The winner of the Man Booker Prize is announced on Tuesday night. Here's my verdict on the shortlisted books.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid
A Pakistani man, Changez, bumps into an American in a restaurant in Lahore and begins to relate his life story, detailing his college days at Princeton, his love for a beautiful but disturbed fellow student and the high-energy graduate job in New York City that leads to him questioning his place in America. It's all told in the first person but the two parallel worlds - the eaterie of the present, as night closes in, and Changez's earlier life in the US – are beautifully evoked. Actually, the eerie style (in which we are made to become the American listener) is identical to Camus' The Fall, but I guess whether you want to take it as a rip-off or homage is up to you. Still, I thought it was excellent – the subtlety and tone of Kazuo Ishiguro combined with the storytelling finesse of [tries to think of someone with storytelling finesse]… Ian McEwan, perhaps.
On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan
Speak of the devil. He doesn't need to win really, does he? I mean, Atonement, which he wrote YEARS AGO is back in the bestsellers charts, he's won the Booker already and everyone loves him. But, oh look, On Chesil Beach is fucking great as well. I guess there's not much new – he did the tiny minute detail thing in Saturday, he did the nifty compact novella thing with Amsterdam, he did the "skip to the end" looking back mournfully on our wasted lives thing in The Innocent… and so on. But it's still virtually impossible to dis'. Anyway, 1962: two newlyweds, Edward and Florence, arrive on their honeymoon at a hotel near Chesil Beach. Sadly, when it comes to bedroom time, Edward accidentally ***** on ********'s ***** and she's all like "Oh my God, that's totally gross". But "they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible", which puts paid to any ideas of reconciliation. It would be magnificently boring if McEwan won, but no one can say he doesn't deserve it, frankly.
Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones
This, it seems, has become the favourite to scoop the £25k, ahead of the McEwan. That's slightly bizarre in my opinion: it's competent but not dazzling. The story's told by Matilda, a young girl living on the island of Bougainville (Papua New Guinea way) during a violent conflict in the early 1990s. Matilda and her classmates get through the tough times with the help of only-white-man-in-the-village Mr Watts, who introduces the children to Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. They love it, but everything starts to go wrong when rebel soldiers arrive in the village. Worth the read, but the best thing about Mister Pip is certainly the cover art, which looks like the greatest wrapping paper you ever saw.
Darkmans – Nicola Barker
Very, very strange. Eight hundred and thirty-eight pages long, it's written almost entirely in a san serif font not unlike Century Gothic, and features constant italicised interruptions in the text to indicate characters' sudden
- hey, what the…
inner thoughts. Meandering as a one-legged jogger and without any kind of discernable story arc, it's set in Ashford, Kent, and concerns the adventures of Beede (yes, Barker does do the "venerable" joke – on page two, in fact), his German friend Dory (who keeps getting possessed and doing weird things, like digging in the sand to find petrified forests), Beede's drug-dealing son Kane (phone-obsessed, constantly looking for a lighter), Dory's chiropodist wife Elen (beautiful, worried, perhaps dangerous), their six-year-old son Fleet (apparently also possessed; is building scale model of the French town of Albi out of matchsticks), Kane's ex-girlfriend Kelly (highly temperamental, breaks foot early on and spends most of novel in hospital), everyone's mate Gaffar (Kurdish wide-boy, has morbid fear of salad) and various other ne'er-do-wells. It would be totally cool if this won, but it's probably a bit too out there.
The Gathering – Anne Enright
Didn't like this much. The writing's clearly impressive, but it was hard to love. It's about a ragtag Irish family of 12, one of whose number dies, leaving the narrator, Veronica, confused, messed up and in the mood for reminiscence. Not much of it has stuck with me really – she almost becomes an alcoholic, gets annoyed with her children, drives around a lot and, as it's Irish, there's some stuff about child abuse.
Animal's People – Indra Sinha
Definitely the most FUN of the shortlist. Told by a foul-mouthed slum-delling Indian boy who walks on all fours like an animal after his back was deformed by a chemical leak from a factory in his town (the fictional Khaufpur, based on the central Indian city Bhopal), it's a compelling read, and filled with brilliant, vivid characters. The protagonist's tone slips slightly here and there and there's a dip about two-thirds of the way through which should've been chopped, but otherwise it's a cracker, with something of the Midnight's Children about it. Sadly – and I wish I was joking – the book's chances of victory will surely be massively decreased by the fact that an Indian writer won last year (Kiran Desai's so-so The Inheritance of Loss), so if the judges did decide to give Sinha the prize, there'd be loads of muttering about the, shall we say, "chutnification" of the Booker.