Booker back in mainstream thanks to big-name writers

Surprises are absent in book award that once celebrated the quirky, says Boyd Tonkin
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Here's an unexpected turn-up for the books. After years of praise or blame (according to outlook) about the readiness of the Man Booker Prize panels to flatter and promote the boom in fiction from or about India or Pakistan, this year's judges seem to have declared war on the Subcontinent. Potential successors to Aravind Adiga and Kiran Desai (winners in 2008 and 2006 respectively) must apply elsewhere for preferment. How about Kamila Shamsie, whose post-war epic Burnt Shadows ran strongly for the Orange Prize? Pointedly missing from the long-list. Another absentee is Amit Chaudhuri, loudly hailed in many quarters for his exquisite The Immortals.

We should never have expected a jury as orthodox in taste as the one James Naughtie chairs to seek out as waywardly extravagant a novel as Joseph's Box by the Scottish doctor-author Suhayl Saadi, which drives us deep into the history and myths of Europe and south Asia alike. But, in a bolder year, he and other writers from non-corporate imprints might have stood a better chance. For all the formidable works that feature on this Man Booker baker's dozen, it thumpingly embodies the conventional wisdom of 2009. Whiffs of cordite from the coming battle between AS Byatt, Sarah Waters, Colm Toibin and Hilary Mantel (to pick four impressive top contenders) have been perceptible in print for several months already.

JM Coetzee, one of only two double-winners of the prize, returns as the approved face of the avant-garde. Newcomer Samantha Harvey's Alzheimer's elegy, the fast-rising Sarah Hall's artistic journey between Cumbria and Italy, Adam Foulds's recreation of John Clare's asylum time, and Simon Mawer's alignment of Utopian architecture with the tragedies of 20th-century history, deserve to run them close. And James Lever's delicious mock-Hollywood memoir of Johnny Weismuller's chimpanzee sidekick, first published as a spoof autobiography, will be everybody's favourite joker in this pack.

Yet the relative absence of surprising names, and of independent publishing houses, tells its own story. Since the millennium, with off-the-wall or debutant victors such as DBC Pierre, Yann Martel, Anne Enright and (last year) Adiga, the Man Booker has drifted down the scenic byways of the promising, the untried, the quirky, the left-field. This long-list shoves it back into the mainstream with a vengeance. An award that has lately come to look as if it were steering in the direction of the Turner Prize again resembles, for this season at least, something a bit more like the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

The Children's Book

AS Byatt

Set at the turn of the 20th Century, it is a novel about children – and on the side of the children – who are lost, cheated, and finally destroyed by their elders.

What The Independent said: "The Children's Book seethes and pulses with an entangled life, of the mind and the senses alike, as dense as spring undergrowth in its Kentish woodlands."


Colm Toibin

In the 1950s a young Irish woman emigrates to Brooklyn only to be summoned back to Ireland after receiving tragic news forcing her to make heartbreaking decisions between personal freedom and duty.

What The Independent said: "Its meticulously crafted prose is slow, leisurely and replete with close attention to physical sensations – seasickness, desire, the pain of virginity's loss."

The Quickening Maze

Adam Foulds

Based on real events in Epping Forest on the edge of London around 1840, this book centres on the first incarceration of the great nature poet John Clare.

What The Independent said: "Foulds has a thoroughly masculine eye for the thrill, stink and dirt of sensual Victoriana. With poetic licence permitting him to squeeze awkward history into a tight, clipped narrative, he takes us on a vertiginous imaginative arc, weaving a thick, muscular fabric from faltering Victorian social mores."

How to Paint a Dead Man

Sarah Hall

Covering half a century, Sarah Hall's fourth novel is a fierce study of art and its place in our lives.

What The Independent said: "She accomplishes the conceptual ambitions of the novel with great skill: it is a tough and unsentimental exploration of the way art feeds on the dead."

The Wilderness

Samantha Harvey

The story of Jake Jameson, a 65-year-old architect on the cusp of retirement whose memories are slowly being eroded by Alzheimer's.

What The Independent said: "Samantha Harvey's debut novel is a brave and intelligent crafting of narrative around narrative's ruins in the mind of a sufferer from Alzheimer's Disease."

The Glass Room

Simon Mawer

Set in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s it follows a newly-wed couple – a Jew and a gentile – as their optimism fades when the storm clouds of the Second World War gather and the family must flee, accompanied by the husband's lover and her child.

What The Independent said: "Mawer's perfect pacing clinches a wholly enjoyable and moving read."


JM Coetzee

Completing the majestic trilogy of fictionalised memoir begun with Boyhood and Youth. Due to be published in September.

Book yet to be reviewed.

Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel

Novel set in 16th-century England which focuses on the rise of Cromwell, the blacksmith's son who rose to one of the highest offices before fatally offending Henry VIII.

Me Cheeta

James Lever

The story of Cheeta the Chimp, simian star of the big screen, on a behind-the-scenes romp through the golden years of Hollywood.

Not Untrue & Not Unkind

Ed O'Loughlin

A story about friendship, rivalry and betrayal among a group of journalists and photographers covering the wars in Africa.

Book yet to be reviewed.


James Scudmore

A rag-to-riches tale about Ludo, a young man born in Sao Paulo who has developed an obsessive, adulterous love for his adoptive sister, whose husband is his only friend.

Love and Summer

William Trevor

Set in a small Irish town, it follows its inhabitants during one summer and explores the themes of suspicion, guilt, forbidden love and the possibility of starting over.

The Little Stranger

Sarah Waters

In a post-war summer in rural Warwickshire a doctor is called out to attend to a family living in a haunted mansion, struggling to keep pace with a changing society.