Thursday, 13 September 2012

Historical Fiction and the 2012 Man Booker Prize

Here is the 2012 long-list for the Man Booker Prize. Those high-lighted in blue are those that have made it onto the short-list. The final result will be announced on 16th October.


Bring Up The Bodies                                      Hilary Mantel

Narcopolis                                                       Jeet Thayil

Swimming Home                                             Deborah Levy

The Garden of Evening Mists                         Tan Twan Eng

Umbrella                                                         Will Self

The Lighthouse                                                Alison Moore

Communion Town                                           Sam Thompson

Philida                                                             AndrĂ© Brink

Skios                                                                Michael Frayn

The Teleportation Accident                             Ned Beauman

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry          Rachel Joyce

The Yips                                                           Nicola Barker.


Of the twelve books on the long-list, three can be considered as historical fiction (Bring Up The Bodies, The Garden of Evening Mists and Philida), and two of these have been short-listed. To return to an earlier discussion (my blog post of 6th May), this does not quite suggest “a somewhat gimcrack genre, not exactly jammed with greatness.”


Of the books on the short-list, one of the historical novels, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies seems to be emerging as the hot favourite to win the prize. My money was on this book from the start. To my mind, it is a worthy sequel to Wolf Hall, and I can’t wait to read the third book in the series. Mantel pulls off brilliantly the difficult task of getting the reader to see a past world through the eyes of someone who could so easily be seen (and so often has been seen) as a villain. She does not make Thomas Cromwell a hero: his ruthlessness and vindictiveness are not glossed over by any means; but she also shows another side to him – a caring family man; loyal to his true friends; capable of pity and compassion as well as cruelty; in short, a three dimensional human character. The reader is continually confronted with the question (as I have heard the author herself remark) “if you were Thomas Cromwell, what would you have done in this situation?” The easy answer might be to say that I would never have become the kind of person that Thomas Cromwell was; but this is a 21st Century response, and Mantel does not allow her readers to get away so easily. This is historical fiction at its challenging best.

The judges, of course, might prefer to back a less well-established writer (Mantel has already won the award for Wolf Hall and is, I suspect, set for yet more exalted heights of international literary recognition in the future). If there is one author on the short-list who could give her a run for her money, I think it is probably Tan Twan Eng, with his second published novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, set against the background of the Japanese occupation of Malaya.

As a recent reviewer in The Guardian pointed out, it is “impossible to resist” a book which begins: “On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan." That same reviewer, however, describes the book as “bland,” a sentiment with which I cannot possibly agree. It charts the growing relationship between this old man and a retired Malayan woman judge, Teoh Yun Ling, as they build a garden together amid the mists of the mountain. It is a book with an almost magical sense of place. I don’t envy the judges their task of choosing between such different books (not to mention the contemporary fiction works on the list, not all of which I have read), but I look forward to hearing the result, and am glad to see historical fiction holding its own amid such a wealth of diverse literary offerings. 

Are there books on the long-list that you think deserved to be on the short-list but aren't? Are there other books that you think should have been on the long-list (mine might include Andrew Miller's Pure and Katie Ward's Girl Reading).    

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