Reading the Man Booker

>> Tuesday, October 16, 2012

In the last couple of years I've read several of the books listed for the Man Booker prize, and absolutely loved them. Last year's Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman; The Last Hundred Days, by Patrick McGuinness and The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers, were excellent, and so were Room, by Emma Donoghue and The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas, from 2010. I did find both years' winners really unexciting, but still, that's a pretty good record.

As an experiment, I decided this year to read all the books on the shortlist before the winner was announced. I quite liked the idea of being able to have an informed opinion about whether the winner was a worthy one, and which book should have won.

I started out with Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists, set in Malaysia in the 1950s and 80s. The only reason I picked that first was that it was the one book my library had readily available. I've posted my review already (here), but in short, I liked, but not loved it. I enjoyed how Tan dealt with all the different elements, but didn't feel the whole was as coherent as it should have been. So, an ok book, but not one I think has a real chance of winning.

I then moved on to Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy, which had had some excellent reviews, with many tipping it to win. I found this story about British families on holiday in a French villa, with stranger arriving and threatening to cause trouble, unbearably boring and pretentious, a huge disappointment. My review is here, but mainly, it was a matter of me not feeling the characters were remotely human. It's a short book, but I disliked it enough that I refused to finish it. I figure reading the first half is a fair shot, and enough for me to decide how I feel about it. As I closed it, I had a horrible feeling that it has a very good chance of winning, though.

The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore, was next, and I thought it was very good. This story features a nondescript, middle-aged man on a walking holiday in Germany, thinking back about his wife, who's recently left him. My review is here. Real characters (hurrah!) and a beautifully done structure. I was left thinking I wouldn't mind at all if The Lighthouse wins.

I then decided to bite the bullet and tackle the two books I was least looking forward to. The first was Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil, which is set in the opium dens of Bombay in the 1970s. It's the first bit of that description that put me off. Drug addicts bore me rigid, as a subject matter.

I was actually surprised to find this more readable than I expected. There wasn't much of a plot in the first half, which was as far as I read. Rather, it's random scenes from the present and pasts of various, interacting characters. These scenes are written in a languid, distant tone, rather as they were some sort of opium dream, which I guess is the effect the author was going for.

I didn't abandon this in disgust, as I did with the Levy, but in mild disinterest. Some of the characters were good (especially Dimple, a woman who used to be a man and now works in a brothel), but not enough to make me want to continue reading. Definitely not a contender, I think.

The second book I didn't really want to read was Umbrella, by Will Self. The subject matter sounded fascinating. I mean, from all reports, there's a woman who falls ill with something called encephalitis lethargica, a brain disease which leaves her in a kind of sleep, and who's woken from her stupor in the 1970s by the psychiatrist protagonist. I was definitely interested.

The problem is that the narration is a stream of consciousness mess. I congratulate any readers who were able to put in the hard work to actually read this, and I do hope the reward was worth the superhuman effort. Me, I just couldn't do it. I found it literally unreadable, and gave up after a matter of pages. I would have slogged through if this was just an initial section, as I did with Narcopolis, but the whole bloody brick of a book is like this.

I think that, unfortunately, this might actually be a potential winner, if only as a reaction to the ridicule last year's judges suffered for daring to suggest a good book should be readable. Yeah, most people in the literary fiction world are twats.

I was strong and left the book I was most sure I'd like till the end, as a sort of reward. I loved Wolf Hall, and from all the reviews I'd seen, it was clear that Bring Up The Bodies was a continuation of the story, but even better, as Mantel became even more confident in her chosen style.

That was exactly what I found. I loved it to bits. I'm going to write a proper review of it soon, so I won't say more here, just that in my opinion, this is by far the best book in the shortlist, and I hope it wins.

What will count against it is that, although the Man Booker is supposed to be only about the books, judges have often clearly taken into account external things (e.g. last year's prize basically being a career recognition award for Julian Barnes). I fear this year there'll be two issues going through their minds: a) that Hilary Mantel's already had the Man Booker, and for a book that's very similar to Bring Up The Bodies, and b) that they need to make some sort of statement regarding the "readability" brouhaha, and show the Man Booker still supports experimental and/or difficult fiction that's "properly" literary. That leads me to think the winner might be either Swimming Home or Umbrella.

Well, we'll see. I'll definitely be watching tonight, hoping the judges prove me wrong!

ETA: And they did, indeed, prove me wrong! Congratulations to Hilary Mantel on a well-deserved win.


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