Having now completed my reading of the 2010 IMPAC shortlist, I’ll indulge in some critical thoughts and even a hesitant prediction. Those who know my record in literary predictions outside Canada (where I actually have a pretty good record) will realize that this is most likely to produce sure losers, rather than probable winners. Still, I’ve read the books (and reviewed all but two — Trevor and dovegreyreader do a better job than I could on those ones). You can find links to reviews in the sidebar over here >>>>>>. And before we start, a reminder that entries in KfC’s 2010 IMPAC contest remain open until June 16, so by all means join the contest. Full details are here — you can submit an entry on that post or this one.
As noted in that post, the IMPAC is an odd duck in the literary contest world. Nominations come from libraries around the world (which I think is a good thing because it reflects reader judgment) and are restricted to English language books or books published in English translation in 2008. On the positive side, that means the novels have been reader-tested; on the negative side, it means they risk being a bit shopworn or have been overlooked.
I would offer the observation that IMPAC juries seem to relish this oddness and respond with some offbeat picks, as though they appreciate the chance to draw attention to books that have fallen through the cracks. Consider the last five winners:
2009 — Man Gone Down, by Michael Thomas — a post-modern American novel that attracted a few favorable reviews but not many. And one of the rare books that I abandoned (I warned you about my contest record).
2008 —De Niro’s Game, by Rawi Hage — a Canadian novel that did not go very far in national competitions here. I was lukewarm about it .
2007 — Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian. A book that I would never read had it not been an IMPAC winner and a book that I very much liked — some readers did find it slow.
2006 — The Master, by Colm Toibin. In the IMPAC world, this is the oddball winner because it is the most conventional novel of these five and the only one written by a “name” author. A very, very good book.
2005 — The Known World, by Edward P. Jones. An American novel about slavery that I have not read — I’ll confess that I have read as many of those novels as I think I am up to. It does have a good critical reputation.
So, with that recent history in mind, how does the 2010 shortlist stack up? I’d start by breaking it down into three categories.
There are three “American” novels: Home by Marilynne Robinson, Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and The Believers by Zoe Heller (I know she’s English, but it is set in New York). Home is probably the most accomplished of the three and won last year’s Orange Prize. It provokes some highly varied responses — many readers love it with a passion, others (including me) have no taste for it at all. It would be The Master on this year’s list and I’m guessing the jury will decide it has already won enough prizes. Of the other two, Netherland has attracted more attention, but no significant prizes: The Believers has tended to pass unnoticed, despite Heller’s reputation. If the winner comes from these three, I’d guess Netherland — and that would be my choice as well.
Then there are three translated novels: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery (from the French); The Twin, by Gerbrand Bakker (from the Dutch) and Settlement, by Christoph Hein (from the German). The Barbery is an international success story and a book club favorite — I suspect too light to win this prize. I liked both the Bakker and the Hein — my choice would be Settlement and I suspect it would be the jury’s as well. It is an excellent book and the subject matter (the complications of re-unifying Germany) is both timely and worthwhile.
And there are two UK books: In Zodiac Light by Robert Edric and Ross Raisin’s Out Backwards (God’s Own Country in the UK.) Edric is a prolific novelist whose work shows up periodically in competitions — I think this book is the weakest of the eight (which means you can mark it down as a sure winner). Settlement was a wonderful discovery for me. Hein has a substantial European reputation but this was his first book that I have read; I will be reading others. Settlement is a major achievement.
My personal choice would be Settlement, with Netherland a close second. I thought all eight of these shortlist books were worthwhile reads; only Settlement moved into the exceptional category.
As for the jury choice, I’m guessing that they will come down to Hein or Raisin — there have been enough North American winners in the last few years that I am predicting that they will be passed by. Having confessed my preference for Settlement, that would be my prediction but I would not be surprised to see God’s Own Country as the winner — it is a more than competent first novel and has much to recommend it. And, as a longshot choice, I would throw Netherland into the mix.
And I am not entering my own contest, so all of the above is drivel as far as that is concerned.