Parvathi Nayar looks at the 13 contenders to the Shortlist.
It's that annual literary phenomenon when even high-minded bookish folk succumb to the lowly art of laying a bet — ie, the Man Booker prize, one of the most prestigious and eagerly followed of all literary awards. Round#1 of the Booker game is the longlist prediction, the “Man Booker Dozen” of 13 books that was announced last month, picked from an even longer list of 138 books.
We're now in Round#2, and the stakes are getting higher. This coming week, on September 6, the Booker shortlist will be announced, and speculation is rife as to which six authors will make the cut from what is a pretty unusual longlist.
Unusual, not just because of the inclusion of smaller publishers and not very well-known authors, but also because four contenders are first time novelists — ie, Stephen Kelman, A.D. Miller, Yvvette Edwards and Patrick McGuinness. What's more, some of the longlist books call into question the accepted wisdom that only “literary fiction” is considered for the Bookers, by dealing with such diverse subject matter as crime in Moscow or a Victorian mystery.
The list does have some “big names” such as Julian Barnes, and previous winner Alan Hollinghurst was instantly judged the favourite by the punters. However, other heavyweights such as Anne Enright are conspicuous by their absence. Adding to the air of intrigue, the panel of judges is chaired by its former MI5 director Dame Stella Rimington.
To help you place your bets on which six authors will make the shortlist — or indeed, go on to win the award that carries a cash reward of £50,000 — here are the contenders:
Julian Barnes — The Sense of an Ending
I think it's high-time Julian Barnes won, considering how many times this elegant wordsmith has been the shortlisted bridesmaid, but never the bride — for Arthur and George, 2005, England, England, 1998 and Flaubert's Parrot, 1984. The Sense of an Ending has a pretty ordinary protagonist in 60-something year-old Tony Webster; but as he sifts through his recollections of a childhood friend who killed himself as a young man, the tale wanders into unsettling places. Adolescence and memory are powerful themes in this short novel, widely praised for its stylish prose and insightful plotting.
Sebastian Barry — On Canaan's Side
Irish writer Sebastian Barry is also a previous shortlisted nominee for The Secret Scripture, 2008 and A Long Long Way, 2005. Here Barry returns to the Dunnes — a family that has featured in his previous novels — and the character of Lilly Bere. Now 89, she reflects on her life — from fleeing Ireland in fear, to her husband being assassinated in America and other losses. Barry's lyrical prose is in full flight here, as in a description of Lilly's brother who returns from the trenches “disguised by the thin dust of terror he carried on him”.
Carol Birch — Jamrach's Menagerie
Eight-year-old Jaffy Brown is saved from certain death at the jaws of a Bengal tiger by the animal's owner Mr. Jamrach, a real person who lived in 19th century Wapping, London. Carol Birch's 11th novel uses historical facts to weave a fantastical tale set both on land, and on sea aboard a whaling ship. Birch was previously longlisted in 2003 for Turn Again Home.
Patrick deWitt — The Sisters Brothers
Eli Sisters is the narrator of Patrick deWitt's second novel, set in 1851, around the time of the Californian Gold Rush. Eli and his older brother Charlie are hired killers whose next job takes them on a long journey to San Francisco. Bizarre encounters, adventures and conversations along the way open Eli to the possibilities of alternative choices whether to do with his profession, horse or even, dental hygiene.
Esi Edugyan — Half Blood Blues
The Afro-German experience in Europe during the Nazi regime — not an often-recounted tale — is narrated in Half Blood Blues with a fine sense of musicality. Though black German jazz trumpeter Hieronymous "Hiero" Falk is the Mischling or “half-breed” at the centre of the story, it is seen through the eyes of an African-American fellow-member of his jazz band, Sid Griffiths.
Yvvette Edwards — A Cupboard Full of Coats
“It was a very surreal moment. I feel like I've gone from 0-60mph in five seconds”: So said Yvette Edwards on hearing that she had made the Booker longlist with A Cupboard Full of Coats, the troubled story of Jinx. Jinx is forced to revisit her mother's murder that happened 14 years earlier, when her mother's friend Lemon lands up at her doorstep, determined to re-examine the past and make some reparations.
Alan Hollinghurst — The Stranger's Child
The short life, untimely war death, and posthumous reputation of a Georgian poet Cecil Valance is the scaffolding of The Stranger's Child — upon which Alan Hollinghurst builds events and characters that return to some of his well-known literary concerns. Such as the story of homosexuality England, or how a sense of Englishness is constructed via the class structure, architecture and literature of the land. Hollinghurst is the only longlist author who has previously won the prize (The Line of Beauty, 2004).
Stephen Kelman — Pigeon English
Pigeon English is about 11-year-old Ghanaian caught up in immigrant gang warfare in London. The title refers both to the book's unusual language — Ghanaian street slang mixed with Londonese — as well as an actual pigeon that its young protagonist Harri Opoku believes is looking after him. Even more unusual than the mix of ingredients is the story of how it came to be published. The manuscript, discarded by a literary agent, was accidentally discovered; then followed a bidding war that eventually fetched the author a high six-figure sum.
Patrick McGuinness — The Last Hundred Days
As the title tells us, Patrick McGuinness's debut book is set in the last days of Ceaucescu's Bucharest. The narrator is a young English student who arrives in Bucharest and works at a university job he didn't quite apply for. His life becomes enmeshed with that of a city that is dying psychically as well as literally with whole areas destroyed by the regime's demolition gangs.
A.D. Miller — Snowdrops
A.D. Miller, former Moscow correspondent for The Economist draws on what he experienced, to create the story of Nick. An English lawyer sent to Moscow to help broker enormous deals, Nick falls prey to the insidious seepage of corruption in the city. The title isn't a botanical reference but rather, Moscow slang for a dead body buried by winter snow that emerges when the landscape melts in Spring.
Alison Pick — Far to Go
Are there yet stories that can capture new perspectives on the Holocaust? Canadian novelist/poet Alison Pick tries, by narrating her tale from two vantage points. In the present, there's Anneliese, a dedicated Holocaust researcher; and in the past, are a group of Czechoslovakian Jews living in the time leading up to the Nazi occupation of their country in 1939. Canadian authors, incidentally, have a strong showing, with Pick, deWitt and Edugyan making the longlist.
Jane Rogers — The Testament of Jessie Lamb
Would this be the closest approximation of a Sci-Fi book that has received Booker recognition? Jane Rogers' teen heroine lives in a near-future dystopia where some form of biological terrorism has altered the world, so that pregnant women die from what is termed “maternal death syndrome”.
D.J. Taylor — Derby Day
Derby Day's equine hero is a black racehorse called Tiberius who has what it takes to win the Derby. Those who have claimed a stake in the horse's future include his owner, Mr. Davenant, the villainous Mr. Happerton, and the latter's reprehensible associate, Captain Raff. D.J. Taylor's Victorian mystery is plotted with a real feeling for time, place and character, down to its detective, Captain McTurk of Scotland Yard.