Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Booker Prize Shortlist

The Booker Prize has changed its format this year, no longer are Americans excluded, now the prize is open to any novel that was published in English by a UK publisher (excepting vanity presses) in the previous 12 months. Presumably to avoid being swamped by novels each publisher is allowed to enter only 1 book unless it has had a book on the previous longlist in which case it is allowed to enter 2. (I may have misunderstood the rules here so please correct me if I'm wrong about this.) The important point though is that this first level of selection is done by the publisher, which is the reason a lot of books on the Booker Prize longlist look vaguely familiar: publishers - wisely - select the types of books that have won in the past, (which, alas, is why so many of them are about upper middle class people and their bloody problems). If the Booker Prize longlist really represented the best novels being published in the English language in the last year then contemporary English literature would be in really big trouble, but, of course it doesn't, it merely represents the books various British publishers and their PR people think have a chance of pleasing the judges: judges who almost always come from the same clubby London literary elite. Julian Barnes famously called the Booker Prize "posh bingo" and posh it certainly is. In the last 10 years only 2 judge chairpersons haven't gone to an exclusive British private school which is pretty amazing when you consider the fact that despite the Harry Potter mythmaking 95% of British people in fact go to state schools. This year's chief judge is AC Grayling a man who began his address at the Perth Writers Festival with these words "A few weeks ago I was reading Moliere in the bath in French," at which point I left...Sometimes the Booker judges get it right (Hilary Mantel, Pat Barker etc.) but often they perplexingly miss the mark (no David Peace or David Mitchell.) 
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I've read 5 of the 6 books on the shortlist this year and I've written what I think below. (I haven't read Howard Jacobson's novel J because I vowed never to read another Jacobson after reading The Finkler Question which hands down is the worst novel I've ever finished (it won the 2010 Booker Prize)). 
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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Fowler: This was my favourite of the shortlisted books. A coming of age story about a girl who grows up with her scientist parents in Indiana and a most unusual sibling. I can't say any more without giving you a major spoiler. Apparently everyone I've talked to spotted the big twist coming but I'm clearly slow on the uptake and did not. This was a charming book that I very much enjoyed. 
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The Narrow Road To The Deep North - Richard Flanagan: My second favourite book on the list. A deeply depressing but weighty tale of British and Australian POWs working on the Burma railway. Remember the doctor at the end of Bridge on the River Kwai who says "Madness! Madness!"? Yeah? Well, it's sort of about him.  
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To Rise Again At A Decent Hour - Joshua Ferris: This tied for second favourite on my list. A comic novel about a NY dentist having an existential crisis when someone assumes his identity on Facebook. There are several really great scenes, but this could have been funnier (of course you can say that about everything can't you?) 
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How To Be Both - Ali Smith: passion, love, betrayal in the art worlds of the 1460s and 1960s. I liked this book's ambition and its certainly the cleverest and best constructed of the books on the shortlist.  
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The Lives of Others - Neel Mukherjee: Politics and family rivalries in late 1960's Calcutta. I'm afraid this book didn't engage me much at all. It would be amazing if this book won the Booker and the far superior and geographically and thematically similar A Suitable Boy did not. Be glad I'm not in the book titling business as I wd have called this novel: Cat Torturers, Communists & Catamites In Old Calcutta which wd have been a PR disaster.