So this evening the winner of the 2013 Booker Prize will be announced. I thought I’d take a detour from the theatre-related posts to speculate about who might win. We’ll know tomorrow whether I should stick with writing about Irish drama…
It’s a very strong shortlist this year – I’ve read five of the six books and think any of them could potentially win – and any of them would be a deserving winner too.
The only one I haven’t read yet is We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. There’s no significant reason for the omission – it’s been difficult to find a copy in an Irish bookstore, and the kindle edition is relatively expensive – so I just haven’t got round to it yet.
The main Irish interest is in Colm Toibin’s Testament of Mary, which was first produced as a play called Testament for Landmark, directed by Garry Hynes and starring Marie Mullen (whose photo from the production I’m pasting below). I admired the performance by Mullen in that production, but came out of the Project thinking that it wasn’t a play – an opinion shared by many who saw it on Broadway when Fiona Shaw took on the role.
The book was far more satisfying. Toibin has created a voice for Mary, the mother of Jesus – and that voice is essentially of one tone throughout the entire novel: she is a woman recounting with horror, despair and rage the death of her son. That tone builds in intensity as the novel progresses but on stage it was a bit, well, monotonous: it offers performers nowhere to come from or go to in delivery. As a novel it is tightly packed, written with discipline and economy, and utterly persuasive. It may be difficult to love it, but it’s certainly difficult to fault it too.
I think Toibin could win in much the same way that Julian Barnes won for Sense of an Ending (when he should have won for Arthur and George) or in the way that Ian McEwan won for Amsterdam (when he should have won for Enduring Love) – there is a sense that he’s such a major author that a Booker is now overdue, and could certainly have been justified for The Master and Brooklyn. I don’t mean that to disparage The Testament of Mary in making that statement, but instead am just suggesting that Toibin’s track record may come into play when the judges deliberate.
And the favourite for the prize is Jim Crace’s Harvest, which is similar in some ways to Toibin’s book, in that it’s a first-person narrative from someone who’s recounting horrible events that he witnessed in the past. And it’s also similar in the sense that it’s written by someone who could be awarded a Booker not only on the merits of this novel but also for his career to date.
Harvest reads like a historical novel but could just as easily be set in some sort of dystopian future, exploring what happens when a family of three strangers arrive at a country village at a time when the community’s lifestyle is about to be altered irretrievably. It’s paced like a thriller, but has a sense of inevitability that is also quite tragic. The perspective is decidedly contemporary – it reminded me somewhat of Ronan Bennett’s Havoc In Its Third Year. This is a very good book, but I wonder how the judges will respond to the fact that it’s told only from one perspective – which means that most characters are described only superficially. I thought this added to the sense of looming disaster, but when compared with the other novels, Crace’s can seem slightly more limited in its characterisation.
This is most obviously the case when Harvest is compared with Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. It’s a very long novel about the New Zealand gold-rush – and again it’s paced quite like a thriller, with a series of mysteries about a murder, an inheritance, a case of fraudulent identities and so on. It reminded me a little of Wilkie Collins, in that it has the tightly-plotted quality of a triple-decker Victorian novel – but it also has an uncanny tone that seems closer to the twentieth century. That said, fans of the TV show Deadwood will also find much here that they enjoy (aside from the bad language, which is absent here). Whereas Crace and Toibin’s novels give us only one perspective, Catton moves through several distinctive characters. I thought the novel suffered slightly from using a structure based on signs of the zodiac – at times, it felt as though the storytelling was serving the structure rather than the other way around. But it’s a very entertaining book, and would become a popular winner, I think.
I didn’t much enjoy Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being. It offers a split narrative, with one part of the story told by a Japanese teenager being bullied in school, and the other about a novelist called Ruth who finds the Japanese teenager’s diary and tries to understand what happened to her. The main story about the teenager is very compelling and it’s written in an appealing, mildly Holden Caulfield-esque tone. But I thought the book was trying a bit too hard to be self-consciously postmodern: we have the fact that Ozeki gives the protagonist her own name, inviting questions about whether the story is true or not – and we also have the fact that the authenticity of the main narrative is always uncertain. There is some interesting material in there about the relationship between Buddhism and postmodernism, both of which are seen as involving the embracing of uncertainty. There is also a nice image of a story being written on blank pages within the cover of one of Proust’s novels. And if you like Murakami, you will probably enjoy this too. But I was disappointed by it: when I get to the end of a novel I like to feel that the investment was worth something – so if there is to be uncertainty or indeterminacy, that feeling of not knowing needs to matched by a sense that I’ve learned or gained something. Instead I felt slightly like my time had been wasted.
The last book I’ve read is The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. The blurb on the back says this is about two brothers, but that’s only accurate about the first part of the novel. We’re set up with a story of two twins, whose paths diverge – one moves to America for an academic career, and the other becomes involved in radical politics in India. In the second half of the novel, a similar duality is established between a mother and daughter, both living in America and both taking contrasting paths. So that means the book overall is split between two males and two females. Where I would be critical of the structure of The Luminaries and A Tale for the Time Being, I thought this was very finely balanced. Like the Toibin novel, it’s also written with great care and precision, and like the Crace and Catton it’s also a very well paced story.
As I write above, Crace is the favourite for the prize, but I am going to suggest that Lahiri will be the winner. Mainly this is because I think it’s the best novel on the shortlist – it has everything that the other novels have, but is able to make those achievements come together. So I think it should win.
Another context, however, is that the Booker will be open to American authors from now on. Some might see that as a reason to think that Crace will win – since this is the last time there will be no Americans on the list, there might be an impulse to give the award to a Briton. Well, Crace would be a deserving winner, but I think the fact that Lahiri was put on the shortlist in the first place shows that the judges aren’t really thinking too much about nationality (up to now, she’s mainly been seen as an American author).
Overall though the most important thing is that the shortlist is good and that it’s bringing to the public’s attention a number of novelists who are relatively early in their careers. I worry slightly about whether that will continue to happen when the prize is open to American authors – one of the things I’ve always liked about the Booker is that it gives exposure to authors who might not otherwise have received it. From an Irish point of view, the Booker has had a major impact on the careers of Roddy Doyle and Anne Enright too, and it’s difficult to see whether such successes will continue.
But that’s an argument for next year.