2011 Man Booker Prize longlist

The 2011 Man Booker longlist was announced today — and to say there are surprises in the 13-book list is an understatement. There are four debut authors (Stephen Kelman, A.D. Miller, Yvette Edwards and Patrick McGuinness) and three Canadians (Alison Pick, Esi Edugyan and Patrick deWitt) — I think that is Canada’s best showing ever, even if none of the three are household names here (yet). Just as surprising are the books that are not on the list — e.g. Alan Hollinghurst is the only previous winner, although five or six were eligible. (And KfC is delighted to see that the heavily-promoted The Afterparty is not on the list.)

I’ve reviewed the entire longlist in each of the past two years and will try to do the same this year, although that statement of intention comes with a minor caveat. I’m not a great fan of dystopian fiction or novels about the collapse of communist states, so if time is pressing I may let those pass — I may look for reviews elsewhere from bloggers who are more inclined give them a fairer shot than I.

Three of the longlist have already been reviewed here, one is awaiting review and another is on hand. I ordered the rest this morning, so do come along for this year’s Booker journey. Here’s a thumbnail summary of each of the 13.

Novels already reviewed here

Far To Go, by Alison Pick. For me, the most pleasant surprise of this year’s longlist — I didn’t even know this Canadian novel was eligible. Pick’s book was one of my choices for last year’s Giller and I was disappointed when it missed that longlist, so this belated recognition of a very good book is welcome. Her story is a version of the Kindertransport saga, the 10,000 Jewish children (including the author’s ancestors) who were “rescued” and placed with families in England or North America. The novel is delivered with both passion and compassion and Pick does not hesitate to bring its implications into the present day — the effects of Kindertransport are still present in her family as they are in others, so that is relevant. An entirely worthwhile choice.

The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst. In a longlist dominated by surprises, this novel (together with Sebastian Barry) was the only “obvious” choice that made it. Hollinghurst also is the only one of the five or six previous Booker winners to make the longlist (Ondaatje, Enright and Swift are among those who did not). Having said that, I did not like the book — Hollinghurst’s prose for me was tedious and over-bearing turning its 550+ pages into a chore. It is only fair to note that those who like the book (and I am definitely in the minority) find the writing to be its major asset — I tried to include enough quotes in my review to at least allow visitors to make an assessment.

Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman. Quite frankly, the presence of this novel on the longlist causes me to question this year’s jury’s definiton of “literary” fiction. A debut novel, it is lightweight and entertaining, in its way, but hardly the kind of fiction that is going to be attracting attention even a few years down the road. It is the story of a killing on an English council estate, told from the point of view of a pre-adolescent Ghanaian boy who is “investigating” it. Then again, my review compared it to last year’s Room and that novel certainly appealed to prize juries in a number of competitions.

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. (EDIT: Review is now up here) Literally the only book on my personal 2011 Booker longlist (since I didn’t know Alison Pick was eligible) that the jurors chose. It is a slim volume — 150 pages — told in the first person as an aging male character looks back on some not-so-pleasant youthful memories. Not an uncommon literary conceit, but Barnes delivers on it very well, although the fact that I fit his character’s demographic probably influenced me positively.

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt. House of Anansi sent me a review copy of this a while back and I have been saving it for pre-Giller reading — so now I’ll have to move it forward to Booker longlist reading, a tribute to deWitt. The opening description of the book: “Oregon, 1851. Eli and Charlie Sisters, notorious professional killers, are on their way to California to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm. On the way, the brothers have a series of unsettling and violent experiences in the Darwinian landscape of Gold Rush America.” From that short description, you can probably understand why I didn’t think it would be a Booker contender.

Longlist titles to be reviewed later

On Canaan’s Side, by Sebastian Barry. Along with the Hollinghurst, the only “cert” that did prove to be a cert. Barry was shortlisted (and expected to win) with The Secret Scripture a few years back. The description of this one (it will be released in a couple of weeks) promises familiar territory — opening in First World War Dublin, the central character, Lilly, emigrates to America in “a novel of memory, war, family ties and love”. We’ve all read Irish novels with that description before, but those who have read Advance Copies of this one say it is very good — definitely a favorite for the shortlist.

Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch. Booker judge Susan Hill left a comment on the forum a few months back about an excellent book that had a dreadful cover — speculation is that this is the book. The book opens in London in the mid-1800s and its central character is rescued by a circus owner; the description says it then moves on to a ship headed to the Indian Ocean. I should say that a number of readers whom I respect were very enthusiastic about this novel.

Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan. By far the biggest surprise for me on the longlist — I do track Canadian books and I have not heard a boo about this one since its release in February (and I had to order a copy from the UK today because none were available in Canada). Set in pre-war Berlin and wartime Paris, but viewed from some decades on, the description promises jazz and the jazz culture as the unifying theme. Territory that has been tread in novels before, for sure, but perhaps worth visiting again.

A Cupboard Full of Coats, by Yvette Edwards. From the publisher’s description: “Fourteen years ago, Jinx’s mother was brutally murdered in their East London home. Overwhelmed by the part she played, Jinx’s whole life has been poisoned by guilt.” Crime (and post-crime) is not my genre but I did read and like two crime novels in my pre-longlist reading this year — Elizabeth Haynes’ Into The Darkest Corner and Jane Harris’ Gillespie and I (review to come in a couple days). If A Cupboard Full of Coats is better than those two, it has to be pretty good.

The Last Hundred Days, by Patrick McGuinness. This one probably ranks with Half Blood Blues as the “least heard of” book on the list — and I can’t say the publisher’s description enhances its appeal for me. The title refers to the collapse of the Ceaucescu regime in Romania and I am afraid that I prefer non-fiction accounts of brutal communism to fictional versions written by Westerners. As far as I can tell, a novel that almost nobody had heard of before today.

Snowdrops, by A.D. Miller. A “psychological thriller” set in the “new Russia”, this debut novel did attract positive comment on the Man Booker discussion forum when it was released earlier this year (Gorky Park is the frequent comparison). I’ll admit that I figured then that I didn’t need to read another thriller set in wintery Moscow, but I will do my best to approach it with an open mind.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers. I have seen no reviews on this and will admit that I may well not read it. Dystopian novels based on biological terrorism are just not my cup of tea (I can’t even stand Atwood’s most recent works because of that and I used to like her writing). I will keep my eye open for a review from someone more likely to give the book a fair chance.

Derby Day, by D. J. Taylor. Of the nine I haven’t read, this is the one that I am most looking forward to, but that is a highly selfish response — I’ve admitted before that I have a taste for horse-racing books. I’ve heard good things about it but am surprised to see it on the longlist since it seemed to be more popular than literary. We shall see when I get to it.

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24 Responses to “2011 Man Booker Prize longlist”

  1. Trevor Says:

    I’m looking forward to your reviews, Kevin. I have five of the books now (and thrilled that one is Far to Go, which I had noted from your review before), and I will also get the Barnes and Barry.

    Thanks to you, I will not be reading Pigeon English (I’m still grateful to you that I didn’t have to read Room last year).

    Which leaves me with the five I’d not heard much, if anything, about: Half Blood Blues, A Cupboard Full of Coats, The Last Hundred Days, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, and Derby Day. I have to say, I’m not really anxious to read any of those at this point. I often get excited by the lesser known titles, but these aren’t doing it for me. But this is all ignorance speaking, since I haven’t heard from anyone who’se read them. Perhaps some positive thoughts will change my mind.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Last year’s jury also sent me off to read a number of books that I would not have read otherwise — I can’t say that I found the experience particularly rewarding, but it was definitely “broadening”. What does disappoint me at this stage is that so many quite good books have been overlooked.

  3. alison Says:

    I just ordered Snowdrops at the library.
    I read a couple last year that I was glad to read, but this list (aside from Alison Pick, which I have read) and Barnes (who I always enjoy), I’m not racing anywhere to get them.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Alison: I tried to be even-handed in the thumbnails, but I will admit that I will be approaching most that I haven’t read with fairly low expectations. Having said that, I am always interested in trying to figure out why a jury chose them.

    Also, selfishly, this jury seems to prefer shorter books — as far as I can tell the Hollinghurst (which I have already read) is the only doorstopper on the list. Given the long novels that were possible (Linda Grant, Adam Mars-Jones, Jayne Harris (all reviewed here or about to be) and Amitav Ghosh) one can’t help but speculate on whether the expanded list of eligible books produced a side effect — shorter novels on the longlist.

  5. whisperinggums Says:

    I admire your energy in reading all the longlist Kevin. I probably won’t get to any given my schedule at the moment. But, I just wanted to pop in to say that I’d like to read another Barry. I’m not surprised he lost with the secret scripture – for me his ending was flawed – but his prose is beautiful. (Of course, I still have The long long way on the TBR so perhaps I should cut my losses and just read that).

    Oh, and it’s good to see a goodly number of debut authors. But, I do wonder why Kim Scott’s The deadman dance which has been garnering much attention and many awards isn’t there. Ah, maybe it’s not eligible … I’m not sure it’s been published by a British publisher?

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Gummy: I’ve always found the Booker list to be worth the effort, even if there are some books that I end up not liking.

    I was not as big a fan of The Secret Scripture as many were — not just the ending, but I found the whole premise somewhat flawed. There is no doubt that Barry can write, however, and I look forward to trying his new one.

    I suspect your speculation about That Deadman Dance is correct — which of course means that if it does pick up a UK publisher it would be eligible next year (just as Alison Pick’s Far To Go was this year). Sometimes those of us in the colonies have to wait for recognition from the Mother Country. :-)

  7. Kerry Says:

    This longlist doesn’t exactly have me drooling. I will be follow your (and a few others’) coverage closely and making my choices accordingly. Not that I have an overwhelming amount of time to read lately (or even join in discussions), but I intend to find that elusive time for at least a few of these.

  8. Guy Savage Says:

    I’m looking forward to the Barnes. I rather like his books.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I hope that I can at least provide some thoughts that allow you to use whatever reading time you do have as effectively as possible. Great to hear from you again.

    Guy: If you like Barnes, I suspect you will enjoy this one. It is short, but very tightly written — and there is a noir element to it which I don’t remember from previous Barnes that I have read.

  10. Guy Savage Says:

    Thanks Kevin, I’ll want to read the Hollinghurst too, but Barnes is the one I’m most interested in of the two. Staring at the Sun, Before She Met Me, and Flaubert’s Parrot…those will be hard to beat.

  11. Lee Monks Says:

    I look forward to your assessments of these, Kevin, and am certainly glad a trustworthy source is reading them all. Rather you, mind!

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: The nine I haven’t read break into thirds — three I probably would read regardless, three spark curiosity and three fall into the “how did this make the list?” category. I confess that makes looking at the whole list somewhat easier — as does the absence of a lengthy doorstopper that doesn’t appeal. This jury seems to be averse to longish books; Hollinghurst is the only big tome to make the list despite some legitimate longish contenders (Mars-Jones, Harris, Ghosh, Grant).

  13. Lee Monks Says:

    I think this may be Julian Barnes’ year. I think he may have more than a couple of diligent advocates in there….

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: Come back next week when I post the review on Barnes and we’ll pick up this discussion. It hasn’t been released yet and I don’t like to engage in debate when people can’t even buy the book to confirm that you are right after all. :-)

  15. Lee Monks Says:

    Ha, kiss of death more like. I’ll look forward to your Barnes disquisition.

  16. Trevor Says:

    A bit on the divulging your opinion before the book is out, yesterday I asked the representatives at Knopf whether they wanted me to review the Holinghurst and Barnes during the Booker hub-bub or wait until they are released here (Holinghurst in October and Barnes not until January). They said they hoped I’d be able to review both and get a discussion going during the Booker hub-bub. At least, that’s this one publisher’s preference given these particular circumstances.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: As you know, I jumped the gun on the Hollinghurst (the Canadian release date is the same as the U.S. one). I find Knopf’s response to your question interesting — I feel guilty about taking an NA ARC and reviewing it months early, effectively telling readers to buy it from the UK and not the NA publisher. I’m glad to discover that Knopf doesn’t mind.

    The Barnes is also one of those books where the Canadian date is the same as the UK one (Aug. 4), not months down the road.

  18. Crake Says:

    I’m looking forward to your reviews, Kevin. This year’s longlist is really packed with surprises.
    Personally, I’m most intrigued by the inclusion of The Sisters Brothers.

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Crake: I’ll be getting to The Sisters Brothers next week since it is the only one that I have on hand. There will probably be a bit of a break in longlisters then — I had to order eight from the UK and that normally means about two weeks in shipping time.

  20. savidgereads Says:

    The more I look at the list the more I like it and the more pleased I am that my guesses, well everyones really, were so wrong. I think the list is a real mix, authors who are on their 11th book to debuts, the very well known and the not and I like the mix of genres.

    Currently the Birch is my ‘favourite’ however I have quite a lot of them to hand and will be reading them as and when (I am currently in the midst of Green Carnation Prize submissions, so they are taking priority) I can. I want to get to the unknown ones first interestingly.

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Simon: From the five I have read so far (I’ve read The Sisters Brothers but won’t be reviewing it for a few days), this one is very different. It has some of the elements of the Hollinghurst, but delivers on them in only one-quarter of the length — and I prefer Barnes’ prose to Hollinghurst’s.

    I am not as pleased as you with the list — I think from those I have read and the descriptions of others that the jury has a tilt to plot-driven books and eliminated some of the more introspective works. That is just an impression, mind you, to be confirmed or denied once I actually read the books.

  22. Cheryl Collins Says:

    I have to say that having read ‘A cupboard full of coats’ I thought it was an extremely good novel and it has lingered in my mind. It’s not really a crime novel as such, we soon discover who dunnit and that isn’t the focus of the book at all. Having lived in the area in which the novel is set alongside the Afro-Caribbean community it strikes me as pitch perfect.

  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for that comment, Cheryl — I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the book but your positive thoughts have sowed some seeds. I like the thought of community portrayal — Sam Selvon’s books on immigrants in London remain on my favorites list.

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