Something To Answer For is a strange and unusual book with a confusing narrative – or maybe that’s just a confusing narrator – which makes for a challenging read.
The novel is set in Egypt at the time of the Suez Crisis in 1956. The main character, Townrow, heads to Egypt following the death of a friend, with his widow claiming he was murdered. Soon after his arrival, he goes drinking and then wakes up the following morning, naked and with a head injury following a beating of which he has no memory. It makes his subsequent telling of the story unreliable, and questions remain as to what is true, what are lies, and what might be the side effects of the head injury.
The reader is never sure whether Townrow is a British spy, a conman seeing an opportunity to rob a grieving widow, or just a concerned friend wanting to do the right thing by his deceased friend. The whole narrative could just be the ramblings of a man suffering from a head injury, and that he is actually lying in a hospital bed in a coma. It really is that confusing!
The main character, Townrow, reminded me at times of Patricia Highsmith’s character, Tom Ripley, with the first of those novels pre-dating PH Newby’s Booker Prize-winner, and while I know this isn’t incisive literary criticism, I have to point out that the main character’s name annoyed me. As I was reading the book, out the corner of my eye ‘Townrow’ on the page often looked like ‘Tomorrow’, which got progressively more annoying the longer I read the novel.
There were also hints of an Ealing comedy, and I kept seeing Alex Guinness’ face as I was reading, as well as hearing his voice in the narrative. At other times, it felt like a poor man’s Graham Greene and either a homage to or pastiche of Our Man In Havana.
At a certain point, I was just wanting the experience to be over, which is never a good sign, and having got to the end, I still wasn’t quite sure if I enjoyed the novel, or was even sure I really understood what I had just read.
Something To Answer For was P.H. Newby’s 17th novel – he wrote 23 in total, along with six non-fiction books – and it is assured of its place in literary history as the first winner of the Booker Prize back in 1969. However, fifty years on from that achievement, I’m not convinced that it has stood the test of time.
Something To Answer For P.H. Newby
Figures in a Landscape Barry England
The Impossible Object Nicholas Mosley
The Nice and The Good Iris Murdoch
The Public Image Muriel Spark
From Scenes Like These Gordon Williams
W.L. Webb (Chair): Guardian journalist and literary editor (In 1993 was a judge of ‘Booker of Booker’ prize, won by Midnight’s Children)
David Farrer: Director of Secker & Warburg
Frank Kermode: Literary critic (Father of film critic, Mark Kermode)
Stephen Spender: English poet, novelist, and essayist
Dame Rebecca West Author, journalist, literary critic and travel writer
(Real name, Dame Cicily Isabel Fairfield. She took the pseudonym ‘Rebecca West’ from the rebellious young heroine in Rosmersholm by Henrik Ibsen)