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Friday, 11 January, 2002, 15:51 GMT
Whitbread's worthy winners
Twelve Bars Blue
James Neate beat Ian McEwan to the novel prize
This week and next, BBC News Online reviews two of the four books competing for the prestigious Whitbread Book of the Year title and 250,000 prize-money.

Twelve Bars Blue by Patrick Neate - winner of the Whitbread novel award category - was read by Orla Ryan.

Much of the talk on Twelve Bar Blues has centered on how an outsider came from nowhere to trump the favourite - Ian McEwan's Atonement - and win the Whitbread novel award.

At 400 pages, Patrick Neate's book weighs in at around 30 pages longer than McEwan's tome.

With four days to read it, I picked it up with an element of dread but this complicated tale of blues musicians, prostitutes and witchdoctors whips its way lightly to an engrossing end.

Patrick Neate writes like a dream and weaves in his Louisiana, African and London storylines to a satisfying conclusion.


He manages to integrate his tales of magic and jazz in a tone which could - with its blues patter - irritate but doesn't and rings true throughout.

The dialogue and description is rich, but while the writing is anything but spare, there is scarcely an unnecessary word.

The story centres on the tale of Lick Holden - a blues cornet player, who disappeared into ignominy and his latter-day descendent - a retired London prostitute - who hooks up with an African witchdoctor to establish her roots.

The only thing that jars is that half way through his book, Jim - a white boy "who thinks the twelve bar blues is a drunken tour of America" - finds his way into the story as the love interest.

This incredulity is voiced by Sylvia in her attitude to him and, while it works, the impression it left with me was of the author trying to intersperse himself into the story.

Ultimately though, it works.

Something Like A House by Sid Smith - winner of the Whitbread first novel award category - was read by Charles Bodsworth

Something Like a House, Sid Smith's debut novel, sets itself the challenging task of taking the reader into revolutionary China, following the life of a British deserter from the Korean War, "the only round-eye in the Red Guards".

The deserter Fraser is moved by the Communist authorities to a village of the ethnic minority Miao people and Smith painstakingly recreates their world and customs.

Fraser brings to mind Robinson Crusoe, a man struggling to build a home in a strange land, buffeted by history and, to the end, a mystery to the reader.

Indeed, there are few novels in which we know so little of the principal character.

Sid Smith
Smith has undertaken meticulous historical research
At the time of his desertion, that momentous decision is conveyed as if it were almost insignificant.

Later in the novel, when Fraser has spent decades in China, we are told as if in passing: "He had come to China to be nothing and no one."

The disturbing isolation of the central character is echoed in Smith's prose, which is always controlled and spare.

In the most unemotional terms, he describes the harsh poverty and racial discrimination suffered by the Miao and charts the crushing of their culture by Communist ideology.

Smith takes the same precise approach even to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. When the villagers eat the heart of an enemy, the act is all the more disturbing for the detachment with which it is related.

Startling among the sometimes abrupt prose is the novel's imagery - the river where moderate Red Guards are executed is "fat with snowmelt from the mountains, its muscles bunching against pillars of the jetty".


While for the most part the novel succeeds in imagining an alien world, occasionally Smith's meticulous historical research takes over, overwhelming his normally subtle description and slowing his narrative drive.

Despite these occasional lapses in stylistic control, which after all we might expect in a debut novel, Smith succeeds admirably in weaving a dense history of politics, warfare and history into the story of one man.

Fraser, the mysterious heart of the novel, finds himself the victim not only of the Korean War and Cultural Revolution but of the earlier horrors dispensed by the Japanese.

As the novel progresses these heavyweight themes are deftly unveiled, building up an intriguing mystery. Fraser's presence in the Miao village, we discover, is no coincidence, but is part of a sinister plot by the Communist authorities.

To reveal any more would be to undermine the pleasure and tension of the close of the novel, which is brought to a thrilling close.

Twelve Bars Blue by Patrick Neate is published by Viking. Something Like A House by Sid Smith is published by Picado.

The build-up





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