Last year, I went to the Man Booker Prize shortlist readings event at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre. This year, I was lucky enough to win tickets to the same event which was held at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday and hosted by Kirsty Wark.
This year’s shortlisted novels are:
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
J by Howard Jacobson
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
How to be Both by Ali Smith
First up was Joshua Ferris who read a passage from his third novel ‘To Rise Again at a Decent Hour’ and discussed the theme of community which runs through his novel. The passage about the protagonist pondering about people on public transport reading heavily highlighted passages from their copies of the Bible is certainly witty, although I have heard some comments that the novel runs out of steam towards the end.
Ferris was followed by Richard Flanagan whose novel, ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ won the Prize last night. Flanagan’s father was a survivor of the Burma Death Railway during the Second World War and died on the day he finished the novel at the age of ninety-eight. This certainly added poignancy to his passage about an ex-serviceman who survived the war. Although well known in his native Australia, winning the Prize will certainly raise Flanagan’s international profile, and deservedly so based on the reading he gave here. His comments that you should rip out the first three pages of what you have written to find the beginning of a story also seems like sensible advice.
I have heard some decidedly mixed reviews of ‘The Jane Austen Book Club’ by Karen Joy Fowler but her latest novel ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ has been very well received. Fowler said she wanted to write a story about a family where things had gone wrong but not because there had been a lack of love between them. I would like to have read the book without knowing about “the twist” which arrives on page 77 but it still sounds like an intriguing story about dysfunctional family dynamics.
I didn’t warm to ‘The Finkler Question’ by Howard Jacobson and I don’t think the event convinced me to read ‘J’. It is a dystopian love story and was recently featured in John Sutherland’s list of unfinishable novels in The Guardian with the comment that “Passing page 50 is an achievement”. I think I will be giving it a miss.
The only shortlisted novel I have read so far is ‘The Lives of Others‘ by Neel Mukherjee which was the favourite to win… meaning that by default it didn’t win. Mukherjee’s second novel is a sprawling and intensely detailed saga set in Calcutta although he says that he doesn’t miss living in a large extended family for reasons which become apparent when you read the novel.
Finally, Ali Smith read from her novel ‘How to be Both’. The novel has two parts – one set in Renaissance Italy and the other set in modern Britain – and two versions of the book have been printed meaning that depending on which copy you happen to pick up, you can read either part first. Smith read short passages from each of these parts and discussed the duality of the novel saying that she wanted her work to be like a fresco with another image hidden underneath the original. Like ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride, it’s the kind of writing I enjoy hearing read out loud more than reading from the page and was probably my favourite reading of the evening.
As always, I think events like these really bring to life the shortlisted books whether you are already familiar with them or not. And as The Guardian says, whatever you think of the Prize, “the Man Booker gets us all talking about books, in a way that nothing else can match”.
Many thanks to the @ManBookerPrize team for the tickets to the event.