Boyd Tonkin: This award wants to get down with the kids

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The Independent Online

The most intriguing – even perplexing – aspect of this year's Costa book award shortlists comes in the first-novel category. This has proved a bumper year for debut novelists with subcontinental links. Think of Neel Mukherjee's A Life Apart, with a powerful story of a gay student from Calcutta in the UK of the 1980s; of Manu Joseph's Serious Men, a satire set amid the hierarchies of Mumbai science; of his namesake Anjali Joseph's Saraswati Park, painting the joys and woes of suburban youth in the same city; or of Tishani Doshi's The Pleasure Seekers, both lyrical and bruising in its portrayal of a Welsh-Indian family.

Yet none of these pleased the Costa panel enough. Instead they opted for the blend of murder mystery and campaigning fervour in Kishwan Desai's Witness the Night; for Aatish Taseer's sometimes semi-documentary tale of new cash and old vices in boom-town Delhi, The Temple-Goers; and for Nikesh Shukla's Coconut Unlimited, a London-suburban comedy in which Asian kids embrace and refashion metropolitan trends.

That's their choice; perhaps a slightly eccentric one. What may give readers pause is the fact that Coconut Unlimited bears on its jacket a pre-publication endorsement from BBC TV presenter Anita Rani, who praises it as "laugh-out-loud and refreshingly honest".

Fair enough; except that Anita Rani also sits (as one of only three members) on the judging panel for this category. Should we find this odd? Well, I have seldom come across this cosy overlap between advance marketing and prize adjudication before. But perhaps I'm the sort of literary stick-in-the-mud that the Costa wants to bury in its rush (as the judges put it) to find books that get "down with the kids".

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