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The Booker 2006: Ring out the old

SPEAKING VOLUMES

Nilanjana S Roy  |  New Delhi 

This year, the Booker could have split into two prizes""the Senior Booker versus the Young Turks. The message the Booker judges sent out was unambiguous: the shortlist would promote emerging talent at the expense of more established authors.
The omissions were spectacular. Peter Carey's Theft was expected to make the cut, but many felt that his tale of a bitter, divorced painter had an overcrowded canvas. Leaving out David Mitchell's Black Swan Green, a beautiful but atypically straightforward coming of age novel, was unforgivable. Nadine Gordimer's Get a Life is uncharacteristically hesitant, with jarring stylistic and linguistic errors. The really big shock? No Andrew O'Hagan, no Claire Messud. O'Hagan's delicately wrought Be Near Me explores the disgrace of a priest accused of sexually assaulting a teenage boy whom he has befriended. Messud's The Emperor's Children is a classic New York novel, combining the observational skills of Virginia Woolf with Edith Wharton's feel for an age. It could have been a contender.
The real worth of the 2006 shortlist is that it highlights authors of tremendous calibre who would otherwise have been overlooked. In the first part of this week's two-part column, we look at three of the six shortlisted authors:
Sarah Waters, The Night Watch (Virago): Sarah Waters' fourth novel moves away from the Victorian England where she explored the secret history of lesbians, from oyster girls and actresses to prostitutes and early feminists. The Night Watch is set in 1940s wartime London and goes backwards in time from 1947 to 1941. Kay drove an ambulance at the height of the Blitz; the end of wartime leaves her restless, donning man's clothes to search the streets for something she can't name. Stumbling out of the army, Duncan deals with the stubborn ghosts of his own past. Helen hates the secrecy imposed on women in love with women, and struggles with her own demons of jealousy. Vivien's loyalty to her untrustworthy male lover comes at an exorbitantly high price.
Waters, the best-known of the authors on the 2006 shortlist, is seen as the strongest contender. I'm not so sure. The Night Watch is accomplished and moving, but it doesn't bear comparison with more nuanced war novels such as Pat Barker's The Ghost Road or Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient.
Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss (Hamish Hamilton): The bookmakers may see Kiran Desai as a dark horse, but I would give her better odds. Her first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, was humorous, deft, but somewhat lightweight. The Inheritance of Loss is much more assured""the daughter of writer Anita Desai has a voice and style that is unmistakably her own.
Part of Inheritance is set in Kalimpong, where Sai lives in a crumbling house with her grandfather, a retired judge steeped in his own legacy of bitterness. The demand for the separate state of Gorkhaland shatters the certainties on which people like Sai and her grandfather have built their comfortable lives. Part of the novel is set in America, where the son of the cook who works in the judge's house finds his way through the immigrant maze: "Biju at Le Colonial. On top, rich colonial, and down below, poor native. On to the Stars and Stripes Diner. All American flag on top, all Guatemalan flag below." Her gentle humour shines through, but so does her awareness that the promise of globalisation is a hoax, built on modernity "in its meanest form, brand-new one day, in ruin the next."
Hisham Matar, In The Country of Men (Viking): In 1990, Hisham Matar's father was living in exile as a Libyan dissident in Cairo when he was kidnapped, taken back to Tripoli and imprisoned. Matar last heard from his father in 1995; after that, Jaballah Hamed Matar joined the ranks of the disappeared, the thousands who vanished during Gaddafi's regime and whose stories have no ending. Matar grew up in Libya and Cairo before moving to England, where he wrote In The Country of Men. Its narrator is a young boy, Suleiman, whose childhood is marked by betrayals and disappearances; his mother survives with the help of the unmarked bottles of "medicine" she sources from the neighbourhood baker, her personality changing as she drinks.
The nightmare created by the regime is the backdrop for the small, everyday details of "normal" life""childhood games, the way his mother retells Scheherazade's stories, the practising of scales on the piano, and public hangings exist in the same space. Matar's first novel is harrowing and borders on autobiography, and he has already acquired an admiring readership. The statistical odds, though, are not in his favour""very few debut novelists have ever won the Booker.

nilanjanasroy@gmail.com

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First Published: Tue, September 19 2006. 00:00 IST
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