Booker run-down

In anticipation of the fortieth annual Man Booker Prize, Jean Morley, Lisa O’Hanlon, David Gibney and Jennifer May took a look at some of the top contenders

In anticipation of the fortieth annual Man Booker Prize, Jean Morley, Lisa O’Hanlon, David Gibney and Jennifer May took a look at some of the top contenders

A boat sailing into the sunset.

Madness in a Roscommon mental unit, opium-fuelled dreams on board an Indian Ship or a gritty family saga in North Britain – which of these Booker Prize short-listed tales can speak to contemporary readers? Cue long nights in a claustrophobic room, raised voices and fingernails drumming, the hiss of the fire and sound of pipes being refilled. Finally, as the clock struck twelve, we found our favourites among the shortlist.

A Fraction of the Whole

by Steve Toltz (Hamish Hamilton)
“But how do you rebel against rebellion? Does that mean turning back to conformity?” Existential angst might be common as acne among teenagers, but in Jasper’s case it’s justified. The question of identity becomes more pertinent when you are born to family like the Deans. With a bitter philosopher for a father and a serial killer uncle, Terry, Jasper better hope that the laws of hereditary don’t apply.

Toltz’s first novel treats the most grave topics; violence, depression, suicide and bereavement, with a humour usually reserved for slapstick comedy. Not so much distasteful as disjointing, the book forces the reader to laugh at the tragi-comedy of human life and death. Holden Caulfield fans will love Jasper and his father, as together they expose the phoniness of both public life and the private man. The book has a looseness well-befitting the theme; man’s mind at its most unhinged. But contradictory, and spiralling into 710 pages of angsty prose, the novel might seem out of control to more orthodox judges.

The Clothes Upon Their Backs

by Linda Grant (Virago)
A leather jacket, red stilettos, an electric-blue mohair suit: Vivien’s is a life story to be found in her bloset. Born to a family of Hungarian refugees, she is taught the necessity of being inconspicuous, and expected to adopt the cloak of invisibility worn by her parents since their fearful arrival in London prior to the war.

Through her bold wardrobe choices she finds a temporary release for her dissatisfaction with their nondescript mode of existence, as she believes clothes have the power to transform oneself from the outside in.

After a life-altering tragedy, her quest for engagement with real life begins in earnest as she embarks on series of visits to her estranged uncle, the notorious slum landlord Sandor Kovaks. From this ambiguous, intriguing, controversial figure she learns her family’s long, hidden history and receives some uneasy answers to her moral questions.

It is this relationship on which the book’s merit rests and it is during these encounters that the novel is at its most engaging.

Issues of race, justice and consequence are touched on and the sartorial preoccupations are largely dropped as the reader considers the implications of the crimes which Kovaks is alleged to have committed and the possible justification of his actions taken post-war by his wartime experience. In a work clothed by this largely unconvincing, albeit thought-provoking, fashion metaphor, one wonders would it have been better had Grant let it remain in a state of undress.

The Sea of Poppies

by Amitav Ghosh (John Murray Publishing)
Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies is the first part of a planned trilogy. It is a story of life on board the Ibis, a ship carrying coolies and convicts from Calcutta to Mauritius, on the eve of Britain’s opium wars with China. The reader meets characters from diverse backgrounds, united by their voyage. Ghosh’s language is inventive – India’s myriad languages and cultures produce humorous puns and misunderstandings among the characters. The novel’s linguistic wealth shows the inventive potential of the English language, and the subversive possibilities of empire writing back.

However, it is too busy to depict the true squalor of life on board, and lacks a strong central character. Is it Zachary, the American sailor? The spirited Deeti? Arguably, the pervasive character is the Ibis itself. But whether the ship is strong enough to bind a trilogy, remains to be seen. While The Sea of Poppies is ultimately unmemorable, it is diligently researched and its language is well-wrought. Some structural weaknesses aside, it remains a strong contender for this year’s prize.

The Northern Clemency

by Philip Hensher (Fourth Estate)
Set in industrial Sheffield, The Northern Clemency spans 20 years of the Thatcher era, and confidently displays the cultural history of the city. However, the novel is primarily concerned with individuals rather than historical events. Against a background of huge social upheaval, the novel follows the lives and relationships of two families. Characters are brought into sharp focus by Hensher’s close observation of their every day lives, and they are portrayed with intimacy as the third person narrative moves easily between different viewpoints.

In chronicling a pivotal time in British social history, The Northern Clemency shows the interaction between its characters and their environment in a convincing and sympathetic manner.

The Secret Scripture

by Sebastian Barry (Faber and Faber)
Yes, we might have a certain bias towards Sebastian Barry; after all, he’s one of our own. The playwright-turned novelist is not only a graduate of Trinity, he also visited as writer-fellow in 1996. However, background and credentials become irrelevant when you author a work like The Secret Scripture.

Barry has a truly original narrative style, more evocative of a sepia-tinged photograph than any particular literary work. Hazy, echoic and deeply poignant, the book is an individual snapshot of Ireland’s turbulent past. The story centres on Roseanne McNulty, a hundred year-old woman and patient in Roscommon Mental Hospital. Changes in her external circumstances provoke a trip down memory lane; or, more accurately, a briary path of passion and loss.

Barry forces the reader to construct a history; provoking a self-conscious examination of post-independence Ireland. In some ways, the subject matter is familiar – repression and hypocrisy at the heart of Irish institutions. Those attracted by tales of familial woe will be sorely disappointed, as this novel has more to say about human happiness than any I’ve ever read.

The White Tiger

by Aravind Adiga (Atlantic)
From psychic twins to congregations of witches; recent portrayals of India favour mystique over reality. But just as relations between John Lennon and the Maharishi were bound to crack, perhaps books about India cannot sustain the magical approach. The White Tiger leads the way in de-romanticising the nation; ridiculing its democracy in the light of the caste system. The book is a how-to manual, examining the requirements for membership of the Indian elite. Stomach-turning at times, this book might not be palatable to more delicate readers. However, should Adiga take the prize, he threatens to change the perception of society’s poor; no longer victims of circumstance, they are life’s entrepreneurs.