SE­RI­OUS READ­ING

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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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