The TLS on the Man Booker shortlist
Ladbrokes will tell you that while The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is the “hot favourite”, paradoxically, “The favourites have had a tough time historically and we wouldn’t be surprised to see a shock result”. So much for being the “favourite”.
The TLS has reviewed all six shortlisted novels over the past ten months. Here’s what we made of them:
Reviewing Snowdrops in January, Daniel Jeffreys enjoyed A. D. Miller’s “dense descriptions of different types of sleet and snow set the scene for an amoral, emotionally frozen city which has defrosted too quickly from Communism”.
Judith Flanders greatly enjoyed Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch in February, although “the author’s love of metaphor runs out of control”: “the gore-flecked description of the sailors carving up their massive catch is a masterpiece, the research so well integrated that the material comes across as lived events rather than history”.
In April, Douglas Field declared Pigeon English to be “reminiscent of Hanif Kureishi’s early work” in its “observations on . . . unfamiliar London life” that are “full of satirical charm” – but the novel’s “comic set pieces undercut the effect of the dark subject matter” (inspired by “the stabbing of ten-year-old Damilola Taylor, the Nigerian schoolboy found dying on a concrete stairwell on a Peckham council estate in 2000”). He was also put off by the way the book was marketed:
“Kelman deals sensitively with the subject matter of teenage violence, and it is a shame that the publishers have been so keen to flirt with worthiness, clearly marketing the novel at book clubs and A-level students. Do we really need fourteen discussion points after we have read the novel? . . . Kelman has written an accomplished first novel but its promotion dilutes, rather than reinforces, the impact of its timely subject.”
Chris Cox’s review of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt appeared in June to be a “powerfully realized work of narrative fiction”, but that “its reference points are more cinematic rather than literary”, the novel working “artfully within its formal boundaries to explore the nature of brotherhood, work, love, greed, loneliness and personal renewal”.
In August, Lidija Haas observed that The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is poised “between a straightforward story and a novel of ideas” – “Barnes has it both ways, just as he often contrives to be so English and so French at once” – and that its style is “more restrained, less showy than it has sometimes been in the past, the wit is quieter, more sparingly used . . . . the main pleasures of reading The Sense of an Ending are the solid, traditional ones of story and character”.
Finally, earlier this month, Charlotte Ryland reviewed Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, and found it “captivating”:
“The Nazi era continues to fascinate British and American readers, so if the Booker Prize shortlist has become more international this year, it is perhaps not surprising that one of the shortlisted novels has Third Reich Berlin as its setting. But Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan excites precisely because it provides such a fresh view on this well-worn setting.”
In other words: they’re all hot favourites to us. . . .