"So, madam," said Sir Richard, in the high-strung accents which in cries of great mental agony are common to the most self-restrained of us, "you have been for twenty years a living lie!"
A quote from what has been described as Tasmanian Gothic fiction, published in 1874, and THE classic Australian convict novel. It is For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke. You can read more about it in the 1 April 2016 post of the blog, Vintage Novels.
In his introduction to Frans G Bengtsson's The Long Ships Michael Chabon has this to say about the novel:
In my career as a reader I have encountered only three people who knew The Long Ships, and all three of them, like me, loved it immoderately. Four for four: from this tiny but irrefutable sample I dare to extrapolate that this novel, first published in Sweden during the Second World War, stands ready, given the chance, to bring lasting pleasure to every single human being on the face of the earth.
Let me make that five out of five. I am immoderately excited about this novel, a story in a genre that I never, ever read - slam, bang adventure, war, sea stories taking place in the 9th century. But this tale about a red-haired Dane called Orm, who accidentally goes off on an adventure with a ship full of Vikings and comes home a hero is irresistible.
Red Orm is kidnapped and becomes one of the adventurers in an open boat that heads for the south coast of England to rape and pillage. They pick up a slave from some other adventures who don't want him because he won't eat pork and refuses to row on Saturdays. He turns out to be a Jew from Spain, which had not too long before been conquered by the Moors. He is a wealthy goldsmith, who directs them to Cordova, where they are themselves enslaved by the caliph.
Orm is a sensitive lad, at least by Viking terms, and a bit of a hypochondriac. He gets nervous when the slave next to him on the rowing bench has a cough. There is an adventure a minute in this book and before you know it Orm and his friends have stolen a bell from Santiago de Compostella, summered with some monks in County Cork, and offered the bell as a gift to King Harald Bluetooth.
There are other adventures, sword fights, a bit of wooing, and a trip to the Black Sea, all moving along at a brisk clip. The book is surprisingly entertaining in many ways, not least of which is the dry, understated wit of the author as he regards the world the Danes look on as normal and we look on with horror. His religious characters are a delight, especially the poor monks who are trying to convert these warriers to Christianity while they continue to attribute their luck or lack of it to the old gods.
This book stands ready, given the chance, to bring lasting pleasure to almost any reader. It has done so for me.
Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig vs by Chigozie Obioma
One of the delights of the Buff Orpington Book Tournament is that there are no rules. Judges are given no criteria for how to select the better of their two assigned books, nor told, for that matter, what “better” means. Is a book that has great audience appeal better than a well-written novel about a disturbing topic? Is a masterfully executed text of an improbable narrative better than a competent execution of a highly compelling story? Which is better: apples or oranges?
Fortunately, the judges take their nebulous charge very seriously and somehow make a determination. Otherwise we’d never even get this far.
The single-elimination bracketed competition format also adds an arbitrary quirk: a book that didn’t survive the first round might have been a finalist if matched against different contenders or if adjudicated by different individuals. In the Buff Orpington, serendipity abounds.
This year we have two strong finalists with vast differences and some interesting similarities: Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig and The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. Both are novels about a boy on the cusp of manhood facing a world much bigger and more powerful than he could imagine. Both stories are told in present tense from that boy’s first person perspective, refracted through the lens of an older self recalling events in the past. Both narratives hinge on “magical realism,” unexplainable forces beyond the physical world, though within very different contexts. Both stories are deeply rooted in the particulars of their respective landscapes and cultures.
Doig, a veteran novelist who died earlier last year, is famous for his many hard-scrabble tales exploring the history, environs and people of Montana. Obioma, a first-time novelist, is a 40 year old* Nigerian emigrant who honed his craft at the University of Michigan Writing Program. He was recently appointed to an Assistant Professorship in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.
The Last Bus to Wisdom, is a nostalgic take on the rural West in the early 1950’s. The narrator, Donal Cameron, is a twelve year old boy, who has endured hardships, though he hardly sees it that way, embracing a life surrounded by actual cowboys. His parents killed by a drunk driver, he is in the care of his tough-as-nails grandmother. When her health and job as camp cook are compromised, he is sent to his only other relative, Aunt Kate, spawning a delightful road trip via Greyhound Bus that includes thieves, law men, hoboes, Native Americans, a grandfatherly fugitive German and a cameo by Jack Kerouac. The story includes many autobiographical elements of Doig’s own life, giving his description vivid detail. Doig writes nostalgically through rose-colored glasses, and his skill as a compelling storyteller expertly masks an improbable narrative with more twists and turns than a two lane switchback through the Rocky Mountains.
The Fishermen is set in the turbulent world of 1990’s Akure, Nigeria. Nine-year old Benjamin is the fourth of six children, their authoritarian father a local bank official in this Third World country. (Obioma himself grew up as one of 12 children in Akure.) When the father leaves his family for a position in a distant city, his rule at home and his dreams for his children unravel. A madman’s prophesy sends Ben and his three older brothers into personal chaos and despair, against the backdrop of the country’s violent politics.
As a novelist, Doig is a highly entertaining master of language and character. Obioma evokes a much more foreign world than Doig’s more recognizable America. To my mind, Obioma, creates a novel that is easier to embrace, compared to Doig’s unlikely machinations. Donal’s hardships are personal but despite his sense of their importance, little is a stake, really, other than his level of comfort, as we sense that he is already fully formed. Ben is still a child and his situation is primal and life threatening. Doig’s plot twists are formulaic, and right on time, breezily moving the story along, while Obioma’s tale seems much more authentic, building organically to a tragedy of biblical proportions. For these reasons, between two great reads, the winner of the final round of this year’s Buff Orpington Book Tournament, is The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma.