Barry England – Figures in a Landscape

This book typifies so much I don’t like in fiction. It is set during a war. It is about soldiers. It is almost a thriller. It is written in spare, straight prose. It is obviously influenced by the work of Ernest Hemmingway…

And bloody hell is it good.

Figures in a Landscape is the story of two prisoners of war trying to escape across the tropical landscape of an unknown, presumably Asian country. It is very hard to talk about the plot except in the most general terms without spoiling the novel, and I don’t want to spoil the novel, because you really should read it. Must read it. The end of the book affected me more than almost any book I have ever read. As a reader, and as a writer, I was blown away by what England did with the last page. I am still reeling.

This is storytelling in its purest form, the narrative moves, literally, across the landscape; but it is also deceptively sophisticated. The narration is largely third person but has no qualms about passing into the thoughts of either of the two soldiers without warning or marker. Speech is rarely attributed. This method works because the characters of MacConnachie (older, senior, brutal, animal) and Ansell (younger, junior, smarter, resourceful) are so neatly and clearly drawn that the reader is never confused.

MacConnachie and Ansell are chased by a helicopter, the pilot of which takes on an almost mystical status in the minds of the soldiers. Hidden behind glass, he is the eyes, and the brain of their pursuers, who follow behind in increasing numbers, running the two escapees to ground. The helicopter is the edge the enemy has that makes MacConnachie and Ansell underdogs and that makes their journey one of unbearable tedium interspersed by horrible, panicked tension.

There is a film of this book that I hope never to see. The book is part of me and I don’t want that ruined by someone else’s vision of it. When I read the blurb for this book, I’ll admit, I didn’t hope for much but Figures in a Landscape blew me, and some of my misconceptions, away. It is a brilliant novel.

Out of print – available widely second hand.

1969

The 1960’s.

The Beatles were reinventing pop music every six months or so, Mary Quant gave the world the mini-skirt, people started to be able to afford televisions and cars (changing the way we saw the world forever), and my mom and dad did most of their courting at a coffee shop in West Bromwich called The Casa Bamboo. Oh yes, and right at the decade’s close, in October 1969, the very first Booker winner was announced: PH Newby’s Something to Answer For.

This was the full shortlist in 1969

  • Barry England – Figures in a Landscape
  • Nicholas Moseley – The Impossible Object
  • Iris Murdoch – The Nice & The Good
  • PH Newby – Something to Answer For
  • Muriel Spark – The Public Image
  • GM Williams – From Scenes Like These

Over the next six weeks I will be reading the shortlist. In alphabetical order. (for neatness). (lovely neatness).

Of the six writers, four are completely new to me and only one (Spark) is someone whose work I am particularly familiar with. I thought I had read The Public Image, but it isn’t on my bookshelves, so I probably haven’t. Which means six new books to read. (and six new opinions to have).

Perhaps the nicest part of this project will be discovering new (to me) books and authors. Hopefully I won’t be doing this alone for long. Join me. Pick a book or two off the shortlist and let’s go find a tree to lean up against. We’ll take a picnic.

Maybe you have already read some of them. If you have any opinions on any of them, stick your thoughts in the comments box.

Those of you who know me, will probably be assuming that the result of this one is a foregone conclusion. Muriel Spark is one of my favourite and best writers. But anything can happen.

Book one, page one, read…

Welcome… to Man vs Words

I should have called this Man vs Man, or Man vs Man Booker, but Man vs Words was as close as I could get to Man vs Food which is my main inspiration for this blog.

For those of you not familiar with the television phenomenon that is Man vs Food, it is, in a nutshell, a man eating a lot of food. It seems that most towns in America have a café or a restaurant with an eating challenge. The thirty gallon milkshake. The seven-foot po’ boy sandwich. The chip as big as a dog. That sort of thing. You get the idea. He eats them. That’s basically all you need to know.

The one thing the Man vs Food lacks, is highbrow culture. So I thought, what about, instead of eating food, I read the shortlisted novels of the Man Booker Prize from 1969 to the present day? Obvious really. When you think about it.

The concept is simple: every Thursday, Man vs Words will bring you new words.  (yes, I know today is a Wednesday, from now on it will be Thursday [except tomorrow, there is no post tomorrow]) The post on Thursday the 24th May will introduce 1969 as a year (and a concept, if you like). Then, over the next six weeks I will read and review all the books shortlisted for that year’ prize. (One review a week, always on a Thursday [YES I KNOW TODAY IS A WEDNESDAY]).

Then, of course, I write a post in which I spout on about what I think should have won it. And guess what? You get to spout too. And not just in the comments box (though you can do that too, I want you to do that) but in a super-duper poll which will decide the ultimate Man vs Words winner of the 1969 Man Booker Prize!

Then we do 1970, then we do 1971, then we do 1972, then…

In preparation for this blog I had a browse through all the Booker shortlists. There are a surprising number of new authors, let alone new books to explore. I am quite excited. I’m going to read them all. If I have read them before I will re-read them. Maybe we will discover some new favourites together. Won’t that be nice? I’ll probably chuck some knob jokes in too. Keep things lively and that. Won’t that be fun?

Right. Let’s do this!!!

Man vs Words is go. Get out your reading spoons.