The Man Booker Prize Shortlist 2013
What’s more exciting than the Oscars, the Olympics, and the American Idol finale put together? If you’re a literature lover in the UK, the answer is the annual Booker Prize race. Since 1968 the Booker has been awarded to the best novel published in a particular year by an author in the UK, Ireland, or the Commonwealth (a loose coalition of the former British colonies – including everywhere from Canada to Zimbabwe). You might not think you know any Booker alumni, but from a winners list including Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989), Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (2000), Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2002), and Hilary Mantel’s two Tudor blockbusters, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2011), there’s sure to be at least a few novels you’ve encountered before.
And these authors aren’t just in it for the glory of a title; there’s a £50,000 bonus for the winner. This makes the Booker worth nearly eight times as much as the premier American literary prize, the Pulitzer, which awards just $10,000 to its annual winners. Of course, neither of these come anywhere close to the Nobel Prize for Literature, which last year enriched winners by $1.2 million each.
Fame, fortune, the vagaries of fate; there are many reasons to follow the trajectory of literary prizes. But I adore them so much because every year they bring to light dozens of wonderful books that I otherwise might never have heard of, and by reading them I can participate vicariously in the thrill of being a prize judge – pitting a tremendous array of books against each other and seeing which ones triumph.
In 2013 the Booker Prize judges read 151 novels, first whittling them down to a longlist of 13 titles, then (on the 10th of September) reducing this further to a shortlist of six. If that sounds like an impossible task to you, it sounds like an entirely realistic and delightful project to me. I regularly read somewhere between 180 and 260 books a year, and I’m always comparing and evaluating them in my mind, so I’d be up to the challenge. (Maybe one of these years the Booker Prize chairman will give me a call! It would be a perfect accomplishment for my bucket list.)
For those of you who haven’t been following the Booker saga, here’s a quick introduction to the six shortlisted novels. It’s a fantastically diverse list this year: four out of the six novels are by women, and between them the authors represent eight countries (England, Ireland, Canada, the USA, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, New Zealand, and Japan, by my reckoning). I’ve read four of them so far, so I’ll present those in vague order of preference.
It’s a shame that Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire didn’t make the shortlist; it’s one of my favorite novels of the year so far, profiling five young Malaysians who now live in Shanghai, a bewildering and indifferent place that tempts with its promise of riches, fame and success. Perhaps I’ll showcase it later this year in a list of the best books on China. For now though, without further ado, I present the Man Booker Prize shortlist 2013:
If I had my druthers, the Booker would go to this novel-writing documentary filmmaker and Zen Buddhist priestess from British Columbia, Canada (by way of Japan). A Tale for the Time Being is a rich reflection on what it means to be human in an era of short attention spans, the dearth of meaning, and imminent environmental threat.
The time being: the present moment is what we’re stuck with now and must embrace.
The time being: in the Buddhist viewpoint, each human is entrapped by time, which means that we are all in this together; this is an Everyman tale.
On present-day Vancouver Island, “Ruth,” a Japanese-American novelist who is attempting to write a memoir of her mother’s slow demise from Alzheimer’s but has a bad case of writer’s block, stumbles across a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the beach. Inside she finds a cache of old letters and a teenage girl’s diary in Japanese, disguised as a copy of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.
The diary belonged to sixteen-year-old Nao (pronounced “now” – is it all starting to fit together?) Yasutani, who cheerfully and informally confides in her imagined reader about her life. The past few years in Tokyo have not been easy for her – she’s been the victim of extreme bullying at the hands of her classmates, and suicide seems to run in the family – but she has a guardian angel in the form of her great-grandmother, Buddhist nun Jiko, who is approaching death at age 104 but still represents the voice of wisdom and a timeless perspective.
In a modified epistolary format that includes diaries, letters, e-mails, and an abstract of a disappearing journal article, Ozeki builds her gentle academic mystery: where did the lunchbox come from? How did it wash up in Canada? Are Nao and the other diary subjects still alive and well, or did they die in the 2011 Japanese tsunami? Alternating chapters contrast Nao’s diary entries with Ruth’s reactions and commentary a decade later. Yet, in a delicious outbreak of magic realism, it seems Ruth may actually have some power to change Nao’s fate.
This is a superbly intelligent novel, with concerns ranging from ocean currents and pollution to the wacky quantum physics theory of multiple worlds. Ultimately, it is about being happy in the here and now – not looking to the past or the future for contentment or hope; and not indulging in regret or wishes. As the character Ruth states in the epilogue: “I’d much rather know, but then again, not-knowing keeps all the possibilities open. It keeps all the worlds alive.”
Odds of winning? 5/1
2. Harvest by Jim Crace
Crace’s eleventh (and, so he has declared, final) novel is a timeless fable of transgression and community breakdown set against the backdrop of England’s countryside Enclosures. “The Village” has few distinguishing features: centered on a manor house and surrounded by “The Land,” it could be any bucolic English town between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet the villagers’ pastoral idyll is destined to be short-lived: the master’s cousin is taking over the land and farming must yield to shepherding. This may well be The Village’s last conventional harvest.
Posing an even more imminent threat is the arrival of three squatters who poach the master’s doves and greet the villagers with drawn crossbows; it is decreed that they must be punished for their hostility, and this simple incident will set in motion a cycle of suspicion and revenge that begins to devastate The Village. Widower Walter Thirsk, the narrator drawn from this band of somber farmers, gives an elegiac account of his town’s disintegration.
Odds of winning? 5/2 Crace is the current favorite to win this year. Meanwhile, I’m excitedly waiting to see my full review of Harvest appear in the October issue of Third Way magazine.
3. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
When a web magazine editor sent out my advanced review copy of this novel, she added a somewhat worrying caveat: “I think it might take you all summer to read!” As it happens, I devoured the 832-page behemoth in about six days (although, admittedly, I did very little else for that partial week). You can read my full review at We Love This Book, and I’ve waffled about it quite a bit more over at Goodreads.
It’s just the sort of book I should have given 5 stars: I have a Master’s degree in Victorian literature, Charles Dickens is my favorite author, and I adore historical fiction, particularly Victorian pastiches like A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, and Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers. Catton’s second novel is indeed a rollicking mystery – and spot-on Victorian pastiche – set during the New Zealand gold rush of the mid-1860s. And yet The Luminaries didn’t grab me.
It has all the elements of a pitch-perfect Dickensian mystery novel: long-lost siblings, forgeries, opium dens, misplaced riches, a hidden cache of letters, illegitimate offspring, assumed identities, a séance, a witty and philosophical omniscient narrator’s voice, and so on. If this was a Victorian paint-by-numbers competition, Catton (born in Canada and raised in New Zealand) would have top marks. But something is lacking here. I can’t help feeling that despite its technical perfection, The Luminaries is a book without a beating heart.
Aside from some minor narrative quibbles, my main problem was with the opacity of the astrology angle. The novel’s supposed uniqueness lies in its astrological framing device, but I remain unconvinced. The esoteric material (including horoscope charts at the start of each Part, chapter titles that reference zodiac signs, and lunar cycles that bring the narrative back around to meet its starting point) adds little, if anything, to the plot.
In scope and seriousness, The Luminaries rivals almost any Victorian triple-decker – an impressive feat from a 27-year-old author, there’s no denying that. But when, as is the case here, nearly a quarter of the page count feels superfluous, there’s something ever so slightly off. It’s a meticulously plotted mystery, as well as an enjoyable read. Plus it’s always nice to see something a bit different on the Booker shortlist. It deserves its accolades thus far, but did I love it? No; I admired it, but it didn’t earn my affection. In the end I gave it just 3 stars.
Odds of winning? 4/1
At just 104 pages, this is the shortest novel ever shortlisted for the Booker. I’m afraid that even with its slight length I consider this one an utter waste of time, alas, despite my usual respect for Tóibín (he writes wonderfully lyrical short stories, novels, literary criticism, and travel books about Ireland and the gay experience, and his 2004 novel The Master is, well, a masterpiece – inspired by the life and work of Henry James). His latest novel is an attempt to capture the perspective of Mary, mother of Jesus, years after her son’s crucifixion. Yet I found the historical reconstruction dry and tedious; it added little to my understanding of Bible times or my ideas about Jesus’s identity and possible resurrection. If you’re after a vibrant historical novel that has an entirely believable cast of characters, with flesh on their biblical bare bones, I’d recommend picking up The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman or Lazarus is Dead by Richard Beard instead.
Odds of winning? 7/2, making it the second favorite.
Rounding out the Booker shortlist are The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri and We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. Lahiri had great success with her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, which won a Pulitzer in 2000, as well as The Namesake (2003) and another collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth (2008). The Lowland is her tale of two Indian brothers: one moves to America, the other remains behind to take up a political struggle; tragedy will bring them back together in the end.
Bulawayo is the only debut novelist remaining on the shortlist; We Need New Names is her semiautobiographical story of a young girl growing up in Zimbabwe’s slums. Ten-year-old Darling has the chance to escape her life in the shantytown of Paradise by joining an aunt in America. Even there, though, she finds that her options are limited as an African immigrant.
Odds of winning? 6/1 for both
I’ll be waiting with bated breath for the announcement of the winner on October 15th. In the meantime, there’s plenty of great blogs where you can join the conversation about these six terrific novels; one I’ve especially enjoyed is BookerMarks.