Last week, the longlist for this year's Man Booker Prize was announced. Over the past few years I've been paying more and more attention to this list as a source of recommendations - last year I read five of the longlisted books, two of which were among my favourites of 2012 - so I was curious to see who would be nominated this time round. The 2013 longlist has been commended for its multicultural scope but there's been a lot of surprise at certain books not being included. The thirteen books nominated are...
Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw (Amazon link)
Phoebe has come to China buoyed with hope, but her dreams are shattered as the job she was promised seems never to have existed. Gary is a successful pop star, but his fans disappear after a bar-room brawl. Yinghui was once a poetry-loving activist and is not sure how she became a wealthy businesswoman. Justin works hard for his powerful family, but begins to wonder if his efforts are appreciated. And then there is the Five Star Billionaire himself, pulling the strings of destiny, his lessons for success unsettling the dynamics of these disparate lives.
A good one to kick off with: a book I'd already been planning to read, which will probably be bumped up my reading schedule as a result of its inclusion here. Sounds exciting and colourful - I'm hoping it will be a lot of fun to read.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (Amazon link)
We Need New Names tells the story of Darling and her friends Stina, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Bastard. They all used to have proper houses, with real rooms and furniture, but now they all live in a shanty called Paradise. They spend their days stealing guavas, playing games and wondering how to get the baby out of young Chipo’s stomach. They dream of escaping to other paradises - America, Dubai, Europe. But if they do escape, will these new lands bring everything they wish for?
In two minds about this - it does sound potentially interesting, but isn't the sort of thing I would normally choose to read. I'm wary of saying anything like 'I'll give it a go' when there are probably hundreds of books I'll end up reading before this... But if I hear a lot of good things about it, that could persuade me. I'll wait until I've seen more reader reviews.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (Amazon pre-order link)
It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.
The Luminaries is yet to be released (although it's now coming out of the first of August, which I believe is earlier than planned?) and is a book I'd already been looking forward to. Sounds like it packs in a lot of themes and is the sort of novel you can really get your teeth into. Catton's work is new to me - her debut The Rehearsal has been hovering around the periphery of my to-read list for ages - so here's hoping her style proves appealing.
Harvest by Jim Crace (Amazon link)
As late summer steals in and the final pearls of barley are gleaned, a village comes under threat. A trio of outsiders - two men and a dangerously magnetic woman - arrives on the woodland borders and puts up a make-shift camp. That same night, the local manor house is set on fire. Over the course of seven days, Walter Thirsk sees his hamlet unmade: the harvest blackened by smoke and fear, the new arrivals cruelly punished, and his neighbours held captive on suspicion of witchcraft. But something even darker is at the heart of his story, and he will be the only man left to tell it...
I've seen this book around but, had it not appeared on the longlist, I would probably never have taken any notice of it. I don't think the cover does it many favours - without reading the summary, I'd have assumed it was some kind of gung-ho adventure novel. The premise actually sounds pretty interesting so it's likely I will be investigating this one at some point soon.
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris (Amazon link)
19 year-old Chani lives in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community of North West London. She has never had physical contact with a man, but is bound to marry a stranger. The rabbi’s wife teaches her what it means to be a Jewish wife, but Rivka has her own questions to answer. Soon buried secrets, fear and sexual desire bubble to the surface in a story of liberation and choice; not to mention what happens on the wedding night…
Blah. Not really interested in the sound of this at all, to be honest. Next!
The Kills by Richard House (Amazon link)
An astonishing landmark novel in four books, The Kills is both a political thriller and a bravura literary performance. An epic novel of crime and conspiracy told in four books, it begins with a man on the run and ends with a burned body. Moving across continents, characters and genres, there will be no more ambitious or exciting novel in 2013.
I've already heard a lot of talk about The Kills - with the first installment initially published as an ebook and multimedia material created to supplement the story, it certainly seems to stand out from the crowd. I've downloaded book one, Sutler, from the publisher's website - you can get it free just by tweeting about it (info here) - so, although I'm not sure the plot will be my cup of tea and I'm a bit intimidated by the 1000-plus-page length, I'm looking forward to finding out what it's like.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Amazon pre-order link)
Born just fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers, one often mistaken for the other in the Calcutta neighborhood where they grow up. But they are also opposites, with gravely different futures ahead. It is the 1960s, and Udayan, charismatic and impulsive, finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty. Subhash, the dutiful son, does not share his brother’s political passion; he leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet, coastal corner of America. But when Subhash learns what happened to his brother in the lowland outside their family’s home, he goes back to India, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, and to heal the wounds Udayan left behind.
Another one yet to be published. I'm only mildly interested in this - I like stories set in India, but the premise pales in comparison to the innovative Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil, which was on last year's shortlist and has remained a favourite.
Unexploded by Alison MacLeod (Amazon link)
May, 1940. On Park Crescent, Geoffrey and Evelyn Beaumont and their eight-year-old son, Philip, anxiously await news of the expected enemy landing on the beaches of Brighton. It is a year of tension and change, and as Evelyn struggles to fall in with the war effort and the constraints of her role in life, her thoughts become tinged with a mounting, indefinable desperation. Then she meets Otto Gottlieb, a 'degenerate' German-Jewish painter and prisoner in her husband's internment camp. Love collides with fear, the power of art with the forces of war, and the lives of Evelyn, Otto and Geoffrey are changed irrevocably.
Hmmm. The Second World War isn't exactly an original theme for historical fiction and there's nothing in the description that's making me feel excited about this book. I'll pass on this one - if I want to investigate MacLeod's work I'll probably start elsewhere.
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (Amazon link)
TransAtlantic tells the story of four generations of women. Spanning the onset of the Irish potato famine in 1845, the American Civil War and the more recent troubles in Northern Ireland, it is an epic and engrossing story of slavery, poverty, struggle and survival.
Again, nothing's really exciting me about the idea of this, although I've heard high praise of McCann's writing.
Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson (Amazon link)
In a tiny flat in West London, sixteen-year-old Marina lives with her emotionally delicate mother, Laura, and three ancient Hungarian relatives. Imprisoned by her family’s crushing expectations and their fierce unEnglish pride, by their strange traditions and stranger foods, she knows she must escape. But the place she runs to makes her feel even more of an outsider. At Combe Abbey, a traditional English public school for which her family have sacrificed everything, she realises she has made a terrible mistake. She is the awkward half-foreign girl who doesn’t know how to fit in, flirt or even be. And as a semi-Hungarian Londoner, who is she?
I'm not averse to a good coming-of-age novel, but I'd usually go for something darker than this, which I've heard described as comedic, almost satirical. Could be interesting but, if I'm honest, it's another I'm unlikely to read.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Amazon link)
In a small cafe in Tokyo, 16-year-old Nao Yasutani is navigating the challenges thrown up by modern life. In the face of cyberbullying, the mysteries of a 104-year-old Buddhist nun and great-grandmother, and the joy and heartbreak of family, Nao is trying to find her own place - and voice - through a diary she hopes will find a reader and friend who finally understands her. Later, Ruth discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the shore of her beach home. Within it lies a diary, and with every turn of the page, she is sucked deeper into an enchanting mystery...
Finally, a novel I'm genuinely excited about! I already have A Tale for the Time Being on my Kindle and it will probably be my first read from the longlist. I've heard some really good things about how absorbing it is, so fingers crossed it lives up to those reports.
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan (Amazon link)
In the aftermath of Ireland’s financial collapse, dangerous tensions surface in an Irish town. As violence flares, the characters face a battle between public persona and inner desires. Through a chorus of unique voices, each struggling to tell their own kind of truth, a single authentic tale unfolds.
I'd already noted the buzz about this before the announcement of the nominees, and I'd already decided I probably wouldn't read it. It's the sort of book I might pick up in a couple of years' time, well after all the hype has died down. It sounds good but isn't something I want to read instantly.
The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín (Amazon link)
In a voice that is both tender and filled with rage, The Testament of Mary tells the story of a cataclysmic event which led to an overpowering grief. For Mary, her son has been lost to the world, and now, living in exile and in fear, she tries to piece together the memories of the events that led to her son's brutal death. To her he was a vulnerable figure, surrounded by men who could not be trusted, living in a time of turmoil and change. As her life and her suffering begin to acquire the resonance of myth, Mary struggles to break the silence surrounding what she knows to have happened.
Novels with religious themes lie outside my area of interest, and I wouldn't feel particularly well-equipped to properly understand or analyse this even if I did want to read it. Another one I'm likely to bypass.
Altogether, I can't help but conclude this is a list of books I feel decidedly 'meh' about. That's both a disappointment and a relief... A disappointment because I was hoping for nominations for books I've loved recently (Amy Sackville's Orkney and Nicholas Royle's First Novel were my picks) and the discovery of some exciting new reads; a relief because at least I don't need to add to my already unmanageable to-read list. With the exception of Five Star Billionaire and A Tale for the Time Being, both of which I was planning to read anyway, there's nothing here I feel compelled to pick up as soon as possible. Good to see the judges haven't gone for the 'obvious choices', though - and I'm glad nothing I've read and disliked made it onto the list.