Now is an unusual time of year. From September all through to mid-October, books — serious, actual works of fiction, not written by Dan Brown or anything — gain the full attention of the mainstream media. And not just over on Newsnight review! That's right, it's Man Booker Prize time.
This is the prize's fortieth year, and whilst its many vocal detractors see this fact (which surely ought to be celebrated) as an opportunity to accuse the Booker of alternately becoming too populist, too highbrow, or just generally betraying signs of middle-aged complacency, for plenty of us reading-types it is still a glorious excuse to read a dozen novels in a couple of months and do so under the guise of keeping up
with current events.
I am never interested in Booker shortlists, because the shortlist invariably commits the sin of leaving out the best longlist entrant (see last year's criminal omission of Joseph O'Neill’s Neverland), or being too phallo-centric (all but one of 2008’s shortlist was written by a man), or being boring and set in the past (this year there is historical fiction aplenty), and so whenever I say the final six look interesting I get scolded by someone. No, I like longlists. Longlists have variety; they have a couple of daring inclusions that will never make it to round two, but whose chutzpah one can admire; and they have sheer quantity.
This year’s longlist certainly felt like it had a lot of safe choices — with arguably the safest making it into the shortlist — but it also threw one or two curveballs that kept things interesting.
Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man (Faber and Faber) deserves particular mention. It is a rich, multi-stranded — split between two locations and time periods — and unrelentingly intelligent novel, one which succeeds in attaining the fine equilibrium of exciting novices to Hall's canon whilst satisfying those who have come to expect a certain degree of stylistic flourish from the previously shortlisted novelist.
Colm Tóibín’s latest novel Brooklyn (Penguin), however, although perfectly fine, feels underwhelming. Tóibín, a so-called Booker bridesmaid (thrice-nominated), is a master of intensely realised family and sociocultural drama, and while Brooklyn is by no means a failure — it’s shortcomings, if it could be said that there are any, are merely limited to the fact that there is not much new on offer here from such a developed writer — it never stood as great a chance of bringing Tóibín to the winner's podium as, say, 2006’s The Master.
The novel which is being heralded by every in-the-know pundit as standing the greatest chance of claiming the prize is Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate), by Hilary Mantel (pictured). Perversely, being labelled bookie’s favourite seems to earn a novel the wrath of the judge’s panel — that notoriously fickle bunch — and condemn it to becoming subject of a hundred puzzled opinion pieces bemoaning its loss. Whether Wolf Hall has built up
enough momentum to avoid so ignominious a fate remains to be seen, but undoubtedly, what it lacks in underdog-pluck, it more than makes up for in ambition and scope: epic in style and narrative, the novel is set in the court of Henry VIII and concerns itself with the life of the king’s minister Thomas Cromwell.
I don't want Wolf Hall to win, though. For me, the victor deserves to be J.M. Coetzee, for his dazzling, semi-autobiographical piece Summertime (Harvill Secker). Summertime brings new meaning to the notion of the semi-autobiographical novel. Whereas previously, Coetzee has hidden himself behind nominally fictitious individuals such as the writer Elizabeth Costello, here he writes about a figure called J. M. Coetzee.
Other characters in the book criticise — harshly — works by the real Coetzee. What unravels is a new kind of meta-fiction — lyrical, funny and provocative, and richly deserving of the chance to earn it’s creator
the honour of being the Man Booker’s first three-time recipient.