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Granta 123: Best of Young Bri­tish Nov­el­ists 4

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Bradley

Edited by John Free­man Granta Pub­li­ca­tions, 399pp, $27.99

IN a re­cent piece for The Guardian, for­mer Granta edi­tor Bill Bu­ford was dis­arm­ingly up­front about the ori­gins of the mag­a­zine’s Best Young Bri­tish Nov­el­ists is­sues, which de­buted in 1983. The idea wasn’t his but that of the head of the now de­funct Bri­tish Book Mar­ket­ing Coun­cil, Des­mond Clarke, who came up with the list as a means of pro­mot­ing Bri­tish writ­ing.

Nor was it con­ceived of as Granta’s list: that only hap­pened af­ter Bu­ford ap­proached Clarke, sug­gest­ing the mag­a­zine might be in­ter­ested in run­ning an is­sue show­cas­ing the writ­ers cho­sen.

That de­but list is usu­ally cred­ited with hav­ing helped turn the gen­eral creative ex­cite­ment sur­round­ing the novel in the early 1980s into some­thing more co­her­ent: a gen­er­a­tional trans­for­ma­tion, per­haps.

That’s de­bat­able, but there’s no doubt that 1983 list was pre­scient. De­spite a few mis­fires (Alan Judd or Clive Sin­clair, any­body?), choices such as Martin Amis, Ju­lian Barnes, Sal­man Rushdie, Pat Barker and Kazuo Ishig­uro have stood the test of time.

Three decades later, Best of Young Bri­tish Nov­el­ists is some­thing of an in­sti­tu­tion. The lat­est list, the fourth, is show­cased in the new is­sue of Granta. It was com­piled by the mag­a­zine’s edi­tor John Free­man, pub­lisher Si­grid Raus­ing and deputy pub­lisher Ellah All­frey, along with The Tele­graph’s lit­er­ary edi­tor Gaby Wood, nov­el­ists Romesh Gune­sek­era and AL Kennedy (an alum­nus of the 1993 and 2003 lists) and The Scots­man’s lit­er­ary critic Stu­art Kelly.

Free­man, who has since an­nounced he is leav­ing the mag­a­zine amid a re­struc­ture, writes in his in­tro­duc­tion that the list ar­rives with ‘‘ the news­pa­pery whiff of zeit­geist pre­dic­tion and so­cio-lit­er­ary im­por­tance’’.

All such lists ex­hibit a ten­sion be­tween achieve­ment and a rather more neb­u­lous as­sess­ment of the like­li­hood of fu­ture suc­cess. Some­times, as with Zadie Smith, one of the most in­tel­li­gent writ­ers of her gen­er­a­tion, that’s a no-brainer. Even so, the piece in­cluded in this col­lec­tion seems an oddly back­ward-look­ing choice, more sug­ges­tive of the thick re­al­ism of her de­but novel, White Teeth, than the pel­lu­cid ob­ser­va­tion of her most re­cent one, NW.

Adam Foulds must also have been an easy choice: his in­cred­i­bly poised Book­er­short­listed novel about John Clare and the Ten­nysons, The Quick­en­ing Maze, is dis­tin­guished by a deep aware­ness of the in­can­ta­tory power of lan­guage and a vivid sense of the lived pres­ence of the land­scape.

The same can be said for Sarah Hall, a writer whose lin­guis­tic cer­tainty and trou­bled vi­sion was on vivid dis­play in her 2002 de­but, Haweswa­ter, and has deep­ened in fol­low-ups The Carhul­lian Army and How to Paint a Dead Man, and Ross Raisin, whose strik­ing de­but, God’s Own Coun­try, re­vealed an eerie ca­pac­ity to in­habit its nar­ra­tor’s trou­bled mind.

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