The Man Booker Prize Fallacious Form Guide Vol.2: Almost There

on Saturday, September 3, 2011
Ten down, three to go. Not sure I'll bother with the rest unless they make the shortlist; I want to read for pleasure again. But a promise is a promise, so here's the next lot of Booker longlisted novels for your betting edification:

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers
It's been a while since Margaret Atwood last made an appearance on any Booker list, but she is well and truly here in spirit thanks to this middling sci-fi pastiche. Set in a near future that has been crippled by a worldwide bio-terrorism attack, it nods so furiously to canonical texts in the genre such as The Handmaid's Tale, Ballard's The Drought (and Running Wild for that matter) and even 12 Monkeys that I'm surprised it doesn't have whiplash. In this incarnation, the 'apocalyptic threat' is Maternal Death Syndrome (MDS), a man-made airborne disease that causes women to die during pregnancy, thereby making mince meat of our species' long term viability. Jessie Lamb, the 15 year old narrator, offers herself for martyrdom when a potential escape hatch for the human race opens up - the implanting of pre-MDA embryos into willing surrogates - much to the chagrin of her scientist Dad. Cue the metaphysical arm wrestle. Rogers throws up various moral conundrums about human and animal experimentation but dilutes it with some unremarkable parent/child drama and a vein of anti-patriarchal feminism so unsubtle it just seems clunky. Push aside the genetic soup and The Testament of Jessie Lamb never really rises above the level of homage to the greats.
Ladbrokes Odds: 16/1
Bookworm's Odds: 20/1

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
God knows quite how Kelman has been plonked at number two on the bookie's list with this frustratingly twee take on the British knife crime epidemic. Little Harry Opuku is a precocious little scamp. Recently arrived from Ghana, he is obsessed with everything pop-culture, from sneakers to CSI. Especially CSI. So when one of his classmates is stabbed to death, he takes it upon himself to solve the crime with the help of his best friend Dean and a pair of crappy thrift store binoculars. What follows is an increasingly ominous descent into a violent world of teen gangs that he cannot appreciate until it's too late. Kelman's previous life as a successful script writer shines through - the dialogue is snappy, the voices authentically ghetto - but the book never felt more than an excessively padded-out short story. And did I mention there's a talking pigeon? Yeah, it's probably best that I don't. If this wins, it will be almost as great a travesty as the whole Vernon God Little debacle. Seriously team Booker, stop trying to be down with the kids.
Ladbrokes Odds: 5/1
Bookworm's Odds: 10/1

On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry
I suspect when his life's work is done, Sebastian Barry will have written one great family saga, with each novel counting only as a single chapter. On Canaan's Side sees the focus shift to Lilly Bere, sister of Willie Dunne (you may recall him being the hero of A Long Long Way), who is raking over the embers of her life in the wake of her grandson's death. Through her mournful haze, she recalls her early days in Ireland, her youthful love and subsequent marriage to Tadg Bere, and then the collapse of her dream when the newlyweds are forced to flee to America after Tadg gets mixed up in an IRA double cross. But the promised land proves only a temporary shelter, with Tadg being tracked down and murdered in a Chicago street. Lilly stays on, and through her subsequent highs and lows, hardships and relationships, Barry finds the perfect vehicle to explore not only the immigrant experience but the racial dynamics of mid-to-late 20th Century America. The novel spans seven decades, and it is to Barry's credit that he touches on the important historical events with a subtlety that prevents the book ever feeling like a high school history lesson. There's no reason On Canaan's Side couldn't be the one that finally nets Barry a Booker. As always, it is warm, understated and possesses a generosity of spirit that is extremely rare in contemporary literature. But then again, I thought the same about The Secret Scripture and A Long Long Way.
Ladbrokes Odds: 7/1
Bookworm's Odds: 5/1

Far To Go by Alison Pick
Pick shines a light on a fairly well-known, but under-explored (in literary fiction at least) aspect of the Second World War - the evacuation of Jewish children from occupied Czechoslovakia in what became known as the Kindertransport. Far To Go imagines a Jewish family forced to flee the Sudetenland when Chamberlain gives it over to Hitler in the name of "peace in our time", and then helplessly watch as the walls close around them in Prague. Their escape is thwarted when they are sold out by their well-meaning maid, but seize upon the opportunity to at least get little Pepik the hell out of dodge. Melodrama rules, stereotypes abound and, if you happen to have any knowledge of the Kindertransport already, annoyingly patronising factoids keep bubbling to the surface, all of which significantly lessen the impact of what might have been a very powerful novel. Nostalgic and only mildly engaging, this belongs on Oprah's Book Club, not the Booker Longlist.
Ladbrokes Odds: 14/1
Bookworm's Odds: 20/1

Don't forget, the shortlist is announced this Tuesday, so keep your eyes on the Booker Prize website


Post a Comment