Friday, 19 August 2011

Bookish Bits & Bobs: Booker Prize Longlist 2011

OK, I'm aware that this came out now a few weeks ago, but other things got in the way (such as Do Nothing But Read Day, and holidays, and things).

The release of the Man Booker Prize Longlist meant this year, as in previous years, trawling Amazon for previews and seeing what I think. It was encouraging this year to see so many new names on the longlist alongside some familiar ones, but the downside to my approach is that many of these new names will not have previews available online. A shame. In any case, I did still manage to get a feel for a few of the novels gracing this year's list.

Julian Barnes' effort, entitled The Sense of an Ending, seems like it will not disappoint: arresting, innovative, intriguing and thought-provoking prose grabs you by the neck and makes you want to read on. The other returner to the list, Alan Hollinghurst, is, strangely, another one of those authors whose longlisted work is not available for preview. Another disappointment, as I was hoping that The Stranger's Child would help me to dispel my own prejudices towards his work. On the blurb's first appearance, it sounds beautiful, compelling and romantic, but I did sigh inwardly at the use of the phrase "sexual mores" (again, Alan? Really? You might as well throw in a bag of cocaine and a bottle of champagne and be done with it, if The Line Of Beauty was anything to go by). Still, I'd be willing to give the guy another chance.

Then, as mentioned, several longlisted authors remaining shrouded in mystery due to the inability to consult their works without actually buying them (what, you think I'm made of money? You can certainly forget finding such recently issued books at the library). Yvvette Edwards is one of these, having been nominated for her debut, A Cupboard Full Of Coats. The same is the case for AD Miller's Snowdrops. Patrick McGuinness, while not shortlisted for his debut, is shortlisted for The Last Hundred Days; no previews are available for any of his works. Of these three, based on the blurbs alone, it is Edwards' unravelling of the past that appeals most to me (although Amazon shoppers have voted with their wallets, clearing the online retailer of all stocks of The Last Hundred Days).

Grimness, tragedy and a sense of history pervade virtually all of this year's offerings; don't come to this list if you're looking for a laugh (if that's what you want, you'll likely find it in Barnes' tale of schoolboy escapades). Nevertheless, all of the remaining novels have something appealing to offer in spite of their serious overtones. Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side provides no look inside, but the writer's previously Booker-shortlisted The Secret Scripture does allow you to take a peek inside his style. Eloquent and flowing, we get a hint of a slightly spooky, rambling and Victorian feel which is not unattractive, although it does carry with it the often-found characteristics of Irish fiction. Jamrach's Menagerie, the nominated novel by Carol Birch, is too similar to Barry's work, but lacks the Irishness - so if you're not into Irish literature but Barry's tome appeals otherwise, Ms Birch's novel could be the one for you.

Esi Edugyan's premise in Half-Blood Blues is appealing, but is let down by the quality of its prose. The remaining nominees are similarly plagued by swings and roundabouts - Patrick Dewitt's The Sisters Brothers has intriguing but ominous circumstances that seem potentially traumatic; Alison Pick's Far To Go has an interesting historical and cultural context but again seems like it may turn out to be tragic; and the offerings by Jane Rogers and DJ Taylor (titled The Testament of Jessie Lamb and Derby Day respectively) seems relatable but grim, carrying themes of teenage invincibility and weighed down by slightly clunky dialogue in Taylor's case (although there are some more lyrical passages).

I mentioned earlier the tricky task of trying to find laughs in this longlist. Another place where some humour is found, aside from Barnes' opus, is in the work of the final nominee, Stephen Kelman. His Pigeon English too, is gruesome-sounding but is endowed with the charming perspective of a child and appears intriguing but amusing. Easily Barnes' and Hollinghurst's nearest competitor in the crowd of literary longlist noobs.

My money therefore, is on one of the two big guns, or, if not them, then on Kelman's offering. And, at the risk of coming over all left-wing on you, it's a relief to find that this latter novelist is not from the Oxbridge novelist factory, but has worked variously as a warehouse operative, a care worker, and an administrator. I'll be interested to see, with the release of the shortlist on September 6th, whether his debut novel has made the cut.

The Booker Prize longlist was announced on July 26th.
The Booker Prize shortlist will be announced on September 6th.
The winner of the prize will be proclaimed on October 18th.

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