Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Booker Prize Experiment #1

Courtesy of the The Book People I got 2005's Booker Prize list in Hardback for Christmas. Yeah, I know we should kind of hate these mass-market sellers, but I'm not exactly sure where my sympathies are with these days - certainly not with the publishers. At least with hardbacks (6 for £30 since you ask!) they've got nice paper and decent binding. My recently read paperback of "The Line of Beauty" will do well to last the year. For the first time ever then, I'm going to try and read the Booker shortlist in full. It will no doubt come in useful if I ever get asked to be a judge! First off the block was Sebastian Barry's "A Long, Long Way" about an Irish soldier in the Great War. As the most easily "disappointed" of readers, its sometimes possible to think I've lost the joy of reading - but a book like this, a small masterpiece in many ways, reminds me that its only the books that are at fault, not me as reader. It easily sounded the most interesting of the shortlist, and despite my aversion to overly poetic prose, I picked it up, and haven't put it down since. Although in the 3rd person - which allows an overarching sense of perspective, critical in a book on such a subject - the voice is overwhelming throughout. Barry writes like a dream, but moreso, with a joy for the sound of his prose. There's hardly a pretension in the whole novel, yet its as lyrical as a ballad, and as earthy as a dive bar. Any book about the war is a hard one to swallow. This puts the awful "Birdsong" into the shade; and adds the humanity that was missing from "Atonement". Willie Dunne is a masterful creation; a lucky Irish runt, who joins the army because his 5'6" stature isn't enough to follow his da into the police. He's the most innocent of men abroad; yet we follow him gladly into battle. It's sometimes been said that a war sorts out the mettle of men - and lucky or not, its Dunne's humanity that shines through. Against this, the ever-complex psychopolitics of Ireland is subtle in its weave. A couple of years ago I read two novels (Magnus Mills' "Three to see the king" and Nicola Barker's "Five Miles from Outer Hope") which were, to my mind, gems that will last a generation, yet hardly troubled the selectors; and this is of the same quiet quality. Its Booker shortlisting is the least it deserved, and I'd undoubtedly not have read it without that imprimature, and if any others on the list are anywhere near as good, then it will have been a vintage year indeed. There's an admiring quote from Coetzee on the cover, and since his "Disgrace" was the last great Booker novel, it seems only appropriate. Recommended unreservedly.

No comments: