By the time I’d struggled to the last page ofSomething to Answer For there was little I felt sure about any longer. Nothing in the novel seems quite certain other than it’s set in Port Said, a city in the throes of the Suez Crisis and where the lead character Townrow, has travelled to see the widow of a recently deceased friend.
But who exactly is Townrow? Even he doesn’t seem to be exactly certain – at one point he remembers he was married; another time that he is Irish. But by then he has told so many different versions of his life that we can’t be sure where truth ends and the lies take over. Early on in the tale he is hit on the head and from then on, he operates in a dream like state in which he seems to recall events like his friend’s burial that have yet to happen. The borders between truth and reality become ever more distinct as the novel progresses. For the reader it’s a baffling experience.
Baffling, but not rewarding. P.H. Newby won the inaugural Booker Prize with this novel that one critic described as beautifully written and a tour de force of comic writing. There were certainly some passages that gave me a glimmer of hope that the book would improve. But they were simply transitory experiences before I was propelled into yet another labyrinth. By the end I suspected Newby had experienced more fun writing his book than I did in reading it.
This review is also posted on my blog where you can find some bibliographical references for Newby.