Saturday, September 12, 2009

The History Books

Some of my favourite novels of the last few years are historical; "The Poisonwood Bible"; "The Plot Against America" and "American Pastoral"; "L.A. Confidential"; "Oscar and Lucinda"; "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"... so surely I shouldn't have much problem with a Booker shortlist that owes more to the history section of the library than current affairs? Well, yes and no. There's certainly some interesting sounding books on the list this year, whether its the semi-autobiographical "Summertime" by J.M. Coetzee, Hilary Mantel's much-acclaimed "Wolf Hall" set during the 16th Century, or Adam Foulds story about the life of John Clare, "The Quickening Maze." Yet, when all six of the shortlist are set in the past - with only the Coetzee being within my lifetime - one has to wonder, yet again, about the English novel. The books I listed at the beginning, American and Australian, seem to be history books in setting only, their concerns primarily contemporary. Will this Booker list have a similar focus? I do hope so. Of course, its what we do, in Britain, "the history business", its why people come to Stratford, to Windsor, to York, yet I can't be the only one who is uneasy that not a single contemporary-set novel published this year was deemed good enough to make the shortlist of our main literary prize. Those who do not remember the past may well be condemned to repeat it, but those who only remember the past, may struggle to be ready for the future. Good novels will be on this list, I'm sure, but one has to hope that its just the quirk of one year's shortlist, and that our best contemporary writers are addressing the challenges of the modern age, not just finding security in the certainties of the past.

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