Trevor's omission from Booker line-up met with shock

 

While Mantel, Byatt, Waters, Coetzee, Foulds and Mawer all made it, many more did not, writes EILEEN BATTERSBY, Literary Correspondent

OH TRAVESTY of travesties, this year’s Man Booker prize runs the risk of being remembered largely for the disappointingly shortsighted omission of William Trevor’s virtuoso elegy, Love and Summer, rather than for whichever of the six shortlisted novels actually wins next month.

Yet, for the record, when the contenders were announced in London yesterday, the absence of Trevor was greeted with shock to the point of his exclusion featuring in a discussion with one of the judges on BBC radio’s World At Onelunchtime news.

By contrast, there was no surprise voiced at the inclusion of two of the most obvious favourites – Hilary Mantel for Wolf Halland AS Byatt, the 1990 Booker winner, for The Children’s Book. Strongly welcome on the shortlist is brilliant South African JM Coetzee, the first writer to win the Booker Prize twice; he is also the 2003 Nobel Literature laureate.

Admittedly several commentators and reviewers dispute Summertime, a memoir and the third in Coetzee’s trilogy which began with Boyhood(1997) and Youth(2002), is a novel at all.

The shortlist, with its five British writers and one South African (three men and three women) including Sarah Waters, now shortlisted for the third time, has not succeeded in compensating for having emerged from a contentious longlist which had overlooked Amit Chaudhuri’s The Immortals, Tash Aw’s Map of the Invisible World, Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadowsand – dare one say it? – John Banville’s The Infinities, while including James Lever’s spoof narrative, Me Cheeta.

Interestingly, it was Trevor and Coetzee who had added much needed gravitas to the longlist announced in late July and saw the twice Booker shortlisted Colm Tóibín with an outside shortlist chance with Brooklyn. Mantel is an established English writer and was previously shortlisted in 1992 for her French revolutionary saga, A Place of Greater Safety.

Although not yet inhabiting a comparable artistic sphere to either Coetzee or Trevor, Mantel is serious, won deserved praise for Nothing is Black(2005) and, long before publication, her 11th novel, Wolf Hall,which looks at the character of Henry V111’s adviser, Thomas Cromwell, his rise and inevitable fall, seemed destined for Booker. It is a bold work inspired by a bold period of Tudor history.

Mantel approaches the subject with panache. This is a history novel, rather than an historical narrative and it is set on a large stage. However, it is written in a breathless continuous present tense, in very modern language.

AS Byatt whose erudite campus novel Possessiontook the 1990 Booker prize from John McGahern’s greatly fancied Amongst Women, offers a toweringly cerebral dimension to the shortlist with The Children’s Book. It was inspired partly by the shift which occurred in children’s literature between the Victorian and Edwardian periods and cross references history, culture and individual lives with beguiling lightness. It is a nostalgic, somewhat romantic work, yet Byatt invariably impresses by force of intellect. Neither Mantel nor Byatt write as well as Trevor.

Summertime, offbeat and deliberate, elusive and relentlessly truthful, yet again confirms simply how gifted Coetzee is. He distances himself from the facts of his life by allowing an eager young biographer to be busily at work on earlier phases of the now dead John Coetzee’s life.

Adam Foulds, at 35, is the youngest contender and has been included for his fiction debut, The Quickening Mazewhich reimagines the life of the troubled English poet John Clare. This is a graceful little novel with an original use of poetic imagery.

Sarah Waters features with The Little Stranger, an overwrought 1940s tale with shades of Gosford Parkmeets The Remains of the Day. It is difficult to see how it could have kept Trevor off the shortlist. The same might be said of Simon Mawer’s admittedly attractive novel The Glass Room, which returns to that enduring source for novelists, the second World War and is superior to Waters’s novel yet does not approach Trevor.

So Trevor, who came so close to the Booker Prize in 2002 with The Story of Lucy Gaultonly to lose to a tiger, Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi, has missed the shortlist – as have Colm Tóibín and Ed O’Loughlin. Trevor, who should be awarded the Nobel Prize, looked the certainty, but then so did Amit Chaudhuri and Tash Aw on publication. Yesterday, and not for the first time, the Booker Prize looked in serious need of rescuing – from itself. The great Coetzee could well take the prize for the third time and restore its credibility, but Mantel has the weight of early English history and a great story, never mind the judges, on her side.