This out of print novel by P.H.Newby, was the first book to win the prestigious booker prize. After a brief search on Google, I found a few sites that were selling it for around $250. Much as I wanted to read it, I couldn’t find it in my paltry stipend to provide for such steeply priced antiquarian literature. I therefore decided to search my university library for it, having found in the past, impressive volumes I could never find in conventional book stores. When I did find a copy in the library, I felt numbed seeing the status show that it was available and regretted not having searched for the book in the library sooner. It didn’t surprise me to discover that I was the first to have borrowed the book since it arrived at the university library on the year of its publication-1969.
The reason I wanted to read this book was because I wanted to explore its archetypical stlye that might have set the tone for its successors; whether or not it actually did is debatable. Newby’s novel is set in Port Said, which was a part of the formerly known United Arab Republic, a joint state constituting the republics of Egypt and Syrria. The protagonist is an Englishman (who claims to be Irish) named Townrow who is visiting the widow of Elie Khoury, a friend. The widow herself is an English woman in her sixties whose property is in danger of being confiscated by the Egyptian authorities. It is important to note that the story takes place during Naseer’s reign since the novel heavily relies on the politics surrounding the Canalization. My ignorance of the politics of the region certainly made it very difficult for me to maintain my interest level. Even as the narrative progressed, I hadn’t formed an adequate impression of the principal characters: Townrow Mrs.Khoury, Abravanel and Leah and except for a few incidents, most of the details have escaped my memory. I think this is partly because the author’s dry style of prose didn’t do much to bridge the gaps created by my own ignorance of the history of Port Said. That is not to say that the writing is deficient in the wit that normally characterizes most Booker winners. Consider this exchange between Leah and Townrow:
“Another thing, what did I say to offend you?”
“In the car. You got out and walked off”
“You called me English. No Irishman likes that”
“Are you Irish?”
He frowned. He wished he could be sure.
Finally, I’m not sure if “Something to Answer For” is worthy of the prize (I’ve read far better and far worse) but it is certainly worth a read, if not for anything else, just to be able to obtain a glimpse into the mood of the time and to try to find interest in the characters’ tensions. I also feel it would be worthwhile to trace why this book couldn’t find enough readership to stay in print since it might provide a clue into the workings of time on literary interest and popularity.