Man Booker shortie

It’s the fourth year running that I’ve had a vested interest in an early September announcement from the judging panel of the Man Booker prize. Today is shortlist day.

Of this year’s twelve longlisted books, I’ve so far read eight, so I’m not in a position to predict the six that will be announced by the judges today, and even if I were, my personal tastes rarely line up with those of the panel! Nevertheless, here’s my round up ahead of the news.

NARCOPOLIS by Jeet Thayil
An absolute storm of a book: evocative, sensual, gripping – I do have a penchant for writing from/about India, so perhaps I’m biased, but I didn’t expect to like the book with its themes of substance abuse and violence. It’s poetic and cripplingly honest, but not sentimental, and the characters are cracked and compelling. A five star read.

BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel
I loved Wolf Hall with its startlingly driven prose, and Bring Up The Bodies upholds my high expectations and further fleshes out an enigmatic character, making him formidable and vulnerable. I think Mantel is a writer of the highest order. Four and a half stars.

This is a precious gem of a story about an older couple who have lost their way in life. An unexpected letter disrupts the status quo, and the simple act of walking turns into a pursuit that could save a life. In fact, it saves more than one life, and is gentle and profound. An indulgent four and a half stars of happy endings.

SWIMMING HOME by Deborah Levy
This one is still a bit fresh, and I think it might be a while before I really know what I think about it. The choice to have the book introduced by Tom McCarthy was inspired, and it has really helped me put my reading of C. into perspective (blog post on that to come soon). There’s a particular vibrancy to this novel, and lots of space for the reader to nestle into, though it’s not a comfortable space to inhabit. Intriguing and unexpected, and a novel to encourage me to subscribe to the independent publisher – a likely four stars.

COMMUNION TOWN by Sam Thompson
I really wanted to like this more than I did. The first vignette (that’s the only way I can think to describe this series of varied chapters) sets up a powerful premise, albeit with a laboured style, but this fades as subsequent vignettes take up the thread in a different part of town, with a different voice, and a subtly different monster. It’s not really the shifting perspectives that make this book a challenge – it’s the combination of too many differences, which becomes distracting from the evocative construction of Communion Town (the eponymous setting). Sam Thompson is a skilled writer, but in displaying his mastery of different voices and genre styles, he obscures his ‘writers’ voice and the lack of authenticity is easily confused with a lack of heart. Three and a half stars for ambition and skill.

THE LIGHTHOUSE by Alison Moore
This book is mutable. The characters are at once simple and complex, and are difficult to get a firm handle on, which makes them very real. What seems like a journey of discovery, or a casting off of the past becomes something else entirely – and the sleight of hand is well executed. In tone and pace the story seems to be one thing, but in conclusion it is quite another. It had a very charming layer of abstraction with a focus on smells and objects (dependent on character), which also served to lead the reader astray. Oddly, in summarising it, it is also shifting: I find that I liked it more than I thought, and that being disconcerted was part of the experience. So, this flits between a three and a half and a four.

SKIOS by Michael Frayn
I don’t have too much to say about this, because I just didn’t care enough about it. It was put together well, but farce just isn’t my bag. I thinkI only laughed out loud once, and the characters were abhorrent (I know, that’s part of the point). I can’t remember how I rated this on goodreads, but on reflection think it only merits two stars from my very objective scale.

I didn’t finish this. I’m not sure I will, despite rave reviews. I hope this quote, from page 22, will illustrate why I found the prospect of continuing to read this faux-historical novel unappealing:

I hope you won’t take offence… but I’ve never seen the point of historical drama. Or historical fiction for that matter. I once thought about writing a novel of that kind, but then I began to wonder, what possible patience could the public have for a young man arrogant enough to believe he has anything new to say about an epoch with which his only acquaintance is flipping listlessly through history books on train journeys?

So, clearly, if my top six are the stuff of the short list, I’ll think that an interesting and diverse list. Of the others, I’ll be starting The Garden of Evening Mists today, and have Philida on the bedside table – both of which have a more international focus and historical bent, and the two heavy weights I haven’t mentioned are Nicola Barker’s The Yips (well reviewed) and Will Self’s Umbrella (by accounts ‘difficult’ – no doubt as Self intends).


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