1970 Booker Prize Shortlist – John Brown’s Body – A.L. Barker

My copy of this novel is a re-issue by “Virago Modern Classics” stating it was shortlisted for the 1969 Booker Prize (when in fact it was the 1970 Prize) and stating it was first published in 1965 – maybe they allowed 4 year old novels to appear on their shortlists back then, however my understanding of the prize is that for the first two years it was for novels published in the previous year.

Search for “John Brown’s Body” in Google and you’ll find a stack of references to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, well I’m sorry to say this novel has nothing to do with “glory, glory, hallelujah”, although in kind John Brown’s body could well lie a-mouldering in the grave whilst his soul goes marching on…..

A strange novel and one I really struggled with. The main character is Ralph Shilling:

He was tall and solid and she saw at once he would be remembered. He had a packed face with uncompromisingly functional features, a big nose with a spade-shaped end and a wide mouth with strong red lips. Only his chin looked as if it might let him down, it folded too suddenly into his hard collar.

Marise and Tomelty live downstairs from Ralph and Tomelty remarks that he is the “dead ringer” for John Brown an insurance salesman acquitted of a dual murder of his sister lovers a number of years earlier.
Despite Marise’s concerns she and Ralph start up a friendship, he becomes obsessed with her, questions his own marriage, I could go on…..

There are a number of half sketched characters in this novel, for example Marise’s uncle is introduced, disappears, reappears with threats, and disappears again for good. Ralph’s boss, Pecry is career focused and fearless, has a moment of vulnerability when talking with Ralph and doesn’t really appear in any major form again. Marise’s teddy bear, Barbra, and Ralph’s cat, Put Put, get more treatment from Barker than half the humans in the novel and this infuriated me no end.

Towards the end of the novel I did think that Ralph may well have obsessed about the murderer John Brown that much that he would take on that character (or could well even actually be that character) and kill his own wife and sister-in-law. I’m sorry to say I misread the potential ending; it just petered out with horrors befalling the teddy bear instead.

There are a number of passages I had to re-read and re-read again to try and make sense of them, the conversation passages appear so forced and contrived you can’t tell which character is actually speaking the words. With misspelt names throughout this whole she-bang could be a play on words – if so I didn’t get it.

There was one particular black spot on the mirror the size of a sixpence. She stood so as to get it in the middle of her forehead.

Two sixpence to the shilling? Maybe there is subtext there?

Some credit is due, I did finish the book, even though it was a struggle, and that is a lot more than I can say for a few Booker nominees over the years.

“Virago Modern Classics”? I’d like to know who on earth in that publishing house decided that this is a modern classic? And why did they think a re-issue would sell copies?

In the quote above “he would be remembered”, well I’m sorry to say it, he won’t be in this household.
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