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Man Booker

Matt and I sometimes take separate holidays. He rarely has the urge to visit somewhere once he has read about it in National Geographic. I, on the other hand, am a sucker for every holiday brochure that falls onto the doormat and want to go everywhere, preferably now, only to get to the end of the Inca Trail – the climax of a trip to Peru – and think, ‘Yeah, it looks exactly like it did on the cover of National Geographic. Where’s the nearest shower?’

A few short years ago I took three books with me on a trip to China (alone): Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2004, The Word According to Clarkson by…you guessed it, and Mulgrave of the Marshes by John Peel.  

I started with Cloud Atlas. It was something I thought I should read. I had looked forward to reading it. There are no two ways of saying this: I absolutely hated it.

I then read Jeremy Clarkson who, in his own unmistakable style, managed to hit upon the reason why: ‘My wife reads books the size of Agas about women in beekeeper hats who spend 50 years in Peru looking for a lost bracelet. Man Booker books, in other words.  Sometimes I snatch them away and ask: ‘What do you hope happens next?’ and I always get the same answer: ‘Nothing really.’

Jeremy Clarkson gave me permission to abandon Cloud Atlas in favour of Mulgrave of the Marshes, and there I learnt more about the time that immediately preceded my own, more about second chances, more about the success of an unconventional marriage than I could ever have hoped to learn from a work of fiction. It made me homesick for an England I didn’t even know but seemed strangely familiar, discovered through someone else’s eyes. It made me laugh out loud on foreign public transport. It made me cry.  It had me trying to calculate time differences so that I could share my discoveries with the only person in the world I wanted to talk about them with (only to get the ansaphone). What more can you demand of a book?

In my recent but short-lived career as a student, it was refreshing to hear MA students admit that their taste in fiction was far less highbrow than the suggested reading list. However, it was short-sighted of the lecturer to dismiss all Man Booker prize-winners as you would X Factor winners: “You won’t learn anything from them. Who has even heard of most of them? Who can remember them a year later?” 

Hilary Mantell, anyone?    

In the last couple of years, books shortlisted for the Man Booker award are losing their reputation for being ‘worthy’ but unsatisfying reads. For me, Wolf Hall, fell under Clarkson’s  category of  ‘a book that becomes more important than life itself.’ Conversation was out of the question for days.  

Considering that we are repeatedly told that the general public has lost interest in literature, it was encouraging to see the Royal Festival Hall packed to the rafters for last night’s Man Booker readings. (That said, when asked for a show of hands from those who had read at least one of the short-list, only a few shot up.)  It was an opportunity to hear the  short-listed authors read their own words, something that offers a new insight and, perhaps, the chance to narrow down that shopping list.

The prize was launched in 1969 with the aim of encouraging readers to try the best of fiction written in the English language.  To be short-listed, or to win, can propell authors from obscurity to the covetted tables in Waterstones, perhaps even onto those shelves at Tescos, suggesting that, to the time-poor book-buying public, Booker books are what ‘one should’ be reading (as opposed to, say, the latest Jilly Cooper).  

Last week, we were told, Ladbrooks stopped taking bets on the winner when all the money seemed to be on Tom McCarthy’s ‘C.’ It was suggested that the judges had got together, decided in advance who is going to  win and leaked the results. Unthinkable! So who are the candidates?

Howard Jacobson was up first with The Finkler Question, an exploration of male friendship and what it means to be Jewish today. Humour, Jacobson explained, is essential to his writing, his role one of entertainer. His interest is in pushing the boundaries of humour, particularly when there is tragedy involved; his ambition, that readers should be able to ‘taste blood in the laughter.’   Whether or not the end result falls short of his ambition, Jacobson has invested a great deal of affection in his characters. There is humanity here.  

Andrea Levy proved herself to be the performer of the evening. In her reading from The Long Song,  she became July, the narrator born to a life of slavery on a Jamaican sugar plant. The extract she chose described the slave uprising of 1831-32, when forty overseers under the command of Captain Shearer thought themselves surrounded by thousands of slaves, only to find that the sound that they had identified as rifle shots was the sound of bamboo burning.    

Damon Galgut, previously nominated for his book, The Good Doctor, in 2003 is in no doubt about the magic Booker effect, bringing with it financial freedom. He read from In a Strange Room, a novel that deals with three journeys, each ending in distaster. His choice was a passage describing a meeting between characters referred to only as ‘he’ and ‘she.’ ‘She’ was clearly in trouble, a walking pharmaceutical, warned off but unable to resist the lure of alcohol; ‘he’ was the guardian entrusted (but unable, I suspect) to keep her under control.

Tom McCarthy, the name on every one’s lips, has been nominated for his third novel C which tells the story of Serge Carrefax, set in the early years of radio transmission. Tom’s chosen extract had Serge imagining the shapes of the sound that the radio waves make and the exotica of the places that the transmissions come from. It fell flat. In this week’s Songwriters’ Circle (BBC4: miss it at your peril) Justin Currie described the ‘list song’ (think We didn’t Start the Fire or It’s the End of the World as We Know it): to me, this was  ‘list prose.’ 

Emma Donoghue, nominated for her novel ‘Room‘ makes no secret that the source of her inspiration is the story of Elizabeth Fritzl. She says that the story of five-year old Jack, confined in a single room with his mother, was one that she felt had to be told. However, she insists that what is at times a nightmare might also be seen as an idyll, asking what child does not want his mother’s undivided attention.   

The final novel on the list was Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey. Carey was influenced by reading about an 18th Century aristocrat who spent his time worrying about the same issues that he found himself worrying about, chiefly, who is this idiot who is running the country? A short reading, I suspect, was unable to do this book justice. I was left wanting more.     

Unless you are fortunate enough to be in possession of insider information, you will have to wait until Tuesday’s 10 o’clock news for the winning entry to be unveiled. If Ladbrooks were still taking bets, my money would go on Andrea Levy. If the purpose of the award is encourage people to re-discover books, we do not need ‘highbrow’ or ‘worthy.’ She was the one candidate who stood out as trying to entertain as well as inspire. Carefully hidden between the sarcasm, Clarkson makes a powerful point: the requirement for explosions and divebombing by F-15 bombers aside, a novel ‘needs, more than anything else, a story. With a story, you have the most powerful of emotions: hope.’

Jane has taken the liberty of quoting from Why The Booker Shortlist Always Loses the Plot taken from The World According to Clarkson (a Top-Ten Bestseller, unlikely to be nominated for any great literary award, but an excellent read, nonetheless). Mulgrave of the Marshes should be right at the very top of your Christmas list if it has passed you by.