This year's Man Booker prize has ditched 'readability' in favour of 'the pure power of prose'. Robert McCrum assesses the six novels in contention
In 2011, Stella Rimington, confronted by the Man Booker conundrum, announced that the solution to the riddle of the year's "best novel" lay in "readability" and chose one of the worst-ever shortlists. She was rescued from obloquy by The Sense of an Ending, which stood out like a filigree goblet in a pigsty.
This year, in an implied rebuke to that moment, chairman Peter Stothard has come up with another answer to Booker's challenge. What matters, said Stothard, is "the pure power of prose – the shock of language". Forget "readability"; excellence this year will be defined through language and imagination. It has been, as Stothard says, "an exhilarating year for fiction".
In the end, Stothard's hard-working panel came up with a shortlist that can fairly be said to reflect the variety of contemporary fiction from the English-speaking world (excluding America). Here, in alphabetical order, is the Observer's assessment of the six novels in contention. It's a list that will, I predict, present Stothard and his team with a difficult decision.
Tan Twan Eng is a Malaysian lawyer whose debut, The Gift of Rain, was longlisted in 2007. His second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon, latest odds 7/2) is largely set during the Malayan Emergency and narrated by a survivor of a shadowy Japanese death camp who has become a fanatical prosecutor of Japanese war criminals. In a strange act of piety towards the past – much of this long novel concerns memory and reconciliation – Teoh Yun Ling becomes apprenticed to the former imperial gardener Nakamura Aritomo.
She begins to uncover Aritomo's wartime story and to fall under his spell. At the climax of her story, an almost unbearably beautiful account of a ritual tattooing, Teoh Yun Ling comes to terms with past, present and future and is reconciled to her fate. Tan Twan Eng unwraps a tightly woven plot. His prose is always effective, occasionally sublime. Aritomo is a superb creation. This is a novel that reflects the staying power of the English literary tradition in a former colonial territory. In Malayan terms, it must be a milestone.
Deborah Levy is also exploring the dialectic between past and present in Swimming Home (And Other Stories, 7/1), an unputdownable short novel about the price of emotional repression and the poisoned legacy of the second world war. When young Kitty Finch bursts, naked, into the lives of a famous British poet and his family holidaying in the south of France, she unleashes destructive forces from the past that threaten some fragile harmony. Levy's brilliant portrait of a family crisis on the French Riviera is a real discovery on this list. Like Tan Twan Eng, Levy was rejected by the mainstream houses and has found her way on to the shortlist through the support of a "subscription publisher", the impressive Stefan Tobler.
To move from Deborah Levy to Hilary Mantel is like stepping from a sunny but sinister pool house to a twisting staircase in a Tudor castle. Mantel's narrative drive is just as compelling as Levy's. In Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate, 2/1), the sequel to her Booker-winning Wolf Hall, she gets added propulsion from the shattering events leading to the trial and death of Anne Boleyn.
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