Thoughts on the Man Booker shortlist to be announced on 6 September.
When we did our TV3 book club stint in The Company of Books recently, we were each asked what chance we thought Sebastian Barry had of winning the Man Booker this year. At the time, none of us had read the other books, and it’s difficult to make a judgement about the winner of a race when you don’t know the form of all the runners. In an attempt to remedy this, I’ve been trying to concentrate on the Booker longlist for my reading matter since that question was asked. To begin with, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that Barry, Barnes and Hollinghurst will definitely be shortlisted, possibly just because they are Barry, Barnes and Hollinghurst. I had thought Jamrach’s Menagerie showed promise based on the précis inside the dust jacket, but I’ve now read 170 pages and am still waiting for something other than pure narrative (and, to me, not hugely gripping narrative) to manifest itself. If it’s the sights, sounds and smells of 1857 you’re after there are more authentic-feeling novels out there. So I’ve abandoned Jamrach. Yes, I know it’s unfair to leave a book unfinished, but life is short for a busy reader, and if you’re an author hoping for £50,000, you don’t start working only half way through the shift.
I moved swiftly on to The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness, mainly because I know someone who knew him once upon a time. I’m only 70 pages in this time, and am jumping ship. The writing is limpid and assured, but it reads more like a very-well-written travel narrative/memoir than a novel, and is thus far marred by a somewhat hackneyed ‘my father was a bullying alcoholic and I’m glad he’s dead’ trope. A predictable narrator on the sideline of a tale runs the risk of not being much cared about. I’m off back to Herta Müller.
So what next? While I decide, let’s just take a pot shot at the shortlist without reading any of the books. As I said, Barry, Barnes and Hollinghurst are surely in. Next we have two books set in Europe during the war – Alison Pick’s Far to Go, and Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues. One might suppose that only one will make it. Having read it, I hope it’s Edugyan. On the same premise, there are two ‘Victorian’ novels – Jamrach’s Menagerie, and D. J. Taylor’s Derby Day. If either, I suspect Jamrach will get in (A. S. Byatt, the front cover tells us, thought it was fab). Similarly, there is Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman, about an 11-year-old boy who arrives from Ghana to live in a tower block in London, “learning the tricks of urban survival”, and Yvette Edwards’ A Cupboard Full of Coats, wherein Jinx is forced to revisit the events that led up to the murder of her mother fourteen years previously in their East London home. Kelman born in Luton, Edwards in Barnet; one must surely go. Patrick McGuinness’ portrait of Bucharest in The Last Hundred Days is balanced by A. D. Miller’s Moscow in Snowdrops. Neither might get through here. Last but not least, or possibly least, I can’t yet say, we have The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, and The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt, two offbeat tales, the first set a few months in the future following an act of biological terrorism, and the second about a pair of psychopathic cowboys. I have a feeling about that one . . .
So my prediction for the final six: Sense of an Ending, On Canaan’s Side and The Stranger’s Child; then The Sisters Brothers, Half Blood Blues, A Cupboard Full of Coats. I haven’t yet seen the betting odds – not that they matter, look at last year’s winner – but you can be sure that whomever I put my money on won’t be spending any £50,000 on a handbag.