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Review: The Man Booker Prize Shortlist 2013

The 2013 Man Booker Prize will be announced on Tuesday (15 October), which is somewhat exciting for prize list junkies and book nerds such as myself. Although I always find Man Booker day interesting, this year it will be even more so, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, of course, there’s the sense of an ending. This is the swansong year for the traditional Man Booker, which has been, since its inception, a prize contestable by novelists from Commonwealth countries whose books are written in English. From 2014, the Man Booker will be open to any book published in the UK and written in English, regardless of where the author was born or resides. There has been much discussion about whether this means that the Man Booker will now become the almost exclusive domain of the better-resourced and marketed, and more numerous, US-based authors, and if so, what that might mean for the prize itself and the recognition of non-American fiction. Personally, I think it’s a bit early to call dire outcomes, but it does seem likely that the flavour of the prize will change with its internationalisation.

Secondly, this year’s prize announcement will be more interesting than many recently because, from where I am sitting, the shortlist is much more evenly matched, and more intriguing, than any shortlist in quite a while. Of the six titles on it, four of them are serious contenders to take it, which contrasts rather sharply with last year’s effort, where Hilary Mantel’s superb Bring Up the Bodies was the screamingly obvious winner. While Jim Crace’s book, Harvest, is odds-on to take the prize this year, it’s not head and shoulders above the rest, and it would be open to the judges to make a different decision without being perverse about it. I like this sense of possibility, especially given the books that are on the shortlist and the things they attempt.

The shortlist comprises:

Harvest, by English writer, Jim Crace, which is a tense, taut and slyly off-kilter “historical” story, framed by the Acts of Enclosure that ushered in rural community breakdown in the UK, but not, I think, really about them at all.

A Tale for the Time Being, by Canadian citizen (albeit US-born), Ruth Ozeki, takes a reasonably well-worn trope – writer discovers the personal writing of someone else, and interacts with it, giving a two-handed view of the action – and does quite poignant things with it, mostly due to her ability to create a vivid personality in the teenage diarist, Nao.

We Need New Names, by Zimbabwean writer, NoViolet Bulawayo, is brutal, vivid and compelling, which is what one would expect of a book largely about life in a slum shanty town and how the main protagonist, Darling, schemes to escape it.

The Testament of Mary, by Irish writer, Colm Toibin, is my personal favourite on the list, although it won’t win, for a range of reasons. At just 104 pages in length, this is the story of the gospels, from the point of view of Mary, the mother of Jesus. And Mary? She is angry.

The Lowland, by London-born but US-raised writer, Jhumpa Lahiri, is a really, at its most reduced, a family saga. Oh yes, it’s also about imperialism, Communism, and violence, but it’s like a more literary version of John Jakes’ North and South, which, as you might remember, was very good at the strategic introduction of crises to keep the pot boiling.

The Luminaries, by New Zealand writer, Eleanor Catton, is a thumper of a book at almost 900 pages long, but it attempts something very interesting indeed – to wind up a complicated, multi-protagonist crime and ghost story, set in the New Zealand goldfields of the mid 19th century, within a frame of astrological circles. Catton, moreover, writes with a fairly consistent 19th century voice, which is a massive achievement to sustain over 900 pages.

There are a few firsts and notabilities on the list, from a diversity viewpoint, before you even get into the substance of the works. NoViolet Bulawayo is both the first black African woman and the first Zimbabwean to be shortlisted for the prize, while Eleanor Catton, at 27 years old, is the youngest author ever shortlisted. With four books by women, the shortlist is atypically not skewed towards male writers (although, it must be said, the favourite to win is a book by a man.) While Lahiri was raised in the US and born in London, her family and heritage are Indian, and Ozeki, born in the US, has a Japanese mother, and now practises as a Buddhist priest.

It’s interesting to speculate on how these diverse backgrounds might have shaped the shortlist works, both as individual novels but also as a group. Of course, it’s true that all the writers share a high degree of facility with English and a proficiency with the conventions of the novel as a form, which is, in itself, a fairly specifically Western literary tradition. Nonetheless, I think the judges, in selecting these titles, are gesturing towards the possibilities that drawing from different understandings can offer.

Quite typically for the Man Booker, the list favours novels that take on Big Themes – this is not a prize, traditionally, that honours the small, perfect domestic study, the exploration of the inner world. This shortlist is not an exception to that, but the kinds of big themes that the novels take on, and the way they explore them, is engagingly different, and I think this is at least in part because of the breadth of backgrounds that the writers bring to their work.

So what are the Big Themes that these writers are taking on, then?

One theme that I think is present in at least four, and arguably five, of these books is the fear and rejection of the Other / fear of difference. It’s front and centre in Harvest, in which the rejection of the stranger family is both the catalyst and the bellwether for all the disaster that follows. It’s also key to Nao’s suffering in A Tale for the Time Being, and to unpicking the complexities of The Luminaries and We Need New Names. I would even assert that Othering is at the heart of what drives Mary’s lament in Toibin’s book. The bases of exclusion differ across works and contexts, of course, and are variously more and less subtle as the occasion demands. Underlying all of it, though, is the invocation of dread, and its dreary offspring, persecution; the revulsion against strangeness, the unpleasant but powerful human instinct to shut out and kick downwards, and what it brings.

Most of these books also take on the big perennials of identity and purpose – the Who Am I? and What is it All For? questions. Naturally, these questions are framed (and answered) quite differently in the six texts – Ozeki, bringing her Buddhist lens to the problem, is very overt and reflective in her treatment of it, while Bulawayo is much more pragmatic and implicit; Toibin’s Mary snarls out her insights, while Crace’s narrator, Walter Thirsk, sinks his understanding into the land and the landscape as a foil for thinking about himself. With the possible exception of Catton, though, all the books do take this on, and do (mostly) make headway on providing coherent answers within their own contexts.

So, with an appropriate disclamation of my award-picking prowess (I am traditionally middling to bad at it), I will say that I think Jim Crace is likely to win this year for Harvest, but that Colm Toibin, Eleanor Catton, and NoViolet Bulawayo are equally deserving for their works. (I only knock out Ozeki’s book because of what I felt was a disappointingly wacky final four chapters). It’s a strong list, a good list to see out the old Booker, and well worth your time all round.

Photo by liza31337, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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