The Goldilocks conundrum
The word on the street is that this year's Man Booker Prize is the most unpredictable since, well, last year. For once, however, the rumour-mongers have a point.
The shortlist's only household name is Julian Barnes, whose The Sense of an Ending earns him a fourth nomination - and even Barnes doesn't ring bells as loudly as Ian McEwan, Martin Amis or Salman Rushdie.
Instead, we have two debut novelists - A.D. Miller for Snowdrops and Stephen Kelman for Pigeon English - and two first-time Man Booker nominees: Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues and Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers are both sophomore efforts.
That leaves Carol Birch, a relative veteran with 10 novels, one of which, Turn Again Home, was longlisted in 2003. She has now gone one better with Jamrach's Menagerie, which features, among other things, a Victorian taxidermist and animal collector.
If Barnes fails to win (again), someone is going to be more than usually grateful for that GBP60,000 (about HK$730,000) and the career-making prize, chaired this year by Stella Rimington, former head of MI6 and now a novelist in her own right. As Birch says: 'If I win I'll celebrate with a big glass of champagne. On a prosaic note, the financial security it would bring would be a godsend, so sorting out a few debts would be a boring priority.'
For some commentators, the words 'prosaic' and 'boring' describe the shortlist itself. All of this year's novels have obvious drawbacks. One can make a case for almost anyone winning. Then again, one can offer comparably persuasive reasons they might lose.
This is the year the Man Booker turned into Goldilocks and the Three Bears: none of the books are just right. They are too short (Barnes), not contemporary enough (all save Miller and Kelman), not political enough (Barnes, deWitt and Birch), not experimental enough (all of them), not literary enough (Miller and deWitt), not funny enough (save for Barnes and deWitt) and (whisper it) not British enough (all save Barnes and Birch).
The nay-sayers point to the impressive novelists who have been excluded. Previous winners Aravind Adiga and Michael Ondaatje didn't even make the longlist, nor did Amitav Ghosh, the much-fancied Edward St Aubyn or, my favourite, Andrew Miller with Pure. Alan Hollinghurst's much-lauded attempt to win a second Man Booker ended at the longlist stage, as did Sebastian Barry's lengthy quest to win his first.
Is the Man Booker dead, then? Try telling that to the final six authors.
A.D. Miller: 'The Man Booker Prize has developed magical status among readers and writers. Most British writers dream of winning it, or of just being shortlisted.'
DeWitt: 'The Man Booker is now a part of a long and esteemed tradition. This makes me feel very proud.'
Kelman: 'I always considered the Man Booker Prize to be the pinnacle of achievement. It's held in such high esteem and it's obviously a great validation of the work.'
Birch: 'The Man Booker is one of the most noted awards. People really do sit up and pay attention.
Here are the runners and riders, from favourite to outsider, plus the latest bookmakers' odds:
The Sense of an Ending
Betting: 13-8 (Ladbrokes)
Will it be fourth time lucky for Barnes? The bookies think so, and if this were a normal year I'd agree. The big plus is the book itself. Like McEwan's On Chesil Beach, Barnes' 11th novel is short on pages (150), but perfectly formed: a man reviews his life and loves, meditating on memory, history and truth as he goes. But: is it too short? More damaging is Howard Jacobson's victory last year. Barnes, like Jacobson, should have won years ago - ideally for A History of the World in 101/2 Chapters. Two belated victories in consecutive years? Possibly, but then wouldn't the Man Booker resemble a lifetime achievement award? Barnes is the obvious choice - perhaps too obvious?
Betting: 7-2 (Ladbrokes)
'I have been writing for many years, always with good critical acclaim, but without a very high profile. There is something extra sweet about receiving this recognition. Better late than never!' So says Birch, whose Jamrach's Menagerie is a vital, multi-coloured historical novel set in Victorian England. It mixes a coming-of-age story with strange tales of taxidermy, animal collecting and seafaring. Birch is enjoying her own strange journey. 'I'm meeting so many interesting people and having an incredible adventure that will stay with me forever.' Jamrach's Menagerie is the second favourite, not to mention gloriously written and great fun. I worry slightly that it is too enjoyable and perhaps too conventional for victory this year.
Betting: 7-2 (Ladbrokes)
Snowdrops has been described as a high-brow thriller. Set in contemporary Moscow, it starts with a murder, contains a scam and a mystery, and is tersely, if elegantly, written. Thriller is not a tag Miller entirely endorses: 'I didn't think of the novel that way when I was writing it. There are no spies or car chases and little violence.' Nor does he entirely disown it. 'You could call it a 'moral thriller'. You find out on the first page that something bad is going to happen. The question is, how does a seemingly ordinary, thirty-something Englishman come to be complicit in very bad deeds? It's the story of an individual's moral degradation.' So, is 2011 the year when genre fiction breaks through? I think Miller has a real chance. Snowdrops is excellent. Chairman of the judges, Rimington, writes thrillers. A cheeky bet is in order.
Half Blood Blues
Betting: 13-2 (Ladbrokes)
Esi Edugyan's second novel shuttles between the second world war and the present day, exploring race, nationality, art and betrayal. The main character is Hieronymus Falk, a jazz trumpeter of mixed German and Ghanaian birth who is seemingly betrayed to the Nazis by a fellow band member. The story grew out of Edugyan's own experiences. Born in Canada to Ghanaian parents, she spent several months working in Europe. 'As a black woman, I began to wonder about the experience of black people who had lived in Germany in the past, specifically during the Third Reich. The novel grew out of this.' Half Blood Blues is impressive and affecting. This is an outsider to win, but that didn't stop Aravind Adiga.
Betting: 9-2 (Ladbrokes)
There's always one - a Man Booker novel that divides opinion like a bookmark separates two pages. Last year it was Me Cheeta. This year it's Stephen Kelman's debut about a young Ghanaian immigrant to London who investigates a murder on his council estate. What has split critics is 11-year-old narrator Harrison 'Harri' Opoku, whose mix of naivety about his violent surroundings either enchants or fails to convince. I thought Pigeon English was excellent - moving, funny, and incisive - but would Harri split the judges? It would be nice to see Kelman win at the first attempt. I asked how he would react? 'I have no idea - probably make sure that it isn't some sort of mistake, then cry like a baby.'
The Sisters Brothers
Betting: 8-1 (Ladbrokes)
I'll declare it upfront: I would love to see The Sisters Brothers win. That alone probably dooms Canadian deWitt, but this funny, peculiar, rambling and carefully constructed western is a little bit different. Eli and Charlie Sister have been hired to kill Hermann Kermit Warm. That alone should get you reading, but deWitt's eccentric characters, smart plotting, weird comedy and moody atmospherics keep you glued. I was heartened to discover deWitt shares his fiction's offbeat sense of humour. Asked what will he do if he wins, he says: 'Bow deeply? Cry like a colicky baby? Buy a house and kick out all the windows? God only knows.' If there was ever a reason to award a book the prize, that is surely it.
So who's it to be? I'd argue for deWitt, but I suspect his novel is simply too unusual for the Man Booker. The obvious choice is Barnes - but I think Jacobson's win will nix that. So I'm going to be bold and predict victory for A.D. Miller and intelligent crime writing. We will know soon enough - the winner will be announced on Tuesday.