C – Tom McCarthy

Short listed for 2010 Booker Prize

C begins in 1898 with the birth of Serge Carrefax on an estate in Southern England. Serge’s father runs a school for deaf children, but also has a passion for radio communication. This leads Serge to become a wireless radio operator, initially working on spotter planes in WWI and after the war on an archaeological dig in Egypt.

The book initially felt like a piece of historical fiction, but it quickly became much more than that. The text contained layers of philosophy and symbolism that added to the richness of the story, but also left me feeling as though I was constantly missing out on relevant snippets of information.

The book was packed with fascinating details about everything from radio communication to silk production:

The transmitter itself is made of standard brass, a four inch tapper arm keeping Serge’s finger a safe distance from the spark gap. The spark gap flashes blue each time he taps; it makes a spitting noise, so loud he’s had to build a silence box around his desk to isolate his little RX station from the sleeping household – or, as it becomes more obvious to him with every session, to maintain the household’s fantasy of isolation from the vast sea of transmission roaring all around it.

I loved most of these details, but there were times when I felt that too many were included and the book lost its emotional connection to me.

The plot was quite simple and easy to read on a sentence-by-sentence level, but there were points when I completely lost interest – it was a real chore to read some of the chapters. Luckily the book always seemed to pick up again and I was especially impressed by the WWI section – the descriptions of life in a spotter plane were particularly vivid.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book, but I think fans of literary fiction who like re-reading/studying books will love discovering all those extra layers of symbolism. For this reason I think it has a very high chance of winning the Booker prize, but then yesterday I was saying David Mitchell would win – so what do I know?!!

Literary blogs love this book:

C is the best novel I’ve read in a long time… Biblioklept

It teems with relevance and reference… Asylum

….but I could not help feeling that academics would be paying a lot more attention to this novel than most readers do. Kevin From Canada

…the multiple ideas and the play go on throughout the book and tie together with satisfying insights. The Mookse and the Gripes

Send to Kindle


  1. Thanks for the review. I had heard of the book and was somewhat interested. After your review, that opinion hasn’t changed.

    It happens to me sometimes that I wonder if I’m missing something when the story takes an unexpected turn. Or that I think I should pay good attention to a particular part because it sounds important in the book (but then I don’t understand it totally). I don’t like that! But still, the book sounds good, so if it gets anywhere near me, I’ll probably read it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Judith, I read a few reviews for C this morning and that confirmed how many literary references/jokes I failed to spot when reading this book. I hope that you decide to pick this one up at some point as I look forward to reading your thoughts on it.

  2. I’m another literary blogger who loved it, although ‘loved’ isn’t really the right word. Like you I found myself lost at moments, even bored in others, but am prepared to admit that this is as much my fault as his. Academics will certainly be able to unravel more from the book with further study but ordinary readers too I think will be rewarded when reading again. For that reason, having made the cut, I think it’s in with a chance for the prize. I certainly respect that McCarthy is trying to do something interesting with his writing. Something bold, clever and thoughtful; he demands attention.


    1. Jackie says:

      William Rycroft, The problem is that I’m not a re-reader. I had to re-read certain sections of this book, but it annoyed me to have to do so. I don’t like my reading to be like studying so although I admire what he has done and can see why others will love it – it wont be anywhere near the top of my ‘best of 2010’ list.

      1. I’m not much of a re-reader either, if I’m honest Jackie, although there was an amazing write up in the LRB that almost tempted me to straight away

        1. Jackie says:

          William, Wow! That is a detailed write up! I’d hate knowing that much before I read a book. I like a book to surprise me and capture my emotions – I can’t do that if I know so many tiny details in advance. It was an interesting read now I’ve read the book though – thanks for drawing it to my attention.

  3. Sandy says:

    Yay! The last book done! I love WWI almost as much as I love WWII, so this one has potential. Personally, I think nobody really knows what the judges of the Booker are thinking. Half the time it doesn’t make much sense.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, It is nice to have finished :-) Unfortunately only a small section of this book is set in WWI so although I think you’ll love that section I think you’d find a lot of the rest tedious :-(

  4. Stujallen says:

    i m goijng read this in next week or two looking forward to it ,it does seem popular with the main lit bloggers ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, I look forward to comparing notes :-)

  5. S. Krishna says:

    Sounds interesting. This is on my TBR list since it was shortlisted, so hopefully I can get to it soon. Thanks for the review!

    1. Jackie says:

      S. Krishna, I hope that you enjoy it. I look forward to comparing notes :-)

  6. Steph says:

    I’ve read Remainder by Tom McCarthy and felt sort of how you describe here – there were times where I just wanted things to move along so the book could be over, but overall I did find that book was an interesting thought experiment even if it didn’t fully end up working for me. I do intend to read this at some point, I just don’t know when!

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, I enjoyed C enough to consider reading Remainder, but I’m not going to rush out to buy it – hopefully I’ll bump into a copy by chance one day. I hope you enjoy C if you decide to read it.

      1. BooksPlease says:

        Remainder is a fascinating, but also a tedious book. It started off well for me and I was interested because it explores the nature of memory, identity, human nature and behaviour. Then it moved into realms of fantasy, but dull, banal fantasy and became increasingly boring. You wouldn’t have to re-read any of it because he repeats the same events over and over again.

        I don’t know if I could bear to read another McCarthy book.

        1. Jackie says:

          BooksPlease, C doesn’t suffer from repitition, but it does get a bit dull in places. It sounds as though the two books are quite different, but if you didn’t enjoy his experimental style then you might be best to avoid this one. ;-)

  7. Love ’em or hate ’em: prize lists are brilliant for adding to the TBR stacks. I’d never taken note of Tom McCarthy’s novels before and they do sound interesting indeed.

    1. Jackie says:

      BuriedInPrint, I hadn’t heard of Tom McCarthy until his Booker long list inclusion. I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more about him in the future :-)

  8. Amy says:

    This sounds interesting but not fascinating, if that makes sense. Like, sounds interesting but I won’t be rushing out to get it :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, I know exactly what you mean as that is how I feel about Remainder. Vaguely interested, but not very excited. :-)

  9. I just started this one, and I’m really enjoying it so far, although it’s obviously too close to tell. I am finding myself reading more slowly and carefully than usual, even in the beginning. I’m looking forward to several hours with this one tonight!

    1. Jackie says:

      Carrie, I’m sure that you’ll love it. Keep an eye out for all those literary jokes and let me know when you spot them!

  10. What does anyone know when it comes to the Booker? I know I won’t even get the shortlist finished, so I know that any plan of mine to add this to the neverending pile of ‘must reads’ will be futile. But maybe there’s a little chance I will get this read.

    1. Jackie says:

      Susi, I don’t think the entire short list will be to anyones taste so I think it is a good idea to pick and chose which to read. I hope you decide to read this one as it would be good to compare notes.

  11. I’m really looking forward to reading this and may -for that reason- leave it as my last of the shortlist, hopefully ending on a high point. As an aside: don’t you agree that it is a beautifully presented book? I love the clear dust-jacket.

    I thought that this and the Mitchell had the best chances of winning but now that Room is on the shortlist I think it may win.

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, I love the dust jacket :-) I was admiring the way the author photo was placed as you can’t see it in some places. I think it is my cover of the year (after the David Mitchell proof!)

      I saved this one until last for the same reason as you. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

      I would love Room to win, but I can’t imagine such a readable book making it. I think C has a very strong chance – I think it is the only book that will improve greatly on each re-read. If I had to place a bet I’d put money on C, but it is such a close field that any of them could win and I wouldn’t be surprised.

  12. Tomcat says:

    My blog loves this book! :)
    Great to see McCarthy finally getting the attention he deserves.
    It must, MUST win, it’s lightyears ahead of every other nominee.


    1. Jackie says:

      Tomcat, I’m not sure I’d say it was lightyears ahead, but he is certainly pushing the boundaries. I’m afraid that I prefer more conventional books, but I would be very happy to see it win.

      1. tomcat says:

        Ah, you see; I’m really dorkishly into post-structuralism and modoernist modes of though, and nobody is writing such theoretically advanced or competant fiction as McCarthy is at the moment.

  13. Kathleen says:

    This one is best left for me to read when I can focus, be still, and enjoy all of those little details.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathleen, Yes. Not one for reading on a noisy train!

  14. Haven’t read this one, although I do have it checked out from the library. I’m kind-of exhausted with the Booker reading, so am half-tempted to return it without reading it. Your review is making me re-think that though, coupled with the fact that it’s on the shortlist.


    1. Jackie says:

      anothercookiecrumbles, Sorry to complicate your life :-) I do hope that you decide to read it before you return it to the library – I’d love to compare notes.

  15. Stephanie says:

    This does sound fascinating — good for when someone is in the mood for a slow, studious read.

    1. Jackie says:

      Stephanie, Exactly. Anyone who enjoys studying books will love this one :-)

  16. Dan Holloway says:

    Interesting what you say about the emotional connection being missing. That was oneof the things that turned me off McCarthy’s Remainder. I don’t recall it being a problem at all with Men in Space. I just can’t wait to start C – but it’s one of those I keep putting off starting because I don’t want it to be over.

    Glad you enjoyed it :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Dan, Its interesting to know that the emotional connection is missing from Remainder too. I haven’t seen any other reviews that mention that.

      I’m sure you’ll enjoy C, but don’t build it up too much ;-)

  17. Matt says:

    Critics are rooted for Peter Carey but I wasn’t very keen on Oliver book. C seems to get more of my attention. I have it on my nightstand and hope to get to it this weekend.

    1. Jackie says:

      Matt, I think C has a much better chance of winning that P&O, but I didn’t see why P&O was so special, so perhaps I’m not the best person to judge :-) I look forward to reading your thoughts on C – enjoy!

  18. I’m really attracted to the idea of this book, and I have to make sure to read it – whether it wins the Booker or not! I’m curious to see if the layers of symbolism are held up by a more personal narrative.

    1. Jackie says:

      Lija, I think it works in places, but not in others. I look forward to finding out if you agree with me :-)


  1. The 2010 Man Booker Prize Short List – Farm Lane Books Blog
  2. Which Books Will Make it onto the 2010 Booker Short List? – Farm Lane Books Blog
  3. September Summary and Plans for October – Farm Lane Books Blog
  4. Who will win the 2010 Booker Prize? – Farm Lane Books Blog

Leave a Reply to Claire (Paperback Reader)