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on 23 July 2009
I would be quite surprised if (m)any readers come to read this book for any reason other than that they are trying to get through the whole Booker winner list. 'Something to Answer For' has long been out of print and now that it has been reprinted in a nice edition by F&F, it's easier to complete the list. I may be wrong about this, but that was my motivation for reading it, anyway!

The book concerns a central character, Townrow, who is in Egypt having left behind a very shady past embezzling funds from a charity in the UK. He is looking for an old lady, and chasing several ghosts of men who may or may not have been killed in connection to his misdeeds. He is also carrying on a love affair with an elusive woman. The problem I had with this novel is that, because of the deliberately ambiguous style of storytelling and construction, the book becomes increasingly harder and harder to follow. The author clearly intended to reflect Townrow's mental state in the actual prose of the novel and in that he certainly succeeded however by the end of the novel I found myself feeling very frustrated and completely at a loss about what was happening, or had happened. This was probably Newby's plan, but it didn't leave a satisfied feeling with this reader, and few other modern readers are likely to enjoy this book on any more than a stylistic level.

It is saved, in part, by descriptions of 1950s Egypt and some vividly drawn scenes (which may have been reality or dream), but overall this novel really is for Booker completists only. Approach with caution (unless you thrive on very elliptical, confusing, highly stylised novels).
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on 31 December 2014
Like other reviewers, I came to read Something to Answer For as I steadily work my way through winners of the Booker Prize. Newby won the inaugural Booker with this unusual tale of an Englishman in Port Said during the Suez crisis. The fact that it was out of print for so long says more for the fickle nature of publishing than for the quality of this book!

That said, it wasn't always a comfortable read. The narrator is usually confused, sometimes drunk, and possibly concussed - maybe even deranged... This doesn't lend itself to straightforward narration. At times it felt like Catch 22 had been recast with characters from Waugh's Scoop and narrated by Joyce. On the whole this was a good thing - just not always easy to follow. At first I didn't think I was going to enjoy it at all, but it grew on me as it went on. Despite being set in a very particular time and place (written in 1969 but set in 1956), it felt like a remarkably modern (post-modern?) novel. Occasionally the language and attitudes betrayed the casual sexism and racism of a bygone age.

So what was it all about? Identity, culture, confusion, attraction, commitment... Possibly. But at it's heart is the portrayal of a shallow, deceitful man who wants more, and wants to be better. He has let go of his moorings and is being tossed about by life. How many times does he openly regret the one event that changed everything? He is a man left wondering and wandering...
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on 15 July 2008
P.H. Newby (1917-1997) won the first Booker Prize in 1969 for his novel "Something to Answer For."

I'm working my way through the Booker Prize list and found this novel along with David Storey's "Saville" the most difficult to come by.Indeed, most or all of Newby's eighteen novels seem to be out-of-print.

That's not to say this novel is not worth reading. It is a challenge though. I would call it a piece of fictional deconstruction. Our Hero, or anti-hero, Townrow, is living in England and manages a fund which gives money to deserving causes. Townrow, we learn later, is skimming money from the fund and feeling no remorse about it. He receives a letter from an old friend in Egypt where he was stationed during his years in the service. Mrs. Khoury writes that her husband has died - she suspects he was murdered - and would Townrow come and help her get things in order if she pays for his ticket.
Townrow agrees and off we go! This is where the fictional deconstruction starts. Is Townrow after her money? Is he English or Irish? People along the way call him by different names. Major this or Sergeant that. What exactly was is history in Egypt?
Townrow has a habit of reliving the past again and again in his mind and this is thrown in to the mix muddying the waters. On top of that he is brutally attacked and receives a vicious head injury. Questions lead to more and more questions.

All this is set against the backdrop of Nassar's Egypt in 1956 when the country nationalized the Suez Canal and Britain, France and Israel answered with force.

For me, the deconstruction of the usual advantages of knowing
time, place and identity leave us with a stripped down character of Townrow - with passed uncertain, loyalties uncertain, questionable character and future unclear and no personal relationships - does a man have "Something to Answer For"? It forces the reader to rethink what is truly important to one and where to take a stand and why.

I enjoyed this novel and recommend it to those who want a literary challenge that keeps you thinking long after finishing it. As we all know, writers go in and out of fashion to be rediscovered at a later time. I wonder if this intelligent and thought-provoking writer is due for a resurgence soon.
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on 30 September 2011
P.H.Newby is not an author that is well known and I only came across this book because it was the first Booker prize winner.

Set against the backdrop of the Suez Crisis, the story centres on Townrow, an ex-army NCO and manager of a small charity from which we discover he has embezzled funds. He makes his way back to Egypt, where he was based in the army to discover more about the death of a friend, Elie Khoury, and to persuade his widow to make him her beneficiary. Along the way he falls for a married woman, Leah and is obsessed by her. The story is written from a very tight point of view, verging in places to stream of consciousness. This makes it a challenging read and Townrow an unreliable narrator. We are never entirely clear about his identity, his background or his motives. This gives the story an enigmatic feel.

Having read it I remain unclear as to whether this is a study in madness or a story focused on the minutiae of thought. There are some powerful scenes and some almost schizophrenic moments, for example Townrow seems oblivious to the fighting in the streets, but then concerned about less threatening environments.

An unusual and interesting read.
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on 20 July 2013
Imagine the trauma of not being too sure who you are, what your personal history is, even what your nationality is, with your own brain rather unhelpfully filling in the blanks with anything that makes some sort of sense but is almost certainly not true, although some of it might be. Against those shifting sands of what is and is not real about you, place yourself in the midst of a country in chaos including suffering its own identity crisis. As a reader, your awareness of the lack of dependability of the specifics as presented grows as the story progresses. At first you accept the point of view of the protagonist without question - as you do - but gradually the plot unravels as it thickens until eventually you find yourself suffering a thoroughly uncomfortable mental vertigo.

Something to Answer For is a cleverly written piece of work, with a quality that kept me reading to the last page despite the discomfort and - strangely - anger, that it provoked in me. Even more strangely, it was the protagonist who was making me angry, not the author, and the ability to evoke that emotional response to a non-sympathetic fictional character is probably one of the reasons this book was a prize-winner. Thank you to Faber & Faber for reprinting it.
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VINE VOICEon 29 May 2012
Like other reviewers, this novel is, for me, part of a Booker Prize pilgrimage, although I was surprised to find when I saw the list of winners that I had already read fifteen of them. Having read the other reviews here, I was expecting to need a lot of patience but instead found the book engrossing throughout. I think that the main reason was that I like stories that keep throwing up uncertainties and new questions. In that respect it reminded me of the 1966 film 'Blow Up' which is punctuated by cryptic events.

At the centre of this is the central character, Townrow, to whose viewpoint the author sticks. Townrow is a mass of contradictions and mysteries; one moment, for example, he comes across as generous, at another self-serving. He arrives in Egypt on the cusp of the Suez crisis, apparently to support the widow of an old friend, but the integrity of his motives is always in question, as is the true nature of his nationality. If there was one big complaint for me it was the choice of the name Townrow which I frequently read initially as the word 'tomorrow'. Otherwise, however, I found it a very satisfying read.
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on 12 September 2013
It starts fine and finishes fine, but meanders around in circles in the middle.

Which reflects Townrow's, the hero, state as he gets smacked on the head and nearly killed after which he has trouble figuring out what he is doing, why he is doing it, where he is from and who he actually is. He has memories which he thinks may be from the future, or perhaps other peoples'.

He's confused.

The writing is never confused, though. It is really well written, a pleasure to read.

When Townrow is stumbling about in his dis-orientated state Newby manages to give a convincing example of how a down-and-out can become marginalised and abandoned. Townrow is only saved through the obligatory, but confusing, love of a good woman.

All this to a background of the Suez Crises and gun-running to Cyprus.
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on 27 November 2015
I liked this novel more for the descriptions of Egypt than for the actual story.
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on 4 March 2009
The order was dispatched and delivered fast, the book arrived in perfect state, all shiny :-) Thanx!
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