The winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize will be announced on Tuesday. James Bradley, Australia’s critic of the year, runs the rule over the six novels in contention
ACOUPLE of weeks ago the chairman of this year’s Man Booker Prize, TLS editor Peter Stothard, set the horses of online outrage running by declaring book blogging was killing literature. The reaction was swift. Online forums were besieged by readers and writers incensed by Stothard’s remarks. On Twitter people carped about ‘‘ literary snobbery’’, calling Stothard an ‘‘ asshole’’ and declaring they’d rather read reader reviews than wade through a ‘‘ TLS snorefest’’, thereby creating space for more nuanced voices to explore the thinking behind the remarks, and what they had to say about the changing face of reading and writing.
It was all terrific fun, of course, a textbook exercise in the sort of storm in a teacup the media thrives on. Yet in a way what was really surprising about the spat wasn’t that it happened — after all, what’s the Booker without a bit of biff — but that it was so mild, especially compared with the unedifying slanging match that erupted last year after the chairwoman of the judges’ panel, Stella Rimington, said they’d emphasised ‘‘ readability’’ and books that ‘‘ zipped along’’.
It’s possible the remarkably uncontroversial lead-up to this year’s prize is a deliberate strategy to reposition it after last year’s unpleasantness: certainly the judges (mostly academics and critics, along with Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens, who studied English literature at Cambridge) have steered away from headline-grabbing pronouncements or reflections on the state of literature.
But as critic Alex Clark has pointed out, it probably also says something about the surprisingly old-fashioned approach the judges took to their task, the emphasis on what Stothard describes as books distinguished by ‘‘ the power and depth of prose’’ and ‘‘ likely to last and to repay future re-reading’’.
Of the six books shortlisted the big hitter is obviously Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Booker Prize-winner, Wolf Hall and the second of a planned trilogy of novels based on the life of Henry VIII’s chief minister and architect of the English Reformation, Thomas Cromwell.
Wolf Hall focused on the rise of Cromwell, tracing the events that led him from humble beginnings in Putney to the heart of power, a journey spanning 50 years that saw him engineer the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine, the break with Rome and the execution of Thomas More in pursuit of the king’s passion for Anne Boleyn.
Bring Up the Bodies, picks up almost exactly where Wolf Hall left off, is more confined in its scope, focusing on the nine months between September 1535 and the visit to the Seymour house in Wiltshire that is foreshadowed on Wolf Hall’s final page, and Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour in May 1536, a period dominated by the trial and execution of Anne.
Like Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies is startling and startlingly good, distinguished not just by the brilliance of the writing but by the extraordinary density and intelligence of its observation of the world it inhabits. Arresting images are everywhere, from the description of Henry as looking ‘‘ stunned, like a veal-calf knocked on the head by the butcher’’ in Jane’s presence to the final and oddly shocking description of Anne’s execution, the way her headless body ‘‘ exsanguinates, and its flat little presence becomes a puddle of gore’’.
Yet its narrower focus also gives it an intensity and resonance its predecessor occasionally lacked, and which perfectly suits the story at its centre. There is something more than a little discomfiting about the deliberate manner in which Cromwell, a character with whom the reader has been forced into complicity, arranges and carries out the execution of Anne and her fellow conspirators, and an uneasy, Shakespearean quality to Mantel’s portrait of the increasingly wilful king and his efficient and brutal enabler.
It’s interesting to contrast the scale and ambition of Bring Up the Bodies with the much more confined territory explored by two of the lesser-known writers on the shortlist, Deborah Levy and Alison Moore, both of whose novels clock in at well under 200 pages yet are distinguished not just by curiously similar subjects (holidays abroad disrupted by unexpected intrusions of violence) but by an awareness of the power of language and image to disturb our assumptions of safety.
Levy’s novel, Swimming Home, opens at midnight on a mountain road in the south of France in July 1994. A girl, Kitty Finch, takes her hand off the steering wheel of a moving car and tells an unidentified man she loves him, the action leaving him uncertain whether ‘‘ she was threatening him or having a conversation’’. The scene is brief but unsettling, shot through with regret and a sense of the way we are bound to the past. As the man thinks, looking out the window, ‘‘ early humans ... once lived in this forest that was now a road’’.
A page later it loops back in time to the appearance of Kitty in the swimming pool of the villa poet Joe Jacobs, his wife, war correspondent Isabel, and their daughter, Nina, 14, share with overweight antiques dealer Mitchell and his wife, Laura. At first nobody is clear what she is — ‘‘ is it a bear?’’ Joe asks in a moment of confusion that recurs, tragically transfigured, in the book’s final pages — an uncertainty that is not fully resolved even once she has emerged, naked, from the water.
Yet as becomes clear when Isabel invites her to stay, Kitty’s appearance in their pool is no coincidence. Having been institutionalised and medicated with an antidepressant she has recently given up, she is fascinated with Joe and his work, claiming not just to be a fan but to be in ‘‘ nerve contact’’ with him.
Although Levy, who was born in South Africa and moved to England as a child, has written novels before, she is principally a playwright ( Swimming Home is her first novel in 15 years), a fact that perhaps explains the allusive and unsettling way the novel layers and repeats images and passages. Yet by the same token it often seems to skate on the edge of parody, presenting us with characters who are as much symbols as human beings (damaged war correspondent, crazy girl, ruined Holocaust survivor) and, as the novel’s deliberate invocation of the 1994 tragedy in
The Garden of Evening Mists
By Tan Twan Eng Myrmidon Books, 448pp, $29.99 By Deborah Levy Faber and Faber, 176pp, $19.99 By Hilary Mantel Fourth Estate, 600pp, $32.99 By Alison Moore Canongate, 196pp, $19.99 By Will Self Bloomsbury, 397pp, $27.99 By Jeet Thayil Faber and Faber, 286pp, $29.99 Rwanda suggests, deliberately collapsing personal and historical trauma in a manner that lends the former a seriousness it doesn’t necessarily deserve.
Like Swimming Home, English writer Moore’s debut novel The Lighthouse takes place during an overseas holiday, this time in Germany, where the novel’s protagonist, Futh, has arranged a walking tour.
For the middle-aged and recently divorced Futh, the holiday is an opportunity to get away and lick his wounds, a chance for ‘‘ a week of walking and fresh air and sunshine, a week of good sausage and deep sleep’’. Yet as quickly becomes apparent, the holiday is also more than that, its itinerary conjuring memories not just of his disrupted childhood and his parents’ dissolving marriage but also earlier journeys with his German father and their life together in the years after his mother’s departure.
Yet The Lighthouse is not simply a novel of memory. On Futh’s first night in Germany he stays in a guesthouse run by the mismatched Ester and Bernard, unwittingly inserting himself into their private drama of resentment and casual infidelity and setting in train the tragic events of the novel’s climax.
Rather like Swimming Home, The Lighthouse is a book powered by the complex interplay between the mysteries of the past and the steadily heightening tension of the present. Yet where Swimming Home suffers from a degree of overreach The Lighthouse is a much more poised creation, grounded not just by the tensile power of Moore’s writing but by a dark and often unsettling sense of humour.
Humour is one quality notably missing from Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng’s intelligent and worthy but somewhat too deliberate exploration of the relationship between Yun Ling Teoh, a Malaysian Chinese woman scarred by her experiences in an internment camp, and exiled Japanese gardener Nakamura Aritomo in the aftermath of World War II, in The Garden of Evening Mists.
Like Tan’s first novel The Gift of Rain, which was long-listed for the Booker in 2007, The Garden of Evening Mists interweaves past and present, moving between Yun Ling’s return to the plantation after her retirement and her memories of her time as Aritomo’s apprentice in 1951, an experience that takes place against