Man Booker Prize shortlist announced

Hilary Mantel and Will Self are the favourites.

The hour is here. At a press conference this morning, the final shortlist of the six novels vying for the 2012 Man Booker Prize was announced. They are:

Tan Twang Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon Books)

Deborah Levy, Swimming Home (And Other Stories)

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate)

Alison Moore, The Lighthouse (Salt)

Will Self, Umbrella (Bloomsbury)

Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis (Faber & Faber)

This year the judging panel is comprised of the actor, editor and columnist Dan Stevens; the historian and best-selling author Amanda Foreman and two academics: Bharat Tandon and Dinah Birch. It is chaired by Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

Mantel is the bookies’ favourite to win with her sequel to Wolf Hall, which took the prize in 2009. Bring up the Bodies, the second in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, is popular with readers and critics alike and seems to be a safe bet to receive the prize. Of course, the fact that she has already received the top honour once before, as well as being longlisted in 2005 for Beyond Black, may work against her. The odds, however, seem to suggest that many are confident she can pull it off again.

The inclusion of Will Self’s Umbrella – which the New Statesman’s reviewer referred to as a “complexly textured, conceptually forbidding thesis about the modern” - may be a nod to correcting the controversy that seemed to follow last year’s prize. When the 2011 selections were made public, the judging panel were criticised for pandering to populism. They admitted to rejecting “experimental” books, instead prioritising the readability of the novels above any other quality throughout the judging process. The chair of the 2011 judging panel, Stella Rimington, was quoted as saying that “we want people to buy and read these books, not buy and admire them.” Will Self, described by this year’s panel as a “radical of contemporary literature” and Umbrella, with its modernist echoes of Joyce and Eliot, may be the perfect way of signalling that the prize is ready to take itself seriously again, and is no longer afraid to include more conceptually challenging books.

Sir Peter said that it was “the pure power of prose that settled most debates. We loved the shock of language shown in so many different ways and were exhilarated by the vigour and vividly defined values in the six books that we chose - and in the visible confidence of the novel's place in forming our words and ideas.” This marks a significant departure from the explanations given last year, when Judge Chris Mullin prompted some raised eyebrows by declaring that he liked to choose books with storylines that ‘zip along’. In fact, a renewed interest in the fresh and innovative appears to mark out the shortlist this year - the list includes two first novels and three small independent publishers.

The winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced on 16 October 2012, at a dinner at London’s Guildhall. The announcement of the winner will be televised by the BBC.   

Will Self in 2006. Photo: Getty Images.
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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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