thank you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary