The Man Booker Prize short­list will be an­nounced next week. Booker short­listed nov­el­ist Philip Hen­sher con­sid­ers the 13 con­tenders and picks his win­ner

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THE Man Booker Prize has strong years and weak years. There have been ones when the judges have suc­ceeded in iden­ti­fy­ing what is most in­ter­est­ing in English-lan­guage fic­tion and oth­ers when the task has been com­pre­hen­sively flunked.

With writer Robert Mac­far­lane as chair­man, this year prom­ises to be very good; 2011, which was in fact a strong year for fic­tion, was widely agreed to be a catas­tro­phe; 2012, while an im­prove­ment, was dis­ap­point­ing in that it re­flected the con­ven­tional tastes of aca­demics.

This year’s longlist shows a con­fi­dent take on the di­rec­tion of the English-lan­guage novel. There are cer­tainly some sad omis­sions, in­clud­ing splen­did nov­els by Evie Wyld and Michael Arditti. It must be said, too, that the Booker of­ten prefers a mod­er­ately able tack­ling of a big theme over an exquisitely pol­ished and in­sight­ful do­mes­tic study. Nev­er­the­less, this is an am­bi­tious and thoughtful longlist and deserves ex­ten­sive in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

One in­ter­est­ing fea­ture is the judges’ will­ing­ness to stretch the qual­i­fi­ca­tion for the prize as far as pos­si­ble. In the­ory, Amer­i­can writ­ers are not el­i­gi­ble. In prac­tice, it is eas­ier for an Amer­i­can with some use­fully main­tained sec­ondary pass­port to be con­sid­ered than for an In­dian national.

On this longlist, I think Jhumpa Lahiri, NoVi­o­let Bu­l­awayo, Ruth Ozeki and Colum McCann are cus­tom­ar­ily res­i­dent in the US at the very least. How use­ful the ma­nip­u­la­tion of national and cul­tural iden­tity can be for a nov­el­ist is shown by the in­ter­est­ing case of Ozeki. She does not bear her fa­ther’s sur­name, Louns­bury, or her hus­band’s, Kell­ham­mer. Her nov­els have strong Ja­panese themes and read­ers should not, ap­par­ently, be asked to won­der what a Ruth Louns­bury is do­ing writ­ing about Ja­pan.

No Ben­gali would think of Lahiri as any­thing but an Amer­i­can nov­el­ist, ei­ther, and it seems comic now to give El­iz­a­beth Tshele, rechris­tened NoVi­o­let Bu­l­awayo, a prize for African writ­ers when she has lived and worked in the US for many years.

For pro­fes­sional pur­poses, such nov­el­ists bear a use­ful cross-cul­tural iden­tity; Amer­i­can for net­work­ing pur­poses, Ja­panese, Zim­bab­wean, Ir­ish or Ben­gali for PR pur­poses, but all vir­tu­ous Com­mon­wealth cit­i­zens as far as the Man Booker goes. And good luck to them. Per­son­ally, I think the prize ought to be open to Amer­i­can writ­ers rather than ex­tended in this piece­meal way. The sort of writer who leaves an African or Asian coun­try, does an Amer­i­can


creative writ­ing de­gree and then pub­lishes a novel from the se­cu­rity of an Amer­i­can univer­sity in ap­proved creative writ­ing style about the suf­fer­ing of their na­tive coun­try does not, in my view, al­ways rep­re­sent the best of Amer­i­can writ­ing to­day, or any­one else’s.

Bu­l­awayo’s We Need New Names has a live­li­ness of voice but suf­fers from a re­mote ten­dency to cover ev­ery im­por­tant sub­ject af­flict­ing the lives of its Zim­bab­wean slumd­wellers: child ex­or­cisms, NGO abuses, mob vi­o­lence against white Zim­bab­weans, and so on. Lahiri’s The Low­land is not bad in its Amer­i­can-air­port-best­seller style, but it is ex­traor­di­nar­ily re­mote and su­per­fi­cial in the Cal­cutta parts of its story and springs to ob­ser­vant life only in the Amer­i­can sec­tions.

I wish Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Be­ing were less of a con­ven­tional re­searcher’s-home­lifever­sus-in­ter­est­ing-textual-dis­cov­ery sort of novel, and still more that her kooky Ja­panese schoolgirl sounded less like an ab­ject Mu­rakami pas­tiche. Still, there are in­ter­est­ing and orig­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions of par­tic­u­lar cul­tural com­mu­ni­ties here, and Lahiri’s novel in par­tic­u­lar should not be ne­glected on ac­count of its ob­ser­va­tional patch­i­ness.

I love, too, Tash Aw’s frank, driven and forth­right ren­der­ing of the new Shang­hai, Five Star Bil­lion­aire. Though there is not much here that would tax read­ers of Arthur Hai­ley, the sub­ject is beau­ti­fully fresh and made to leap through some fu­ri­ously ex­cit­ing hoops of plot.

Oddly, Aw’s ac­count of the work­ings of cap­i­tal­ism chimes with Donal Ryan’s The Spin­ning Heart, a flawed but en­gag­ing novel of the af­ter-ef­fects of the fi­nan­cial crash in Ire­land. Ryan has some vividly ren­dered voices, though his novel suf­fers from a com­pletely lu­di­crous plot and the de­ci­sion never to let a speaker be re­peated. Eve Har­ris’s The Mar­ry­ing of Chani Kauf­man is a lovely, very funny and touch­ing ac­count of a mar­riage in or­tho­dox Jewry.

There is an in­ter­est­ing di­vide ob­serv­able in this longlist when we come to nov­els that deal with the past. In some, no at­tempt is made to ren­der the sub­ject’s man­ner of speak­ing — or only in a con­ven­tional his­tor­i­cal-novel way.

McCann’s triple-sub­ject novel TransAt­lantic, set in the 1840s, the 1920s and the 1990s, is a very re­fined piece of writ­ing. But all three sub­jects sound very much the same, and the un­fail­ing virtue of his Amer­i­can-Ir­ish heroes, in­clud­ing Amer­i­can se­na­tor Ge­orge Mitchell, bored me thor­oughly be­fore the end.

Ali­son Ma­cLeod’s Un­ex­ploded, set in 1940s Brighton, had a fas­ci­nat­ing sub­ject, ev­i­dently in­flu­enced by El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor’s At Mrs Lip­pin­cote’s and A View of the Har­bour. But it suf­fers greatly from a star­tling dis­junc­ture be­tween its own style and that of the pe­riod. No nov­el­ist of the 40s would have in­dulged in the ex­traor­di­nar­ily vul­gar prac­tice of putting char­ac­ters’ thoughts in ital­ics. There are, too, some glar­ing anachro­nisms — for in­stance, an up­per-class English­woman re­fer­ring to con­doms as ‘‘ rub­bers’’.

Colm Toibin’s mar­vel­lous The Tes­ta­ment of Mary is writ­ten in a beau­ti­fully po­etic and rue­ful fic­tional di­alect of its own, ex­plor­ing the late-life thoughts of Je­sus’s mother. Even finer is Jim Crace’s Har­vest. It seems at first to be set in a me­dieval vil­lage, and bru­tal­ity and suf­fer­ing in its fe­ro­cious week-long ac­tion are rooted in the soil. But the care­ful reader will no­tice its nar­ra­tor is long fa­mil­iar with to­bacco and is sur­prised by his first sight of mauve in a stranger’s gar­ment, dat­ing it fairly pre­cisely af­ter the 1850s. It is a re­mote and un­touched, un­changed com­mu­nity, where the laws of be­hav­iour and speech are handed down and hardly ques­tioned.

Crace is a most metic­u­lous and orig­i­nal nov­el­ist and this is one of his un­ques­tion­able master­pieces. I can hardly see where else the

Richard House

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