Uninspired longlist in a Booker year of paucity

Australian writer Richard Flanagan’s war novel ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ deserves to win the prize


Irish writers Niall Williams and Joseph O’Neill have been included on the longlist for this year’s Man Booker prize for fiction, which was announced yesterday; as have, for the first time, writers from the United States. However, from a largely uninspired longlist of 13 novels it is that of the list’s sole Australian, Richard Flanagan, which could and should emerge as winner.

A bold, formal and traditional narrative in the tradition of Patrick White’s fiction, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a powerful war novel by the Tasmanian-born Flanagan, is one of the finest novels published in English this year.

The most serious challenger to Flanagan’s sixth novel on what is not a particularly serious list is Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others. Set in Mukherjee’s native Calcutta, it not only tells the story of an Indian family but also looks to India’s history. Mukherjee, who now lives in England, has been categorised as British on the longlist but The Lives of Others reads as an Indian work by an Indian writer.

Another threat to Flanagan could come in the form of The Wake, the astonishingly imaginative debut from environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth, and the longlist’s only novel to come from beyond the major publishing houses.

Set in 11th- century Lincolnshire during and after the Norman invasion, it is written in a dramatic, quasi-Anglo Saxon prose that shudders with righteous anger and is as modern as it is historical.

Lukewarm reviews

Williams’s History of the Rain, an arch novel of anecdotes, literary allusions and cross-references, was published to lukewarm reviews – in this newspaper George O’Brien described it as saturated with good intentions but “a bit wet”.

In it, narrator Ruth Swain, a clever girl confined to bed who favours upper-case exclamations, ponders the library of nearly 4,000 volumes owned by her father, Virgil. She characterises her family’s preferred methodology as “the meander style”, an apt description in a convoluted novel that, though not without charm, rambles.

Joseph O’Neill’s novel The Dog, due to be published in September, will be one of the year’s most eagerly awaited books. It follows his post-9/11 novel Netherland, for which he was awarded the PEN/Faulkner prize for fiction in 2009 and which contains some of contemporary fiction’s most astute descriptions of cricket.

Born in Cork in 1964 to Irish and Turkish parents, O’Neill lives in New York and on the longlist is categorised as Irish-American.

The list’s British contingent is led by 2010 Man Booker winner Howard Jacobson, with J; former Man Booker contender David Mitchell, with The Bone Clocks; and Scottish novelist Ali Smith – who has twice been shortlisted for the prize – with How to be Both.

Kingsnorth’s inclusion offers at least a token gesture towards balancing the conservative feel of the longlist.

David Nicholls, author of the bestselling One Day, features with Us, a feelgood work – which was five years years in the making – about a couple about to call time on their marriage before the husband tries a final gambit with a family holiday.

Lost opportunity

If ever a list needed Martin Amis’s presence it is this one. The Zone of Interest, which returns to the world Amis imagined in his 1991 novel Time’s Arrow (his only novel to date shortlisted for the Booker) is due to be published at the end of August and could have injected into the competition a useful element of controversy. Its omission seems a lost opportunity.

The prize, which was first awarded in 1969, was until this year open only to writers from the UK, the commonwealth, Zimbabwe and the Republic. Canadian writers have featured prominently over the years but there was always the fear that once US novelists became eligible for the competition they would overwhelm it through quality of work and sheer force of numbers.

In this much-hyped first “global” year, however, only four US novelists have made the longlist.

Joshua Ferris’s third novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, is fun but far from great and owes too much to material Philip Roth has worked to death.

Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club (2004), is longlisted for We are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a big-hearted family yarn that spins on a narrative twist.

Siri Hustvedt’s sixth novel, The Blazing World, explores artistic equality, and is intricate and characteristically cerebral.

Most interesting of all is the inclusion Orfeo by Richard Powers, which could alert a wider readership to one of American fiction’s most enigmatic imaginations.

There has been a dearth of good fiction this year, which makes the exclusion of Eyrie, by another Australian, Tim Winton, such a shame. It is a serious omission, as is that of Arctic Summer, South African novelist Damon Galgut’s hymn to EM Forster.

The omission of Canadian novelist Miriam Toews’s finest work to date, All My Puny Sorrows, is notable, as is that of Em and the Big Hoom, by Mumbai-born novelist Jerry Pinto; and that of The Visitors, US-based Irish writer Patrick O’Keefe’s debut.

Commentators are likely to wonder why the longlist includes 10 men but only three women. The shortlist is due to be announced on September 9th.