- Arts & Literature
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By Mao Isobe
This evening (16th October) the winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced, with this year celebrating the theme of “the power and depth of prose”. Here’s a quick summary of the six shortlisted novels so that you can decide whether they’re worth a read, winner or not.
A strong favourite to win the prize, Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies is a historical fiction, the second in the Cromwell trilogy. Mantel is no stranger to success, with the prequel Wolf Hall also winning the Booker in 2009. Bring Up The Bodies begins where Wolf Hall had left off: Cromwell is at the height of his power and chief minister to Henry VIII. In this novel, Henry meets Jane Seymour for the first time which leads to the downfall of Anne Boleyn. While historical novels lack the suspense of not knowing what happens next, Mantel overcomes this barrier by telling the story in the present tense through Cromwell’s eyes, managing to make known events unknown once again. Anne Boleyn’s story is not one untold, but Mantel still keeps the reader gripped through a plot laced with power, corruption, manipulation and sexual intrigue, with the vivid portrayal of Cromwell through it all.
The Lighthouse is the debut novel by Alison Moore, which centres on a recently separated middle-aged man’s journey into his own past. Futh’s story mostly hinges on the absence of his mother after her abandonment of him as a boy; he heads to Germany for a walking holiday but is haunted by memories of his youth. Smell is one of the key elements of the plot, as they prompt the recollection of his childhood: violets, beef and onion pie, and hotel disinfectants are just several of the many scents throughout the novel. Rather than having a direct narrative, the story loops around so that the temporal setting is unclear, causing Futh’s story to blur with Ester’s story: the unhappy wife of a German hotelier who Futh encounters on his travels. Moore originally being a short story writer, The Lighthouse is a slim book at under 200 pages but its tight prose and bleak landscape, brings the novel to its thrilling and brutal end.
Described by the judges as “moving and draining”, Self’s Umbrella is a non-linear, stream of consciousness following the story of two people: a woman with the “sleeping sickness” epidemic that followed World War I and her psychiatrist, Dr Zachary Busner. Busner has an idea that his patients, who had been in a comatose state for 50 years are suffering from sleeping sickness (encephalitis lethargic) and treats them with L-dopa, which “wakes” them up. The plot is extensive and spans a century, with three time frames and four points of view. Perhaps Umbrella best illustrates the meaning of “the power and depth of prose”, being over 400 pages long with no chapters and hardly any paragraph breaks. Accessible it may not be, but compelling, certainly.
The shortest book on the shortlist, Swimming Home is set over a single week about a famous British poet and his family and friends sharing a smart villa in the French Riviera. The holiday is interrupted by a stranger with a history of mental illness, Kitty Finch, who suddenly emerges naked from the villa’s swimming pool with an obsession about the poet. Her presence throws their relationships into turmoil and this novel explores the effect depression can have on seemingly stable people. Plot-wise, it’s not something revolutionary; a middle-class family holiday gone wrong. Levy said that she was influenced by John Cheever’s story The Swimmer, by “the subtle, almost transcendental ways Cheever managed to conceal and reveal a state of mind”. And that is what makes this novel more than what it initially seems; the symbolism everyday objects have, the depths of character and what lurks beneath.
“Bombay… is the hero or heroin of this story”, begins Narcopolis. From this opening, the scene is set: this is a novel not only about drugs, but also about the changing face of Bombay, now Mumbai. The story unfolds around Rashid’s opium house and Dimple, a woman who prepares the opium pipes. Another debut novel on the shortlist, Narcopolis follows how the arrival of heroin, cheaper and quicker, destroys the opium den and how through it all, Bombay is growing into part of the modern world. A former drug addict himself for two decades, Thayil was familiar with opium dens and this experience allows him to draw a picture of the city which draws the reader into its smoky streets. Originally a poet, the judges have praised Narcopolis of its “perfumed prose”. Narcopolis pushes the boundaries of the classic “India novel” and is an urban history written through the changing drug culture of a now global city.
Set during the Japanese occupation, The Garden of Evening Mists is a story of love and guilt. The protagonist is Yun Ling Teoh, who returns to Malaya to seek solace after being the sole survivor from the Japanese war camp during WWII. To fulfil her promise to her sister Yun Hong who died in the camp, Yun Ling seeks out Arimoto: a former gardener of the Japanese Emperor. She asks him to create a garden in Kuala Lumpur for her sister who loved the gardens of Kyoto. Arimoto refuses to work for her, but offers to teach her instead, and Yun Ling becomes his apprentice, and later his lover. The novel is commended for its “poised, precise prose”, with the gardener Arimoto was referred to as one of the most memorable characters out of the Booker nominees this year. The backdrop of this novel is historically intricate and with its epic landscapes, tales of love, guilt and the timeless Japanese garden throughout, it is no surprise that this is Eng’s second time on the Booker nominee list.