In the 44 years of the Booker Prize, I have only read seven of the winning books, and a further six books that were short-listed. Given that there have been two hundred and sixty-one books nominated for the Prize since 1969, that’s not a good success rate. This year I decided to do something about it.
The 2013 shortlist was announced at 10.30am on Thursday, September 10. By 6pm I was at Waterstones in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow looking to buy all six of the books. It was here that I encountered my first problem – no-one in the shop appeared to know that the shortlist had been announced. Now maybe it was naïve of me to have expected the books to be prominently displayed, but I would have thought Glasgow’s biggest book shop would at least have been aware of the latest news about this important literary prize. It’s not that it would have been difficult to find out. Having managed to gather all six books from the shelves, I approached a member of staff.
“Would you offer a discount if I bought all six books?”
“Nothing at all?”
“Not even if I bought all six?”
“Sorry, we’re not allowed. It’s only head office that can make that decision.”
The girl in Waterstones was apologetic, but it seemed to crystallise one of the major problems of book shops and why they are slowly disappearing from our high streets. Not only did they not know the composition on the shortlist but they weren’t offering any incentives for people wanting to read the books. In the end, I bought three of the books from Waterstones and later ordered another two via Amazon. I decided to pick up the sixth book later. I set myself a target of reading all six books before the winner was announced on October 15. That only gave me thirty-five days, but I felt confident I could do it.
WE NEED NEW NAMES by NoViolet Bulawayo
My first book was ‘We Need New Names’ by NoViolet Bulawayo, which I started on September 15 and finished it within a couple of days. The novel is set mainly in Zimbabwe and tells the story of the ongoing tragedy in that country, a human catastrophe that is being largely ignored by the world because Zimbabwe has nothing to offer the world in terms of coveted natural resources. The novel has a brilliant narrator, Darling, who lives in a shanty town, ironically called Paradise, though she still remembers a time when she and her family lived in a proper house. There is a theme of things falling apart, in her life and in her country, a reference, indirect or otherwise, to Chinua Achebe’s classic African novel, Things Fall Apart. Darling manages to leave her country, moving to the United States, though her new life doesn’t necessarily bring her the happiness she thought it would when she was living in Zimbabwe. Darling’s voice remains a memorable one long after I’ve finished the book.
THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton
Having quickly finished the first of the six books, I decided to tackle the biggest book in the shortlist – The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton which, at 832 pages, looked a daunting prospect. As a physical product, it is beautiful. It looks like a Bible, complete with gold page marker, and anyone who has opted to buy the electronic version of The Luminaries is missing out. Any debate on physical versus e-books is a foregone conclusion when you hold this book in your hand. It is also an extraordinary feat of storytelling. To write a novel of 832 pages and remain in control of the narrative and characters from first page until last is a real and rare talent. The novel is set during the gold rush in New Zealand in the 1860s, and is a tale of murder, mystery and intrigue that never wilts. If there was a slight disappointment, it was in the ending which jumped from the present to the past to bring the tale to its end.
HARVEST by Jim Crace
It took me much longer than a couple of days to read The Luminaries, but I figured it was best to tackle that book sooner rather than later. Next up was Harvest by Jim Crace. Set in an unnamed village at an unspecified period of the past, the novel describes how a settled way of life is completely overturned and destroyed in the space of just seven days. A group of strangers arrive and are blamed for something they didn’t do. They are subsequently punished, something which, though seemingly innocuous at first, appears to herald a series of increasingly disastrous events for the village. At the same time, the village is taken over by another owner who has different ideas of what the land is to be used for which. Harvest tackles themes of change, xenophobia and how an apparent ‘paradise’ on earth can be quickly destroyed by man’s inhumanity to man.
THE LOWLAND by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Lowland is a family saga which veers between interest and irritation. I recently read Stoner by John Williams, and found the characters provoking the same reaction in me. There were times when I just wanted to step in and give them a shake and tell them to take charge of what was happening in their life rather than letting it be dictated by others, including the author. The novel tells the story of two brothers in India and what happens when something catastrophic happens in their lives. It examines family relationships, which shift and change shape throughout the course of a life. Overall, it was an eminently readable and enjoyable novel though I knew even as I was reading it that it wouldn’t be my favourite out of the six.
A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING by Ruth Oseki
I had managed to read four of the books by October 6, giving me nine days to finish the last two on the shortlist. Ruth Oseki’s book was the only one I hadn’t bought, and when I went in to buy it, a member of staff who sold me the book told me she’d really enjoyed the book. It’s always nice to get such a recommendation, and I started the book with a burst of enthusiasm that owed as much to the fact that I could see the finishing line and with it a sense of achievement. A Tale For The Time Being is an unusual and beguiling novel, which tells two stories – that of a teenage Japanese girl, Nau, who has returned to Japan after her dad lost his job in the United States, and that of the novelist herself, who accidentally discovers Nau’s story through a dairy washed up on a beach. The book examines the relationship between a novelist, their subject and the reader, which is not as confusing as it sounds, though the explanation of quantum mechanics at the end certainly is. There are a number of Appendixes at the end of the novel. I would recommend skim-reading them.
THE TESTAMENT OF MARY by Colm Toibin
And so to the last of the shortlisted books. It’s also the shortest book, at just 101 pages, and so it takes no time at all to finish it. The Testament of Mary is the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as she lives with the grief of her son’s death. Reflecting on the events leading up his crucifixion, Mary’s testament offers a new and intriguing perspective on a story that is already so familiar, including the miracles that the Bible attributes to her son. Mary is visited regularly by two of Jesus’ disciples, who talk to her about these events, over and over again, hoping to shape her words and memories to suit the story they are forging of the events they were witness to.
I finished the book on October 13, two days ahead of the winner being announced. I have to admit that I was quite pleased with myself, having read six books in 33 days. I’ve enjoyed them all, to varying degrees, and it meant that I could watch a BBC Review programme on the Booker Prize shortlist and know about all the books they’re discussing, even if I still didn’t understand much of what the panel of ‘experts’ were saying.
And the winner is… For me, it has to be Colm Toibin’s novel, The Testament of Mary. It is a short book, but the story is beautifully, almost poetically told, and as someone who has always found the devotion to Our Lady a comforting one, particularly through the Rosary, it was enlightening to hear an imagining of her voice for the first time, one of the many female voices not really heard in the Gospels.