Colm Tóibín sole Irish contender on exciting Booker shortlist

Although The Voyage, by Murray Bail, failed to make even the longlist, this is an exciting selection


A lone Irish writer features on one of the more interesting shortlists to have emerged in the often capricious history of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, which was announced yesterday in London.

Colm Tóibín’s novella The Testament of Mary, which gives voice to the grief and anger felt by the most famous mother of all time forced to endure her son’s doomed career as mankind’s saviour, has earned the 58-year-old Co Wexford-born writer his third shortlisting and his first since 2004 with The Master.

Veteran British novelist Jim Crace (67), the most senior of this year’s contenders, and previously shortlisted in 1997 for Quarantine, which went on to win the then Whitbread prize, is selected for Harvest, which he has described as his final novel.

Joining Crace and Tóibín on the list are four female writers including former Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri, for her second novel The Lowland; the Canadian-US writer and film- maker Ruth Ozeki, for her gentle Zen narrative A Tale for the Time Being; New Zealander Eleanor Catton, at 28 the youngest of those shortlisted, her second novel, The Luminaries, at 832 pages, the longest of the contenders; and the Zimbabwean writer who glories in the pen name of Noviolet Bulawayo, whose shortlisted debut novel is We Need New Names.

Exciting selection
Although one of the year’s finest novels, The Voyage, by Australian Murray Bail, failed to make even the longlist, this is an exciting selection.

Jim Crace has been regarded as a favourite since the longlist was published. His 11th novel, Harvest was well received on publication, not only because Crace has announced his retirement from fiction writing but also because he is one of Britain’s consistently most original writers. Many observers still believe Quarantine, his finest novel to date, should have won in 1997. His 1999 novel Being Dead, winner of the US National Book Circle Critics prize, was surprisingly overlooked.

A beautiful, elegiac novel, Harvest spans seven days and is set in a medieval England poised for catastrophic change.

Catton’s daring feat of storytelling, The Luminaries, is an engaging, inventive narrative with echoes of Peter Carey’s stylish whimsy as well as obvious reflection of the towering 19th century tradition.

Already established through the success of her first novel, The Rehearsal, Catton must also be seen as a serious contender.

However, neither she for her youth nor Crace for his leave- taking are sentimental favourites: their novels would stand out in any company. The problem faced by both – and indeed by all on the shortlist – is the formidable claim presented by Lahiri’s extraordinary, understated novel.

Her flat, measured prose has none of the resonant shimmer of Crace, nor does her sombre, third-person narrative bubble with life in the way Catton’s tour de force does, yet The Lowland could well win through its relentless and insistent emotional intelligence. It is the one book on the shortlist that will linger long in the memory.

Artistic responsibility
Speaking from the US, Tóibín expressed his pleasure in his third Man Booker shortlisting. When asked if he felt a responsibility in telling a story from the viewpoint of Christ’s mother, he said his responsibility was an artistic one, to the voice.

Did he consider his novel an act of subversion? “No, in that case I would have written a pamphlet – I felt a sense of awe, but not one that overwhelmed me.”

In ambitious books that appear slightly overshadowed on a strong, varied list, Ozeki (57) and Bulawayo (31) tackle big themes about humanity and how to live.

The gifted Crace would be a popular, respected and deserving winner but Lahiri has written a realist’s novel as painful as life itself.