The Man Booker Prize celebrates each year ‘the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK’. What is now a landmark literary event started in 1969 and to celebrate its 50th year, the Booker Prize Foundation has decided to award a ‘Golden Man Booker Prize’ to the best work of fiction to receive the annual prize from the last five decades, to be voted on by the public from a shortlist of five books chosen by the judging panel to represent each decade.
When the shortlist was announced a few weeks ago, my instinct was immediately that I would vote for Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient – a book which I remember savouring when it first came out. But I decided that, if I were to vote, I should do so from an informed basis – ie, I should read, or re-read, all five books first. This has proved to be a very interesting journey, full of surprises and new discoveries.
My re-read of The English Patient turned out to be much less successful than I expected. In fact, I couldn’t finish it. Perhaps watching the film several times since the book was originally published did not help – all I could see while struggling with the text were the iconic images associated with Anthony Minghella’s masterpiece. Of course the two represent the same story, but they were miles apart. I couldn’t get to grips with the writing – it seemed all over the place. Whereas I had anticipated enjoying a return to a beautifully crafted story, I just couldn’t settle to it this time around.
Perhaps I should have realised that my relationship with that book would be affected by the film. In general, I rarely read books where I have already seen a film version (and vice-versa) precisely because of this problem. And I began to fear for my re-reading of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Again, I first read this prior to watching the TV programme. So how would it be to return to the book? Much to my surprise and delight, I found in this case that it was an advantage to have seen the TV programme. This time, I was able to enjoy the text with an image of the wonderful Mark Rylance as Cromwell in my mind. The text seemed to gain extra clarity as a result and I found it easier to read than before. I was really pleased to have returned to this fascinating and brilliantly-crafted book.
When George Saunders’ experimental book Lincoln in the Bardo won the annual prize last year, I tried several times to read it, but its quirky style proved off-putting. So I decided to try the audio version. After all, so many people had waxed lyrical about the marvels of this book, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Looking at all the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, it seems that the majority of readers absolutely loved this unusual and highly creative project. Unfortunately, I was in the minority camp. Yes of course the subject (Lincoln trying to come to terms with the death of his son) is moving and emotional. But I found the format got too much in the way of the narrative. The 160+ characters and all those source citations killed the atmosphere of the book stone dead for me.
Turning then to In a Free State by V S Naipaul, I was looking forward to reading this because its core themes (displacement, conflict, deterioration of a country) suggested that it is a book both of its time and highly significant for current times. I have read several modern novels dealing with these subjects recently and I feel that it is almost our duty to engage with such important issues, especially when, like me, one has the good fortune to live in a country which is not likely to implode any time soon (ahem, not mentioning Brexit…). Sadly, I found the two main characters to be utterly unlikeable, and dare I say it, boring. Perhaps this was part of Naipaul’s plan. I was expecting a tough read, but found instead a text which felt tedious and lacking in depth.
Finally, I came to Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger. This is another book which I had not read – in fact, I don’t think I had read anything by Lively, which surprised me. This one started slowly, so much so that I started to wonder whether to carry on with it. But the text proved to be one of those where you find yourself reeled in bit by bit, until it has woven itself into your being. Like velcro, its many tiny and perfectly crafted hooks increasingly clung to me and I found could not put it down.
So how is one to pick ‘the best’ from any selection of books? My starting point was to rule out The English Patient on the grounds that I couldn’t finish it. Next, I ruled out In a Free State and Lincoln in the Bardo because I just could not engage with them sufficiently. So that left Wolf Hall and Moon Tiger. Both books are exactly the kind that I enjoy most, ie they: change my mind about something; tell me something new; and/or reveal new depths and insights to an existing experience. It was very hard to choose and I would have preferred really to have voted for both.
In the end I plumped for Moon Tiger because, on this round of reading, it is the one which has most stayed with me, and keeps popping up in my mind. It is possible that I would choose differently another time, but there you have it.
On 8 July we will learn which book has been chosen by the public. It will be really interesting to see the outcome. Meantime, what do you think? Which of the five would you pick?