For the first (and probably last) time ever, I have managed to read all the books on Man Booker shortlist and, amazingly, read them before the winner is announced. I have not done so before because, frankly, they did not seem worthwhile. I have not, for example, read any of the books on last year’s list and, with the possible exception of the Barnes, it is highly unlikely that I will. I did manage two from the previous year and I may read one or two more (but not the winner). A quick look at previous years generally shows two-three that I have read or might yet read though the 2007 list looks pretty good.
So what was special about this year? Last year, the chief judge, Dame Stella Rimington, famously said that readability was going to be the main criterion for the long- and shortlist choice. This caused something of a furore, not least because no-one was entirely sure what readability meant. Jeanette Winterson criticised this idea much better than I could with her damning take on Rimington’s own work as painting-by-numbers. I have no idea how the judges make their choices but I have no doubt that they, probably prodded by the Man Booker staff, do feel that they have to make some concession to popular taste. But this, year, to their credit, they got a professional in to chair the judges – Sir Peter Stothard editor of the best literary review, the Times Literary Supplement. When I saw the longlist for this year I was pleasantly surprised. Naturally, I had not heard of all the authors on the list but those I had heard of (with one exception) looked interesting and a quick look at the others showed that, for once, they all looked promising.
However, what was most interesting was what was excluded. Here is a list of books that we might have expected to see on the list but did not (alphabetical order by author last name):
- Martin Amis‘s Lionel Asbo. Thank God they excluded this rubbish. No, I haven’t read it but then nor have I read Fifty Shades of Grey or any of the Twilight novels and I still consider them rubbish.
- John Banville‘s Ancient Lights. As I have mentioned on my site, I have run out of steam with Banville. Maybe others have as well.
- Pat Barker‘s Toby’s Room. Another book by a well-known writer that was something of a disappointment.
- Peter Carey‘s The Chemistry of Tears. I was very disappointed with this but then he might have got on the list because of his reputation.
- Kishwar Desai’s Origins of Love. Well you have got to have an Indian on the list, haven’t you? Yes, we already have one but there are a lot more of them than us so it is likely that they will have produced at least two worthwhile novels during the year. This may be the second one but it did not make it.
- Kirsty Gunn‘s The Big Music. A first novel but a big novel, an ambitious novel. I thought it was a failure but a magnificent failure and one worthy of consideration.
- I. J. Kay’s Mountains of the Moon. A first novel but it got some good reviews and looked interesting.
- John Lanchester‘s Capital. I enjoyed this novel and it would certainly have met Dame Stella’s readability criterion. It would have made it last year but obviously the judges felt it was not literary enough for this year.
- Ian McEwan‘s Sweet Tooth. Another novel by a big name which was a huge disappointment. Glad they did not include this one.
- Timothy Mo’s Pure. Another writer I used to enjoy but have lost touch with. He seems to have slipped down the ladder somewhat.
- Lawrence Norfolk‘s John Saturnall’s Feast. I have lost touch with Norfolk but this one did not seem to wow the punters.
- Keith Ridgway‘s Hawthorn & Child. I liked his earlier novels but this one really did not work for me and, I believe, for many others.
- Zadie Smith‘s NW. I thought that this was pretty good, even if not of the standard of White Teeth but clearly the judges did not.
- Rose Tremain’s Merivel. I have never read Tremain so I really have nothing to say about this.
- Alan Warner‘s The Deadman’s Pedal. Another one I haven’t read and I am not sure that I will. It had decidedly mixed reviews.
There are probably several others that I have missed but that should cover the main ones.
So here is my take on this year’s list. First, a few statistics.
- Three men and three women. Coincidence or political correctness?
- Three independent publishers. That’s good.
- Two former(?) junkies
- Two first-time novelists and one second-time novelist, though all have published other stuff before.
- One previous winner
- Three former longlisted authors (Mantel, Self and Tan)
- Three non-UK born authors
- All three UK-born authors are English. Not good.
What does that prove? Nothing.
It is in alphabetical order by author’s last name. Interestingly (or perhaps not), the first in alphabetical order begins with the letter L. Links to the book link to my review of the book on my website.
Deborah Levy: Swimming Home
I loved this book. It was deceptively simple but brilliantly conceived and executed with what was not said as important as what was said and with undercurrents of tension and menace, which burst out at the end but not necessarily in the way we might have expected. Dreams and vision, insanity and, as Levy herself has put it, sorrow – sorrow at the loss of what might have been. You will never want to rent a villa in France after reading this.
Hilary Mantel: Bring up the Bodies
It really is another excellent book from Hilary Mantel, proving, if proof were needed, that she is one of our best writers, if not the best. This was the only shortlisted book I read before the long list was announced. But she won two years ago with the previous book in the series so can she win again? I suspect not, even though this book is certainly one of the best of the year. And what will they do when the third in the series comes out?
Alison Moore: The Lighthouse
This was probably the big surprise as no-one, least of all the author, expected this book to make the short list. It is a well told and well written story but, as I said in my review, I am not sure that it is Booker winning material. It seems rather 1950s in flavour, which is not necessarily a sin but, compared to the other five, which all seem pretty much of their time, this does seem less so. But then that may be its charm. Downton Abbey is not of its time and it does well and one of the judges is the star of of that series.
Will Self: Umbrella
I must admit that I did not really take to this novel. It was too overtly and, in my view, unnecessarily modernist for my taste. The idea behind it – encephalitis lethargica, how it affected so many people, how it was not properly recognised and therefore not properly treated – was certainly an interesting one but the stream of consciousness, the mixing of the different voices and the disjointed fragments made it a difficult read and one that I felt was not really worth my while. But will the judges share my view? I know that some reviewers certainly do.
Tan Twan Eng: The Garden of Evening Mists
Tan has written two superb books about Malaysia, of which this is the better one (the previous one was longlisted for the Man Booker in 2007). Remembering and forgetting, the war, art, colonialism, race relations – all are grist to Tan’s mill. How do we cope with someone we admire greatly but who we associate with evil deeds? This issue comes up in both his novels and he handles it superbly. This one could be a winner.
Jeet Thayil: Narcopolis
Thayil does Bombay the way Bombay is not normally done in novels. Drugs are the key to novel as the title makes very clear and Burroughs is the guiding light as we follow the story of a low key narrator, a eunuch, a man who has driven from China to Bombay to escape communism, the bad boy of Indian art and the owner of a drug den, as they move from opium to heroin and struggle with the drugs and struggle with life. Not a big plot but lots of colour and lots of character.
Six interesting books for the judges to choose from but who will they pick? I really do not think that Hilary Mantel will get it again and so soon and for a follow-up to her previous one. I do not think that Narcopolis or The Lighthouse, excellent books though they are, are quite up to the required quality. I very much feel feel and hope that the Man Booker judges do too that Umbrella is too overblown, too self-consciously modernist and too unreadable to win. Which leaves us with Swimming Home and The Garden of Evening Mists. I marginally prefer The Garden of Evening Mists but would certainly not be disappointed if Swimming Home were to win. We will have to wait till 16 October to see if the judges agree.
The Guardian has all six authors talking about their books.