Tuesday, 23 July 2013

On the Man Booker Prize longlist 2013

There is a tweet going viral today. It reads:
Breaking: @ManBookerPrize has gone into labour and is expected to deliver the 2013 longlist at midday (UK) today. #manbookerprize

Yes, that’s right. Enough with this painfully bad Royal Baby journalism. It is time to get excited about books. Well, fiction anyway. It is that day when people get excited about books they have and haven’t read, we all pretend to know what we’re talking about, and go to bed a little poorer having bought all those books we weren’t sure about until they appeared on the list. It’s an enigma, this Booker list. On the one hand, I love all the excitement and discussion about books. It is a rare and wonderful thing to see people sharing my obsession and I enjoy it as much as possible. But on the other, it is really rather arbitrary and I’m not sure I believe in prizes really. Literature shouldn’t be about competition. The importance of a book is the effect it has on the reader. I really don’t think I believe there is such thing as objective quantifying of literature.

And so ,with a slightly bad taste in my mouth only slightly souring the general enthusiasm I’m feeling, I give you my utterly pointless rundown of the leading contenders for this years Booker Prize.

There don’t appear to be any huge names in contention this year. JM Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus has received mixed praise at best, while few of the other prominent novelists have published this year. That makes this list potentially even more interesting. Which of the great and often overlooked writers out there will take a step forward?

Of those I’ve read, Mohsin Hamid’s How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, stand out as titles that deserve the most acclaim. Mohsin Hamid plays with form in this wonderful take-up of the self-help genre. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia tracks the life of a single character as he progresses from rural poverty at birth to wealth and power in modern-day Pakistan. Hamid has described it as a 19th Century generational epic made small for a modern technological age and this, combined with his tight economical prose should make him a favourite with the judges.

Evie Wyld, on the other hand, is a novelist whose brilliance is all in her prose. All the Birds, Singing is probably the most arrestingly written, stunningly composed novel I’ve read this year. She writes violence and danger and fear and inability to communicate like few others. Here is the first sentence:
‘Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.’
Evie is a huge writer in the making and this should be her time. She deserves it.

Of the other books I’ve read, I’m not sure Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden is quite good enough. I read it in Pakistan earlier this year and it didn’t set my world on fire. The novel is heartfelt and emotionally resonant. It creates a picture of Pakistan (as the Blind Man’s Garden of the title) and tells a story of post-9/11 divisions, Islam, and the War on Terror. At its best there are brilliant passages. But it felt a little drawn out and ultimately didn’t introduce me to anything major that I didn’t already know.

I’m not entirely sure whether Katie Kiramura qualifies or not, but her second novel, Gone to the Forest is a sharp, slashing, and perfectly balanced novel that explores the death throes of colonialism in a nameless nation. At its heart is a volcanic eruption that covers the land in ash and brings tensions to a head. Sending animals wild and driving people to recklessness. It’s a powerful metaphor, the earth purging itself of colonial rule. The cataclysm that births a new age. Identities are questioned, relationships strained. If writers made swords, Kitamura would be the sort fabled in a Tarantino film. You will not find sharper, finer minimalist prose anywhere.

I haven’t read Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land yet but I loved Absolution and have heard only good things about his second novel. Absolution effected me like few books do. There was something of Damon Galgut there, in the way he created space for the readers’ imagination to run away with itself and manufacture its own tension.

And now onto all those thousands that I haven’t read so shouldn’t comment on. But I will, nonetheless. I’d love to see something as experimental as Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press) on the list but it all depends upon the tastes of the judges. It would also be great if the brilliant work of smaller publishers continued to be celebrated this year. Others seem sure Jim Crace’s Harvest will be amongst the favourites, while Tash Aw, Aminatta Forna, James Robertson, Taiye Selassi, and Ivan Vladislavic all appear to have a reasonable chance of being included. Basically, it is all guesswork. But fun guesswork. And my dream is to one day be on the judging panel. Until then, I’ll just have to pretend!

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