The announcement of the Booker shortlist is always a highlight for me. The lists often feature a mix of household names and, perhaps more excitingly, new authors who are making a break from the pack early on in their careers. Fiona Mosley’s Elmet, shortlisted in 2017, is one of the most powerful books I’ve read in recent years and I picked it up because it had been shortlisted. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the prize first being awarded, so I decided to go back to the beginning and see what sort of novel the judges plumped for in 1969.
What had struck me first was that, to me at least, the name of the prize-winning author, P. H. Newby, has rather disappeared from bookshop shelves and ‘Best-of’ lists. His 17th novel, Something to Answer For, was up against novels by the likes of Nicholas Mosely, Iris Murdock and Muriel Spark. He was clearly a writer of note, and yet it is the others on the shortlist who are still read widely. It was reissued in 2008 by Faber and Faber, the novel’s original publishers in 1969.
Set in Egypt in 1956, just as tensions over the control of the Suez Canal are reaching a climax, Townrow is in Port Said, summoned by the widow of a former friend. Mrs Khouri believes her husband was murdered, and she wants Townrow to investigate. Townrow himself is a shadowy figure, embezzling himself a wage from a charity fund back in England. We’re never quite sure what the truth of his background is, and sometimes neither is he, it seems. Early on, he is attacked and left naked on the beach, stripped of any means of confirming his identity. He embarks on a series of encounters which are often brutal and sometimes a shade absurd. At such times, this novel reminded me of Heller’s Catch-22, although the humour is never given as much room to develop. The effect is to unsettle the reader, mirroring the rapidly shifting political situation in Egypt. It is often difficult to discern the difference between reality and Townrow’s own perspectives on events. He’s an Englishman abroad and he has many of his certainties challenged as the novel progresses.
Townrow is not a likable character, particularly in his attitude to the woman he professes to have fallen in love with.
‘She seemed all elbows, shoulder blades and heels. It was like trying to make love to a dough-making machine. She wanted it, didn’t she, otherwise why all this hissing and moaning? She was like a machine in heat. Townrow felt a rage so violent the thought sparked he might even be driven to kill her.’
His sense of entitlement throughout is often difficult to take, but again, and quite effectively, it mirrors his initial belief that his government, the British Government, could not possibly have ‘something to answer for’ in their dealings with the rest of the world. The horrors of the German concentration camps are still a recent memory, and the impact of the global conflict is still casting long shadows. I didn’t like Townrow’s own story, but I did like the political takedown of assumptions and attitudes. Currently, it’s hard to read anything about Britain’s behaviour without feeling a sense of exhausted irritation at how we seem to fail to learn from our own past. An eroded sense of trust in government pervades this novel, making this somewhat forgotten read still pertinent 50 years on. If it wasn’t for the heavy misogyny of the narrator, I’d have enjoyed it more.