All the books, sweating

July 17, 2013 at 3:28 am Leave a comment

High time I stopped cunctating and ran something up a flagpole – the longlist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize is less than a week away, whereupon all our pleasant speculation is likely to be replaced by the nonplussed googling of unknown novels and authors.

The list of books entered for the prize is as secret as ever, save a few hints. A photograph of all 151 entries was released – all piled up with their spines hidden – which you can see and discuss at The Mookse and the Gripes Forum.

“I’m not allowed to tell you which books have been submitted for the prize,” judge Natalie Haynes said in The Independent, before going on to tease us just a smidgeon by saying she had never read so much historical fiction in her life, and that they had been sent “thrillers, love stories, family sagas, war novels, spy novels, detective novels and sequels” but “very little future fiction.” Twas ever thus.

Haynes also pointed out that “there have been a lot of quirky child narrators…” No kidding. I’ve lost count, and interest. JD Salinger and Sue Townsend have a lot to answer for. Seriously, authors, enough already. If you are writing a book with a young narrator please have them strangled before the end of chapter one. And no letting them narrate the rest of the book from heaven either. Ugh.

One of the sequels will certainly be Last Friends by Jane Gardam (who was first shortlisted way back in 1978). It is the third in a loose trilogy of novels that begin with Old Filth. “All in all, it’s a mysterious novel. Unsuccessful as it is, it has a power to linger in the memory, and this in itself must be counted a success” was Anita Brookner’s baffled verdict in The Spectator.

Another sequel that definitely will not be on the list, however, is A Suitable Girl by Vikram Seth. According to the Mumbai Mirror he has been asked to return the advance he received for his “jumpsequel” to A Suitable Boy.

The spy novels ought to include A Delicate Truth by John le Carré (many people, including Ian McEwan and Jonathan King, think it’s about time he won the Booker) but will not – unless the judges have called it in against the author’s wishes – because Le Carré does not “compete for literary awards” as he made clear when asking for his name to be removed from the list of 2011 Man Booker International Prize nominees. (The judges refused.)

As for thrillers, Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard is “guaranteed to have you on the edge of your sun-lounger” according to Hilary Mantel, and I suspect the detective novels that the judges have been asked to investigate will include No Man’s Nightingale by Ruth Rendell and The Cuckoo’s Calling which, when I first wrote this sentence three days ago, was merely a widely-praised ‘debut’ novel by ‘Robert Galbraith’.

Birds do seem to be very popular in titles this year. See also: The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness, Finches of Mars by Brian Aldiss and The Skull and the Nightingale by Michael Irwin. Insects too: Firefly – Janette Jenkins’ novel about the later life of Noel Coward, and Graham Joyce’s The Year of the Laybird – which is one of at least three books set during Britain’s long hot summer of 1976 to be published this year: the others being Summer of ’76 by Isabel Ashdown and Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell.

Kate Clanchy’s exquisitely funny debut novel Meeting the English is also set during a hot English summer (1989 rather than 1976 or 2013) and features some of the most wonderfully awful middle-class English characters since Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose family, or Iris Murdoch’s heyday.

Other interesting debuts that might have pinged the judges’ radar include: Vauxhall by Gabriel Gbadamosi, winner of the Tibor Jones Pageturner Prize (no, me neither); Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman; The Banner of the Passing Clouds by Anthea Nicholson; The Story of Before by Susan Stairs; Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin, The Gamal by Ciarán Collins and Burnt Island by Alice Thompson (“clever and satisfying” according to John Self) – which, it turns out, isn’t a debut novel – my mistake, apologies to Alice.

Another ‘First Novel’ that isn’t actually a first novel is Nicholas Royle’s Kierkegaardian First Novel. Either the judges will love it or they won’t, but any book that begins with a writer dismantling a Kindle deserves to be on a shortlist or two. Very much on a par with Will Wiles’ gobsmackingly good Care of Wooden Floors from last year, I would love to see it on the longlist. The same goes for the incredibly detailed Nostalgia by Jonathan Buckley, for whom some recognition is long overdue.

Some media commentators will call this a poor year because of the lack of big names, but I expect a really strong shortlist to emerge. It could look something like this…

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is likely to be the most talked about book of the year, and it would probably be the people’s choice of winner judging by its popularity on the list of eligible titles on Goodreads. Please take a look (and maybe vote) if you haven’t already, there are far too many excellent books on there for me to mention here.

Nobel laureate and twice Booker winner, J.M. Coetzee is always a strong contender, and his latest novel The Childhood of Jesus is either a compelling, mesmeric, thought-provoking and enigmatic, if rather elusive parable; or “a hollow egg“, like “a Saramago novel with all of the genius sucked out.” I’m saving it to treat myself when I feel worthy. If ever.

Jim Crace has said that Harvest will be his last novel, which is a shame because it is a masterful work, an atmospheric and mesmerising depiction of a peaceful village falling apart after the arrival of outsiders, and the resulting destruction of a whole way of life.

Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser has already bagged the Miles Franklin Literary Award, and AS Byatt called it “a novel unlike any other I have read.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid is this year’s must-read and my choice of winner. Powerful, political writing that would, I hope, walk onto the Booker shortlist in any year. I offer these two paragraphs as evidence:

“Getting an education is a running leap towards becoming filthy rich in Asia. This is no secret. But like many desirable things, simply being well known does not make it easily achieved. There are forks in the road to wealth that have nothing to do with choice or desire or effort, forks that have to do with chance, and in your case, the order of your birth is one of these. Third means you are not heading back to the village. Third means you are not working as a painter’s assistant. Third also means you are not, like the fourth of you three surviving siblings, a tiny skeleton in a small grave at the base of a tree.”

“Many skills, as every successful entrepreneur knows, cannot be taught in school. They require doing. Sometimes a life of doing. And where money-making is concerned, nothing compresses the time frame needed to leap from my-shit-just-sits-there-until-it-rains poverty to which-of-my-toilets-shall-I-use affluence like an apprenticeship with someone who already has the angles all figured out.”

Finally, All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld is beautifully wrought. Harsh yet beautiful, and as gripping as it is disturbing and unpredictable.

I think that would be a very respectable shortlist in any year (longlists are lame). Like all predictions it will be completely wrong, but it makes for a useful benchmark on which I hope to see the judges improve.

Tune in next week for the annual where-on-Earth-is-such-and-such-I-mean-really-what-were-they-thinking-of-fest.


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2013 Already The 2013 Man Booker Prize Longlist

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