The “Real” Jury’s shortlist
The strangeness of the 2011 Man Booker continues with the shortlist. Two of my choices, including my runaway favorite, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending and Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers made the list. The other four come from the amorphous group that I called ordinary (click on the title for a link to my original review):
Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch
Snowdrops, by A.D. Miller
Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan
Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman
A few observations:
— By declining to shortlist Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Children and Sebastain Barry’s On Canaan’s Side, the jury has completed its Sarah Palin-like Going Rogue, act. With the new entry rules, there were some 40+ entries available from previous winners or listed authors. Only Barnes and Birch remain. As with Palin in politics, there is nothing quite like someone actually going rogue to remind us that the status quo might not be as bad as we thought it was.
— Two Canadian authors do make the list — deWitt and Edugyan. We might have much to talk about in my next post in a couple of hours when the Giller longlist comes out if neither happens to make it (although I doubt that will be the case).
— The jury’s taste for “action” books is obvious — deWitt, Miller, Birch and (arguably) Edugyan all fit that general description. While I didn’t find any of those books “bad”, I did find all but deWitt quite ordinary, even for their genre. The other three all started with interesting ideas, but failed in the execution. It has to be said that above average writing is not a feature of this short list. Those who look for stimulating prose in their fiction will find this year’s list even more disappointing than I do — except for Barnes (and the not-very-good dialect in Kelman), this is a group of straight-forward narrators.
— All of which means that while the book I think is by far the best of this year’s longlist is still around, I don’t have high hopes for it as the eventual winner. That would be out of step with everything this very strange jury has decided so far.
KfC’s pre-announcement predictions
I have abandoned The Last Hundred Days at page 138 (the plot is ploddingly obvious, the characters paper-thin — but I will return to it if it makes the shortlist) so my 2011 Booker reading is complete, except for possible rereads once the shortlist is out.
It will come as no surprise to regular visitors here that I found this year’s longlist featured some very ordinary novels — I have difficulty seeing what the jury found prize-worthy in more than half the 13 books. Despite that, I think that a decent shortlist is possible (although it would feature a couple of unlikely choices).
Here’s my personal shortlist, listed in order (click on the title to link to the original review). Your own list would be more than welcome in comments. I’ll update this post with the official shortlist when it is announced on Sept. 6.
The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. My favorite by a wide margin, this slim (150 pages) novel has all the makings of a classic. Tony Webster’s contemplation of his past — an exploration of the difference between shame, guilt and remorse — is sensitive, perceptive, even heart-warming in its way. Some readers have found the uncertainty in the book frustrating; I thought it added to the realism. This book would be an entirely worthy winner.
Far To Go, by Alison Pick. Okay, there is some national chauvanism in my ranking since this is a Canadian novel which first appeared here last year, but I found it held up very well as I explored the other twelve. The story is built around the Kindertransport “child rescue” initiative in the months before World War II broke out — for those who liked Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room a couple years back, this book also features the misplaced optimism of a Jewish family in pre-war Czechoslovakia. Like Mawer, Pick includes a modern element which worked very effectively for me.
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt. I am surprising even myself with this high ranking of a Western in a competition supposedly devoted to the “literary” novel, but deWitt does deliver on his engaging premise. Narrated by Eli Sisters, the story concerns two gunslinger brothers who have a contract to kill a prospector during the mid-1880s California gold rush. There is a fair bit of violence but that is not really the core of the book — Eli’s introspection and distinctive voice are what makes it work. And, as many have observed, it will make a fine movie.
On Canaan’s Side, by Sebastian Barry. Poet and playwright Barry has produced another finely-crafted novel — The Secret Scripture was shortlisted in 2008 and this one has some similarities. The author has returned to the Dunne family which featured in two of his earlier novels. In this one, 86-year-old Lilly is looking back at a tempestuous life, most of it spent in America after fleeing Ireland because of the family’s perceived British connections. The first two-thirds was excellent but I am afraid after that that Barry’s plot-stretching became too much for me to rate it higher — even his ability with language gets strained.
Derby Day, by D.J. Taylor. A Victorian mystery centred on England’s legendary horse race, this one details the efforts of a large cast of characters, all determined to cheat the system to advantage and make money off the Derby. They are a thoroughly disreputable bunch and, while Taylor has some problems juggling his many storylines as the book winds on, the result is a very entertaining read. Most Booker shortlists feature a historical novel so I would not be surprised to see this rather unconventional choice make the real jury’s list.
The Stranger’s Child, by Allan Hollinghurst. This one ranks well below my top five (I did not rate it very highly at all on first reading) but I need a sixth pick and the author has at least produced an ambitious book, even if it did not succeed for me. Cecil Valance is a young poet who makes a weekend visit to a fellow student’s home just before the Great War. He produces a poem which will become a British schoolbook staple and the central feature of Hollinghurst’s narratives in a series of extended episodes in the decades that follow. For me, the writing got in the way of a potentially interesting story — others found that to be the strength of the book.
I am afraid the remaining seven were all disappointing works for me — “ordinary” was the friendliest description that I found myself using all too often when I wrote my reviews. Most of those seven do sound interesting when you describe the premise; the problem is that the authors simply did not deliver. In a year that featured many good novels (we can talk about them in comments), it was disappointing to see such marginal books on the longlist. I’m not going to try to rank them — the five that I read are all in a clump of “good idea, bad execution” from my point of view.