Now that I have reviewed the last shortlisted book for the 2012 Booker Prize, it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. This shortlist is another mixed bag of genres, two historical, two set in the 1970’s, and two contemporary. One is experimental enough to render it almost incomprehensible while another sometimes reads as if pages were taken from a textbook.
As I often do, I’ll start with the books I liked least. My least favorite of the nominees was Umbrella by Will Self. With an idea that should have been interesting, based as it is on Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings, this novel is so concerned with its devices that it is very difficult to read. It shifts point of view in mid-sentence, sometimes in mid-word, and uses stream-of-consciousness confusingly.
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil is set in late 1970’s or early 80’s Bombay, about a young man exploring the city’s opium dens and brothels. Although I found some of the characters interesting, I was not interested in the overall subject matter, and when the novel became philosophical, it read as if it came out of a textbook.
My main objection to Swimming Home by Deborah Levy is that I found the situation unbelievable. When vacationers find a disturbed girl occupying their vacation house, they invite her to stay even though she is clearly a fangirl of the poet husband. The entire atmosphere of the novel is foreboding, and the placement in time of an initial scene is confusing.
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore is another menacing novel, about a sad, gray man who goes on a hiking trip out of nostalgia for happy times with his father. He unwittingly gets into a situation between a woman and her jealous husband. Although I didn’t like any of the characters, I found this novel oddly compelling.
I enjoyed The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng about post-World War II Malaya. It immersed me in the story of a Malayan judge suffering from aphasia who is revisiting her memories.
That leaves the winner of that year’s prize, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantell. This novel was the second installment of Mantell’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, dealing with Anne Boleyn’s frantic attempts to hold onto her throne and her life. It is an absolutely enthralling story of Tudor politics and intrigue. So, this time, yes, the judges got it right.
Ah, a trip down memory lane! By sheer coincidence in 2012 I actually read most of the list, including all the shortlist (that will probably never happen again). I totally agree that in 2012 the judges got it right (for once)! Bring Up the Bodies was fabulous (as was Wolf Hall) and deserved to win hands down. Like you, my second favorite that year was Garden of Evening Mists; any other year (i.e. No Mantel) I would have been rooting for it. Your description of Moore’s Lighthouse as “oddly compelling” was spot on; I don’t think I liked it, exactly, but it was well done and left a lingering impression. I’ve never been a Deborah Levy fan (I really must read more of her work, to see if my distaste is well-founded) and I can’t say I liked Swimming Home; like you, I found the setup highly improbably. I think we differ, however, on Narcopolis, which I found disturbing, decadent and sort of fascinating!
Very interesting post; I had fun revisiting memories of these books!
Thanks! Well, I agree that Narcopolis was disturbing and decadent, and I liked parts of it. I just thought the scene at the beginning where he went to the art show or poetry reading or whatever it was seemed ridiculous. But maybe that was the point. I think he could have done a better job of having his character sound like he was actually talking rather than (perhaps) copying information from a textbook.
I’ve honestly forgotten most of the details. I do recall it was a debut novel, with some of the faults associated with those. I believe I was mostly caught up with the atmosphere; this is so personal to each reader I can totally understand your different reaction! I’m not sure Thayil has done much since Narcopolis but could be wrong about this . . .
I certainly agree with you, Mantel’s two books are great and deserved to win. However, I really love The Garden of Evening Mists, thought it was a wonderful book. I am sure it would have won had Mantel not been there that year.
I have not read many of books shortlisted through the years, but those I have read I have not liked, unfortunately. There are exceptions of course; Midnight Children by Salman Rushdie, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (one of my favourite books), The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, The Master by Colm Tóbín (although he did not win, but another favourite of mine). Having said that, most of the shortlisted books I have not read. Maybe, I should give the shortlisted books another try?
I haven’t gone that far back on my project, but I certainly enjoyed all those books except Midnight’s Children. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood for it when I read it years ago. I loved The Luminaries and The Master. I actually have read many short-listed books that I’ve enjoyed, just a few that I haven’t at all.
I probably read the wrong ones. Sometimes I think, as you try to show in your post, that the ‘right’ book won. On the other hand, we all have different views. Must be very difficult to be in the jury.
Yes, although sometimes I wonder what they were thinking.
Haha, me too.
This is why I never read the Booker shortlists, I can easily find one with nothing I want to read, like this one!! I have loved some Booker winners but they’re very hit and miss for me.
Me too, but I have to say I have discovered some really good books on my list projects that I might not have read otherwise.
Well, the only two I’ve read are the two you enjoyed most, so I’ll agree with you – both good, but Bring Up the Bodies by far the best! You do have to wonder how some of the books get on the shortlist though…