(Published in the Business Standard, September 14, 2010)
The Booker shortlist doesn’t always offer the best books of the year—judges are fallible, the competition intense, and it often happens that works left off the list will continue to find readers and faithful acolytes.
A few years ago, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland failed to make the cut, but did brilliantly despite its omission; this year, David Mitchell’s pyrotechnics in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet were not sufficient to impress the judges.
But the Booker shortlist is still valuable: the judges may not always pick the perfect books, but they almost always reflect the spirit of the times. The obsession with very English, domestic novels in the 1970s was followed by the rise of the global novel, a period where Ishiguro, Achebe, Rushdie and several others took the prize into far more wide-ranging territory. This year’s shortlist, announced last week, reflects two interesting trends: a growing openness among readers to reading experimental fiction, and the blurring of the line between the novel and other literary forms.
Peter Carey and Andrea Levy are both represented by historical novels—but what they do with the form is another matter all together. Carey has won the Booker twice before, and Parrot and Olivier in America is one of his best works—ferociously intelligent, very funny and as rewarding as it is demanding. It might be called a historical novel, but Carey is one of the world’s most happily experimental writers, and he pushes the story as far as it can go. Loosely modeled on Alexis de Tocqueville’s journey to America, it follows the adventures of a French aristocrat and his servant in the land of the free. Along with the exuberance, it offers a sharp look at the evolution of democracy.
Andrea Levy’s Small Island was probably one of the most beloved novels of its time; The Long Song is a beautifully textured reworking of slave narratives. Told in the voice of July, the offspring of a Scottish plantation overseer and a slave, it follows the history of slavery in Jamaica. It’s a rich, powerful book, but won’t have the instant appeal of some of her earlier works.
Howard Jacobson is the dark horse of this year’s shortlist, with The Finkler Question, an exploration of what happens to a thoroughly ordinary man after he is exposed to anti-Semitic violence, and begins to question all of the certainties of his life. It has some brilliant sections, including a tour-de-force passage where a Jew sleeps with a Holocaust denier, but may be too insular for most Indian readers.
Tom McCarthy’s C is one of the most unusual novels of recent times—McCarthy’s work as a conceptual artist makes this a distinctly experimental novel, of the kind that has to be read twice for its full impact to be felt. Perhaps one of the most technically dazzling novels on the list, it may not have as much appeal for readers who prefer an old-fashioned story with a beginning, a middle and an end.
But the two strangest books on the list are Emma Donoghue’s The Room and Damon Galgut’s In A Strange Room. Both these works have an almost hallucinatory power: they’re the kind of novels that infect your waking world long after you’ve read the final chapter and put the book down.
The Room is told in the voice of a five-year-old child who has grown up knowing only the world of one room, in which his only anchor is his mother. As the story unfolds, we understand that they are held captive by a psychopath; their return to the world outside will be equally unsettling. The Room has the effect of changing one’s perception of the everyday world. It could have been classified as a mystery or crime novel, but that wouldn’t capture its impact, and the lingering touch of strange that Donoghue imparts.
Damon Galgut is one of South Africa’s most talented writers after JM Coetzee, known for his brilliant and unsettling work. In A Strange Room may or may not be a novel at all, but that is almost irrelevant: its power and impact are undeniable. Galgut offers you the travels of Damon Galgut, to Greece, Africa and India, told by at least two and possibly three versions of the author. Galgut, like Coetzee before him, is a master at making the dark and the harrowing material of life absolutely compelling. It’s about travel and displacement, and despite the traveller’s best intentions, things will go horribly wrong—and as the reader, you won’t be able to step away from him in any of his three avatars.
It is impossible to predict which one of these novels will win—Peter Carey may be the frontrunner, but any one of four out of these six could walk away with the Booker gong. This much can be said with certainty—this is one of the strangest, and most rewarding, shortlists of the last ten years.