British fiction will be real winner of this year's Man Booker


SOME MAY describe it as an exercise in damage limitation but from the pedestrian Man Booker longlist that left observers underwhelmed has emerged an almost interesting and certainly gender-balanced shortlist.

It will be seen as very domestic – four of the six writers are British – yet the two non-British contenders are formidable talents. The Malaysian Tan Twan Eng has been previously Man Booker longlisted with his first novel The Gift of Rain (2007), while performance poet Jeet Thayil from India, deservedly received good reviews for his first novel Narcopolis, which is a daring, atmospheric and rather beautiful tragedy inspired by Thayil’s experience as an opium smoker.

The contenders announced yesterday include 2009 Man Booker winner Hilary Mantel with Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to her historical pastiche Wolf Hall. Towering over his fellow shortlisters is Will Self at 6ft 5in with Umbrella, a daring postmodernist nod to modernism. It is a likely winner in that it is lively, boldly self-aware and untypical of contemporary British fiction.

Self gleefully nods to Joyce and most particularly John Dos Passos and Pynchon as well as Virginia Woolf and even DH Lawrence. All very clever but also, more importantly, fun.

Self, who as an active journalist, critic, pundit and public man with a ready opinion on just about everything and who, at 51, has a large body of work, appears an obvious winner. However, he faces a strong challenge from debut novelist, Manchester-born Alison Moore, whose The Lighthouse is – by contrast to the rousing Tudor politics of Mantel and Self’s treatment of the industrial implications of the first World War – rooted in a private turmoil as it follows a man setting off on a European walking tour.

With more than a month of speculation and/or vitriol to enjoy until the eventual winner is hosanna’d on presentation night, October 18th, the outcome could be a replay of that memorable moment in 1984, when the odds-on and critically obvious favourite, JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, lost out to Anita Brookner’s muted narrative of emotional despair, Hotel du Lac.

It might well be that Self’s amusing polyphonic extravaganza might have to bow to the sympathetic allure of Moore’s The Lighthouse.

Also played out on a small, if rather less subtle and quite brazenly middlebrow canvas, that of the French Riviera, is playwright/novelist Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, one of the first four titles published last year by the Independent publisher And Other Stories. As long ago as 1993, Levy was pursuing themes of philosophical approaches to life and living in Swallowing Geography.

Swimming Home is lighter than Moore’s but is also concerned with the private, albeit lived out more publicly in a social setting.

Mantel has acquired a magisterial status and, at her best, as in Beyond Black (2005), is formidable. Bring Up the Bodies, which continues its clunky pursuit of Thomas Cromwell, focuses on Anne Boleyn. Tudor England is a fascinating period which makes Mantel’s heavy-handed grave-robbing of history all the more distressing.

Jeet Thayil and most certainly Tan Twan Eng, with The Garden of Evening Mists, would grace any shortlist, and are here as far more than token outsiders. It is, however, a list that showcases British fiction and detractors will be surprised at the unexpected range it reflects.

That said, there are the usual omissions. Janet Davey’s excellent fourth novel by Battersea Bridge, ignored even at longlist stage, is superior to Levy’s skilful froth, and most other conventional British fiction.

Even more worthy of lamentation is the Irish writer Keith Ridgway whose Hawthorn Child was not only one of the better novels published this year, it was one of the most convincing London narratives.

Man Booker 2012 may well be choreographed in this Olympic year as another home success.

There has been an established pattern: several of the 1980s British literary bright sparks such as Salman Rushdie, Graham Swift Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes all eventually taking the prize with greater or less merits.

The most talented of that generation, Martin Amis, has yet to, but his prolific heir apparent as literary enfant terrible, Will Self, though lacking the Amis linguistic gloss, certainly possesses the daring. If Umbrella wins, it has a wide age demographic appeal and will sell.

Amis, John Lanchester and Ian McEwan all published disappointing “big” novels this year.

Self will preen righteously – and why not – while British fiction will be the real winner, even if Self is routed by Alison Moore.