Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Man Booker Prize 2012 - My thoughts

The winner of the 2012 MAN Booker Prize is announced this evening. I'm excited, nervous, and slightly baffled as to why that is the case. I mean, the Booker doesn't mean anything to me personally, and I have rather mixed feelings about literary prizes in general. There will be five losers tonight and one winner. That winner will have been chosen by a small group of (admittedly eminent) judges by an unspecific process. This is not sport, there is not an objective winner - the fastest, the strongest etc - only a range of historically developed but largely subjective literary criteria used to offer some insight into the qualities of the novel. I'm resisting using the word arbitrary, but there is a certain element of the arbitrary in whoever wins.

And yet, not only have the judges been widely acclaimed for their selections so far this year, but I am always swept up into the excitement of the Booker Prize. If I were to go on Mastermind, I might make it my Specialty Subject, if only as an excuse to re-read some the amazing winners. There is something about the fervored excitement it generates and the celebration of literature it engenders that I adore. Prominent broadcast networks host coverage and discussion of the books. Independent Publishers (these last couple of years, at least) receive deserved attention. Readers talk about their favourites with passion that borders on the absurd. There is so much to love about this day!

And so I'm going to join my voice to the many others, and share my thoughts about the books on the Shortlist. I've only read three of them - so my view is even further from objective than it would be had I read them all - but I've enjoyed all three, and two have been the strongest books I've read for a long time. Intriguingly - for Mrs Bookstimeandsilence thinks I only read books by male authors - they are the three female authored books, Swimming Home, Bring Up The Bodies, and The Lighthouse.

Tan Twan Eng - The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon Books)
I have this but have not yet read it. The premise is attractive and feels like an early Kazuo Ishiguro novel, so I'm intrigued to see how it stands up.

Verdict: Can't comment on it's worthiness, but I'd be surprised if it takes the prize tonight. Myrmidon has received the least publicity of the three indipendent publishers shortlisted, and there aren't many passionately advocating its success.

Deborah Levy - Swimming Home (And Other Stories/Faber & Faber)
A firework spectacular for lovers of arresting, unsettling, witty prose. Reading Swimming Home is a full body experience. You feel the words, engage with them emotionally and sensually as well as intellectually. They rise around you, come alive in your mind, transport you to new and unexpected places. Deborah Levy creates a hallucinatory dreamscape of colours and symbols and metaphors, a psychoanalysts playground where every word, image, and object is significant and post-Freudian ideas of sex and death drive the plot forward.

Liminality dominates. Swimming Home is perilous, teetering on the brink of dream and wakefulness, of metaphor and literal, of medicated health and unmedicated madness, of childhood and adulthood, of life and death. Water is both a refuge and a prison. Dive in, submerge yourself, and feel the words surround you.

Verdict: A very worthy winner. The bookies have this as the rank outsider, but it could be in with a shout.

Hilary Mantel - Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate)
I'm not sure there are words to describe the astounding feat that Hilary Mantel has already achieved in her Thomas Cromwell series. Wolf Hall was one of the best, and most commercially successful Booker winners of recent years and, if it is possible, Bring Up The Bodies might be even better. Never have I witnessed a writer more at home in her material. Her characters are fully realised, fleshy, complex, disastrous, cunning, lovable, striving creations, her control of the political and sexual intrigue of Henry's court a wonder to behold. One has the feeling of being a crow, or a ghost, unnoticed in the corner of the room, watching the famous events take place before your eyes. The historical imagination Mantel shows in filling in the gaps between what is known and unknown is pulled off with aplomb. This is not the only version of events at the time. But it is a version of events: convincing, well presented, consistent. Novels do not have to achieve the same standards of historical accuracy as non-fiction, and because of this they can offer far more holistic views of the people and events of the time.

Married to all of this is an unusually fluid third person singular narrative that occasionally drops into the second person with the effect of conveying a confident, authoritative, accusatory, uncertain, atmosphere that keeps the pages turning, keeps the reader uncertain as to how it will end. We know, it is there in the annuls of history. And yet Mantel's skill is in placing the reader so effectively into the time that we lose hindsight, see only the complexity and danger of the games being played.

Verdict: To win for consecutive books in a trilogy would be a fittingly unique achievement for a fittingly unique book. If this were not the second in a trilogy, it would be runaway favourite to win. I cannot imagine there is a more impressive, delicious book on the shortlist than this. My choice, but I suspect the same injustices will be visited on it, that the Lord of the Rings films suffered at the Oscars.

Alison Moore - The Lighthouse (Salt)
I read The Lighthouse in a day, on the train down to London, and then the return back. It is a very readable novel, with a plot that is set out early and slowly built through tension and premonitions of tragedy. Futh, a middle-aged, emotionally frail man, takes a walking holiday to Germany in an effort to get over the break-down of his marriage. The holiday is a mirror of one he took as a child with his father following her walking out on them for a new life in New York. Futh has never recovered from that loss, and now as he walks Germany he thinks back on his childhood, his marriage, his friends and most of all his mother. But there are events conspiring to the side of the stage, a man he meets on the ferry asks him if he ever has 'a bad feeling about something that's going to happen' and tensions between the husband and wife of the hotel he must return to make it increasingly apparent that something dreadful may befall poor Futh.

Smells dominate - the lighthouse of the title is a perfume bottle that once belonged to Futh's mother, -  and a sense of utterly unavoidable sadness hangs over the book. The Lighthouse has a Sebaldian theme, but commentators have been quick to identify it as the 'genre' book on the list. This is presumable because it has a clear sense of narrative development and impending doom, but doesn't hold true for me. Rather, The Lighthouse is a well written, effective tale of sadness told through a helpless character who cannot understand the impact that emotional trauma has had on his life. I personally found Futh too bleak to engage with, but those who identify with him clearly love this book.

Verdict: I didn't love it. I wouldn't chose it as a winner. But it is a good book and many have it as the dark horse for the prize.

Will Self - Umbrella (Bloomsbury)
I have never had any interest in reading a book by Will Self. I'm not sure why. Realising this, I will have to read a book by him soon so as to make up my mind. This might be the place to start.

Verdict: The favourite. But I'm not convinced. If it doesn't go to Mantel, I think it'll be one of the other women on the shortlist.

Jeet Thayil - Narcopolis (Faber & Faber)
Again, I haven't read it. The Booker has a habit of overly leaning towards books from India. There have been acusations of orientalist attitudes to books from that region of the world, though some of the finest Booker winners of all time have also come from there. I wasn't particularly inspired to pick this up.

Verdict: Not my pick. But you never know. An outside chance, I think. 

And the winner is...
Well, for me it has to be Hilary Mantel for Bring up The Bodies to set up the most pressure possible on the final book in her amazing trilogy. It would take something special to win, as a middle book of three, and this is a special book.

However, if it doesn't, I'll cast a supporting vote for Deborah Levy for a book that takes familiar attributes and weaves them into a stunningly physical reading experience.

I have no history of picking the Booker winner. Just to demonstrate this fully, watch the last of my selections carry it off tomorrow. It happened in 2010 with Howard Jacobson, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see it happen again.

Selections, in order of chance of winning in my humble opinion.
Bring Up the Bodies
The Lighthouse
Swimming Home
The Garden of Evening Mists

But whoever takes home the cheque tonight, when literature receives such attention and involvement from readers, everyone wins.


Jackie Bailey said...

I'm passionately rooting for 'Evening Mists'!! I think the problem is that it has received little publicity and so not many people have actually read it. In the last few days a few more people have finished it and have been converted. There are several more supporters in the comment section of my Booker blog post. Read it and you'll see that it deserves a Booker win tonight :-)

Sam Ruddock said...

Hurrah! Great to hear people are getting behind Evening Mists now. It is on my pile - and the longlist I've sent you today! - so I will get there. Think it is an outsider, but would be very happy to see it win. Mostly, I just don't want Will Self to win!

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