I’ve been closely following announcements relating to this year’s Booker Longlist and indeed public interest in general seems to be up. According to this BBC article sales of those selected in the initial 13 are at their highest since Ian McEwan’s Atonement was among the nominees in 2001.
Interestingly McEwan’s latest novel, Solar, is one of a number of high profile omissions from the list, with Martin Amis also missing out. There has been debate as to whether this indicates that more humorous storytelling is not being recognised by a judging panel headed by former poet laureate Andrew Motion. Solar has been well received critically elsewhere, with McEwan winning a prize dedicated to writers following in the tradition of comic writer P.G Wodehouse. I’m a fan of McEwan and quickly digested Solar, but disagree with the way it has been portrayed as a purely comic novel. There are some delightful comic set pieces in the book which are beautifully crafted and provide a refreshing contrast to the usual content of McEwan’s diverse work, showcasing a side of his writing repertoire rarely praised. However most of the humour is less direct and subtly layered over the rich characterisation of the bumbling protagonist Michael Beard, with a lot of serious comment on our culture of waste and the greedy nature of mankind as an obstacle to tackling climate change. McEwan also makes us feel pity and other emotions for Beard; we are invited to empathise with an ordinary man of simple needs hounded by the media as well as cringe and giggle at his stupidity.
Ultimately the Booker judges may have perhaps ignored Solar because it lacked the epic sweep present in some of the other nominations and which was certainly there in the “fictional panorama” that was Atonement in 2001. I have only just finished reading The Glass Room by Simon Mawer from last year’s longlist and that was a novel that perfectly demonstrated how grand scales and themes can add to the likelihood of recognition. A story about minimalist architecture and ideas largely taking place in the grim turmoil of Eastern Europe, The Glass Room may not seem ideal “summer reading” material if there is such a thing, but I found it easily readable divided as it was into manageable chunks and driven by compelling human relationships. At times the focus on interlocking loves and sex lives became repetitive but the opening portion of the book in which the idea for a striking, modern home is conceived and then lived in by a complex family driven away by the Nazi menace is so gripping that you are carried to the end of the book by acute curiosity as to the fate of the house and its former inhabitants. Mawer grapples with themes such as fidelity, homosexuality, friendship, the permanence of architecture, the perfection of ideas and the problems of expression when translating between languages. Overall the novel also covers vast historical ground, charting the physical and emotional scars left by seismic political change. I am yet to read Hilary Mantel’s winning novel from last year, Wolf Hall, which sits expectantly in my room but it too was suitably epic and historical and I would guess superior to The Glass Room, despite its strong points.
This love of the epic and grand and historical continues into this year’s longlist, if not literally then in the depth and intensity of content. The Room by Emma Donoghue and The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas both deal with particularly intense or extreme experiences for example; a child’s captivity in The Room and a child slapped by a stranger in The Slap. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the latest and most conventional offering yet from one of my favourite authors David Mitchell, is set in colonial Japan. It is the only title from this year’s list I have read so far and it was suitably epic whilst less engaging and cinematic than his previous offerings. I have ordered The Slap as I am intrigued by its differing narrative perspectives, the gripping nature of one moment in time rippling outwards with consequences and a view of Australian culture I am not familiar with. Generally I am surprised with how tempting I find most of the books selected for this year’s longlist, judging by extracts I have read via the Guardian website.
C by Tom McCarthy also interests me as it is supposedly experimental whilst also continuing that theme of grappling with grand ideas such as communication, science and discovery. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson seems to be excellently written and contain that humour some thought to be lacking after the exclusion of McEwan and Amis, going by the Guardian extract. All the others, as you would expect, seem well crafted and I encourage you to take a look at the previews. Here is the full 13:
- Peter Carey, Parrot and Oliver in America
- Emma Donoghue, Room
- Helen Dunmore, The Betrayal
- Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room
- Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question
- Andrea Levy, The Long Song
- Tom McCarthy, C
- David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
- Lisa Moore, February
- Paul Murray, Skippy Dies
- Rose Tremain, Trespass
- Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap
- Alan Warner, The Stars in the Bright Sky