16 Oct 2012

2012 Man Booker prize: the shortlist reviewed

As the Man Booker panel prepares to reveal who has won this year’s prize, Channel 4 News’s speed-reading reviewers give their verdict on the 2012 hopefuls.

The winner of this year’s Man Booker prize will follow 2011 winner Julian Barnes’s meditation on memory, The Sense of an Ending, and join such illustrious novels as Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road and Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea.

Former winner Hilary Mantel is among this year’s favourites, as is Will Self’s modernist, chapter-less Umbrella. Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis is an outside bet at 10/1.

The winner will be announced at a ceremony on Tuesday night.

Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayill

Of all the novels on this year’s shortlist, Jeet Thayil’s portrait of the vanished world of Bombay’s opium dens must have been the easiest to pitch to a publisher, writes Patrick Worrall.

Add the whiff of dangerous glamour that Thayil brings to the table as a self-confessed former addict and you have all the ingredients for another publishing phenomenon. Can he deliver?

This is a technically assured first novel. Narcopolis begins with a big modernist flourish: a breathless prologue written as one long, glorious Joycean sentence. After that a procession of very different voices takes centre stage, all handled with aplomb.

The most innovative character, the transsexual prostitute Dimple, appears to be closest to Thayil’s heart but occasionally drifts into the realms of the improbable, with far more money and free time on her hands than would seem likely.

For my rupee, the foreign-educated Indian Thayil offers a less convincing vision of life at street level than that offered a decade ago by the Australian bank-robber Gregory David Roberts.

And the addict’s snobbery that runs through this narrative – with the gentlemanly ritual and romance of opium supposedly destroyed by the arrival of cheap and nasty heroin â?? strikes a false note.

Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy

Kitty Finch, a botanist with a history of mental illness, appears unforeseen and unknown at a villa in the south of France where five English holidaymakers â?? including an eminent poet, his foreign correspondent wife, and their daughter â?? are spending their summer, writes Mark Greaves.

Their interactions, meanwhile, are observed by an elderly English doctor in the adjoining property.

The beautiful interloper becomes the catalyst for a sequence of episodes whose disturbing conclusion is partly anticipated in the book’s opening pages.

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home uses a whole host of references – literary, cinematic and musical, among others – to create a shifting, multi-layered account of discontent and loss.

Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

Bring up the Bodies is nothing short of a tour-de-force.

I always think that for a sequel to be worthy of an award then it has to be significantly better than the original. And believe it or not, Bring up the Bodies is significantly better than Wolf Hall, writes Channel 4 News Culture Editor Matthew Cain.

Yes, it’s just as brilliant in its depiction of the court of Henry VIII in all its fascinating, intoxicating detail, and Mantel’s decision to present the action from the point of view of a relatively overlooked historical character, Thomas Cromwell, has lost none of its impact.

But this second novel covers a much shorter, three-year period during which the downfall of Anne Boleyn unravels, and as a result it’s tauter than the first and there’s a much simpler narrative.

And those who found Wolf Hall difficult to follow because of Mantel’s occasionally infuriating tendency to skip between male characters and then revert to the indefinite ‘he’ (only for you to realise that’s she’s talking about Thomas Cromwell again) will be relived to hear that in the sequel she’s done away with this and always makes it clear who’s speaking.

As a result Bring up the Bodies is a pleasure to read from start to finish. Magnificent!

Umbrella, by Will Self

A modern, modernist novel that follows the fates of the ominously named Death/De’Ath family from the turn of the 20th century until the near-present day, Umbrella deserves its status as the Man Booker prize favourite, writes Sonia Rothwell.

The novel’s themes, war and mental illness, may not immediately entice, but I could not put this book down.

The narrative drifts in and out of a handful of stream of consciousness voices, but don’t let that put you off. The protagonists are beautifully depicted (though Self cannot and should not try to write northern accents!) and live vibrantly within the covers as the story of madness, literal and figurative, unfolds.

Audrey Death’s fate at the hands of a series of men in her life, from her father to the well-meaning but misguided Dr Zack Busner, is a compelling story.

Will Self has a remarkable talent for making the mundane and utilitarian entrancing and poetic. His descriptions in Umbrella are, perversely, a joy: pipes inside the Friern Barnet mental hospital are “veins”, Flanders mud is “sutured by white wooden crosses”.

A stark, ambitious but rewarding book.

The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore

This subtle, melancholy debut, writes Meabh Ritchie, follows the middle-aged and hapless Futh as he sets off on a walking holiday in Germany after separating from his wife.

Along the way, the story revisits evocative memories from different periods of his life as Futh tries to piece them together and make sense of who he is â?? as well as the people he meets on his holiday.

But this is something he never quite manages to do, and is instead led to the novel’s inevitable final denouement. Perhaps too domestic in scope and slow paced to be Booker worthy, but it is nonetheless a contemplative meditation on memory and loss that lingers long after reading.

The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

This is the second time Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng has had a brush with the Booker, writes Jennifer Rigby. His debut novel, The Gift of Rain, was long-listed in 2007.

This year’s offer is another worthy nominee. The Garden of Evening Mists is a beautiful, spiritual book which tackles huge themes from war to oblivion.

The writing is poetic and the setting evocative, as the story follows an ex-prisoner of war aiming to create a Japanese garden in a tribute to her sister who died in the war.

It demands a fair amount of knowledge of Malaysian history but is a worthwhile, if occasionally harrowing, read.