Assorted literary grandees will squeeze into their tuxes this evening to compete for the Booker Prize. Of the debut novelists, one previous winner and a brace of old-timers, who stands the best chance of winning?
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
This is a coiled, unsettling work. A group arrive at their French villa only to find a woman, Kitty Finch, swimming in the pool. Having nowhere to go, she is invited to stay. The book charts the way Kitty’s mental instability wriggles its way into the fabric of the group’s relations: the poet Joe, Isabel (his war-reporter wife), Nina (his teenage daughter) and tag along friends Mitchell and Laura. Written in taut prose, Levy wraps her world in claustrophobia, clinically detailing the depression and friction that ends in tragedy. While not exactly one for laughs, the 160-page length means it rarely drags and often surprises.
Verdict: Parallels with last year’s winner, Sense of an Ending: serious themes made accessible by brevity. Though judges might be shy for fear of it being too typical a ‘Booker’ winner.
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore
This joins Levy’s novel in the brevity stakes. During its 180 pages, the book charts the emotional fortunes of two leads: Futh, a curiously bloodless middle-aged man who arrives in Germany for a walking holiday; and Ester, a bored hotelier trapped in a loveless marriage. Moore’s surgical prose is the perfect medium through which to examine the turbulence of inertia. Any suggestion of action comes through trips down memory lane: Futh’s memories of an absentee mother, gruff father and his own failed marriage. Ester, too, spends most of the novel interrogating old events, picking over the causes of her present despair. Any longer and the largely eventless nature would grate; as it is, The Lighthouse proves beguiling, if unusual, company.
Verdict: Slightly too muted and brief to stand against some of the nosier works on the list. Probably least likely to snaffle the winner’s cheque.
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
As openings go, a single seven-page sentence could hardly be called unambitious. And neither is the novel. Far from the delicate minimalism of Levy and Moore, Thayil’s hallucinatory narrative skids along the alleyways and drug dens of Bombay in the 1970s, evoking every scummy detail and grimy surface. Narrative is scarce, characters pop up and then vanish just as quickly and the style is awash with the flotsam and effluvia of city life, sentences slurring into one another. As a piece of showmanship, it is worth the ticket price. As a novel? Well, let’s just say last year’s controversy over ‘readability’ is not foremost in the reader’s mind as the first full stop belatedly shows up for duty seven pages late.
Verdict: Battling with Will Self’s Umbrella for the ‘Unreadability’ award this year. Technically assured, though not one to trouble the cash tills or the book groups. Critics will love it as a winner, the general reader perhaps less so.
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
Another strange one this. Tan Twan Eng’s second novel follows the fortunes of Teoh Yun Ling, a retired judge suffering from aphasia who, while some memory still remains, revisits the dramas of her youth in Malaya. Following a traumatic experience in a Japanese prisoner camp, she recalls wanting to build a garden in memory of her dead sister. The man she asked – Nakamura Aritomo, the former gardener for the Emperor of Japan – refused, but took her on as an apprentice. The book hops back and forth between present-tense action, as Yun Ling looks back over her life, and past-tense recollection where we relive her dramas with Aritomo during the Malayan Emergency and her horticultural apprenticeship. Though gripping in parts, often the book slips into dullness with the occasional bit of lyrical cringe. Though Yun Ling’s memory of her prisoner camp experiences are finely done and there is just enough plot to excuse the often awkward dialogue, it feels a tad calorific to me, bulking a novella into almost 350 densely-packed pages. Though perhaps gardening anoraks might disagree.
Verdict: Has an exotic flavour to it that only Thayil’s novel can match. Perhaps one of the most interesting in terms of subject matter, though presented in a rather steady-as-she-goes way. Good for introducing an unfamiliar historical context, but a hundred pages too long. Middling chances of being the name in the winning envelope.
Umbrella by Will Self
The blurb proclaims that Self ‘takes up the challenge of Modernism’. It’s quite a claim, and the novel is inescapably challenging. Dealing with mental illness and spanning from 1918 to 2010, Umbrella follows the fortunes of Audrey Death and Dr Zack Busner (a recurring character in Self’s oeuvre), in largely paragraph-less prose made maddeningly ugly by italics interrupting every line. Such typographical inelegance may suit some as may the usual Self zaniness; but it left me diving for the new Sebastian Faulks.
Verdict: As usual with Self, not a crowd-pleaser of a book. Though with tricksy fare back in fashion with the judging panel, this could well be his year. Expect the accompanying monographs to be hot off the presses if so.
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel is no stranger to the Booker prize. Bring Up the Bodies is the follow up to 2009 winner Wolf Hall. And what a return. Here we find Thomas Cromwell masterminding the demise of Anne Boleyn and easing the way for Henry VIII’s marriage to Jane Seymour. In that unmistakeable style of present tense narration – a mode now almost unusable by any other writer, for fear of comparison – Mantel recasts dry fact into novelistic reality. And no one in recent decades has come close to writing as convincingly about the vicissitudes of power. The prose is alive, the plot sinuous and the characters blood-pumpingly real. Novel of the year by far.
Verdict: If Mantel doesn’t join J.M. Coetzee and Peter Carey as a double-winner, a great injustice will have been done. What’s more: could the concluding volume to the trilogy see her the first to scoop it three times? Here’s hoping.
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