There was a time when ‘readability’ was the least important factor which the Booker Prize Jury took into consideration. At least that must’ve been the case back 1969 when they awarded the inaugural Booker to P.H. Newby for his novel ‘Something to Answer For’. Of course back then Booker Prize was some niche award that didn’t even have its ceremony and the winner was informed by post. The jury didn’t have to worry about sparking national debate with their choices.
I see that many reviewers called this novel confusing, disjointed, with unlikeable characters and I’d like to tell them: ‘man up, please!’ Yes, it is difficult but it’s rewarding. It needs time, patience and attention. It’s like that girl who is so hard to turn on but once you dedicate some time to the task and figure it out, she’s fire.
And this book is beautiful and it’s fire. It uses the strangest literary technique of an unreliable third person narrator. The third person is nominal only because in fact we are stuck in Townrow’s, the main character’s, head. And this head receives a blow quite early on and confounds Townrow. We share some of the frustration when he tries to piece everything together and decide who is a friend and who is a foe.
The facts are few: it’s 1956, he came to Egypt to help Mrs Khoury, widow of his friend Ellie. Mrs Khoury believes her husband was murdered, so Townrow is there to offer support, help solve the mystery, con Mrs Khoury into handing all her assets to him…? It’s rather hard to say. The same events are told and retold, they change their significance as Townrow remembers whole new episodes that followed or preceded them.
As Townrow wanders around Port Said in a confused state and falls in love with Leah, a married woman, the history happens in the background. Nasser nationalizes the Suez Canal which causes a diplomatic and then a military crisis. This in turn causes a crisis for Townrow, who in his overheated head was only sure of one thing, that the British government was essentially good and just. He suspected that he himself was of rather questionable morals but he could sleep at night because he knew that the people who make all the decisions are free of such flaws.
He painfully realises that it is only his actions he can be somewhat sure of, and that he is responsible for them, because everyone has ‘something to answer for’. So there starts the most bizarre quest for redemption of a character who can’t even remember if he is British or Irish, that is, whether he is a side in the conflict or a neutral observer.
At times Townrow even suspects himself to be American, and occasionally when in her arms, he half wishes to turn out to be the estranged husband of his lover, Leah. P.H.Newby knows how to write romance and sexual tension. I know it seems unlikely when looking at his photos and remembering he was the director of BBC Three, but I am sure he could show a girl a good time. Or maybe it’s me. Maybe I just get turned on by superb writing, gentle, underlying humour, a knack for vivid description, an ear for dialogue… Yes, it could be just me.
In the end of ‘Something to Answer For’ we don’t quite know whether Townrow was good or bad and whether he redeemed himself or quite the opposite, reached the heights of moral corruption. The novel did a circle and took us to the beginning with Townrow coming to the conclusion that what he thought was his past is actually his future
PH Newby’s main claim to fame might be the fact he was the inaugural Booker Prize winner, something irrelevant back then, but a crown achievement for a writer today. And it’s true I would’ve never got to read ‘Something to Answer For’ if it weren’t for the Booker thing, but now I want to read more Newby’s novels. And I will be kept busy for long as he wrote some twenty-three of them.