Vegetarian Takes The Cake

The Man Booker International Prize for 2016 has been awarded to South Korean author Han Kang for her novel The Vegetarian. Translator Deborah Smith shares the £50,000 prize.

Originally published as three separate stories, The Vegetarian tells the story of a young woman who chooses to live like a plant as a way of rejecting the violence inherent in human nature, and was the unanimous choice of the six judges.

51ZXUyJQSiL Vegetarian-design-Tom-Darracott

The brilliant shortlist this year was perhaps a good illustration of why translated literary fiction now outsells literary fiction written in English in the UK.

Meanwhile, the longlist for the ordinary (ornery?) UK Man Booker Prize 2016 will be revealed on July 27th, with the shortlist following on September 13th and the winner announced on October 25th.

There are at least nine former winners with novels out this year: Aravind Adiga, Julian Barnes, JM Coetzee, Howard Jacobson, James Kelman, Thomas Keneally, Yann Martel, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift. Yes, they are all men, but never fear, there are plenty of strong female contenders too – please peruse and vote for your favourites on the (far-from-exhaustive) list of eligible titles on goodreads:

May 17, 2016 at 1:41 pm Leave a comment

2016 Man Booker International Prize shortlist

After reading 155 novels constituting “the finest fiction in translation” the judges of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize have settled on this shortlist:

José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola) – A General Theory of Oblivion (Harvill Secker)
Translator: Daniel Hahn

Elena Ferrante (Italy) – The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions)
Translator: Ann Goldstein

Han Kang (South Korea) – The Vegetarian (Portobello Books)
Translator: Deborah Smith

Orhan Pamuk (Turkey) – A Strangeness in My Mind (Faber & Faber)
Translator: Ekin Oklap

Robert Seethaler (Austria) – A Whole Life (Picador)
Translator: Charlotte Collins

Yan Lianke (China) – The Four Books (Chatto & Windus)
Translator: Carlos Rojas

The shortlisted authors and translators receive £1,000 each.

The winner of the £50,000 prize (shared equally by the author and the translator) will be announced at a dinner in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum on May 16th. The big question is will ‘Elena Ferrante’ – the resolutely pseudonymous Italian author – show up?


I would like to take this opportunity to add my condolences to the family and friends of Kevin Peterson a.k.a. KevinfromCanada, one of the best literary bloggers and commentators, who died last month. Canadian literature has lost a great champion.

April 14, 2016 at 1:47 pm Leave a comment

Man Booker International Prize 2016 Longlist

The first longlist for the new style Man Booker International Prize has been announced, and in true Booker Prize tradition it includes a tiger:


José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola) – A General Theory of Oblivion (Harvill Secker)
Translator: Daniel Hahn

Elena Ferrante (Italy) – The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions)
Translator: Ann Goldstein

Han Kang (South Korea) – The Vegetarian (Portobello Books)
Translator: Deborah Smith

Maylis de Kerangal (France) – Mend the Living (Maclehose Press)
Translator: Jessica Moore

Eka Kurniawan (Indonesia) – Man Tiger (Verso Books)
Translator: Labodalih Sembiring

Yan Lianke (China) – The Four Books (Chatto & Windus)
Translator: Carlos Rojas

Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Congo/Austria) – Tram 83 (Jacaranda)
Translator: Roland Glasser

Raduan Nassar (Brazil) – A Cup of Rage (Penguin Modern Classics)
Translator: Stefan Tobler

Marie NDiaye (France) – Ladivine (Maclehose Press)
Translator: Jordan Stump

Kenzaburō Ōe (Japan) – Death by Water (Atlantic Books)
Translator: Deborah Boliner Boem

Aki Ollikainen (Finland) – White Hunger (Peirene Press)
Translators: Emily Jeremiah & Fleur Jeremiah

Orhan Pamuk (Turkey) – A Strangeness in My Mind (Faber & Faber)
Translator: Ekin Oklap

Robert Seethaler (Austria) – A Whole Life (Picador)
Translator: Charlotte Collins

The prize, which used to be for a body of work, was previously awarded to Ismail Kadare (in 2005), Chinua Achebe (2007), Alice Munro (2009), Philip Roth (2011), Lydia Davis (2013) and László Krasznahorkai (2015). It has now merged with The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and become an annual award for a single book (a novel or short stories) translated into English and published in the UK.

This year’s judges are chaired by Boyd Tonkin of The Independent. His four co-judges are the poet and author Ruth Padel; the novelist Tahmima Anam; Princeton University professor David Bellos; and Daniel Medin from the American University of Paris.

The shortlist of six books will be revealed on April 14th, with each of the shortlisted authors and translators receiving £1,000. The winner of the £50,000 prize – shared equally by the author and the translator – will be announced at a dinner in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum on May 16th.

March 10, 2016 at 1:40 pm Leave a comment

Marlon James wins 2015 Man Brraper Prize

So, in the end there was no need for any more brute-force voting, the judges went out all guns blazing, and unanimously awarded the £50,000 Man Booker Prize to the “very exciting, very violent, full of swearing” A Brief History of Seven Killings, and Marlon James has become the first Jamaican-born winner. At 686 pages, A Brief History of Seven Killings is also one of the longest winners, continuing the trend towards hulking tomes – much to Salman Rushdie’s chagrin: “Just as I start writing short books, long books are in. My days of long books are over” he told The Telegraph last week.

“Someone said to me they like to give Booker winners to their mother to read, but this might be a little difficult” Michael Wood, chair of this year’s judges, admitted. Yes, but on the other hand it might be the perfect Christmas present for your Gangsta Granny. After hearing Nonesuch Book blogger Frances on The Readers’ Man Booker Podcast, and Sarah Churchwell on the BBC News channel coverage, both champion A Brief History of Seven Killings I was not surprised it won, it sounds like a literary box of fireworks.

So that’s Booker 2015 over. It’s been emotional.

Now let’s take a quick peek at 2016.

The longlist for the new-style Man Booker International Prize will be announced in March, the shortlist in April and the winner in May. There is already a list of possible candidates for that on goodreads, and I have just initiated the Man Booker Prize Eligible 2016 list there as well.

Big names vying to be snubbed in favour of “new voices and younger writers” next year include: Julian Barnes, Don DeLillo, Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith, and maybe even the long-awaited sequel to A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. There may even be a bit of Cauliflower® in the Booker stew.

Now it’s time for this blog to go back into hibernation.


October 14, 2015 at 11:21 am Leave a comment


There’s no point me making any predictions here, because by the time anyone reads this post the result will have been announced. (I’m afraid I lack the wherewithal to keep up with technology and was unable to get online yesterday as the distant library computers I rely on were all down.) Anyway what do I know? As usual I only got round to reading half the shortlist – partly because I spent a lot of time wallowing in Iain Pears’ Arcadia instead. (Very enjoyable, like Narnia for grown-ups, and much better than The Bone Clocks.) I couldn’t fault The Fishermen – it deserves to be as widely read and successful as The Kite Runner, but The Year of the Runaways eluded me until last week, so I cannot offer an opinion as to whether the mystery punter known as ‘Mr Smith‘ will be in the money again this year. I suspect that those two are the sort of books that end up on the shortlist because everyone agrees they are excellent, but without them being the out-and-out favourite of any particular judge. Possible compromise choices if the other four all prove too divisive.

I couldn’t face A Brief History of Seven Killings, partly because of the small print (yes, I have reached that age) but mostly because it has been compared to James Ellroy and Quentin Tarantino. I remember one Christmas my local library (now an empty building) wrapped up some books and handed them out to customers as an extra, mystery loan. Trouble was, half of them were wrapped in blue paper and half in pink. It wasn’t hard to imagine the type of books each colour concealed. I realised then that any book that can be wrapped in blue or pink is of little interest to me. I can’t help wondering if this year the judging process has been a little fractious because, more than any previous year, the shortlist suggests a gender divide.

I suspect that Satin Island, for example, must have had the determined backing of one male-brained judge for it to get this far. It is interesting, but more semi-intellectual noodling than novel in my opinion – a slight, superficial addition to Tom McCarthy’s oeuvre. Although it does sit nicely on the shortlist for The Goldsmith’s Prize – the increasingly impressive rival to the Booker – which prizes originality: novelness, you might say. Their list also includes The Field of the Cloth of Gold – the latest inscrutable treasure from Magnus Mills, Acts of the Assassins by Richard Beard, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter, Lurid & Cute by Adam Thirlwell, and Kevin Barry’s forthcoming Beatlebone.

Anyone wanting experimental fiction, and thinking Satin Island is it, ought to venture back to the very first year of the Booker Prize (1969) and seek out Nicholas Mosley’s Impossible Object which should have won then, and would have walked onto the shortlist any year since. Two of the judges – including the renowned literary critic Frank Kermode – favoured it, but were “silenced.”

“I wanted to write you something impossible,” we are told at the end, “like a staircase climbing a spiral to come out where it started or a cube with a vertical line at the back overlapping a horizontal one in front. These cannot exist in three dimensions but can be drawn in two; by cutting out one dimension a fourth is created. The object is that life is impossible; one cuts out fabrication and creates reality.”

Is reality the impossible object of fiction? He asks. That’s way above my literary pay grade. (Which is zero.) I would like to refer you to a review by John_Self, but there doesn’t seem to be one. We should all pester him to write one.

I was also surprised that A Spool of Blue Thread made it to the shortlist. Indeed, on the day the longlist was announced I was planning to take it back to the library, unfinished, because I didn’t expect it to be on the list. It seemed to be a well-written, good-hearted family saga any well-meaning librarian could happily wrap in pink, rather than literary fiction. I wondered whether I might just as well visit Peyton Place. I think I had been expecting something more like Carol Shields who, sadly, never won the Booker Prize. She should have won in 2002 with Unless, but the judges that year chose a lesser Canadian writer: Yann Martel. Life of Pi, went on to become the biggest selling Booker Prize winner ever, and recently received a Presidential seal of approval from Barack Obama who read it with his daughter, describing it as “a lovely book – an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling.” Nevertheless, the judges got it wrong. Unless, the last novel Shields wrote before succumbing to cancer, is a book every woman needs to read, and every man should be made to read. It also opens with the wisest first paragraph I have ever read:

“It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life I’ve heard people speak of finding themselves in acute pain, bankrupt in spirit and body, but I’ve never understood what they meant. To lose. To have lost. I believed these visitations of darkness lasted only a few minutes or hours and that these saddened people, in between bouts, were occupied, as we all were, with the useful monotony of happiness. But happiness is not what I thought. Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it’s smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.”

Talking of life…

Not since Owen Meany has a character in American fiction had such an emotional impact on readers as Jude St. Francis in A Little Life – perhaps the strongest favourite for the Booker Prize since Wolf Hall. It has split people like nothing since the death of Princess Diana. Perhaps for similar psychological reasons.

Many readers have been deeply affected by it, but some who felt obliged to read it because it was on the Booker shortlist seem to have read it through gritted teeth. (Colette_Jones on The Mookse and the Gripes forum suggested that A Little Life was likely to win because “if it didn’t annoy them the first and second times, they’re not going to notice problems on a third reading.” Ouch.)

Last year I said that longlists suck, and I am even more convinced this year. If the list of books entered for the prize were published instead of the longlist, no-one in their right mind would try and read all 150-plus novels. We would just read the ones that most appealed to us, rather than trying to plough through a dozen books chosen by a literary committee. No wonder some followers of the prize seem permanently disgruntled by the judges’ selections. In the end the judges are tasked with finding the best book of the year, everything else is gravy. So scrap the longlist and give us the list of submissions instead I say. (Don’t worry, I won’t hold my breath.)

I would be happy to see A Little Life win, but it isn’t the best candidate for the title of greatest American Novel I’ve read this year, or even for the title Great American Gay Novel (as it has been labelled) because back in January I read James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head (1979) – a book most people have never heard of (I certainly hadn’t) which is shameful. One of the all-time great novelists at the peak of his powers, as they say. Around the same time I heard Stephen Fry on the radio show Just A Minute attempting to list some Great American Novels. Disappointingly, he never got beyond dead white men. Which should remind us to give some kudos to the Booker Prize for promoting so much diverse, quality fiction for so many years.

October 13, 2015 at 1:24 pm Leave a comment

Grim Shortlist for 2015 Man Booker Prize


The shortlist for the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction is here:

Marlon James (Jamaica) – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications)
Tom McCarthy (UK) – Satin Island (Jonathan Cape)
Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) – The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press)
Sunjeev Sahota (UK) – The Year of the Runaways (Picador)
Anne Tyler (US) – A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus)
Hanya Yanagihara (US) – A Little Life (Picador)

Aged 28, Chigozie Obioma is the youngest person on the list, while Anne Tyler, at 73, is the oldest, and Marlon James is the first Jamaican to be shortlisted for the prize. Congratulations to him for that, but I doubt that I will be reading his book (or watching the HBO TV series) as it sounds too violent for me. Not that the others are all hearts and flowers either: “There is a tremendous amount of violence,” as Michael Wood, who is chairing the judging panel this year, admitted. “Yes, they contain grim things,” another judge (Sam Leith) said, “but there isn’t a single book that isn’t touched with humour.” Hmm.

Many people are surprised at the omission of Lila. Well, Marilynne Robinson is a beautiful writer but, as someone who has little or no patience with religion, I couldn’t get very far with that one either. I ended up playing a game with it. I repeatedly opened it at random to see if I could find a page with no religious words (God, The Bible, missionaries, prayer, church, preaching etc.) You can probably imagine how rare such pages are.

BBC 2’s Artsnight will devote a whole programme to this year’s Man Booker Prize on Friday 9th, and the winner of the £50,000 prize will be announced at The Guildhall, London, on Tuesday 13th October. Let’s hope there’s not too much blood on the carpet.

September 15, 2015 at 12:54 pm Leave a comment

The 2015 Man Booker Prize Longlist

The longlist for the 2015 Man Booker Prize was revealed at noon today.
The thirteen books in contention for the £50,000 prize are:

Bill Clegg – Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape)
Anne Enright – The Green Road (Jonathan Cape)
Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications)
Laila Lalami – The Moor’s Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing)
Tom McCarthy – Satin Island (Jonathan Cape)
Chigozie Obioma – The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press)
Andrew O’Hagan – The Illuminations (Faber & Faber)
Marilynne Robinson – Lila (Virago)
Anuradha Roy – Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus)
Sunjeev Sahota – The Year of the Runaways (Picador)
Anna Smaill – The Chimes (Sceptre)
Anne Tyler – A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus)
Hanya Yanagihara – A Little Life (Picador)

Back in the eighties, when I first had a home computer, I decided it would be worth trying to win the pools by using it to predict the football results. Oh, the optimism of youth. I wrote a program to calculate the most likely score draws from a variety of data: previous results, current form, newspaper tipsters etc. Then ran it for several weeks, tweaking the weightings given to the various factors until it became quite good at predicting…the predictable draws – which was usually about half of them. Obviously it was completely hopeless at predicting the unexpected. Who can foresee rain falling from a clear blue sky? Indeed, the UK Met Office seems incapable of predicting rain full stop.

Why am I telling you this? Is it because I hope that one of the judges will be reading and might suggest to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that he could save taxpayers some money by privatising our hopeless Met Office? (Want to know what the weather is like? Look out the window! As Jeremy Paxman once told Newsnight viewers.) No. It’s just to point out the surprisingly similar degree of unpredictability between twenty-two grown adults kicking a ball around and half-a-dozen others judging literary fiction. Bill Who? Marlon James?!

Marlon James is the first Jamaican-born author to be longlisted for the prize, and Laila Lalami the first from Morocco – although both now reside in the USA; while Bill Clegg is “an American literary agent known for his ruthless negotiating” according to The Guardian. I’m not sure whether they are trying to imply anything by that.

There will be a number of reactions to this longlist. Someone somewhere will mishear and think: Nick Clegg up for the Booker Prize? I didn’t know manifestoes were eligible? Many will be pleased to see that women are in the majority, some will decry the fact that Americans outnumber Brits in only the second year they have been eligible. Others will be off to the bookies to put a bet on Hanya Yanagihara. A Little Life? Big favourite.

The list of those “snubbed” this year includes: Harper Lee (told you so), Salman Rushdie (twenty years since he was last shortlisted), Kate Atkinson (who has still, amazingly, never once pinged the Booker radar), Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen and Kazuo Ishiguro – so you can cross them off your posh bingo cards. I decided in advance that if Quicksand by Steve Toltz was not on their list, then either the judges are on the wrong wavelength, or I am. Admittedly I have only read the first chapter so far – but, sheesh, it’s already streets ahead of a couple on the list that I have read. To be fair, the judges have read 156 books and the longlist “could have been twice as long” according to Michael Wood, this year’s chair of the judging panel.

The shortlist will be announced on September 15th, and the winner on October 13th.



Here’s something for those of you who like trivia: nine of the last eleven Man Booker winners had titles beginning with the definite article, and the other two were both by Hilary Mantel.

July 29, 2015 at 4:02 pm 1 comment

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