Man Booker Prize Shortlist: Guide to What to Read

The Booker Prize announced their shortlist of six novels. Here’s what to read and what to skip.

From the original 138 books considered for this year’s “Man Booker Dozen,” to the thirteen longlisted at the end of July in a list that the judging panel’s chair, Dame Stella Rimington, praised for its “quality and breadth,” yesterday the shortlist for the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction was announced. The selected titles are Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape); Carol Birch Jamrach’s Menagerie (Canongate Books); Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers (Granta), Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues (Serpent’s Tail); Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English (Bloomsbury); and A. D. Miller’s Snowdrops (Atlantic).

Four of the six shortlisted titles are from independent publishers—Canongate, Granta, Serpent’s Tail, and Atlantic—indicating the strength of the work coming out of smaller publishing houses despite budget cuts and the ongoing debates about the death of the book. However, of the three publishers new to the prize—Oneworld with Yvvette Edwards’s A Cupboard Full of Coats; Sandstone Press with Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb; and Seren Books with Patrick McGuinness’s The Last Hundred Days— none made it into the judges’ final six.

But more surprisingly, neither did the former winner Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, which, until the announcement, was second favorite to win the prize. These odds were perhaps too firmly based on the strength of his 2004 Man Booker winner, The Line of Beauty, but, as it actually turns out, his previous accomplishments have acted as a double-edged sword. As Theo Tait, reviewing Hollinghurst’s 20th-century-spanning saga for The Guardian so pertinently put it, compared with his previous novels, The Stranger’s Child is “merely very good,” falling “somewhat short” of the work that precedes it.

The other notable omission from the shortlist is Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side; a novel of haunting beauty and depth that follows the struggles of an Irish immigrant in America. This year history has yet again repeated itself as Barry has two previous shortlists under his belt—the first for A Long Long Way in 2005, and the second three years ago in 2008 for The Secret Scripture.

Two of the three Canadians who made the longlist have remained – Patrick deWitt and Esi Edugyan. DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers is a glorious picaresque Western; everything about this book is stylish, from its conceit to its cover design making it a truly worthy inclusion on the shortlist. And the choice of Edugyan’s tale of betrayal set against the backdrop of jazz bands in 1940s Paris over Alison Pick’s 1939 Czechoslovakia-set Far to Go makes perfect sense given Edugyan’s evocative depiction of black Nazi-era German experience compared to the more well-worn tale of Jewish persecution.

A similar pairing of longlisted titles was found with the two Victorian-set offerings: D. J. Taylor’s Derby Day and Carol Birch Jamrach’s Menagerie. Taylor’s engrossing tale of mystery and intrigue on the racecourse was ultimately pipped to the post by Birch’s joyous story of a boy eaten by a tiger as we follow him from the “blood and brine” strewn streets of London’s East End to adventures on the high seas on his way to the Dutch East Indies—a veritable feast of a novel; Dickens and Moby Dick all rolled into one.

The two more surprising inclusions are both debut novels: Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English and A. D. Miller’s Snowdrops. Kelman’s depiction of life on a gang-ridden inner-city London housing estate—also on this year’s Guardian First Book Award longlist—is narrated by its 11-year-old protagonist, Ghana-born and raised Harrison Opoku. Kelman’s command of Harrison’s innocent all-seeing eyes makes for an engaging read, but its somewhat gimmicky premise strikes one as too niche for the eventual prize. By comparison, Miller’s Snowdrops could be considered all too familiarly conformist—a Putin’s Russia-set thriller with resonances of classic Graham Greene albeit with a grittier, dirtier edge. It’s an engrossing and exciting read, but predictably suffers from the classic limitations of its genre; something that will surely render it ultimately unable to hold its own in the face of its competition.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending that is the bookies’ current favorite to win with 3/1 odds. And with his long history of Man Booker shortlisted novels (Flaubert’s Parrot, 1984, England, England, 1998, and Arthur and George, 2005) but no win, this particular novel would be an apt victor in more ways than one. Barnes’s unreliable narrator, Tony Webster, is forced to look back over his less than eventful life and slowly reassess certain events involving an old friend. It is a novel that muses over the definitions of history and the imperfections of memory, ultimately warning “what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.” Barnes’s exploration of the unforeseen impact of chance remarks and misunderstood circumstances resonates with the author’s description of the selection process for the prize itself as “posh bingo.” Though considering the prize is £50,000, that’s one very lucrative bingo game.