The Man Booker Prize: the highs and lows of the books in contention

Debut novelist Fiona Mozley is one of the six finalists for this year's Man Booker Prize.

Debut novelist Fiona Mozley is one of the six finalists for this year's Man Booker Prize.



What a to-do there has been about this year's Man Booker Prize.

First, it was the shortcomings of the longlist, which, according to Britain's Telegraph, had "overlooked some of the year's most exciting releases". Then, of course, it was all about the shortlist, which had too many Americans on it (three) and two worryingly young women, one of whom was analysed almost to death after saying she wrote her book on her phone and who both wrote about nature in a lyrical way and were inevitably accused of "overwriting".

The biggest conundrum, however, was the way the big names evaporated. The longlist had been a mix of newcomers and heavy-hitters, with the latter expected to sail through to the next round: Arundhati Roy, Zadie Smith, Sebastian Barry.

Of the lions from the pre-American era on the longlist, only Mohsin Hamid and Ali Smith – three times nominated, thoroughly deserving – made the cut. Paul Auster is a big name in po-mo circles, of course, but American and thus a newcomer in Booker terms. They couldn't say their books weren't good enough. This shortlist was simply perverse. Thus spake the pundits.

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Ali Smith's Autumn.

Ali Smith's Autumn.

Actually, lists are perverse in themselves, since no single book – or six books, or 12 books – can be incontrovertibly the best of the year. And, as one former judge wrote, the choice is not so much about the books as the judges. Baroness Lola Young chairs a cohort including formerly shortlisted novelist Sarah Hall, artist Tom Phillips, literary critic Lila Azam Zanganeh and the venerable travel writer Colin Thubron. I suspect that each judge was allowed to nominate one favourite, with at least three of them finding an underdog (but an acceptable underdog, frisky and well-groomed) to champion. That's how it reads: as a collection of personal pet projects.

So what are they? Emily Fridlund's debut novel, History of Wolves, which bears the heavy stamp of its author's PhD in creative writing, has been reviewed with admiration for its "moody, slate-gray sense of place" (New York Times) and rather less joy in its resistance to conventions such as narrative momentum. Suspense certainly isn't Fridlund's thing. The crux of the story – the death of a small boy called Paul whose undeniably loving parents, because of their religious beliefs, have let him get sick and die – is flagged on the first page. Nor is she interested in the sort of psychologically perceptive coming-of-age story one might expect from a heroine such as Linda, the awkward schoolgirl who narrates the novel.

Linda is more at one with the unforgiving winters and wet woods of her Minnesota homeland than she is with human society. Like her, the book takes on a logic and life of its own in which characters blur behind the compelling details of birds, trail-bike riding, Paul's snuggly little body, the insects that buzz in summer, the pattern on a bedroom curtain. This is a kind of nature writing – certainly having a moment – of a very high order.

Fiona Mozley's Elmet.

Fiona Mozley's Elmet.

The call of Fridlund's wild debut finds its trans-Atlantic response in Fiona Mozley's Elmet, set among the dripping coppiced woods of Yorkshire's badlands; Elmet is the region's Celtic name. Daniel and Cathy Oliver are juvenile fringe-dwellers, half-feral and fiercely loyal to each other, whose almost freakishly huge father has a formidable reputation as a bare-knuckle fighter.

Living in a house Daddy built on squatted land, they keep their distance from the demoralised former mining community down the hill. Daniel is innocently effeminate, Cathy small and skinny but, like Daddy, phenomenally strong. She is also filled with a righteous anger against the encroaching world that Mozley clearly shares; her loathing of property and privilege rises from the pages like smoke from a good peat fire. The result has the sweep of myth; these scrawny children and their hulking father are like the last of the Vikings.

Ali Smith is the bookies' favourite; the prolific Scot has been shortlisted three times before and won several prizes for her last contender, How to Be Both. Like that novel, Autumn is attuned to the presence of the past in our lives.

Emily Fridlund's History of Wolves.

Emily Fridlund's History of Wolves.

We meet Elizabeth as a clever child who feels neglected by her morose telly-addict mother and gravitates instead to their elderly neighbour, Daniel Gluck. Mr Gluck delights in playing word games – as does his author – in between instructive reminiscences that include his memories of a pop artist, Pauline Boty, who becomes the subject of the adult Elizabeth's doctoral thesis.

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Smith's narrative skips around from musings on the requirements of the passport office to the Profumo affair; every now and again, she breaks the fourth wall of her novel to address us directly. As a style, this is as irritating or enchanting, as evanescent or profound, as you choose to find it; again, it's up to the judges.

Smith is a literary star, however, as is Hamid. Disappointingly, his novel Exit West bears little comparison to his penetrating shortlisted novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Initially set in an unnamed country that is probably Syria, Exit West posits a world in which black doorways appear in random walls that are Narnia-like passages to other nations, allowing refugees with the will and money to emigrate in minutes. Saeed and Nadia, who meet at an evening class, conspire to escape; they end up in a refugee camp in Mykonos.

Mohsin Hamid's Exit West.

Mohsin Hamid's Exit West.

Doors keep appearing, however; they pass through London and finally to a settlement called Marin, near San Francisco. It is an interesting conceit but, having devised it, Hamid seems uncertain what to do beyond plotting a series of destinations. Saeed and Nadia are tepid characters and the phenomenal mental upheaval that infinite possibility would provoke is only half-imagined.

His writing is as limpidly direct as ever, but his inclusion suggests some urge by the judges to strike a political blow that, given their chosen weapon, will barely leave a bruise.

There are two more Americans, both monumental in their respective ways. George Saunders is an old-fashioned man of letters, author of several much-lauded and rewarded volumes of short stories and essays; his mid-life debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is fittingly dazzling. Its starting point is the death from typhoid of Willie, Abraham Lincoln's elder son, just as the Civil War is becoming a devastation. Most of it is set in the graveyard where Willie's body is lying in an open crypt; his soul also remains here in the "bardo", or space between life and death, trapped by love for the father who comes at night to hold him and grieve.

George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo.

George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo.

Saunders pieces together his narrative from "quotes" from a plethora of imaginary historians and eye-witnesses – often only one or two lines long – alternated with commentary by shape-shifting ghosts who remain on earth because they can't admit being dead. As a feat of imagination and of ventriloquism, this is manifestly clever. The question is whether this is a mechanical cleverness, like that of an Escher drawing, or whether it touches something human. Critical responses vary; most likely, so do those of the jurors.

Critical responses have been spread across the board for Paul Auster's 4321, a sprawling novel as prolix and fixated on detail as his previous works have been lean and elusive. It begins with an entire history of young Archie Ferguson's family that suggests that this is Auster's War and Peace, but 100 pages in it becomes trickier, however, forking into four biographies in which his parents may divorce – or not, family fortunes change or his sexual encounters happen differently.

There are also constants that, as in other Auster novels, reflect the author's life. Every Archie loves baseball; every Archie wants to write. Talent will always out, apparently. Of course this sounds terribly self-regarding, but Archie's parallel lives are completely engaging on the page, the political events that run alongside them providing a sense of remembered reality. It feels lived, in all its small variations, perhaps because much of it was. And if the final twist about the book's authorship is infuriating – well, that's Auster for you.

Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1.

Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1.

Which way the judges will lean when faced with the choice they have set themselves is really anyone's guess. For sheer accomplishment, Lincoln in the Bardo demands attention, but the fact that the judges eliminated Mike McCormack's longlisted Solar Bones – a novel told in a single sentence that has already won the Goldsmiths Prize – suggests that accomplishment is not the judges' primary interest.

So what is? My own choice would be Elmet for a host of reasons, most of them sentimental ones to do with memories of moorland walks, which may well be the sorts of yardstick the judges are using. In which case, unless you were married to all of them, you would have no hope of knowing what they want. If you're placing a bet on the winner, good luck to you. The field is yours, wide open.

 - Sydney Morning Herald

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