The judges of this year’s Booker prize said from the outset they would reward good story telling. “We were looking for a book that would knock our socks off,” said Chairman of the judges, Michael Portillo. Aravind Adiga’s extraordinary first novel, ‘The White Tiger’, it would appear, did just that.
Many have described this as a surprising win. Certainly it will have surprised the six amateur arbiters of literary merit that met in Homer on 9 October to review the shortlist – only days before the real judges would convene for their final deliberations. ‘The White Tiger’ garnered only one vote among us – with most going to Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Sea of Poppies’.
But, while there may have been surprise, there will have been little disappointment. Of the six books we read, four – the tiger among them - were deemed to deliver in spades on the judges’ ‘damn good read’ criteria. Perhaps Poppies won out because, as its supporter among us pointed out, "it gives a very thorough description of the pleasures of opium”. It seems those pleasures are many and that we were all keen to find out about them. Hmmm…
I had better confess immediately that our performance as ‘alternative judges’ was less than robust. We gave ourselves a very relaxed time of it, reading only one of the short listed novels each and then providing our co-readers with a review that, while it was as honest as we could make it, could hardly fail to be partisan. If we’re honest, we were probably influenced as much by the passion of each book’s supporter than by the books themselves.
So, what did we have to say about the shortlist?
The ones we loved….
‘The Secret Scripture’, Sebastian Barry: A compassionate study of one woman’s life through her own reminiscences and those of her psychiatrist. Our reader loved its fine lyrical writing, which complemented a sensitive investigation of the accuracy, power and, ultimately, truth, of memory.
‘The Sea of Poppies’, Amitav Ghosh: An absolute page turner with lashings of sex, drugs – and swash buckling adventure standing in for rock n roll. Good Lord, does that sound like a Booker winner? No, thought not. Wishful thinking on our part then. We wanted it to win but thought it wouldn’t - disadvantaged by being only the first part in a trilogy.
‘The Clothes on Their Backs’, Linda Grant: A book about a woman’s relationship with clothes…? You’d imagine a limited audience for this one. But you’d be wrong. Grant’s obsession with shirts and skirts disguises deeper concerns. Clothes, they say, ‘maketh the man’ but, for Grant, they are little more than ciphers for the personalities we adopt for survival. A powerful examination of alternative responses to suffering and loss.
‘The White Tiger’, Aravind Adega: A polemic for 21st century India; angry, honest and funny with a compelling anti-hero who wins our favour despite being a murderous villain.
The ones we hated…
‘The Northern Clemency’, Philip Hensher: The fly cover compares this to the great Russian novels of Dostoyevsky. We were perplexed. “This book is to literature what blancmange is to fine dining,” complained our reader. “Bland to taste and with no nutritional value whatsoever.”
‘Fraction of the Whole’, Steve Toltz: Too clever by half, we thought. This examination of that perennial favourite for introverted young male authors (yawn) - the father/son relationship - left our reader so cold she couldn’t even bear to finish it. Tsk, tsk!
So, did Booker 2008 deliver on its ‘rollicking good read’ promise? Certainly the four we favoured all had great narrative energy. None were the ‘difficult but rewarding’ reads that we normally associate with Booker winners (take your medicine, its good for you). But, blessedly, they each delivered something more. It seemed to me; as I listened to our readers describe them, that they shared and were set apart by their ability to throw fresh light on the human condition, and to describe with compassion the impact of history - both personal and global - on the human heart, mind and spirit.
‘The White Tiger’ surprised us, but pleasantly so I think. And it seemed to surprise most of the critics, too – when will they learn not to underestimate the wisdom of youth? But the thing that surprised me most was that a panel of judges led by Mr Portillo, of all people, would hand the Booker accolade to such a brazenly anti-capitalist book. So, (and here come four words I never expected to use in the same sentence) well done Mr Portillo. I even feel inclined to buy you a new pair of socks!