"I hope you choose something readable, this time.”
That was the most common reaction of friends and acquaintances upon hearing that I was to be a judge of this year’s Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Let me hastily add that I intend no slur on previous winners or judges. Indeed, past winners whose books I’ve read have proved very readable. I merely report what was said.
And yes, I can also report that all the six novels on this year’s shortlist are not only fine pieces of writing, but highly readable, too. Unfortunately, the London literati greeted our shortlist with a great deal of huffing and puffing and accusations of dumbing down.
Much was made of the fact that our chairman, Dame Stella Rimington, writes thrillers. One columnist even sniffed that she wouldn’t have been surprised to see Jeffrey Archer on the list – before going on to admit that she hadn’t actually read the shortlisted books. Not that this prevented her from opining at length.
Much indignation was reserved for the fact that Alan Hollinghurst was “excluded”.
Excluded, my foot.
Actually, he was on the longlist, but didn’t make the last six. No shame in that. Mr Hollinghurst, let it be said, has maintained a dignified silence, but the same cannot be said of some of his supporters – several of whom have even alleged that the judges have displayed an anti-gay bias.
Until our critics started making their mouths go, I had no idea which authors were gay and which were not.
The London literary world is, one suspects, a small place where everyone is on first-name terms. Almost from the outset, we were told who we “must” include. Invariably, they were already famous names, although the quality of their writing varied enormously.
One can’t help feeling that the indignation which greeted our shortlist was prompted in part by the fact that – with the exception of Julian Barnes – we had failed to follow the advice of those who know best.
The Man Booker mandate is clear. My fellow judges and I weren’t asked to judge writers by their reputations, but by the quality of the work in front of us.
Of the 138 submissions, we chose the six that in our opinion are the best. A different panel might have come to a different conclusion. Rest assured, however, they are all fine books.
The Sense of an Ending
(Jonathan Cape, £12.99)
A man looks back on what seems at first to be a banal and blameless life, only to discover that, unwittingly, he sowed the seeds of disaster in the life of a former girlfriend. The truth only dawns gradually as the layers are cleverly peeled away.
(Canongate Books, £7.99)
“I was born twice. First in a wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.” So begins the extraordinary tale of Jaffy Brown, plucked from the jaws of death by Mr Jamrach, a trader in exotic animals in 1850s London.
The Sisters Brothers
Oregon, 1851. Eli and Charlie Sisters, notorious professional killers, are on their way to California to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, a prospector caught up in the Gold Rush. Brilliant, brutish, bizarre and full of black humour: think Elmore Leonard meets the Coen brothers.
Half Blood Blues
(Serpent’s Tail, £10.99)
Paris, 1940. Hieronymus Falk, a black jazz musician and a German citizen, is arrested by the Nazis and disappears. Fifty years later the past comes back to haunt Hiero’s fellow bandsmen, Sid and Chip. A Second World War story with a difference.
Life on a bleak, gang-infested, inner London housing estate as seen through the eyes of Harrison Opoku, an endearingly innocent 11-year-old recent immigrant from Ghana. By turns amusing, touching, numbingly sad, it illuminates a world that for most of us is a foreign country.
(Atlantic Books, £7.99)
Russia in the era of gangster capitalism. A chance encounter between a young British lawyer and two attractive young women on the Moscow underground sucks him into a vortex of hedonism and debauchery. Only as the snow starts to thaw do secrets come to light... Riveting and beautifully written.