18 Oct 2011

How readable are this year’s Booker Prize books?

This year’s Booker Prize chair courted controversy when she revealed her panel was looking for “readable” books. We asked members of the Channel 4 newsroom what they thought of the shortlist.

Julian Barnes has won the 2011 Man Booker prize, the most prestigious literary prize in the English-speaking world. The author, who has been nominated three times before but never won, triumphed with his 11th novel, The Sense of an Ending.

Mr Barnes scooped the prize ahead of the rest of the shortlist. It has been one of the most controversial yet, with some claiming that the six final books are too “readable” and not sufficiently challenging.

Former MI5 director general Dame Stella Rimington, who is chairman of this year’s judges’ panel, has said they were looking for “enjoyable books” with “readability”.

But 2010 chairman Andrew Motion said a “false divide” had been opened up between “what is high-end and what is readable”.

The Channel 4 newsroom team decided to put the readability claim to the test. Six members of the newsroom – four producers, and two editors – were given a book each and asked to come up with their verdict. Here’s what they found.

Julian Barnes, shortlisted for The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes
Julian Barnes once described the Booker prize as “posh bingo” but his numbers came up tonight as he took home this year’s prize with his slim, haunting novel The Sense of an Ending, writes Jennifer Rigby.

The book is narrated by Tony Webster, who begins to question his fairly ordinary life – or at least, his recollection of it – when he is left the diary of an old friend who committed suicide, by an unexpected third party.

As he looks back on the events which lead to him being left the diary – a university relationship with a spiky woman, the suicide of his brilliant friend, betrayal by the pair of them – he is fascinated by what he knows, what he remembers, and what in his recollection he no longer trusts as he ages.

This in turn leads the reader into a quiet sense of mistrust and unease which permeates the book, summed up by one of the characters condemning Tony: “You still don’t get it. You never did, and you never will.”

The book spills its secrets eventually, after unfolding with a touch of the psychological thriller, albeit a gentle, emotional one bound up with regret and memory. It’s beautifully written, very readable, and raises questions which linger in the mind long after the covers are closed.

Readability rating: 9

Patrick De Witt, author of The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick De Witt
The year is 1851. Eli and Charlie Sisters are two professional killers from Oregon, sent to San Francisco by “the Commodore” on a mission to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, writes Paul Brannan.

En route, the brothers find a horse, meet a ghoul and – sort of – fall in love. They hit California at the height of the gold rush, only to find that Warm isn’t quite the person they were led to believe. What’s more, he’s invented a magic formula that could make them rich.

Eli, the younger brother, narrates. If you’ve read Peter Carey’s Ned Kelly book, you’ll know where Patrick de Witt’s second novel is coming from. To call the two siblings “psychopaths with a heart of gold” is over-egging it, but there’s no shortage of raw violence.

It’s the sort of piece the Coen Brothers would love to turn into a movie – you heard it here first.

Readability rating: 8

Carol Birch, author of Jamrach's Menagerie

Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch
Carol Birch’s latest novel is a brilliant and surprising novel, writes Matthew Cain. The book begins as an enjoyable if unremarkable story of life in 19th century London’s docks and an adventure at sea. But Birch then takes reader to another level.

The final third of book is possibly most intelligent and thoughtful work on this year’s Booker list.

Birch takes a familiar fictional situation and infuses it with so much compassion, it feels like you’re reading about it for first time. A fascinating and unexpectedly original book.

Readability rating: 8

Esi Edugyan, author of Half Blood Blues

Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan
Esi Edugyan’s second novel, follows the members of a German jazz band who flee Berlin in the 1930s to try and avoid Nazi persecution, writes Méabh Ritchie.

The story of the Hot Time Swingers moves from 1992 back to the 1930s and 40s and is told by the now elderly bass player, Sid Griffiths, who is trying to make sense of what happened after seeing a documentary about the band that attempts to piece together the events.

The Afro-German narrative of the Nazi occupation is rarely considered, and Half Blood Blues manages to give an astute and powerful insight, especially through the character of Hiero, the talented and enigmatic trumpeter.

Music is also a central character in this novel, that is as much about friendship and loyalty between the musicians, as an historical portrait.

Readability rating: 9

Stephen Kelman, author of Pigeon English

Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman
The story is told through the eyes of 11-year-old Harrison Opoku, a Ghanaian boy who has just moved to a tough housing estate in London, writes Katie Hunter.

The narrative weaves through the youngster’s daily life: gangs, girlfriends, friendships and fights not to forget the occasional words of wisdom from a pigeon.

When another boy is stabbed to death on the estate, Harri and his friends launch their own investigation (copying tips from CSI) in a bid to track down those responsible.

As one of the fastest runners in his school year Harri’s speed gets him out of many a scrape. But when the youngster starts to uncover information about the murder, he needs more than his treasured trainers to keep him from harms way.

Read in the aftermath of London’s riots, Stephen Kelman’s first novel offers one account of the challenges children (even the good ones) from inner city estates have to overcome.

Readability rating: 9

AD Miller, author of Snowdrops

Snowdrops, by AD Miller
If cold weather, flagrant wealth, and an undercurrent of extreme violence are your thing, then Moscow in the late 1990s and early 2000s was the place to be, writes Mark Greaves.

Snowdrops, the first book by AD Miller, is English lawyer Nick Platt’s extended confessional to his wife-to-be about what he got up to during one winter in the Russian capital.

He describes how he fell for the charms of two sisters, Katya and – in particular – Masha, and how they drew him into a world of hard-drinking hedonism, corrupt property speculation and venal business practice.

The mood is a mix of sensual, cynical and sinister. Miller’s hard-boiled prose pushes the story along at a rattling pace.

But by the end, you realise it’s not the plot that’s kept you turning the pages but the novel’s sense of place. It’s a twisted love letter to the city of Moscow. Think of Snowdrops as a sort of super-charged travel guide and you can’t go wrong.

Readability rating: 8