I’ve now read all six books nominated for this year’s Man Booker prize and it’s a strong list of novels. This is the first time I’ve read through an entire Man Booker shortlist so I can’t say with any confidence whether the strength of the list is typical of what the judges regularly serve up or whether this is a particularly strong year. In anycase, of the six books I believe there are three standouts. They are, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To the Deep North and Ali Smith’s How To Be Both.
I’d read the Fowler previously and reviewed it here. Later in October Kirstyn and I will be discussing the novel on The Writer and The Critic podcast. (Given that she recommended the book, I’m going to guess that our discussion is going to brimming with platitudes and praise). We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is probably the best book I read that was published in 2013. As I say in my review it’s a book that triggered a wild array emotions ranging from anger to deep sadness. I love the novel dearly and genuinely hope that it will be the first American novel to win a Man Booker. But I don’t think it will.
What I do believe will be taking home the cherries is Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To the Deep North. It’s a novel that deals with a very difficult subject, that is the subjugation of Australian soldiers – and other ethnic groups – by the Japanese during World War 2. Flanagan, in particular, focuses on the construction of the Burma railway, which resulted in the death of over one hundred thousand people (90,000 of which were Asian civilian labourers).
In spite of the subject, the novel is not a 450 page account of what happened in Burma during the construction of the railway. Yes, that’s dealt with, but Flanagan chooses to hold back those scenes of death and rot and decay and misery until about halfway through the novel. And even then he only focuses on one terrible day (most likely no different to the terrible days that came before, and those that came after). Rather than dwell, Flanagan looks at those people, Australian and Japanese, who suffered either directly or indirectly as a result of what happened during the War. Most of the story is told through the eyes of Australian Doctor Dorrigo Evans who survives Burma only to become a hero when he returns home. As the narrative skips from the past (before Burma and Evans love affair with his Uncle’s younger wife) to the present day (an older Evans struggling with issues of fidelity and memories of what he saw) to Burma itself, we get the picture of a man who was partly broken before he left for South East Asia, a man who has never felt entirely comfortable in his own body.
But that’s only part of the story, what takes this novel to the next level is how Flanagan switches point of view from other Australians who served with Evans, to the Japanese Commander, hooked on speed, who later spends his post war life running from his crimes to the Korean Guard who, after being captured, sits in a cell awaiting his execution, wondering whether he’s ever going to get the 50 yen a week he’s owed by the Japanese for doing his job.
It’s astonishing stuff, and while my heart might be with the Fowler, the Flanagan would definitely be a worthy winner.
And then there’s Ali Smith’s How To Be Both. I’ve heard a number of good things about Smith’s previous novels (she’s been nominated for a number of awards including the Booker and the Orange Prize) but this is the first time I’ve read one of her novels. And have I been missing out. How To Be Both provides us with two linked novellas, one titled “Eyes” the other titled “Camera”. If you buy the Kindle version of the novel, both stories appear twice just in a different order. I started with “Eyes” and now having read both novellas I can see how my reading experience would be radically different if I’d started with “Camera.”
I’m purposely going out of my way not to describe what these linked novellas are about. Just trust me that the prose is gorgeous, even if stylistically the novellas are very different (the stream of consciousness nature of “Eyes”, for example, might initially be off putting to some). There’s also a fantastical element to one of the novellas, which seeps into the second although that entirely depends on the order you read them in. If the genre community were to ever read beyond its self enforced ghetto this is the sort of novel that should be featuring on award ballots, though I’m certain it won’t.
Of the other three books, I enjoyed the sprawling, almost epic nature of Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others. For an insular white guy like myself, it’s examination of class and revolution in India during the late 60s is fascinating. While I thought the book was overlong, it’s definitely a novel worth checking out. Larry Nolen provides a more comprehensive review of the book here.
The two weakest novels on the shortlist (and they’re far from duds) are Joshua Ferris’ To Rise Again at a Decent Hour and Howard Jacobson’s J. I made the tasteless remark on Twitter that I must be a self hating Jew because the faith plays an integral role in both novels. But for different reasons neither book worked for me. In the case of J, I didn’t buy the conceit of the novel, and while the Ferris is genuinely funny at times, and is the only novel I know that has ever used the Amalek as a plot point, I wanted to repeatedly do nasty things to the book’s point of view character. I’m sure he’s meant to be annoying in a New York sort of way (and it’s certainly a New York sort of novel) but his neuroses and tics detracted from the novel’s theme, which is basically a man’s search to find a family, a religion or institution that’s willing to accept and love him.
In regard to J, there’s been a number of excellent reviews written about the novel and its central conceit. Adam Roberts and Dan Hartland both have difficulties buying what Jacobson is trying to sell. As a counterpoint, though, Nina Allan’s brilliant review nearly convinced me that the game Jacobson is playing is both smart and worthy. In anycase, while I had major reservations with the book it is a fascinating example of British Science Fiction (although I doubt Jacobson would see it that way) and as Nina Allan states toward the end of episode 202 of the Coode Street podcast, it’s the sort of interesting, controversial and different novel that SF readers should be looking at.
Overall, the Man Booker judges have provided us with a strong selection of books whose weakest entries still provoke discussion and argument. And frankly you can’t ask more than that from a shortlist.