Philip Hensher reviews the Man Booker prize longlist

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

The Man Booker prize has strong years and weak years. There have been ones when the judges have succeeded in identifying what is most interesting in English-language fiction and others when the task has been comprehensively flunked. With Robert Macfarlane as chairman, 2013 promises to be very good; 2011, which was in fact a strong year for fiction, was widely agreed to be a catastrophe; 2012, while an improvement, was disappointing in that it reflected the conventional tastes of academics.

This year’s longlist shows a confident take on the direction of the English-language novel. There are certainly some sad omissions, including splendid novels by Evie Wyld and Michael Arditti. It must be said, too, that the Booker often prefers a moderately able tackling of a big theme over an exquisitely polished and insightful domestic study. Nevertheless, this is an ambitious and thoughtful longlist and deserves extensive investigation.

One interesting feature is the judges’ willingness to stretch the qualification for the prize as far as possible. In theory, American writers are not eligible. In practice, it is easier for an American with some usefully maintained secondary passport to be considered than for an Indian national.

On this longlist, I think Jhumpa Lahiri, Noviolet Bulawayo, Ruth Ozeki and Colum McCann are customarily resident in the US at the very least. How useful the manipulation of national and cultural identity can be for a novelist is shown by the interesting case of Ozeki. She does not bear her father’s surname, Lounsbury, or her husband’s, Kellhammer. Her novels have strong Japanese themes, and readers should not, apparently, be asked to wonder what a Ruth Lounsbury is doing writing about Japan.

No Bengali would think of Jhumpa Lahiri as anything but an American novelist, either, and it seems now comic to give Elizabeth Tshele, rechristened Noviolet Bulawayo, a prize for African writers when she has lived and worked in the US for many years. For professional purposes, such novelists bear a useful cross-cultural identity; American for networking purposes, Japanese, Zimbabwean, Irish or Bengali for PR purposes, but all virtuous Commonwealth citizens as far as the Man Booker goes.

And good luck to them. Personally, I think the prize ought to be open to American writers rather than extended in this piecemeal way. The sort of writer who leaves an African or Asian country, does an American creative writing degree and then publishes a novel from the security of an American university in approved creative writing style about the suffering of their native country does not, in my view, always represent the best of American writing today, or anyone else’s.

Noviolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names (Chatto, £16.99) has a liveliness of voice, but suffers from a remote tendency to cover every important subject afflicting the lives of its Zimbabwean slum-dwellers — child exorcisms, NGO abuses, mob violence against white Zimbabweans and so on. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (Bloomsbury, £14.99) is not bad in its American-airport-bestseller style, but it is extraordinarily remote and superficial in the Calcutta parts of its story, and springs to observant life only in the American sections. I wish Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being (Canongate, £7.99) were less of a conventional researcher’s-homelife-versus-interesting-textual-discovery sort of novel, and still more that her kooky Japanese schoolgirl sounded less like an abject Murakami pastiche.

Still, there are interesting and original investigations of particular cultural communities here, and Lahiri’s novel in particular should not be neglected on account of its observational patchiness. I love, too, Tash Aw’s frank, driven and forthright rendering of the new Shanghai, Five Star Billionaire (Fourth Estate, £18.99). Though there is not much here that would tax readers of Arthur Haley, the subject is beautifully fresh and made to leap through some furiously exciting hoops of plot.

Oddly, its account of the workings of capitalism chime with Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart (Doubleday, £12.99), a flawed but engaging novel of the after-effects of the crash in Ireland. Ryan has some vividly rendered voices, though his novel suffers from a completely ludicrous plot and the decision never to let a speaker be repeated. Eve Harris’s The Marrying of Chani Kaufman (Sandstone Press, £8.99) is a lovely, very funny and touching account of a marriage in orthodox Jewry.

There is an interesting divide observable in this longlist when we come to novels that deal with the past. In some, no attempt is made to render the subject’s manner of speaking — or only in a conventional historical novel way. Colum McCann’s triple-subject novel Trans-Atlantic (Bloomsbury, £18.99), set in the 1840s, the 1920s and the 1990s, is a very refined piece of writing. But all three subjects sound very much the same, and the unfailing virtue of his American-Irish heroes, including the American senator George Mitchell, bored me thoroughly before the end.

Alison MacLeod’s Unexploded (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99), set in 1940s Brighton, had a fascinating subject, evidently influenced by Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs Lippincote’s and A View of the Harbour. But it suffers greatly from a startling disjuncture between its own style and that of the period. No novelist of the 1940s would have indulged in the extraordinarily vulgar practice of putting characters’ thoughts in italics. There were, too, some really glaring anachronisms — for instance, an upper-class Englishwoman referring to condoms as ‘rubbers’.

Colm Toíbín’s marvellous The Testament of Mary (Viking, £7.99) is written in a beautifully poetic and rueful fictional dialect of its own, exploring the late-life thoughts of Jesus’s mother. Even finer is Jim Crace’s Harvest (Picador, £16.99). It seems at first to be set in a medieval village, and brutality and suffering in its ferocious week-long action are rooted in the soil. But the careful reader will notice that its narrator is long familiar with tobacco, and is surprised by his first sight of mauve in a stranger’s garment, dating it fairly precisely after the 1850s. It is a remote and untouched, unchanged community, where the laws of behaviour and speech are handed down and hardly questioned. Crace is a most meticulous and original novelist and this is one of his unquestionable masterpieces.

I can hardly see where else the prize can go than to the long-overdue Crace, but there are other very fine novels. Charlotte Mendelson is much admired by the cognoscenti and Almost English (Mantle, £16.99) ought to be a bestseller. The account of a girl from a family of Hungarian aunts, dealing with love and old lechers at a ghastly boarding school in the 1980s, is sheer bliss — pure rueful comedy with endless resourcefulness. Though this one being written in the dreaded historic present for no reason whatsoever, I adore her novels and wish there were many more of them.

Eleanor Catton’s immense The Luminaries (Granta, £18.99) is a brilliant exercise in  19th-century language, with only a couple of tiny slips (once she makes a character greet another by saying ‘Hello’). The account of gold-prospecting in New Zealand is wonderfully intricate, but one wanted something more interesting to be achieved through the pastiche manner; it was quite remote, too, from the 19th-century novel’s form, but not in any very intriguing way.

At 800-odd pages, The Luminaries shows that this year’s judges are not averse to one of the novel-reader’s great pleasures — the immensely long and absorbing volume. (Less able panels in the past have made no bones about choosing 100-page novellas that zip along, presumably preferring their fiction to be over as soon as possible.).They outdo themselves in choosing an astounding sequence by Richard House in The Kills (Picador, £20), four consecutive novels amounting to 300,000 words or more. This is a thrilling, overwhelming ride, starting from a brilliant North by North-West-ish donnée: an official working in the Gulf under a false name on a questionable project is asked to disappear quietly for a couple of hundred thousand and quickly finds himself the fall-guy for a missing $53 million.

Astonishing for its scale and drive, it is released in a number of digital formats as well as an immense hardback. It is full of lucid action, drifting contemplation, apparent dead-ends, confusion and thuggish explosions. I could not wait to get back to it when reading it, and House is probably this year’s major reinventor of the possibilities of the genre: the leap into the present tense at the three-quarter stage shows a novelist in full command of his technical possibilities.

The shortlist should comprise McCann, Tóibín, Mendelson, Crace, House and Catton. House’s novel is the one you ought to read, and Mendelson’s the one that everyone will read and love. The prize will go to Crace.

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The shortlist will be announced on 10 September and the winner on 15 October

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