Alice Munro's first book

Alice Munro’s first book

Now that the Nobel Prize – congratulations to Alice Munro but, as I almost never read short stories, I am afraid that I have not read her nor do I have plans to do so – and German Book Prize – congratulations to Terézia Mora, whom I hope to read soon – are out of the way, we can now focus on the Man Booker Prize, which will be announced next Tuesday (15 October). I have now read all six shortlisted books and have made my pick. I should point out that, invariably, when I pick a winner of a literary prize, that person does not win, so my apologies to the one that I do pick.

Here are the contenders (alphabetical order by last name):

NoViolet Bulawayo: We Need New Names. A fascinating novel about life in Zimbabwe as told by a ten year old girl, and her subsequent life in Michigan and how she compares the two.
Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries. A long book set in a Victorian-era New Zealand gold mining town, with a complicated plot about the death of a loner who is found to have a stash of gold hidden in his hut, the rapid sale of his assets, the unexpected appearance of a woman claiming to be his widow as well as other events such as the apparent attempted suicide of a local prostitute and the disappearance of the most successful gold digger.
Jim Crace: Harvest. Another historical novel, this one set in an unnamed village somewhere in England, at the time of the enclosure of the common land, with witchcraft, murder and brutality the order of the day.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. This is the tale of two brothers, one who becomes involved in politics and is murdered by the police, while the other goes to the US to continue his studies but comes back to marry his brother’s widow.
Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. As the title implies, it is about time and memory but it is also about environmental responsibility, finding our place in the world, not to mention quantum physics and 9/11.
Colm Tóibín: The Testament of Mary. This is a short novel about the Virgin Mary, but humanised, more of a mother than a divine figure and, twenty years after the death of her son, still bitter about those that led him on and made him a divine figure.

Lahiri's first novel is better

Lahiri’s first novel is better

Three of the novels are second novels – the Catton, Lahiri and Ozeki – though Lahiri and Ozeki have both published short story collections in between their two novels. Second novels are notorious for being difficult for writers. I think, with Catton and Lahiri, their first books were superior, though neither even made the shortlist for them so maybe they are getting their reward, at least in part, for their previous works. Tóibín has been nominated twice before but never won and it has been suggested that this nomination is a reward for a career, not specifically for this book, not least because, according to the rules, the prize should be awarded to a full-length novel, and this novel is only 112 pages. If it did win, it would be the shortest ever winner. Bulawayo’s novel is good but it is a first novel.

What should win

My favourite of the six is Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. It is mature, complex, full of interesting ideas and superbly well told. All the others have flaws which this one does not.

What will probably win

I think that the winner will be Jim Crace: Harvest. It would be my second choice. Crace is the only real Brit of the six and has announced that this is his last novel. A ManBooker Prize would be a fineswansong for him and, of course, a fine swansong for the last non-US ManBooker Prize. But bear in mind my caveat at the top.