Man Booker shortlist: What the reviews say


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The Independent Culture

The winner of the Man Booker prize will be revealed at 10 pm tonight from a shortlist of six.

Here's what The Independent reviewers think of the books on offer:

Bring Up The Bodies, By Hilary Mantel

In this, her sequel to Wolf Hall, Mantel has no truck with the feminised Tudor history denounced by David Starkey, but sticks firmly to her agenda - male point-of-view, Cromwell's point-of-view, a political point-of-view, with no lust in the Tudor shrubbery. Her historical fiction might be called the squeezed middlebrow, refusing bodice-ripping bestseller-land, but also rejecting wildly experimental writers of historical fiction like OrhanPamuk.

As all historical novelists must, Mantel forces us to recognise ourselves in people whose different minds could easily alienate us. Her Cromwell is practical, as we are, a battler, as we are, with no religion or love of the monarch, because we have none.

Review by Diane Purkiss click here to read in full

Umbrella, By Will Self

Self is not the only novelist this autumn to respond to commercially uncertain times by returning to Modernism, but he has been the most explicit about this strategy. His blurb not only suggests "he is taking up the challenge of Modernism", but states that only Modernism alone "can unravel new and unsettling truths about our world". He opens the novel with an epigraph borrowed from James Joyce. It's a bold claim, but Self has never lacked ambition.

Umbrella ranges from 1918 to 2010, but Self writes more in the manner of a writer from the former age than the latter. By following in a digested tradition, he does something different than the Modernist writer: not so much following Ezra Pound's instruction to "make it new", but instead making the old new.

Review by Matt Thorne click here to read in full

The Garden of Evening Mists, By Tan Twan Eng

Our narrator here is Teoh Yun Ling, a Girton-educated retired judge in independent Malaysia, born in 1923 and brought up among the loyal colonial elite (“the King’s Chinese”) of Penang. After the Japanese invasion, she suffered almost-unspeakable hardship as a “Guest of the Emperor” in a remote jungle prison camp, where her beloved sister Yun Hong died. Tan’s fictional garden moves between three levels, which never quite coincide.

In the present – given the chronology, the late 1980s – Yun Ling writes her memoirs before the aphasic dementia that has begun to afflict her reduces language and memory to trackless jungle. In the early 1950s, as a rebellious young prosecutor furious that the British rulers of Malaya have done so little to help victims of Japanese war crimes, she fled to the highlands to learn garden design from the shape-shifting Aritomo. Somehow – and for what dark purpose? – the imperial gardener has returned to postwar Malaya to exercise his talent for the visual feints and ruses of shakkei – “borrowed scenery”.

Review by Boyd Tonkin click here to read in full

Narcopolis, By Jeet Thayil

The ingenuity of Thayil's novel lies in how he has squeezed this entire universe into an opium pipe. And when the narrative dissipates into smoke, it leaves a deceptively addictive odour, with memorable characters at the margins of society. There is Dimple, the eunuch keen to read and learn; the Bengali who pretends to know more than he does (or maybe he does); and Rashid himself, who runs the opium den with disdain that's at once sardonic and laconic.

There are others too, given peculiar names drawn from Bombay slang, but most try to do no harm, and often show heartwarming humanity. The unobtrusive narrator is Dom, whose soul-killing job is as a proof-reader of publicity material in a pharmaceutical company (with easy access to chemical substances). Just alongside the den are other vices - prostitution and crime.

Review by Salil Tripathi click here to read in full

Swimming Home, By Deborah Levy

Levy's sense of place is never romantic, rather a means of isolating the English in France to examine them forensically. She exposes how actions rebound on future generations and how damaged individuals are attracted to their mirror image, leading only to mutual destruction. Levy takes us into this subconscious world with delicacy and without judgment.

Her touch is gentle, often funny and always acute. The prose style is spare and fresh. Swimming Home is told from multiple viewpoints and several generations. At the centre is poet Joe/Jozef Jacobs, whose sketchy, hidden history, as a Jewish child in the Polish woods, throbs dangerously. Levy's characters, from Joe's daughter Nina, whose menstruation catapults her into the world of sexuality, to the 80-year-old doctor Madeleine, offer a wide range of female experience which is painfully authentic. What is particularly strong is the way Levy upends expectation. The cuckolded wife, Isabel, is no victim. She is a war correspondent who perhaps colludes in her husband's infidelity to make her own escape.

Review by Julia Pascal click here to read in full

The Lighthouse, By Alison Moore

A debut novel from a high-achieving independent publisher, The Lighthouse has surprised some observers with its place on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. Disquieting, deceptive, crafted with a sly and measured expertise, Alison Moore's story could certainly deliver a masterclass in slow-burn storytelling to those splashier literary celebs who take more pains over a pyrotechnic paragraph than a watertight plot. But it may also feed a long-standing Booker quarrel: the one that sets so-called "literary" against "genre" fiction.

From a technical point-of-view, the peculiar achievement of The Lighthouse lies in the nervelessly skilful fusion of its emotions and its actions: the "literary" dimension of Futh's nostalgia and obsession, and the "genre" machine that, notch by notch, cranks up foreboding and suspense. Because of who he is, because of how he feels, the monster stalks him. The finale delivers a neat (perhaps overly neat) QED. A novel that opens with an epigraph by Muriel Spark may close by reminding you not just of Roald Dahl, but Stephen King.

Review by Boyd Tonkin click here to read in full