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Man Booker Prize Shortlist 2014

And so, the day has arrived, when 13 becomes 6.

The Man Booker shortlist was announced last week, with the following titles making the cut:

  • To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
  • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)
  • J, Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
  • The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
  • How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

For those keeping nation-of-origin score – which is a lot of people, frankly – that’s one from Australia, two from the US, and three from the UK (one of whom is also from India). On the gender side, it’s two by women and four by men, which, compared with a longlist that ran at 3 / 13, has at least shortened the odds somewhat.

As always, there are some surprising inclusions and some equally surprising omissions. Having read 8.5 of the 13 by shortlist announcement (the four untouched ones includes The Lives of Others, and Smith’s book is the half-read one), I was a little disappointed and puzzled to see neither Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World or Richard Powers’ Orfeo on the shortlist. I found both of those books very satisfying, well-crafted achievements; Hustvedt’s text a sharp, pungent, intellectually stimulating journey through gender, identity and art, and Powers’ story a lovely, lyrical, gentle and instructive picture of a life lived in music. Both were superbly written, and, in my view, substantial contenders for the shortlist.

There’s also been a lot of ruffled feathers over the failure to include David Mitchell’s new novel, The Bone Clocks, on the shortlist. Mitchell is something of a crowd darling, and his books are usually spiky, original and gripping, but I think The Bone Clocks might have been somewhat hampered by its very late release date. Of course, the judges got it early, but the rest of us didn’t (it’s just now downloaded to my Kindle and is sitting there unread, in fact), so it didn’t build up as much momentum as some of the others. There are always mixed views on how far the reception of the longlist books influences the shortlist process, but I don’t imagine a lack of buzz did Mitchell any great favours in the process.

However, there are other omissions with which I heartily concur. Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog was depressing for all the wrong reasons, and felt quite slight to me in many ways. Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake was a huge challenge (if you haven’t read it yet, and ever feel in need of tying your brain in knots for 2-3 weeks … have at it), but ultimately, the linguistic device of “shadowtongue” dragged this down and distracted Kingsnorth from the business of actually writing a strong, sustained narrative. I made it exactly three chapters into Niall Williams’ History of the Rain before pushing it aside – too much whimsy doesn’t make for a great read, at least not for me.

In terms of what did make it on, I am delighted beyond measure that one of the books I have most loved in the past three years, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, has been shortlisted. I admit I did not think it would make the cut, because it’s a very non-literary book in style; the fact that it has is solid evidence for the judge’s proposition that the Booker should be about readability and connection as much as esoteric style.

The inclusion of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is also a satisfying result. It would be – or should be – impossible to enjoy Flanagan’s book, exactly – it’s a grim, violent and deeply affecting tale based around the Australian POW experience on the Thailand-Burma Railway during World War II. It is, however, mesmerizingly well-written and engrossing, and certainly qualifies as a book that makes a lasting impact on the reader. Indeed, I haven’t been able to write my review of it yet, precisely because it bit very deep (my own grandfather was an Australian soldier on the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, and experienced a mercifully brief period as a POW, which nonetheless scarred him for life).

I’m in two minds about Howard Jacobson’s J; I’m not surprised it shortlisted, and I think it an important and compelling book, but it walks a thin line between fiction and polemic, and I’m unconvinced it always stays on the right side of it. Still, with its Orwellian reach and its carefully constructed narrative, there’s no doubt this is a book that will be provoking strong opinions for years to come, and notoriety (or, as they might term it, “significance”) has often been a marker for Booker selections in the past.

From there, we move on to the books about which I cannot fairly comment (Smith’s, which is about one-third read, and Mukherjee’s, which I have yet to start) and the one book that I think is a strange choice – Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.

The Ferris book is an unusual choice not so much because it’s (supposed to be) comic – the Booker judges flirt with comedy on a semi-regular basis, after all – but because, essentially, it’s not a very coherent or tightly-written story. Yes, yes, prize judges can fall for the loose, sprawling narrative as much as anyone, but in the context of this particular shortlist, chosen by these particular judges, who appear to value narrative control above all, Ferris’s book is an anomaly. It’s the only one of the bunch that doesn’t seem to know if it’s fish or fowl (well, I assume – the Mukherjee is certainly not attracting reviews that suggest a similar level of meandering).

So are there any discernible themes in this lot? Not immediately obviously, although there are shared preoccupations (J and To Rise Again both deal extensively with anti-Semitism; Beside Ourselves and How to be Both cover the “what is it to be human” question). Stylistically the books are very different: Smith’s is a multi-focal stream of consciousness; Jacobson’s is a very straight, traditionally put together narrative; Flanagan’s is a riff on memoir, Fowler’s is, purely and simply, a beautifully told family story. The main protagonists don’t have significant similarities – Smith’s book has two (art-view and camera-view), Flanagan’s has one doctor / soldier, J shares the lens between the ill-fated Kevern and Ailinn and the varying-degrees-of-sinister supporting cast, Beside Ourselves is focused tightly on Rosemary and how her family story shapes her. Ferris’s protagonist, Paul O’Rourke, and let’s give points for originality on this front, is a New York dentist.

Overall, it’s not a bad shortlist for Year One of The Coming of the Americans; there are at least three, and possibly four, titles on it that are eminently worthy of the prize. I would love to see Karen Joy Fowler win for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but I think the likeliest winner is either How to be Both or J. The prize is announced on 14 October; I’ll await the verdict with interest.