English writers dominate less than memorable 30th Booker shortlist

Apathy, not controversy, could well scuttle this year's Booker Prize, as the 30th annual shortlist was announced in London yesterday…

Apathy, not controversy, could well scuttle this year's Booker Prize, as the 30th annual shortlist was announced in London yesterday. A lone Irishman, the previously Booker shortlisted Patrick McCabe, has been selected for Breakfast on Pluto, while the other five contenders are all British.

Predictably media attention was last night focusing on Magnus Mills, the London bus-driver who wrote his novel in between shifts. This is a disappointing shortlist but does raise some interesting questions. The absence of writers from the Commonwealth appears to be a well-intended gesture on the part of the judges to counter one of the many criticisms aimed at the Booker - that of a heavy deference to colonial writers. This may have been inspired by the lack of conviction many critics expressed about last year's winner, Arundhati Roy's massively overrated The God of Small Things.

Ironically, if the 1998 shortlist's apparent blanket boycott of Commonwealth writers was deliberate - or even if it wasn't - the jud ges have overlooked the best novel published this year among those eligible for the prize. Romesh Gunesekera's The Sandglass is an outstanding novel in which Gunesekera examines a culture at the mercy of colonialism as well as its own inner rot.

This is a book which is both ap pealing and profound, a combination which has proven very useful to Booker in the past and also meets the criteria of good fiction.


Aside from the disappointment of Gunesekera's omission, there is the absence of William Trevor from the shortlist. His new novel, Death in Summer, is not only a fine work in its own right, it is a valuable addition to Trevor's existing body of work. So where does this leave this year's Booker's shortlist? Certainly it's a list so middle-of-the-road as to almost be a parody. Never before has a judging panel concentrated so intently on English fiction. It is almost as if it is trying to elevate the standing of British fiction in the eyes of the international reading public.

However, of the three established English writers on the list, two have strong claims to their places. Beryl Bainbridge, for so long over-praised and a victim of her own caustic, very English cleverness, won new admirers with the publication of Every Man for Himself - a reworking of the Titanic disaster - which featured on 1996's Booker shortlist. Selected for this year's prize with Master Georgie, she has again drawn on history. Set against the background of the Crimean War, Bainbridge's beguiling narrative follows the adventures of a brave little band of Britishers. It is a low-key book which defies the twists of the plot. The chacterisation is deft and Bainbridge demonstrates she can create fiction that is lively, funny and human.

It is her 16th novel and this writer, who appears to be getting better as her career progresses, has now received her fifth Booker shortlisting. In this very ordinary shortlist, she must stand a very strong chance of winning, especially as she has always been popular both with the British reading public and the literary establishment. It is a small book but no one will complain if she collects the prize in the absence of Gunesek era and Trevor.

Another well-established British writer, Ian McEwan, is shortlisted for Amsterdam. It is a very good novel: seldom has McEwan's prose been as well handled and rarely has he written so convincingly about the ordinary. As a writer, he has been long established as something of a master of the macabre. Novels such as The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers indicated a fascination with the sinister.

An emerging humanity, however, began to assert itself in novels such as A Child in Time, The Innocent, Black Dogs and En- during Love. Amsterdam follows the fortunes of several men united by one common link. They all had affairs with the same woman.

Molly Lane is the heroine of sorts, although she is dead before the narrative begins. Her former lovers are among the mourners at her funeral. The book is about deception, particularly self-deception, and exposure.

Even those who are not fans of McEwan will be drawn to the ease and originality with which he handles a story which is not concerned with big issues but is mainly engaged in examining the way people live.

The third of the established writers is Julian Barnes. One of the most overrated writers of his generation, Barnes is undeniably clever but his status as a novelist even in the strange world of British fiction remains something of a puzzle.

Shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1984 with Flaubert's Parrot, which incidentally was a good book, probably his best, Barnes has contented himself with writing clever English fiction of the satirical kind. His satire is not particularly good, but he does enjoy amassing facts.

The shortlisted England, England pivots on a great scam as a wacky, possibly crazed tycoon, Jack Pitman, attempts to create the ultimate theme park . . . the complete England from Robin Hood to the Royal Family, and all contained on the Isle of Wight.

Pitman's England is going to be so good that no one will want to bother visiting the real one. It is a variation on the slightly grotesque reality of the Disney empire. As is common in much English fiction, Barnes's attitude to character never rises above caricature.

Late in the novel, he does attempt to elevate his stagy, unfunny narrative by addressing serious issues such as time and loss and the complex relation of history, memory and identity. The most important thing about this limp satire is that yet again it raises the question: just how far is the British literary establishment prepared to go to indulge mediocre British fiction?

London reviewers are well known for being shamefully soft on their own and Barnes is certainly a member of the inner circle. Its main irony must be that a book setting out to lament England's cultural decline merely personifies it.

Magnus Mills is the dark horse of the list. His The Restraint of Beasts, is a surreal and bloody odyssey perpetrated by two Scots labourers. The worrying aspect of his inclusion is that too much attention has been focused on his day job as a London bus-driver. About 10 years ago, Paul Sayers won the Whitbred Book of the Year while working as a porter in a mental home: again his occupation drew far more notice than the book.

So much attention is already being placed on Mills's occupation that it does make an observer feel that this worthy Booker judging panel, chaired by Lord Hurd, is not only attempting to put Booker right back in the hands of mother England, it is also trying to make some sort of socio-political point.

Another outside contender is Martin Booth, shortlisted for his novel The Industry of Souls in which a British citizen, Alexander Bayliss, spends 20 years in the Gulag on spying charges. On being freed, he decides to stay in Russia but is later forced to face his past.

In the case of Patrick McCabe, who comes with a good track record and a definite flair for the surreal, his Breakfast on Pluto is certainly as good as any on the list, if not quite his best. The Booker judges also omitted 1991 Nobel Literature Laureate, Nadine Gordimer's book The House Gun. Another book with strong claims to a Booker shortlis ting was Australian Murray Bail's wry parable Eucalyptus. This is not going to be a memorable Booker year. Rows and debates are unlikely. McEwan justifies his place, but Bainbridge will probably win.