Somewhere, the other day, I read a quote which went something like you can’t turn back time but you can look at the past in ways that make it better. Could be a misquote and my thanks to whoever said it. Tonight at the wonderful Man Booker celebration event (10th one) at the Downpatrick Library, this quote kept going through my mind.
I haven’t read any of the books that were on the shortlist. I tend to use this annual event as a marker for the ones worth reading. Kevin Quinn, as MC, always invites the sort of people who have a strong literary background and strong, well argued opinions. This is always best when the opinions are diametrically opposed and in the crossfire one poor work of literary fiction.
Tonight I was struck by the sheer weight of historical research that had gone into the books on this year’s shortlist. Even the Coetzee is a take on the past (but is it historically accurate, a revisioning or all done with smoke and mirrors). After the reviewers had finished eleborating the historical context that the novels were set in, it seemed, to me to be difficult to get a measure of the novel’s in their own right. Of course, all novels have a setting – was it my imagination or was re-imagining the greater part of the works here.
I have a love of historical fiction and, even more, archaeology which seems to rely even more on imaginative implying of circumstances to create a picture of how-it-might-have-been until more evidence has been found to prove further or disprove.
But I was left asking myself – and not for the first time – about the function of fiction – or, maybe, more accurately of the author as maker or remaker of history, through re-imagining it through the eyes of the current time. Will this always ultimately be the voice of the unreliable narrator – and do we have to approach such things with eagerness and wonder but also with the ‘let-the-buyer-beware’ caution.
I don’t have the answer. The reading world will be drawn in the direction of Tudor England, and I am about to open the first pages of The Children’s Book by AS Bryant, because I like the sound of it.