Something To Answer For by P.H.Newby

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.  

2 Responses to “Something To Answer For by P.H.Newby”

  1. 1 Jillian
    October 19, 2009 at 10:01 pm

    im attempting to read all of the booker prize winners (have only read ‘vernon god little’, ‘the blind assassin’, and ‘the elected member’ – all very good) but this one just doesnt do it for me. yes its dry and the politics makes it hard to get into. ive got 80 pages left and cant wait to be done with them. does not deserve the prize. seems like a mistake. have you read other books by him?

  2. October 23, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    Jillian, this was the first novel to win the prize; since then, the Booker Prize has created a reputed name for itself by awarding it to worthy writers. Of course, with the sprinkling of obscure writers, celebrities like Rushdie and Naipaul have clinched it, adding to its prestige. No, I haven’t read any other books by P.H.Newby but I have read more than half the bookers and would like to make some recommendations if you’ll allow me:

    1. Disgrace by J.M.Coetzee : So far, the best Booker novel I’ve read. Coetzee was the first writer to win the Booker twice; he went on to win the Nobel Prize soon after. I highly recommend Disgrace.

    2. The Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro: A masterpiece of literature, Ishiguro chronicles the inner workings of an English butler, Stevens, his dark secrets and aspirations. Through the novel and its rather English characters, the author questions what it means to be a professional and in the process, challenges notions of loyalty, servitude and integrity.

    3. Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth-I’ve written a review in this blog if you’re interested.

    However, I must mention that these novels aren’t as flamboyant as “Vernon God Little” or “The Blind Assasin” but they constitute some of the most important works of post-modern literature. (Sacred Hunger, I admit, is rather underrated)

    Thanks for visiting and please let me know how you liked these books, if you get to read them.

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