Books: A Week in Books

The huge Pennine gap in English fiction
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The Independent Culture
ON TUESDAY, I and my four fellow judges agreed on the shortlist for the Booker Prize. Within 48 hours, I had heard at least two versions of the line that runs: "There was an Englishman, an Irishman, a Scotsman, an Indian and a South African... and they all reached the Booker shortlist." Put it this way (not forgetting our Anglo-Egyptian contender) and suspicious minds begin to hint at some cosy Equal Opps stitch-up. Absolutely not. Each of these tremendous books - by J M Coetzee, Anita Desai, Michael Frayn, Andrew O'Hagan, Ahdaf Soueif and Colm Tibn - fought fiercely for its place in the limelight against formidable rivals.

It's quite true that this superb shortlist underlines the breadth and depth of English as global literary language. Yet the entire Booker experience dispelled the now-facile view that writers from England itself lag behind their trendier Celtic or Commonwealth cousins. Seen as a whole, this year's vintage reveals the rude health of English fiction.

Consider some of the strongest debut novels of 1999. I admired the poignant, funny underclass lyricism of Daren King's Boxy an Star (Abacus); the stunning mix of cyber-thriller and mysticism in David Mitchell's Ghostwritten (Sceptre); the tough and witty makeover of the lads' novel in Tim Lott's White City Blue (Viking); the seductive urban nightmares of Sarah May's The Nudist Colony (Chatto); and the cool historical intelligence of Francine Stock's A Foreign Country (also Chatto). Any national literature that can throw up such beginners still has muscle, guts and legs.

Every Booker harvest yields curious regional clusters. In 1999, novels from and about the North-West outshone all other English settings. Moving north, we began with the Quaker rebels of 17th-century Cheshire in Stevie Davies's Impassioned Clay (Women's Press) and the sinister Peak District villages in Val McDermid's A Place of Execution (HarperCollins). Fifties Stockport lived again in the subtle comedy of Richard Francis's Fat Hen (Fourth Estate), while the same era in Jewish north Manchester inspired Howard Jacobson's brilliant The Mighty Walzer - which I had to find myself, as Cape declined to submit it for the prize. Vikram Seth did the Rochdale sections of An Equal Music sensitively (Phoenix House), while Paul Wilson turned Blackburn all magic-realist in Noah, Noah (Granta). Magnus Mills made the Lake District a backdrop for Bunuel in All Quiet on the Orient Express (Flamingo) as Melvyn Bragg vividly re-created his Cumbrian home town in The Soldier's Return (Sceptre). Up in the Borders, Andrew Greig hauntingly raised the ghosts of Anglo-Scots rivalries with When They Lay Bare (Faber).

In contrast, the Yorkshire novel went to ground - apart from Robert Edric, and he set The Sword Cabinet (Anchor) down South. Maybe the White Rose wordsmiths were too busy shopping at Harvey Nicks in Leeds. Or maybe they think that if Alan Bennett chunters on, no one else has to bother.