Eileen Battersby: Booker shortlist not the canvas it could be

15 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Eileen Battersby: Booker shortlist not the canvas it could be.

LONDON (AP) — Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Anne Tyler and Jamaica’s Marlon James are among six finalists for the £50,000 (US$77,000) Booker Prize for fiction. James is the first Jamaican finalist for the prestigious prize, with “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” which centers on the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. There are two Americans on the list: Anne Tyler, nominated for A Spool of Blue Thread, about a Baltimore family (what else?) and Hanya Yanagihara, nominated for her critically acclaimed second novel, A Little Life, about four young men who move to New York after college. Two of the contenders exceed 700 pages, while a third one just shy of 500, succeed in highlighting, rather brilliantly, the concise wonder of Briton Tom McCarthy’s playful anthropological meditation, Satin Island.

The list is rounded out by The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma, set in the author’s native Nigeria; Satin Island by Brit Tom McCarthy, about a “corporate anthropologist” data mapping the world; and The Year of the Runaways, about Indian immigrants in England, by Sunjeev Sahota, also from the UK. In the surprise absence of Anne Enright’s The Green Road and Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, McCarthy, with his cool, bemused fourth novel, remains a strong challenger for this year’s prize. McCarthy’s typical eschewal of character development accentuates the intensity, but his crisp clean prose is stimulating, his concepts original and his visual imagery powerful.” “It was worth persevering for before the end Sahota proves a wonderfully evocative storyteller, taking us into the heart of the world of illegal migration and how it shapes lives. A picture of modern immigration that reads like the real thing.” “Marlon James’ writing can be at once punchy and lyrical; can alternate strange, dreamy poetry with visceral action; and can bring persuasive life to a kaleidoscopic range of characters.

Moreover, it showcases the extraordinary capabilities of a writer whose importance can scarcely be questioned, even if his mode of address will exclude some.” “Questions of ownership and belonging are raised throughout the novel: the shock of a concealed parentage, the manipulations in relationships, be they with children, lovers, properties. Obioma’s novel lacks the rhythmic grace of Okri in what was to prove a career-defining novel, yet The Fishermen will beguile with its mix of mythology and astute observation.

The trials faced by this lone family can be read as an allegory of those played out on the larger social and political stage in a post-independence Nigeria as brother turned on brother. A strikingly accomplished debut.” “Just about every one of A Little Life’s 700 pages is saturated with trauma: child abuse, rape, domestic violence, dysfunctional families, addiction, self-harm, suicide, grief. Laila Lalami’s Pulitzer finalist, The Moor’s Account, is a remarkable historical novel inspired by the disastrous1527 Narvaez expedition to the New World, which ended with the death of all but four of the original contingent of 300. History left him out of the story; or rather one of the Castillians, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who wrote a famous account of the ordeal-turned-thrilling-adventure, neglected to include Estebanico aside from mentioning his presence, referring to him as an Aran Negro from Azemmour.

The novel, which oozes a hothouse prose parodying Donna Tartt’s stylistic excesses, is about a subject even more vile than murder, the sexual abuse of children. It would be a shame were it to emerge as the first American winner of the Man Booker, as it reflects the worst aspects of US writing; over-hyped, sprawling narratives written in Franzen-like long breathless sentences: “It was a time he rarely thought about, his flight to Philadelphia, because it was a period in which he had been so afloat from himself that even as he had lived his life, it had felt dreamlike and not quite real; there had been times in those weeks when he had opened his eyes and was genuinely unable to discern whether what had just happened had actually happened, or whether he had imagined it. It had been a useful skill, this persistent and unshatterable somnambulism, and it had protected him, but then that ability, like his ability to forget, had abandoned him as well and he was never to acquire it again.” Ironically, Yanagihara’s first novel The People in the Trees (2013), which was nominated for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, is a far better novel. In fairness to everyone, although I am hoping Satin Island will win, my more commonsensical side suggested that Anne Enright would actually win this year to become the fourth double winner in the prize’s history. Tyler is so supreme that she can ease her tale along and it is fascinating to discover that by far the strongest image occurs on the closing page as she returns to a motif which appears deceptively harmless; Halloween decorations.

Recalling the many years when eager children waited to see the familiar decorations being put, finally there has come a time when “the filmy-skirted ghosts frolicked and danced on the porch with nobody left to watch”. Robinson is, as is obvious, an artist and although Lila is not as good as Gilead and in fact Robinson has never matched her first novel Housekeeping (1980), there is something rather perverse about how the US writers have fared on this shortlist. Lila would have been a dramatic presence and an example of the formal splendour which shapes the finest of US writing, the quiet dignity that gets overshadowed by hype.

Yet the omission of Robinson and Enright leave the way open for Satin Island, of which I have already applauded for being original, splendid, a bit bonkers and indicative of fiction’s limitless powers. It is about everything and nothing and sums up where we are at this moment in time and space; nothing on the short list approaches its verve and urgency.

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