Tuesday, 15 October 2013

MAN Booker Prize 2013 - Who Will Win?

When the Booker Longlist was announced back in July my immediate response was of disappointment. I had read none of the titles on the list and felt particularly aggrieved on behalf of Mohsin Hamid and Evie Wyld, each of whom struck me as deserving recognition for genuinely brilliant novels.

As the MAN Booker Prize expands next year, there will only be more of this disappointment. And yet that strikes me as a brilliant thing. The Booker is all about celebrating great literature. While I don't agree with the idea that there is one 'winner' in literature, the Booker does an amazing job of getting people reading books they otherwise wouldn't try. The bigger the pool, the better the 'best' novels should be. I understand there are concerns about how the changes will make it more difficult for existing Commonwealth writers to win the prize. But as a reader, I just want the best books to discover.

Discover. That's what I've done this year. I'm not in a position to speak with authority on what should win having only read four of the six books but since when has lack of authority stopped anyone blogging online? From those I have read, I don't believe these are the six best eligible novels of 2013, but  I do think they make an interesting collection. I'm looking forward to getting to NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names and Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary, but in the meantime, here are my thoughts on the four I have read.

Eleanor Catton - The Luminaries
Wow. I mean, wow. Eleanor Catton is one of the most lovely people I've met in literature. She spent a week at the Worlds gathering of writers in Norwich in 2012 and for much of the final day she went around seeing whether she could predict people's Zodiac signs simply by looking at them. She'd been researching for her new book, she said, and found it all fascinating. We played along, enjoying the times she got right at least as much as those she got wrong.
I find it amazing that all that time the book she was finishing was this one. The Luminaries is an amazing achievement that demonstrates a versatility of voice and ambition that is rarely seen in literature these days. I am only half-way through it so far, but what I've read is such a staggering feat of creative imagination that it rather blows me away. It is 1866 and a man arrives to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. He stumbles into a world of intrigue and mystery, a frontier community racked with corruption, jealousy, and petty squabbles. Structured around the movement of celestial bodies in the sky, The Luminaries is Victorian parody, a mystery novel told it pitch-perfect prose. Even at 800 dense pages, it is a rip-roaring read, full of intrigue and petty squabbles, history, and progress. That Eleanor is in her mid 20s shouldn't matter to judgement about the quality of her book. But that she has created a book so utterly different to her debut, The Rehearsal demonstrates just what a talent she is.

I'd love to see The Luminaries win. It's my tip and the one I'm supporting.

Jim Crace - Harvest
Is it too simplistic to suggest that Harvest is the longest retirement note of all time? Probably, but that was the feeling I came away with as I finished Harvest. Jim Crace has said that it will be his last book, and as it goes on Harvest becomes more and more about one man's last stand in the face of change.

It all starts of imperiously well. Crace's prose is slick and yet profound, the voice he conjures for his narrator reads beautifully. Walter Thirsk is an outsider who has found a home in a tiny isolated village, which is lived around collective subsistence farming. As the novel dawns we see two fires burning in the distance. The first, a group of newcomers raising smoke from a newly built dwelling, hints at threat from outside. The second, a larger fire in a barn of the manor house, seems to suggest that everything may not be well inside the village either.

Walter's narration is delivered in a mixture of first person singular and plural, an intermittent grand 'we' that represents the communality of the village, its interdependency, as well as his status on the fringes of it. And as change comes and land reform threatens to make this the last harvest of all, the plurality of the village becomes divided, the community swiftly atomised. The events are dramatic but it starts to seem a bit like creating a drama out of a crisis. And as the community breaks up, the prose loses its gentle elegance and the story dissipates.

I couldn't help being reminded of Julian Barnes's The Sense of An Ending, another sumptuously written novel whose plot gets rather lost as it progresses. Crace spends a considerable amount of time considering what it means to have something and then lose it, and what it means to leave something one has loved behind. I felt it became a little bit self-involved. It is such a shame, because there's no doubting that Harvest is a finely crafted novel. But I don't think it is a great novel. is it a great novel - I'm not sure it is.

Jhumpa Lahiri - The Lowland
Jhumpa Lahiri is one of those legions of writers that I've intended to read for a number of years, yet never found myself doing so. I'm delighted to have had this chance to read The Lowland which I thoroughly enjoyed. Lahiri's writing is assured and assuring; she is a writer for whom character is paramount, and tracing evolution of characters over time provides the narrative of the novel.

The Lowland follows the lives of two brothers from Calcutta, Subhash and Udayan. Inseparable as children, they grow apart as their different interests and beliefs take them in different directions. Lahiri tracks their lives, and the lives of those they are closest to, over 50 years of Indian, American and global history, seeing them excel and fail, all the time remaining surprising, passionate, believable characters in their own rights.

Perhaps one could criticise The Lowland as falling into a familiar trope in modern literature that sees characters escape drama in the 'Third World' to find safety and security in America. Its a recurring theme in recent literature and I find it overplayed and uncomfortable. There must be more to the immigrant experience to explore. However, Lahiri does it better than most and her writing is good enough that it doesn't impinge on the reading experience.

With the Marxist Naxalite movement at its heart, Lahiri cleverly manipulates the readers' response to the strong politics of the characters. Udayan is, for a long time portrayed as making a futile stand for something doomed to failure. But one of the brilliant things about this book is how the last chapter transforms much of what came before it. It's a great example of what novels do best: placing one inside the skin of another person and showing life through their experience. In finally seeing Udayan's motives, the reader quietly questions what came before, re-appraising in subtle ways much of what happens.

I loved The Lowlands and expect it to be a big hit with readers. It is epic and involving and character driven. I don't think it will win, and yet I do think it would be a great winner were it to do so.

Ruth Ozeki - A Tale For the Time Being
I must be honest: I could not finish this book. It wasn't that it was bad at all, just rather dull. The concept is a great one: Ozeki is trying to write a book according to Buddhist (and Quantum Mechanic) principles of time and place. So we have two characters (particles) existing independently of each other in the same time but different places. The narrative moves back and forth between a Nao, teenage girl in Japan who is struggling with being bullied and turns to write a diary to fill her loneliness, and Ruth Ozeki, a woman who finds the girl's diary washed up on the shore of her rural Canadian home. Nao's narration is engaging, playful and full of interesting glimpses into her life. However, Ruth's is dull and plodding. As a view of writers block, it is effective, her frustrated, stuck, mindset bleeding into the reading experience.

Ultimately, I just couldn't break into this book. I would read 10 pages then fall asleep. I would make promises to get on with it and read more. But I would find myself not wanting to pick it up. And finally I just moved on.

A Tale For the Time Being didn't work for me.

There's little to get excited about. I read about half, and that took me 2 weeks. At which point, despite constantly deciding to finish it quickly and then falling asleep, I just gave up. I'm confused how this possibly made it to the Booker shortlist.


Conclusion
And there we have it! Six books. A real mixed bag of themes and locations and styles. Because of its ambition, scope, and sheer demonstration of writing prowess, I'd like to see Eleanor Catton take home the prize. But it doesn't really matter. It is a great book, and will be read and loved regardless. That is the thing about prizes: we talk about them all the time and they can change writer's lives. And yet, a great book rises regardless of victory and a weak winner doesn't last long in the memory. That is the way it should be.

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