In this episode of The Booker Prize Podcast, our hosts are pairing up fictional characters from novels in the Booker archive, in this literary twist on the hit TV show. Join us, on Booker Island…
Listen to more episodes from The Booker Prize Podcast here.
The sun is shining, the sea is glistening and we’re heading off to Booker Island - our very own version of Love Island.
In the fourth episode of The Booker Prize Podcast, novelist and critic Jo Hamya and critic and broadcaster James Walton are pairing up fictional characters from novels in the Booker archive. Tune in to find out who’s coupled up, who’s getting mugged off and who’s getting dumped in our quest to find the ultimate literary romantic couple.
Welcome to the Booker Price Podcast with me, Jo Hamya.
And me, James Walton.
And as you can hear, we’re doing something a little different this week, and this week we are celebrating a coup of mine. Usually, this podcast is a haven for book lovers and… protectors of literature-
Low-brow pia. That’s our motto.
Exactly. And so I thought, what better place…to have a Love Island episode?
I have managed to convince James into watching Love Island.
Yep… I got permission from my wife to spend several hours watching hot women in bikinis.
But before that… it’s my turn to express gratitude. Amber Spyglass episode went out last week and it’s been doing really well. I’m going to give a little shout out to America and India who are top listening countries, apparently, which is amazing.
And, apparently, we’re big in Brunei!
Yeah, we’re big in Brunei as well. Which I love. And… also I… I felt bad, James, about how I handled the whole Kendall Mint Cake situation.
Oh yeah. Kendall Mint Cake-gate.
I was quite mocking, wasn’t I?
You seemed to suggest… you seemed to wonder whether it actually existed.
Whether it was… when it went out fashion, I’m really sorry. But I’m really happy to report that my partner listened to this and he felt the same shock and outrage as you did. He actually loves hiking. He loves… you know, outdoorsy stuff. So, he got me some Kendall Mint Cake, and I had some.
And what do you reckon?
It actually is. Yeah. Actually, no I… I mean I’m all in favour, you know, of its fame, and it’s important to protect it-
And its texture…
And its taste. I mean, everything about it really.
The texture is so bizarre! It’s … like… I thought it was going to be… Well, it comes in a chocolate casing and so this-
That’s very modern.
Yeah. None of this fancy stuff when I was… hiking the hills
But then there was this… gelled minty stuff inside, and I… oh my God, I mean, I was … expecting something like an After Eight, but it was like too much filling, you know? And then it got stuck to my teeth and it was really cloying, and I just thought - if I was at my wit’s end, as Lyra and Will are, you know, I’ve just… taken down the kingdom of heaven. I’ve just been hunted mercilessly by the church, and I think if someone gave me Kendall Mint Cake, I would just top myself.
That’s the final straw, yeah. Taking on the forces… the apocalyptic forces of evil is one thing but… eating this stuff! Yeah, fair enough. But I’m pretty sure when I, as I say, ‘hiked the fells’ I don’t think they had chocolate. It was just… it’s just about energy, isn’t it? I mean… it’s meant to just give you energy, but the downside of it is it tastes horrible.
Yeah. So, no more delaying, James, I’ve been forcing you to watch Love Island. It’s time for our Love Island Booker Special.
It really is. And without giving too much away at the stage, I’m amazed how much I’ve got into it. I must say the show itself… a bit, but what we’re about to do-
A lot, be honest. Come on. You love it.
I mean, I’ve watched about six or seven episodes of this series and… I must admit to taking a slightly lordly, chin-stroking interest in it.
Mmmm. So, for people who don’t watch Love Island or don’t know what it is - but I genuinely can’t imagine that because it’s … like Big Brother at this point - Love Island is a … gamified version of dating. It’s a reality TV show where really good-looking people go and spend eight weeks in a villa in Majorca. And their presence in the villa depends on their ability to form couples and form a convincing relationship with other people. And there’s a £50,000 prize to be won at the end. So, it’s always in question whether these couples actually like each other or whether they’re just, as is often said, playing a game. So it does make sense in a way because the Booker Prize is also 50k. There’s like a link. There’s a link between them.
No… And, as I say, almost quite sweet. Some of the bits where the girls are talking amongst themselves… had this slight Summer Nights vibe. You know, they’re saying, ‘He cuddled me all through the night.’
‘Oh, tell me more.’
They have these morning debriefs about how their relationship’s going. And it is sort of like… it’s like a really twisted Jane Austen novel. They’re just updating each other, you know, ‘He held my hand.’ ‘He brushed my arm.’ ‘He… he mugged me off.’ ‘He was talking to another girl.’ ‘What am I to make of this? So we’re going to be coupling up characters from the Booker Archive and seeing how they get on in our version of Love Island, which we’re calling Booker Island.
So, we’ve each brought along… three couples each, and Jo’s going to explain her three couples first. I’ll make a few comments on them. I’ll explain my three. And then Booker Island begins.
So, my first couple are Sheba Hart from Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal and Charles Arrowby from Iris Murdoch’s i. And my justification for this is that they are extremely delusional characters. They are deranged. Sheba, famously, is a teacher at a school and she has an affair with one of her students. And, in her eyes, this is a really romantic escape from the drudgery of her everyday … middle-class, married life. And Charles Arrowby is a theatre director… who kidnaps the woman he sees as the love of his life and basically tries to force her to… fall back in love with him.
She was… his first love, wasn’t she? And then he sees her … old… quite old, and… ‘stout’ I thinks she’s described as?
Yeah, but he’s like, ‘She’s perfect. I still love her.’
So, I think there’s some hope for these in the sense that she really likes being desired, Sheba, doesn’t she?
Yeah, she really does.
And Charles Arrowby really likes desiring.
He really does.
So, okay. That’s your first couple. Second?
Okay. Second couple, are Saeed from Exit West and Cecilia from Atonement. So there are obvious connections there. Both of them have had their love lives completely ruined by war, but I think they do… align in the sense that, Cecilia’s famous line from Atonement is, ‘Come back, come back to me’. She’s an extremely loyal, faithful, hopeful person. She believes that things can get better, you can … rebuild after a war. And Saeed’s love life in Exit West is also broken apart by war, but it’s more a case that Nadia refuses to acknowledge their home country, whereas Saeed feels that he can rebuild… and he doesn’t want to let go of all the things that have come before. So, I think maybe Cecilia could help heal Saeed’s broken heart in a way.
A couple of problems for Saeed on Love Island, and with Cecilia. One is that he basically, I think in the end, prefers people of his own culture, doesn’t he? And he’s quite religious and he, he just made that point. And the other thing is, he doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, which is going to make him a dodgy Love Island contestant.
But Cecilia is quite conservative!
And your third couple?
And my third couple are Marpessa from Paul Beatty’s The Sellout.
This is a book we’ll be discussing in more detail in a few weeks. But, yes, a little bit about her?
So she is a bus driver. A lot has… gone wrong in her life.
Yeah. She’s with a guy called, I think, MC Panache.
Yeah. Who gave her children she maybe particularly didn’t want, or a child that she maybe didn’t particularly want. And for the entirety of The Sellout she’s… chatting to her ex-boyfriend, Bonbon. He’s a farmer and she’s… swinging around to pick up, you know, satsumas or watermelons from him and talk about the good old days when they used to-
I may suggest though, Jo, chatting is quite a gentle word for what she… for her means of dialogue. Because the narrator who… is Bonbon who… I think he certainly loves her. He says, ‘That’s what I first loved about Marpessa. Her unabashed inappropriateness.’ So she does … let everybody have it with both barrels most of the time, doesn’t she?
Yeah. And I think with Howard from Zadie Smith’s On Beauty-
You’re imagining her with Howard from… Okay.
Yeah. I think Howard would be so into her. He would just absolutely… I think, Marpessa would remind him of Kiki, his wife, when she was young. There’s that bit in On Beauty where he’s… remembering what Kiki was like when she was young and she had a tiny waist and he misses how… passionate and uninhibited she used to be, and now he’s a university professor and all the fire has gone out of his life-
Poor old Howard! As I say, she lets everybody have it with both barrels and one of the groups that she certainly does that to is white liberals and he’s the… classic example of that, isn’t he? He’s absolutely… solid in his left-wing ideas. He’s quite willing to tell the black conservative colleagues that they’re wrong… that they’re wrong about black people. Because he knows. Because he’s this whitey liberal. So, do you think Marpessa would stand for that?
Absolutely not. But I have a feeling that… Howard is a ‘bottom’, basically. I think Howard would quite enjoy being told off by [an] intelligent woman who’s beautiful and the object of his… fantasies.
Okay. There’s your three. Shall I give you my three?
Yeah, please do.
One thing I noticed in Love Island, actually, is that there seem to be three types of blokes as far as the women are concerned, which is Sweetheart, Cheeky Chappy and Bad Boy. For some reason, in Booker books Cheeky Chappy’s are thin on the ground. You could, you could probably make a case for Howard. Tiny bit of a Cheeky Chappy? But anyway, I’ve started off with the most sweetheart-ing of Sweethearts, which is Douglas Peterson, from David Nichols’ Us, longlisted in 2014. He’s absolutely devoted to his wife, although he actually says… ‘As long as I have breath in my body, she would never lack sufficient AA batteries.’ And, but as he also knows, devotion is not always an appealing characteristic, as I know from my own experience, which actually happens quite a lot in Love Island. I think Sweethearts … slightly get on the girl’s nerves after a while. As far as I can tell. Anyway, let’s leave the Love Island bit.
There’s such a thing as friendship couples, certainly.
So I’ve given him a bit of a challenge, actually, because his partner is Agnes Bain from Shuggie Bain - famous alcoholic mother, but rather crucially, this is in the brief time where she’s sober.
There’s one bit where she, actually the saddest line in the whole book really, I think is towards the end. And it’s also finished. Shuggie meets another child of an alcoholic and they’re … looking back on their lives and Shuggie says of his mum, ‘My mommy had a good year once. It was lovely.’
A really heartbreaking line. But anyway, so it’s… during that good year that… Agnes comes to the island. Because she went to AA - not locally, but in a posher part of Glasgow. It said, ‘It was a fresh start, she had thought, and hopefully a better class of alcoholic.’ So, so she… gets the better class of alcoholic. She sorts herself out, she becomes very … kind. It’s stressed throughout the book that she’s …pretty. She was the Elizabeth Taylor of working-class Glasgow. And she’s capable of great thoughtfulness when sober.
I think the villa, the Love Island villa, might be a great place to her because famously the Islanders are only allowed a glass of Prosecco a day. They’re not allowed to get drunk - as of something like Season Three or Four? They took away most of the alcohol in that show.
I mean, good luck with getting Agnes to stop after one glass of Prosecco, though. I think…
She’d have to go to the producers.
So that’s one challenge. My next couple are Mrs Coulter from Amber Spyglass, specifically Amber Spyglass, which we discussed…
Last week. Yes, it was last week. I mean, she’s beautiful as well, very strikingly and importantly so. Everyone’s smitten with her, including, I think I suggested, Philip Pullman.
And you. But the Metatron, who’s a representative of… the voice of God says to her, ‘Corruption and envy and lust for power. Cruelty and coldness. You have never from your earliest years shown a shred of compassion or sympathy or kindness without calculating how it would return to your advantage. You have tortured and killed without regret or hesitation. You are a cesspit of moral filth.’
Perfect material for Love Island!
Maybe a little harsh, but I think almost exactly those same words could be applied to her partner, who I’ve given her, which is Henry VIII from Wolf Hall. And also we joined them - this is Henry VIII from Wolf Hall so again, … sort of quite young and hunky - but we joined them both in a quite an interesting time because in Amber Spyglass, she has dedicated her life to the magisterium, the … equivalent of the Catholic Church. But in Amber Spyglass, as we discussed, because of her love for her daughter Lyra, she is turning against it. You get the thing? Henry VIII Defender of the Faith, the Pope has called him. Now he wants Anne Boleyn, he’s turned against the Catholic Church.
So I think the difference is Mrs Coulter has very honourable reasons for wanting to take down the Catholic Church, whereas Henry VIII just … wants a shag, doesn’t he?
Yeah. I suppose there is that! And then, my final couple are, and now we return to the Sweethearts for Stevens, I think just about. He’s the least Cheeky Chappy in the world.
Stevens from The Remains of the Day.
This is Mr Stevens from The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguru. The Booker winner in 1989. As you know, a butler. Wouldn’t be very good at one important part of Love Island, which is ‘bants’. There’s one bit, poor fellow. He’s decided - he’s got this new American boss by the time the book begins after the war - and he says, and he realizes that he’s expected to … banter. And he says, ‘I must say this business of bantering is not a duty I feel I can discharge with enthusiasm.’ He has a try. He has a few… absolutely, excruciating tries at banter, and towards the end of the book, rather sadly, he decides maybe banter is the key to human warmth. If he could just master it.
It definitely is the key to the villa. I mean the whole… So the Islanders spend eight hours outside the villa… in the garden by the pool. They’re forced to be there by the producers and all they have to do, for the entirety of the day, is pull each other for chats. This is Love Island lingo that someone will approach another person and say, ‘Can we have a chat? Shall we go for a chat?’
But he’s basically a decent guy. So, just to remind people what happens in the book. It’s set in 1956, after the war. He goes to see Miss Kenton, who’d been a housekeeper in Darlington Hall where he’d worked. And the two of them had had this really painfully obvious love for each other they could never, particularly him, bring themselves to admit or to articulate. So, after he’d seen her, they both realise what might have been, and they both end up in tears. Partly because of what might have been, but partly by the fact that it’s now too late. He’s also looking back on his time when he faithfully served Lord Darlington, in the 30s. He insists that Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man, but he does have to admit, or at least half intuit - or know, really - that he was a Nazi sympathizer, which brings us to his partner. Because I’ve paired him with the Dutchess of Windsor, Mrs Simpson, Mrs Wallace Simpson, another real-life character.
From Any Human Heart, longlisted for the Booker in 2002. She appears only briefly, but it’s a book that intersects with real life a lot. The main character is Logan Mountstuart. The book consists of his diaries, and during the 40s he’s sent to keep an eye on the Windsors, because of their possible Nazi sympathies.
And the British government wants to make sure he doesn’t get into any trouble. So they pack him off to be governor of Bermuda in the end. And Logan Mountstuart keeps an eye on him, and, he says, ‘She does exude a strange sexual attraction, given that she’s not physically beautiful or alluring: the ideal dominatrix – if one were that way inclined.’
Stevens is definitely that way inclined!
I don’t know. Because he’s… got this fondness for … sentimental romantic novels, but at the same time he does.
He wants… a master or a mistress though.
Yeah… He wants to suck up to the upper classes… Yeah, I can’t imagine… I can only imagine him … dancing up and down, just getting whatever she wants, whatever drinks she needs. Whatever thing.
Yeah definitely. Her title would be a massive thing for him.