A Week in Books: Novels of England flourish under tropical palms

By Boyd Tonkin
Saturday 15 March 2003 01:00
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As a venue for the judging of a literary prize, let's just say that I have seen worse. This particular panel argued and agreed under the shade of a bodhi tree on the terraced lawns of the Hotel Suisse in Kandy – high in the green hills of central Sri Lanka, circled by impossibly lush tropical woodlands and faced across Kandy's gorgeous lake by the illustrious Temple of the Tooth, where saffron-robed monks guard the Buddha's dental relic and show it (or, at least, its natty gold container) to parties of the faithful thrice a day.

Momentous decisions have come out of the Suisse before. Louis Mountbatten chose its creamy splendour as HQ for the South-East Asia Command in 1944, and settled the fate of Burma here. I and my fellow-judges – Professor Walter Perera of the nearby University of Peradeniya, our genially omniscient host, and Dr Sanjukta Dasgupta of Calcutta University – merely had to find the Best Book and Best First Book this year from the "Eurasia" region of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. This cluster of countries comprises the UK, the nations of the Indian subcontinent, and the couple of member states (Cyprus, Malta) that lie in between. Our brace of winners would go forward to compete with their counterparts from other regions of the Commonwealth for the overall prizes in Calgary, Canada, early in May. Established only in 1987, the CWP can already boast a pretty impressive record for selecting novels that armies of readers come to cherish, but that other prize juries initially overlook – A Suitable Boy, Captain Corelli's Mandolin and White Teeth among them.

Believe it or not, the panel worked punishingly hard. Heavy e-mail traffic beforehand meant that we had pre-selected a manageable batch of books for this final stage, and could spend the (relatively) cool morning hours dissecting them. My co-judges wrangled with a forensic rigour and eloquence. No favours were granted; no concessions made; no handicaps imposed. And, in the end, the novels that prevailed in highland Sri Lanka embodied the distant landscapes and mindscapes of Deep England.

Sarah Hall won Best First Book for Haweswater, her grandly lyrical drama of modernisation and resistance rooted in the Lake District villages of the Thirties. Michael Frayn took Best Book for Spies, his pitch-perfect tragi-comedy of childish delusions set amid the weird wartime suburbs of south London. Meanwhile, the toque macaque monkeys in the forest and the yard-long water-monitor lizards in the lake (oddly endearing beasts, in spite of their Jurassic Park looks) went about their ordinary business.

Seen from this distance, what distinguished the winners was their power to make the local global; to extract from a specific time, place and style a much wider resonance. For all its overtones of Hardy or Lawrence, Haweswater tells a story of rural tradition drowned by development (literally, in the form of a dam) that echoes across other cultures and continents. And, 5,000 miles from Surrey, Spies grew from a bittersweet slice of privet-bordered nostalgia into a subtly affecting study of childhood derailed by all the shocks of war and exile. In both cases, distance lent not so much enchantment as enlargement to the view.

If there's a lesson for authors in our choices, it may be no more than the old truism that a small patch of well-cultivated turf will yield more than some shallow prairie of a novel that seeks breadth in lieu of depth. The intense local flavour of our winners travelled superbly. In Canada, we'll see if they can flourish under pines as well as palms.

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