Literature’s most prestigious award, The Man Booker Prize, announced its shortlist last week. The six shortlisted novels have been chosen by a panel of judges consisting of academic and literary critic Dinah Birch; historian and author Amanda Foreman; actor Dan Stevens; and academic, writer and reviewer Bharat Tandon. Chair of the judging panel and editor of The Times Literary Supplement, Peter Stothard, states that all six novels have been selected due to the “pure power of prose” and the “vigour and vividly defined values” found in those books which made it onto the respected shortlist.
Tan Twan Eng’s first novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007 and his second follows Yun Ling Teoh “as she seeks solace among the plantations of the Cameron Highlands”. Here, she “discovers the only Japanese garden in Malaya” along with its secretive owner who agrees to accept the protagonist as his apprentice. As she begins to design a memorial garden for her sister, she soon discovers that “the jungle starts to reveal secrets of its own”.
Swimming Home, Deborah Levy’s first novel in fifteen years “explores the devastating effect that depression can have on apparently stable, well-turned-out people”. Set over one week, the novel is praised for its taut structure.
Bring up the Bodies continues where Mantel’s 2009 Booker prize winning Wolf Hall finished. Set in 1535 and the rein of Henry VIII, the novel follows Thomas Cromwell who “must negotiate a truth that will satisfy Henry and secure his own career” when Anne Boleyn has failed to bear Henry a son and he begins to fall in love with Jane Seymour. If Bring up the Bodies is awarded the prize, it will be the first sequel to win the Man Booker prize. Mantel will also join J.M. Coetzee and Peter Carey as double-Man Booker Prize winning authors
Alison Moore’s debut novel centres around a “middle aged and recently separated” man about to embark on a “restorative walking holiday.” He is unable to forget “his mother’s abandonment” and his first trip to Germany with his father. On that trip, “he neglected to do something, and this omission threatens to have devastating repercussions.”
Umbrella is ambitiously set across an entire century, following a feminist who “falls victim to the encephalitis lethargica epidemic” and Dr Busner who “spends a summer waking the post-encephalitic patients”. The novel “sets out to understand the nature of the modern world”. With no chapter breaks, unbroken stream of consciousness and the interweaving of multiple time periods this novel seems to fight the prerequisite for “readability” in last year’s shortlist.
Set in 1970s Bombay, Narcopolis tells the story of opium dens and their path to heroin addiction. Set across three decades, Thayil evokes the opium dens in “a city in collision with itself”.
What is striking about this year’s shortlist is the variety and breadth of literature – debut novelists sit alongside prize-winning and previously nominated authors; independent publishers alongside major publishing houses. It’s perhaps unsurprising that Hilary Mantel and Tan Twan Eng are shortlisted, both having been a previous winner and nominee respectively. But it is exciting to see authors alongside them who, after struggling to gain publication of their novels, have succeeded in being shortlisted. It is a refreshing change to see half of the shortlisted novels published by independent publishers. The prize will undoubtedly transform the futures of the authors and their publishers, but the shortlist also highlights the importance of independent publishers in publishing today.
As usual, the prize has sparked conversation and debate, with some books on the list being talked about more than others – Hilary Mantel is a clear favourite at the bookmaker’s with high odds on her success. Will this reflect which novel is awarded the prize, or will it be a surprise when the winner is announced on 16th October?