Sunday, 14 September 2008

2008 Booker Short-list

The 2008 Booker short-list was announced on 9th September. It is a short-list of six, and consists of:

Aravind Adiga (The White Tiger)

Sebastian Barry (The Secret Scripture)

Amitav Ghosh (Sea of Poppies)

Linda Grant (The Clothes on Their Backs)

Philip Hensher (The Northern Clemency)

Steve Toltz (A Fraction of the Whole)

Two first-time novelists—Arvind Adiga and Steve Toltz—have made it to the short-list, as did Sebastian Barry (for the second time), while the two previous winners—John Berger and Salman Rushdie—have not survived the cull.

My prediction was as follows:

Linda Grant (The Clothes On their Back)

Amitav Ghosh (The Sea of Poppies)

Salman Rushdie (The Enchantress of Florence)

Sebastian Barry (The Secret Scripture)

Steve Toltz (A Fraction of the Whole)

So, four out of the five books I predicted would make it to the short-list, did, which is remarkable, even if I say so myself, seeing as I haven’t read any of the long-listed novels. Had I decided to predict six instead of five, I should have selected Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher. I wouldn’t have chosen Arvind Adiga; if I had to select another first-time novelist, I should have plumped for Joseph O’Neill’s ‘This Year’s Great American Novel’. Come to think of it, I’ll probably read The Netherland: it is a cricket novel, apparently; and many moons ago I used to be interested—to the extent I am capable of being interested in any sport—in this game. As Bill Bryson once remarked, cricket is a delicious game, full of microseconds of excitement scattered over five days. If you are unfortunate enough to develop a chronic illness, and the doctor prescribes rest and prohibits any kind of excitement, you should take to cricket immediately.

I am disappointed that Enchantress of Florence is not short-listed. It will, of course, make no difference to the sell of the novel, and legion of Rushdie's fans will lap it up.

Who will win the award? I should very much like Linda Grant to win, but Amitav Ghosh or Sebastian Barry may just pip her to the post. The winners in the last three years were Irish (Banville and Enright) and Indian (Desai), and one would expect that this year the winner would be from (for want of better phrase) a different background. Philp Hensher is the only English novelist amongst the short-listed authors. (There is Linda Grant, of course; but she is Jewish, and the usual stew of English class and race prejudice means most wouldn't consider her English, and describe her as British). I can’t immediately think of any Jewish novelists except Berice Rubens (who won decades ago) who have been awarded the prize.

I am rooting for Linda Grant.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

2008 Booker Long-list

I have a great deal of admiration and sympathy for the judges of the Booker Award (or, for that matter, any literary prize). To trawl through more than hundred novels in six months, and to prepare long-lists and short-lists (which, let's face it, never satisfy all) can seem like a burden. Unless you are Philip Hensher, one of the long-listed authors this year, and himself a judge in 2001. Hensher, who perhaps is more widely known as a critic and reviewer than a novelist, famously declared a few years ago that he read an average of five books a week, and the number of novels he read in six months as a Booker judge was no more than his average frequency. But then Hensher is in that enviable position where he reads books to earn living. Wouldn't it be nice if you have the luxury of viewing your profession not as a real profession but an agreeable frame of mind, a way of going about things rather than things you exactly do?

This year’s Booker long-list, in keeping with the recent trend, has five debut novelists, four novelists from the Indian subcontinent, and a few established names including a couple of former Booker winners. The categories mentioned here are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

I have not read any of the long-listed novels, although I have read some or more novels of some or more long-listed authors. There are some novels I shall probably buy—Booker or no Booker—once the paperback editions are out: some because their authors are my favourites (Rushdie and Grant); some because I have enjoyed reading their authors’ previous novels (Ghosh, Hensher); some because their authors have been on my ‘to be read’ list for years and I have not so far got round to read any of their novels and I might as well begin with the Booker-long-listed novel (Barry); and some others because I am curious to find out what the fuss is about (Hanif). Finally there are some novels on the list which I shall read only if they go on to win the Booker (Adiga, Rob-Smith, de Krester, O’Neill, Arnold and Toltz). I should come clean and admit that I had not heard any of the authors in the last category till they, rather their novels, got long-listed for the Booker. It is a known fact that the novels which win prestigious literary awards such as the Booker enjoy a sharp uplift in their sales; I should very much doubt whether the long-listed novels enjoy similar good fortune, unless their authors are well-known and have a dedicated fan-following (in which case they do not depend on being long or short-listed for the Booker).

One of the long-listed authors is John Berger—I know, I know; he is not just a novelist: he is also an artist, essayist and a critic—who caused something of an upset in 1972 when he won the Booker award with his experimental novel, G, piping some worthy opponents (Thomas Keneally and David Storey) to the post, and then probably caused more upset by announcing that he was donating half his prize money to the Black Panther movement in protest of what he alleged was Booker’s colonialist policy in the West Indies. (Someone should have pointed out to Berger that the Black Panther movement had in fact dissolved two years before.) Will the old warhorse cause upset again with A to X, ‘A Story in Letters’? I think not.

Philip Hensher, another critic and reviewer, and himself a judge in 2001, is long-listed for Northern Clemency. I have read three of his earlier novels two of which—his debut novel, Kitchen Venom, and Pleasured—I enjoyed thoroughly, especially the former which was in the tradition of vintage Evelyn Waugh. The third, The Mulberry Empire, in which Hensher, in a departure from his earlier books, tried his hand at a historical epic, was so well-crafted it was almost contrived, and, despite being packed with dramatic set-pieces, was strangely soulless. What will Northern Clemency, which, at 740 pages, is the longest of the long-listed novels, be like? On the plus side, it promises to be a chronicle of the contemporary English life, something Hensher, in my opinion, excels at. On the other hand it is disconcerting to note that Hensher, apparently, took inspiration from ‘the great nineteenth century Russian novels’ when he wrote Northern Clemency (which perhaps explains the length of the novel). Judging by the less than exhilarating results the last time Hensher attempted something ambitious and sprawling, I believe my concern is justified. When one is getting a bit long in the tooth, one does not want to be left feeling underwhelmed, especially when one has shown the perseverance to trawl through more than 700 pages. Will Hensher win the Booker? I should doubt it.

Sea of Poppies is Amitav Ghosh’s seventh novel. Of his previous novels I have read two: The Calcutta Chromosome, which, I think, was his debut novel—I thought it was disappointingly lacking in depth; the novel’s subtitle was ‘a novel of fevers, delirium and discovery’; it was, for me, more like a novel of terrifying dullness—, and the splendid Glass Palace. In Sea of Poppies, Ghosh returns to the genre he handled so well in Glass Palace—historical epic. This is one to watch. Ghosh might just hit the jackpot.

Sebastian Barry was short-listed in 2005 for A Long Long Way. He is long-listed this year for The Secret Scripture, the heroine of which is the cousin of Eneas McNulty (Barry’s eponymous debut novel), who has spent longer time in an asylum in Ireland than either she or anyone can remember. The psychiatrist under whose care she is admitted is curious about the circumstances in which she was admitted. I find the subject matter interesting—stories of mentally unhinged and those who think they can cure them have always appealed to me; make of it what you will—and I should read it. If I like it, I’ll probably get hold of Barry’s debut novel.

Linda Grant is a favourite author of mine. I have read two of her previous novels—the Orange Prize winner When I Lived in Modern Times, and Still Here—and liked them both thoroughly. I shall definitely read Clothes on their Backs which tells the story of a Hungarian Jewish family. This is another subject that interests me and I expect the novel to be as engrossing, perceptive and witty as Grant’s earlier novels. I will not be surprised if it is short-listed. It may even win, the only factor weighing against it is it has sold very well—it was reprinted twice even before it was long-listed. Sounds cynical? Cynical? Moi?

Of the by now customary slew of debut novelists making it to the long-list, Tom Rob Smith has made a history of sorts: his novel, Child 44 is a thriller; and novels in this genre do not often get long or short-listed for literary awards. Unfair? Probably; but such is life. The other day I tuned into the BBC Radio 4 and found myself bang in the middle of a heated (the epithet should be used advisedly with regard to Beeb) discussion about what comprises literature and whether thrillers (or suspense novels as Patricia Highsmith was known to describe her novels) are literature, the occasion being the publication of the latest John le Carre novel (The Most Wanted Man). le Carre, of course has not won any literary award. Tom Rob Smith participated in the debate (no one should and will grudge him his fifteen minutes of fame), and, when the presenter suggested to him that it was an outrage that le Carre has been persistently overlooked for literary awards, pointed out (very reasonably, I thought) that the main reason for that was le Carre never gives permission to submit his novels for any awards. He also felt confident, having no doubt researched the subject at great length, to disabuse the BBC presenter of the notion that his, Rob Smith’s, novel was the first thriller to be long-listed for the Booker: Brian Moore was short-listed twice, in 1987 and 1990, for The Colour of Blood, and Lies of Silence. So well done Tom Rob Smith. However, I suspect that this is as good as it is going to be for Child 44. I can’t see the panel—unless they are driven by a sense of malicious hilarity—short-listing the book which moved one reviewer to write that he could not ‘respect a committee that decides to pick a book like Child 44’. Then there are the much-hyped The Netherland, this year’s Great American Novel (contractual terms require the use of this phrase in all reviews; while I have no plans of reviewing the book and I am absolutely positive that no one is going to log on to this blog, I shouldn’t take any risks), The Case of Exploding Mangoes, a satire on the events surrounding the death of General Zia the Pakistani dictator in the 1980s, and A Fraction of the Whole, which has been compared to Tom Wolfe’s chartbusters from the 1980s (which probably means large print and lots of pages).

Finally, there is Sir Salman Rushdie, weaving familiar themes and developing elaborate conceits into a fulgurant fantasy, The Enchantress of Florence, which will enrapture his legion of fans.

So, here is the Booker long-list:

Arvind Adiga (The White Tiger)

Gaynor Arnold (Girl In A Blue Dress)

Sebastian Barry (The Secret Scripture)

Philip Hensher (Northern Clemency)

Salman Rushdie (The Enchantress of Florence)

John Berger (From A to X)

Linda Grant (The Clothes On their Back)

Tom Rob Smith (Child 44)

Mohammad Hanif (The Case of Exploding Mangoes)

Michelle de Krester (The Lost Dog)

Joseph O’Neill (The Netherland)

Steve Toltz (A Fraction of the Whole)

Amitav Ghosh (The Sea of Poppies)

Which amongst the above will be short-listed, if the short-list is of, say, five?

Here is my guess:

Linda Grant (The Clothes On their Back)

Amitav Ghosh (The Sea of Poppies)

Salman Rushdie (The Enchantress of Florence)

Sebastian Barry (The Secret Scripture)

Steve Toltz (A Fraction of the Whole)

We shall know on 9th September.

Book of the Month: The Gathering (Anne Enright)

I must admit to a certain weakness in my character: I have become rather squeamish about reading Irish novels, especially the seriocomic family sagas, lest I am deluged with Irish-childhood clichés: the drunken father who is either insanely violent (very common) or smotheringly affectionate (less common) or both (though obviously not at the same time); over-worked, perennially pregnant, brow-beaten wife; a funny and witty family friend or an uncle, who—need I say it?—is also a drunkard and whom the wife blames bitterly for leading her man astray; too many children, some of whom are uncut diamonds while others are budding psychopaths; sexual abuse which goes either unnoticed or is connived at; one or more of the children die young (because there isn’t enough money to pay the doctor’s fee); perpetually gloomy weather with incessant rain; and various characters drinking endless cups of tea at very odd times. So, when The Gathering, a novel about a large, dysfunctional Irish family that has a skeleton or two in the cupboard, won the Man Booker Prize in 2007, I was not sure whether I would find the courage (or patience) to read it. My sense of wariness was further heightened when the author, Anne Enright, issued, on Radio 4’s Today programme, the following warning: ‘When people pick up a book they may want something that will cheer them up, in that case they shouldn’t really pick up my book . . . My book is equivalent of a Hollywood weepie.’ I bought the book, of course: because it had won the Booker, and I am a great sucker for this and other literary awards (it is a well known fact that winning the Booker guarantees a huge boost to the sell of the book; I wonder how many of those who buy the book actually read it; I have known a few who keep Midnight’s Children on their book-shelves because they think it will chisel others into believing that they are intellectuals).

The Gathering , for the most part, is a ‘dear diary’ sort of novel. Veronica Hegarty, a middle-aged, middle-class housewife with her oh-so-not-perfect marriage, is reminiscing about her clan following the death of one of her (many) siblings, Liam, after he kills himself, although—and we are left in no doubt about this—he is already lost to the family, drifting along aimlessly in life, from one bed-sit to another, committing chronic suicide of a kind (before he decides to put an abrupt coda to his existence by drowning in the sea) by drinking, day and night, any which kind of alcoholic beverage he can lay his hands on. The novel travels to and fro in time as Veronica tries to make sense of why her brother, to whom she was the closest when they were young, felt the need to fill his trouser-pockets with stones and walk into the Brighten Sea. While much of Veronica’s thinking happens in the present, the novel moves effortlessly back in time (without much warning and without a change in tense, which can be a trifle confusing at times) as Veronica tries to convince herself (somewhat tortuously, you can’t help thinking) that the seeds of Liams death were sown decades earlier when their grandmother, Ada, walked into a Dublin hotel and saw Lamb Nugent. The Gathering, then, is a family story of three generations: it is the story of Ada and Charlie—Veronica’s grandparents, and the shadow of their association with Lamb Nugent; it is the story of Veronica’s over-breeding parents who bring into the world a dozen children all except one of whom survive into adulthood; and it is the story of the third generation Hegarty children—of some of them, at any rate—and their complex relations with one another and their mother.

The narrator, Veronica, is obsessed with sex and penises. A chapter in the book opens with Veronica, travelling on a train, watching a man sitting beside her lifting his pelvis slightly and settling it back down; and she ‘can sense the blood pooling in his lap; the thick oblong of his penis moving down the leg of his suit.’ Later, when the man reaches for a newspaper, it is, she decides, to hide his lap. The sunlight coming in through the window is ‘sexual’ (!). Another chapter begins with ‘I saw a man with tertiary syphilis at mass once.’ Veronica's obsession with sex is Freudian, however. She is repulsed by it; it is not a pleasurable act for her. On the night of her dead brother’s wake Veronica and her husband have sex. This is how she sees it in retrospect: ‘ He [her husband, Tom] was getting back to the basics. . .telling me that my brother might be dead, but he was very much alive. Exercising his right. . .I lay there with one leg on either side of his dancing, country-boy hips, and I did not feel alive. I felt like a chicken when it is quartered.’ At another point she observes: ‘When I sleep with Tom … what he wants, what my husband has always wanted, and the thing I will not give him, is my annihilation. This is the way his desire runs. It runs close to hatred.’ It would be reasonable to conclude that the woman has enough inner demons to decorate hell. The tone of the narration (and, by extension, the ambiance of the novel) is sexual; however it is far from lilting, laced as it is with disgust and malignity.

The Gathering is novel of memories and reminiscences, and the tricks they can play with one’s mind. ‘The seeds of my brother’s death were sown many years ago’ starts a chapter. This is the central question that the narrator is wrestling with throughout the novel: what set her brother on the path of self-destruction, the path that ended in the Brighton sea. Veronica is convinced that it wasn’t the drink and the vicissitudes of life that killed him: it was what happened to him as a boy in his grandmother’s house when he was nine that killed him. And Veronica was an inadvertant witness to the act. Or was she, really? As early as the first chapter, the very first page and the very first line, infact, there are warnings: ‘I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event.’ Much later she wonders whether her memory is false. In his adolescence Liam begins to get into trouble with autorities because of his conduct problems. When he spends a night in the police cell for the first time, he returns with a dried patch of blood in his hair and a streak of red from cheek to neck. When he tells his sister that ‘they’ gave him a bit of a thump, she tells him not to be stupid. ‘I decided not to believe him if there was any “believing” to be done; he did not deserve to be believed,’ she recalls later. Now he is dead, Veronica is torturing herself over the point in time when she first betrayed her brother. The Gathering is a long lament suffused with guilt; and, as frequently happens in these situations, the guilt mutates into rage. Veronica Heggarty’s emotional response to her brother’s suicide is uniquely Catholic: she is devastated that she could not rescue Liam from the grave and mortal sin of suicide. But she is also furious with him. By killing himself, Liam has offended his family’s love for him and has selfishly and unjustly broken the ties of solidarity with his family. His behaviour is cotrary to the love of God. He has let down the family. She is unable to accept that Liam could have taken an informed decision that to end his life was better than continuing to suffer the pain of his existence. She is determined to find something, someone, whom she can blame; even if that means recovering memories that probably did not exist, and concoting elaborate stories of menage a trois involving her grandparents.

The Gathering fulfils almost all the Irish childhood clichés, yet, aided by Enright’s flawless, at times darkly humorous, prose, is sharp, tense, poweful and continually engrossing. The Gathering was given a very long 8 to 1 odds of winning the Booker by the British Bookmakers. It may have been a surprise winner, but deserving one. It is a work of complex tapistry.