Boyd Tonkin: The wrong choice in a list packed with delights

Sunday 07 July 2013 03:14

The Dublin novelist, whose emotional rage is limited and whose prose exhibits all the chilly perfection of a waxwork model, must today count himself as the luckiest writer on the planet. This was a travesty of a result from a travesty of a judging process.

The Booker Prize of 2005, which had an incomparably strong and diverse field of novels to consider, has been cursed from the start. The hex began with the appointment of Professor John Sutherland as chair of the judges. Professor Sutherland's leaked and distorted reports of the 1999 prize grossly misrepresented the views of a majority of his fellow-judges (myself included).

He and his colleagues nonetheless succeeded in delivering a long list that recognised the formidable performances in 2005 of many of the iconic figures in modern British fiction: from Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes, to Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie. The shortlist that eventually emerged preserved a sense of the strength and scope of the year's fiction. However, it unaccountably omitted Ian McEwan's Saturday - a novel that fell victim to a staggeringly vicious and inept review in the New York Review of Books by none other than John Banville.

Yet the 2005 shortlist did offer some of the best work ever by Julian Barnes and Kazuo Ishiguro. It included the most accomplished novels yet by Zadie Smith and Ali Smith, and a perfect, enduring gem of a First World War story by Sebastian Barry.

Incomprehensibly the jury ignored all these excellent and variously admirable novels. Instead they plumped for Banville's glacial evocation of Max Morden's return to an Irish seaside town where, long ago, the grace of a seductive family had struck and shaped his life. This is undoubtedly "beautiful'' prose, but it is lifeless, pallid work that plays predictable variations on themes of memory and identity in a style that may impress but can seldom engage.

For the judges of the 2005 Man Booker Prize to have rendered down the precious wealth of fiction presented to them into this tinny medallion counts as an achievement of some sort. For the reputation of the Man Booker Prize, it may count as nothing less than a disaster.

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