Solo by Rana Dasgupta

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  Winner of 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize

The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize is my favourite book award and so I’m very pleased that it lived up to my expectations and provided me with another wonderful book that I wouldn’t have discovered without it.

Solo is set in Bulgaria and as I love science I was very excited to see that the central character is a chemist. Now a blind, old man, he reflects upon how much has changed over the course of his life and explains the difficult situations he faced over the years.

I knew very little about the history of Bulgaria before reading this book and it was nice to find out so much about this country’s difficult past. The combination of both European and Asian ancestry, and the struggle against communism makes me wonder why I haven’t read more fiction set in this fascinating country before.

The book was very well written and successfully managed to combine science with literature – a feat few authors can manage without patronising readers with a scientific background or going over the heads of those that don’t.

I loved the first half of this book which followed the chemist’s life in a fairly linear fashion. He was such an endearing, slightly grumpy character, but packed with the wisdom of a long and complicated life.

He switches on his television for a bit of sound to eat his beans by. He is irritated by the weather programmes that come on the international channels. Ignorant people judging the world’s weather. In that place it will be a nice day because there is pure sunshine. They estimate a nice day as when you can sit outside in sunglasses and drink coffee that no normal person can afford. Their minds cannot consider that a place is full of people cursing because there is no rain.

I found the second half much less enjoyable. It consisted of “daydreams” which could otherwise be described as a collection of short stories. The writing quality remained high, but I lost that emotional attachment to the chemist, so it felt a bit disconnected.

Overall this is a wonderful book. I recommend it to all lovers of literary fiction, if only so you learn a bit about Bulgarian history.


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27 Comments

  1. Amy says:

    The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize is my favorite as well. I’ve been reading a lot of the Best First Books from Africa lately and absolutely adoring all of them. It makes me know I want to find more of the winners of this prize.

    This book sounds good, but like you, the first half sounds better. And I don’t think I’ve read anything to date set in Bulgaria either… hmm… I must rectify that :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, I really should read more of the Commonwealth short list. I loved We Do Not Come To You By Chance earlier this year and I’m sure the rest are equally good.

      I think I need to do some research on books set in Bulgaria!

  2. sakura says:

    I’m a fan of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize too. And I have this book on my TBR. I suppose I should bump it up:) And like you, I love a bit of science/scientist in my fiction.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sakura, If you like science in your fiction then you should ensure you bump this up the pile – it is so nice when authors get it right :-)

  3. I’m so glad this has won as I really loved it. He is an author to watch, and his first book was wonderful too.

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, It is great to know that his first book is good too. I’m on the look out for it now :-) I agree that he is an author to watch – the quality of the writing was outstanding and I’m sure he’ll scoop up many more awards in the future.

  4. When I saw “endearing, slightly grumpy”, I immediately realized that that’s something that often draws me into a character: what is it about that combination that can work so well in fiction?! This sounds like one that I would enjoy: thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    1. Jackie says:

      BuriedInPrint, I think being a bit grumpy just makes them a bit more realistic. Having that extra dimension means that the characters have a bit of depth and believability. It also adds a bit of humor – all things that make a great book. I didn’t realise that I loved grumpy characters so much :-)

  5. Beth F says:

    Interesting that the first part and the last part were so different. I might give this one a try.

    1. Jackie says:

      Beth, I wish the second part had been like the first, but some people seem to love it just the way it is. Enjoy!

  6. Sandy says:

    I don’t believe I’ve ever read any books that have won this prize. I feel like an idiot! I will have to keep that list in mind, as I haven’t always had the best of luck with Pulitzers or Bookers.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I guarantee that you will have more success with the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize than the Bookers or Pulitzers – they tend to be easier to read. They are good stories, not just good writing. If you only read one then make it A Fine Balance – my favourite book of all time :-)

  7. stujallen says:

    I saw this a couple times at library ,also saw in had been shortlisted ,the bulgarian history sounds wonderful I like eastern european history hopefully may pick it up next time I see it in library all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, I’m sure you’ll love this one. I hope it is still sitting on that library shelf next time you go back in :-)

  8. I would recommend you one of the shortlisted books for 2009 Commonwealth Prize: Diary of Interrupted Days – http://www.dragantodorovic.com/
    “Dragan Todorovic’s novel explores how people hang onto their humanity in the insanity of war – and also how people attempt to construct new lives after such insanity has rocked them, how the state of exile encourages lies and false nostalgia and false patriotism.”

    1. Jackie says:

      CuriousBookFan, Thank you for the recommendation – it does sound great. I may even get round to reading all the shortlisted books at some point.

  9. mee says:

    This sounds good. It’s been my intention to read more books from Commonwealth Writers’ Prize too, but I guess I’m going a bit too slow!

    1. Jackie says:

      mee, There are so many great books on the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize list – I hope you read a few soon as it would be good to compare notes :-)

  10. Jessica says:

    I love books with historical settings so I’ll be adding this one to my list. My knowledge of Bulgaria is zich at the moment so It’ll be something new as well.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jessica, It is nice to learn something at the same time as being entertained. I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one :-)

  11. David H says:

    Ah, I’m glad you liked Solo, Jackie — it was one of my top three reads of last year. I think the best way to look at the second half is as a mirror of the first; I see it as Ulrich’s attempt to imagine a better life for his old friend than Ulrich had himself.

    1. Jackie says:

      David, I see the point of the second part, but I just didn’t enjoy it as much. It does have a special quality to it so I can see why you loved it so much – sometimes I wished I enjoyed short stories :-(

  12. softdrink says:

    While I’m not so keen on the science, the Bulgarian history definitely appeals to me!

    1. Jackie says:

      Softdrink, There isn’t an excessive amount of science so I’m sure the Bugarian history will make the book an enjoyable read for you.

  13. John Self says:

    Wouldn’t have heard of it without the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Jackie? You mean you didn’t see my review of it in March of last year…? ;-)

    (I also picked up his debut, Tokyo Cancelled, because I liked Solo.)

    1. Jackie says:

      John, From re-reading your review it looks as though you had a similar reaction to me. You didn’t rave about it and so I promtly forgot about the book :-( I tend to only take note of books if people get very excited by them.

      I am pleased that the CWP highlighted this book as although the second half didn’t interest me I love his writing and will try to get hold of Tokyo Cancelled at some point.

  14. S. Krishna says:

    This one is on my list to read. I’m going to have to check out the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, the only one I avidly follow right now is the Booker.

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