Booker-winnerA.S. Byatt: clever, calculating and complacent.
Glasgow’s own Wacko Jacko interviewed
ISTMAS KS SEOIAI.
‘Mﬁaﬁrﬂ: 1.315 2,“ Songs 01 Love.
. . . Wistful memories of Richard Allen’s Skinhead
. . .J.P. Martin, neglected genius of children’sliterature, remembered . . . Plus the best ofthe year’s publications in rock, theatre, food and more . . . Our eleven-page books special starts below with Stuart Bathgate’s review of the past twelve months” fiction.
ou know it wasn‘t exactly a vintage year for fiction when the Booker Prize is awarded to the type of book written by and for Hampstead women who wear Laura Ashley frocks and never get skid-marks on their knickers. Yes. A.S. Byatt‘s Possession (Chatto & Windus £13.95) is elegantly expressed. Of course. it is meticulously detailed. Yet this tale of two modern-day academics who set out to research the lives of two mid-Victorian poets is just too well-polished, too clean. It is all too typical of the world of modern English fiction. which can no longer even deal with an
unrealistically static view of the present. but has to go back into the past. to the days when ponderous prosodists were regarded with reverence.
One might object that little more should be expected ofthe Booker. It wasn‘t always like that, though. In 1981 the two favourites, D.M. Thomas’ The White Hoteland Salman Rushdie‘s Midnight's Children (the eventual winner) were each, in their own way. masterpieces. A few years later, though, the rot had already set in. Neither of 1984's two best books. Martin Amis‘s Money and The Tiger by Lisa St Aubin de Teran. even made it onto the shortlist, typifying
the Little England approach of the judges.
The circumlocutory conditions of eligiblity for the Booker amount to one simple statement: No Americans Please. Thus. the Canadian Mordecai Richler, whose Solomon Gursliy Was Here (Chatto & Windus £13.95) is a rambling, shambling family saga, at times confusing but more often highly comic, is the nearest we got on this year‘s short list to a representative of what is by far the most important strand ofmodern fiction in English.
Unsurprisingly, it is from that strand — more precisely, from New York’s Cuban community — that the
best novel of the year came. Oscar
Hi juelos‘s The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (Hamish Hamilton £13.99) is the story oftwo jazz-loving Cuban brothers. Cesar and Nestor, who come to New York in the late 405 and embark on a musical career of moderate success (one hit record and an appearance on the I Love Lucy show).
Framed by the brief narrations of Nestor’s son Eugenio, the bulk ofthe book reviews the Mambo Kings‘ career through the eyes of Cesar as. in 1980, he lies drunk and dying in the ironically named Hotel Splendour. A certain sadness pervades the novel because of this perspective, but it is above all a celebration: ofthe mad mambo
The List 23 November— 6 December 1990 85