Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 1, 2020

Something to Answer For, by P.H. Newby, winner of the inaugural Booker Prize in 1969

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

Some readers may be aware that I have recently suffered a computer catastrophe, and lost many files because my automatic back-up external hard drive failed as well.  Well, today, a review of P H Newby’s Something to Answer For, which won the first ever Booker Prize, reminded me that some reviews that I posted elsewhere, are still out there on the other sites.

For some time, I was an active contributor to The Complete Booker and while most of what I reviewed I had also cross-posted here at ANZ LitLovers, there are a few reviews there from before I had my own blog.  They are not great reviews, but still, over the next little while, I’m going to cross-post those reviews here as well, in a series called ‘Reviews From the Archive’ … just in case The Complete Booker site gets deleted or hacked or whatever…

Something to Answer For, by P H Newby, won the inaugural Booker in 1969.

December 25, 2003

I’m going to start by blogging Something to Answer For by P.H. Newby because it’s the winner of the inaugural Booker, and the pride of my Booker Prize collection. This is what I wrote about it in my journal, back in December 2003….

I paid $225 AUD to read this book! It’s the most expensive book I’ve ever read, like drinking a Penfold’s Grange – except that one expects a Grange to be a finer wine than any other, whereas Newby’s book is not better than all the other Bookers I’ve read. It’s just a whole lot harder to acquire.
I was so excited when it finally came, all the way from the SA Book Exchange. (That’s South Africa, not South Australia.) I was thrilled to hold it in my hands – a slim little hardback, with an orange and white cover in a mildly groovy design, a concession to the Swinging Sixties by Faber and Faber, but it still has a 1950s feel about it, as befits the book trade at that time.

Beware: spoilers

The story has a fifties feel about it too. It’s baffling, because it has an unreliable narrator, but the gist of it is that the anti-hero, Townrow, has to skip London because he’s been embezzling. His landlady, Mrs Khoury, is the catalyst for his flight, because she thinks her husband has been murdered over in Egypt, and so – both to help her out and also evade the law -Townrow departs, hoping to be richly recompensed for his trouble because Mrs K is rich.

Egypt, however, is in the throes of the Suez Crisis and in the chaos Townrow gets hit on the head in an attack – and thereafter nothing he says can be taken at face value. He says so himself: he mis-remembers things; changes things; gets confused; and deliberately lies. He says this partly depends on circumstances, and it’s partly because of the nature of memory.

Newby, however, is interested in more than duplicitous memories. En route to Cairo, Townrow is accused by a Jew who blames Britain for its failure to warn the Jews about the trains to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. His accuser says that the British authorities knew, and chose not to warn the Jews. Townrow reacts with indignation, arguing that one can always trust the British to act with honour, but his subsequent repudiation of this naive response is the main focus of the story…

As events unforld, Townrow encounters various examples of British duplicity, from the incompetence and deceit of their intelligence officers to the betrayal of its own citizens in Port Said. By the time Townrow faces interrogation himself, he tells his inquisitors that he will not answer any quetions about his Egyptian associates because he trusts them at face value but he doesn’t trust the British at all.

He decides from this point onward to live life for the moment, taking things at face value. He manages to evacuate not only Mrs K husband’s exhumed coffin, but also some nuns and his dubious girlfriend, and then sails off in a boat – to take what comes…

Or so he says. He doesn’t really want to face up to three years in gaol for his crime, does he?

I finished reading and journalled this book on 12.12.2003.

Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers


Responses

  1. $225! You certainly were determined to read it. :)

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    • Yes, but it’s worth even more now. The cheapest first edition at AbeBooks is $100USD but it’s a library copy (which mine is not, mine is in perfect condition). The next one is $418.42USD, which is over $600AUD. So I could sell mine for more than twice what I paid for it. (And I have explained that to The Offspring so that he doesn’t chuck it to the OpShop when I depart for the Great Library in the Sky.)

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  2. I didn’t realise about your computer breakdown. At least it was your computer and not you! I’m sure you must revere your expensive book. We should all have one or two of those. 🐧🐧🐧

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    • I’m very fond of this book… and I was very lucky to get it for my Booker First Editions collection. I was getting dispirited about my chances because everything that came up was in the UK or US, and because we’re in a different time zone, every time I got a notification about this book on my wishlist, it was already sold by the time I was up in the morning.
      But yay! one night I was up very late working on stuff for school, and there was a copy in South Africa. I emailed them immediately, and they still had it so out came the credit card and the book was mine!
      I’m still hoping for the same kind of luck with Midnight’s Children. It is soooooo expensive…

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  3. Computer and backup drive failures? You have my complete sympathy.

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    • I know, you wouldn’t read about it.
      Print is best.

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  4. I don’t think I have a first edition that valuable. I probably have first editions of all Miles Franklin’s books after she stopped being published by Blackwoods and was taken up at last by Angus&Robertson. Some of dad’s books date back to the 1750s but his Walter Scotts are reprints from around 1850, damn! Something to Answer For actually sounds interesting. Was the Booker purely British at the beginning?

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    • The Miles Franklin ones are probably worth more as a collection than individually, but maybe get them valued by an expert?

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  5. Wowser! Sorry about the pc catastrophe! As for the book, it sounds like an odd one. Cheap copies can be got in the UK, but I don’t know I feel desperately impelled to read it!!

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  6. I’d completely missed the news about the computer catastrophe. You were so unlucky for the back up to go as well. I’ve just bought a back up service from Backblaze at reasonable cost because I don’t want to lose all my family history info I have worked 20 years to accumulate.

    As for the Newby, well you know from my recent review that I struggled to get a purchase on this novel. I certainly wouldn’t have paid that much for a copy…

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    • Karen, you know this, when you have the collector’s bug, you are not necessarily sensible!
      I do think STAF has something to offer even now. If we think ourselves back to 1969 when Britain was coming to grips with the loss of its empire and the old securities about the Middle East were disappearing too, this novel introduces the readership (which would have been mostly British back then) to the idea that Britain has not always acted with honour. That was probably very confronting in the postwar glow of having fought (mostly alone) and won on the side of honour against the evil of Nazism. I imagine my parents reading this and being shocked. They were — like many people then and now — politically naïve about their own country, even though they read Orwell & Co.
      So I’m not sorry I read it, and I think it’s good that there are now cheap paperback copies available too.

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      • Interesting perspective Lisa, yes that point of view would have been uncomfortable for many readers.

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        • A bit like Americans at the moment, coming to terms with the change in their status as world leader…

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  7. Many thanks for telling us about this book, I’d never heard of it nor of the author. I downloaded the Kindle edition for US$7.03 (sorry), so it’s now on my Kindle TBR. I’ve just started Christina Stead’s House of All Nations on my Kindle, so it may be a while till I get round to Newby …

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    • Hi Paul, thanks for dropping by!
      House of All Nations, wow! You must be a fan of Christina Stead to tackle that! I have it on my TBR and I think it is the fattest chunkster I have. I meant to read it last year for CS’s birthday, but I am such a dilettante, I flit from one thing to the other — which I relish doing because I had to be so super-organised at work, and now, I can be myself.

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