Books: Long overdue

The huge IMPAC literary prize is the only major award where librarians get a vote. Vanessa Thorpe examines the shortlist
THE librarian's annual hour of glory is nigh. On Thursday 12 the shortlist for the world's most valuable book award was announced and, following the unusual practice established by the first IMPAC prize in 1996, the finalists have all been plucked from a list drawn up by librarians in 39 different countries - welcome recognition for the least commercial and least feted section of the book industry.

From Chile to Fiji, from Iceland to Namibia, the organisers of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award relied upon chief librarians in 96 cities to produce a wide-ranging long list, including such names as Alan Garner (for Strandloper, published by Harvill), Doris Lessing (Love, Again, Flamingo) Roddy Doyle ( The Woman who Walked into Doors, Cape), Meera Syal (Anita and Me, Flamingo), John Lanchester (The Debt to Pleasure, Picador), and Patricia Duncker (Hallucinating Foucault, Serpent's Tail).

To qualify for the pounds IR100,000 prize, novels had to be available in English- language versions and to have been published between January 1 and December 31, 1996. An international panel of judges, which included the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, under the chairmanship of the American historian Allen Weinstein, selected the 10 authors who now contend for this very big cheque. The announcement will be made on 18 May.

The shortlist for 1998 turns out to be an invigorating mixture of newcomers and established talents. Canadians Margaret Atwood and Guy Vanderhaeghe are in with their novels Alias Grace (Virago pounds 6.99) and The Englishman's Boy (Anchor pounds 6.99). South African Andre Brink got through with his Imaginings of Sand (Vintage pounds 7.99), while Britain is represented by Graham Swift's Last Orders (Picador pounds 5.99) and Lawrence Norfolk's The Pope's Rhinoceros (Vintage pounds 7.99). Guyanan David Dabydeen's novel The Counting House (Vintage pounds 5.99) made the grade, as did The Glade Within the Grove (Fourth Estate pounds 7.99) by the popular Australian writer David Foster. American writer Jamaica Kincaid won a place with her novel Autobiography of my Mother (Vintage pounds 8.99) and the Trinidadian Earl Lovelace is nominated for Salt (Faber pounds 6.99). The least familiar of the judges' choices is probably a book called The Land of Green Plums by Romanian writer Herta Muller.

In spite of the proliferation of literary prizes, and the embarrassing size of some of the purses, the IMPAC prize is still a refreshing influence, according to Gillian Beer, the Cambridge academic who chaired the panel of judges for the last Booker prize. "I do think asking librarians is a good idea, although their choices are likely to be influenced in favour of a writer who already has a substantial body of work behind them. Each prize has a quite different meaning. With the Booker you are not supposed to take anything written previously into account, while the Whitbread looks at a much wider cross-section of work. And then of course the Orange prize for women writers has another turn to it entirely."

Good judges, opines Beer, are "neophytes with no group memory", and she believes narrative energy is the most important factor in a winning book.

But whoever scoops the prize on May 18, the shortlist itself already marks three considerable literary triumphs. First it is a 15 gun salute to Margaret Atwood, or rather a 15 library salute, because Alias Grace was chosen by far more establishments than any other title on the long list. Her story, which is based on the life of the notorious murderess Grace Marks in 1840s Canada, is a sinister tangle of cruelty, sexuality and mystery. It was selected by librarians in Durban, Oslo, Kansas and Hobart among many others, though the number of nominations secured by an individual title was not something taken into consideration by the judges.

This year's shortlist is also an undoubted triumph for Caribbean literature. Salt, by Earl Lovelace, was nominated by Kingston library in Jamaica. Like the other two Caribbean novels on the list, it explores the clashing and mashing of old and new cultures. Jamaica Kincaid now lives in America, but her book Autobiography of my Mother is a melancholy love story set on the island of Dominica and told with a kind of magical realism, through the narrative voice of a 70-year-old woman. David Dabydeen from Guyana now lives in England. His novel The Counting House is set in British Guiana in the 19th century, at the height of the British Empire. On the strength of this novel alone many critics see Dabydeen as the foremost of the new generation of Caribbean novelists.

More surprising, in the light of the prize's Dublin base, the presence of Muldoon as judge, and such contenders as Doyle, Edna O'Brien (Down by the River, Phoenix) and Colm Toibin (The Story of the Night, Picador) on the long list, is the absence of shortlisted Irish writers.

Only one of the finalists' books was originally written in another language and it is the only book which is not yet available in this country. A Romanian story of totalitarian horrors, The Land of Green Plums was written by Herta Muller (Henry Holt & Co) and takes place during Ceausescu's reign of terror. Muller was born in Romania in 1953 and after refusing to cooperate with the Securitate, she lost her job as a teacher and suffered repeated threats before she eventually managed to emigrate 10 years ago. She now lives in Berlin and has already won Germany's most prestigious literary award, the Kleist prize. If Muller's novel wins this most international and lucrative of awards, pounds 75,000 of the prize money will be awarded to the author and pounds 25,000 will go to her translator, Michael Hofmann.