The Man Booker Prize Special: The shortlist review and comment from those in the know: Claire Armitstead and Chris Mullin

Narcopolis throws you straight onto the dream-like Shuklaji street and into the dark, hazy, opium dens of Old Bombay. ‘These are night-time tales that vanish in sunlight like vampire-dust.’ Trouble with the police in New York has returned our narrator to India where he discovers the city and the drug; ‘the city of opium and the drug of Bombay’, and wallows in a metropolis of narcotics- Narcopolis. Here you introduce your worst enemy to the pipe, but this starts as a love-affair with ‘O’; an intimate portrayal of a pipe with a life of its own. Comparison to Trainspotting was perhaps inevitable, but this is a beautiful, hallucinatory version stretching three generations in a far-off land. Thayil writes with all the poise and eloquence you would expect of a distinguished poet; if the Booker panel go for beauty of prose, this is a sure winner.


Dubbed favourite to win by many this year, Bring Up The Bodies is the sequel to 2009 Man Booker prize winner Wolf Hall: Mantel’s historical tale of England in the 1500s and Mantel’s win would celebrate her as the first British winner of two of the prestigious awards. Mantel describes Bring up The Bodies as a shorter, more concentrated and fiercer novel that picks up where its prequel left off and concentrates on the last nine months of Anne Boleyn’s destruction. Mantel does not try to unravel these allegations but imagines living beside Boleyn in a time when the speed of events and a fearful, poisonous atmosphere created a horrid, tragic, conclusion. Mantel paints rumour and gossip on the walls of court and depicts an atmosphere where people see the threat of handcuffs in everyone around them. Mantel tracks this disastrous series of events hour by hour, following the characters as they dance around each other: they do not know their own fate but we do; Anne’s death is not the end; there is a price to pay.


 Set during the Japanese occupation, The Garden of Evening Mists follows law graduate Teoh Yun Ling, the lone survivor of a brutal Japanese camp, as she takes solace in the Malay plantations of the Cameron Highlands. Here she meets Aritomo, the secretive gardener and owner of the only Japanese garden still left in Malay. He will not comfort her with words that could soften the sufferance she has received at the hands of his people, but agrees to take  her as his apprentice so that she can build her own memorial. But war rages in the jungle behind them. Yun Ling begins to wonder who Aritomo is, and why he came to be exiled from Japan? Was her survival somehow connected to Aritomo’s fate and the garden of evening mists, and could it perhaps be the darkest secret of all?


Swimming Home will probably sound familiar to those who have read Ali Smith’s 2005 Man Booker nominated The Accidental. This too involves the arrival of a stranger to a family holiday, here in Nice, and is about the change and destruction one outside source can bring to the domestic sphere. Kitty Finch is a beautiful, would-be-poet who appears in Joe and Isabel’s swimming pool and is invited into the family’s holiday home by Isabel to the surprise of her husband. Kitty has a habit of walking around naked. Underneath it all though this is not a light summer read but a disturbing portrayal of depression and the shattering of the human spirit under the weight of world events. Swimming Home is about a tip into mental instability and discloses that perhaps the most devastating secrets are the ones we keep from ourselves.


Maybe I have been an English student for too long, but I am losing patience with ‘angsty middle-aged man’ protagonists. Alison Moore’s Futh ticks all the boxes – recently separated, awkward sexual encounters, bizarre relationship with his Mother, and a habit of observing women through various barriers, most notably the crack of the bathroom door as his father copulates with various partners on a father-son bonding holiday to Germany. The novel is based around Futh re-living this holiday as said middle-aged man, and reflecting on his life in the process. Slotted in alongside his narrative is Ester’s, the once-beautiful landlady of his first guest house in Germany. At the close of the novel, Futh returns to Ester’s, unaware of the events which have been unfolding there during his time away. The novel is deceptively simple, and despite the somewhat familiar central character, there was much to keep me reading.  A brilliant first novel and a strong contender for the Prize.


Yes: Will Self has finally made the Booker shortlist. Applause can be heard across the country despite the disorientating stream-of-consciousness prose that marks this complicated exercise in neo-modernism. It is though, worth an attempt for the brave-hearted. Maverick psychiatrist Zack Busner arrives at a vast Victorian mental asylum in North London and attempts to bring Audrey Death back to life using a powerful new drug. Is Audrey’s diseased brain in its nightmarish compulsion a microcosm of the technological revolutions of the twentieth century? And if Audrey is ill at all – perhaps her illness is only modernity itself? This is a daring, imaginative novel, sometimes bleak but always brilliant in its originality, and a big hitter in the fight for the Booker prize.


What the experts say:

Books editor of The Guardian Claire Armitstead and Chris Mullin, one of last year’s Man Booker judges give us the low-down on this year’s shortlist.

Claire Armitstead:




Which were you most surprised by?
The Garden of Evening Mists. There’s a yearning for international, historically-important stories but it’s not as well-written as some of the longlist.

How likely is it that Hilary Mantel will win again?
I think she’s wonderful but I don’t think it would be the right decision for her to win.

Last year, the prize was criticised for being too trashy, has the balance been redressed?
This year’s list is definitely tilting towards the formally interesting; Self’s neo-modernism and Levy’s nouvel vague-ishness in particular.

Which novel has the best chance of winning?
Umbrella. Self’s always clever, but with this novel he has rediscovered his heart.


Chris Mullin:




What’s it like to be a Booker judge?
Hard work.  In my year – 2011 – we had to read 138 novels between December and July and then reread the shortlist before it was announced.

How much conflict is there between judges?
Arriving at the longlist isn’t usually too difficult because 13 places cater for all tastes. There have been some big controversies in the past with occasional tantrums and walk-outs, but in my year it was amicable.  It took us a little over two hours to arrive at a winner.

How much sway is given to getting a good range?
There are no firm rules.  The judges are merely asked to select the book which in their opinion is the best.

Should the Booker be about readability or ‘literariness’?
In my view, a combination of the two.

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