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.