Sunday, 11 September 2011

Bookish Bits & Bobs: Booker Prize Shortlist 2011

With the release of the Booker longlist in August, it's my little game every year to see if I can guess what will make the cut when it comes to the announcement of the shortlist in September. I'm usually wrong on an epic scale. I was therefore quite pleased to see the degree of my accuracy this year after predicting that the shortlist would contain "one of the two big guns [Barnes or Hollinghurst], or, if not them, [...] Kelman's offering." The shortlist does indeed contain one of the big names (Julian Barnes' A Sense of an Ending is on the list), and Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English made it too. But what of the others who made it onto the shortlist?

I was hoping that with the release of the shortlist more previews would be available on Amazon - with the price of books these days, how are people supposed to be able to have a valid opinion on what they think should win otherwise? By reading the reviews of the broadsheet journalists who get free copies and parroting their opinions? Anyway, Amazon seems to see my point for the shortlisted novels at least, with all except AD Miller's Snowdrops being available for preview. I therefore went in and had a second nosey around the first few pages of each.

Already being sold by Barnes' and Kelman's offerings, I decided to concentrate on the others. Jamrach's Menagerie, by Carol Birch, is poetic and raw in equal measure in describing its gruesome matter. Descriptions are simple, striking and accessible, with short sentences quickening pace and longer ones adding suspense and panic. With my only criticism being that the grim choice of subject would not put it at the top of my reading list, I can still nonetheless see why it could win: it grabs you from the off, with the retrospective narrative voice adding further intrigue, as we immediately want to know how the protagonist has got from the awful 'there' to the apparently calmer 'here'. In many ways it epitomises the purpose of literature: to inform, entertain, share the experiences of others, and give us an alternative prism through which to view the world.

Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers is equally graphic but more defensive. Information is revealed slowly and in a controlled manner, but perhaps a little too slowly: it is more pedestrian than Birch's effort, where we are immediately thrown into the action, and this may cause readers to lose interest more quickly. Nevertheless, we are given a mysterious commanding character called The Commodore, and the narrator's responsibilities and profession are as yet unknown. These are all reasons to continue reading.

Finally I came to Half Blood Blues, which I described in my previous Booker-related post as having a compelling premise but let down by disappointing prose. Upon rereading the preview, it is with a sinking feeling that my initial impressions do not appear to have changed. The use of dialect seems contrived and stilted - but having just embarked on the study of Of Mice and Men for the third year running with my eldest students, it is perhaps only natural that just about anything would be weak in comparison to Steinbeck's sterling command of colloquial English. But this is not to say that Esi Edugyan's work lacks promise - phrases like "twisted beauty" and "clotted shadows" are gems to be treasured.

So who do I believe will win? I'm inclined to go with my initial predictions of Julian Barnes or Stephen Kelman. It seems mean to name another author on top of them when a) AD Miller's work was unavailable for preview, and b) to name another author would effectively mean I was naming 50% of the shortlist as potential winners, which seems rather silly or unfair odds.

I realise the irony in what I have just done, given what I said before: I have just reviewed these Booker-shortlisted works for others' reading pleasure. I encourage you, though, to not take my word for it: go and read the previews as I have just done, or even buy the whole book to read before the winner is announced in October. By all of us getting involved and informed, we can get a truer impression of whether the elected winner is also the people's winner, and not just that of a circle of judges.

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