When the judges of this year’s £50,000 Man Booker Prize announced last week their shortlist of six novels, only two of which are by well-known writers, one might have expected them to be praised for choosing the finalists solely on the quality of their writing rather than on the basis of their pre-existing reputations.
Instead, literary critics and the media expressed astonishment and some chagrin at a shortlist that excluded the bookies’ top favorite “Black Swan Down” by David Mitchell.
They seemed to forget that some reviews of the novel, though admiring Mitchell's writing, had expressed disappointment that his canvas in this "boy comes of age in an English village" novel had shrunk in comparison with his earlier books, particularly "Cloud Atlas" shortlisted for the Man Booker in 1994.
Nor had some of the other excluded books received unanimously positive reviews on publication. Whereas for example "In the Country of Men" by Libyan Hisham Matar, which is on the shortlist, received widespread critical praise (an exception being a bafflingly ungracious review by Palestinian writer Samir El-Youssef in the New Statesman).
When the bookies give their odds, they perhaps attach too much importance to the bigness of the authors' names, and too little to the merits of their novels. Other favorites from the longlist of 19 books who failed to make the shortlist were Australian Peter Carey (already two times winner of the Booker) for “Theft: A Love Story” and Scottish Andrew O’Hagan for “Be Near Me”. Nor did South African Nobel laureate and previous Booker winner Nadine Gordimer or Jewish comic writer Howard Jacobson appear on the list.
Professor John Sutherland, the chairman of last year’s Man Booker judges, said he was “gobsmacked” by the shortlist, adding that the “bizarre” list may show “we are seeing a turning of the tide, the older generation giving way to the new.” Many of the press reports of the shortlist announcement, referring to the upset over bookies' odds, resorted to racing metaphors. Nearly all the favourites had "fallen at the penultimate fence" wrote Lousie Jury in the Independent.
The only longlisted favorite to appear on the shortlist is “The Night Watch” by Sarah Waters (above), set in London during the Second World War. Waters is now favorite to win, with odds of 2/1 from bookmakers William Hill. "Apart from Sarah Waters, it's a field of dark horses, any one of which has a chance of winning", according to Robert McCrum, literary editor of the Observer,
The other widely-known finalist is the Australian Kate Grenville, shortlisted for “The Secret River”, about a criminal transported to Australia in Victorian times. The novel has already won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. Fellow Australian woman novelist, M J Hyland, is a finalist with “Carry Me Down”, about a 12-year-old boy growing up in Dublin.
Hisham Matar's novel “In the Country of Men” is set in Libya in 1979. Matar was the only debut novelist on the longlist, and to be included on the shortlist against most expectations is an extraordinary achievement. The Indian Kiran Desai is on the list with her second novel “The Inheritance of Loss”. She will be hoping for better luck than her mother Anita Desai, who has been shortlisted three times for the Booker but has never won it. Edward St Aubyn is a finalist with “Mother’s Milk”, whose protagonist Patrick Melrose is trying to cope with middle age haunted by a wretched childhood.
The chairman of the judges Hermione Lee, professor of English literature at of Oxford University, said: "Each of these novels has what we as judges were most looking for: a distinctive, original voice and audacious imagination that takes readers to undiscovered countries of the mind, a strong power of storytelling and a historical truthfulness."
The winner will be announced at a prizegiving dinner on October 10. Lee’s fellow judges are poet Simon Armitage, novelist and reviewer Candia McWilliam, actress Fiona Shaw and writer and reviewer Anthony Quinn.
For those who still take notice of bookies' odds, or delight in seeing how poorly predictive they sometimes are, the odds cited in last Sunday's Observer were 2/1 for "The Night Watch", 3/1 for "Mother's Milk", 4/1 for "The Secret River", 5/1 for "Carry Me Down", 6/1 for "In the Country of Men", and 7/1 for "The Inheritance of Loss".