23 July 2013
This year's prize judges can breathe out, briefly at least. Faced with scaling a gargantuan mountain of books – a daunting 151 of them – they have reached the first plateau, panting and aching no doubt, and whittled out a longlist for the 2013 prize. The “Man Booker dozen” comprises an eclectic list of 13 novels that will surprise and intrigue in equal measure.
Of the various predictions that have been bandied about as to what might be on the list none have even got close. This year's judges, yet again, have shown themselves to be independent of fashion. Diverse doesn't quite do the longlist justice: seven different countries are represented on it and there is a strong hand of established authors selected (Tash Aw, Jim Crace, Jhumpa Lahiri, Colum McCann, Charlotte Mendelson and Colm Tóibín) mixed with first timers. Only Crace and Tóibín have previously appeared on Man Booker shortlists – Crace with Quarantine (1997) and Tóibín with The Blackwater Lightship (1999) and The Master (2004).
Crace's inclusion is particularly welcome. It was only in February that he announced that he had written his last novel, saying: “Retiring from writing is not to retire from life, [it is] to avoid the inevitable bitterness which a writing career is bound to deliver as its end product, in almost every case.” One can only hope that his nomination will cause him to reconsider.
The past couple of years have seen a strong showing by debut novelists and this year follows suit with three first timers – NoViolet Bulawayo, Eve Harris and Donal Ryan. The possibilty of winning come October may look daunting to them but it was only in 2008 that Aravind Adiga, another debutant, scooped the prize with The White Tiger.
The list will have those who like to search for themes and coincidences in contemporary literature scratching their heads. As Robert MacFarlane, the chair of judges, points out, the novels on the list “range from the traditional to the experimental, from the first century AD to the present day, from 100 pages to 1,000 and from Shanghai to Hendon”. Good luck with finding common themes there.
So what conclusion can be drawn from the list? Well, simply that this year's judges – Robert MacFarlane, Martha Kearney, Stuart Kelly, Natalie Haynes and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst – have found works of the greatest quality in places as distant from one another as Zimbabwe and New Zealand, Canada and Malaysia and from writers at the start of their careers (Eleanor Catton, aged 28, whose book The Luminaries weighs in at a whopping 832 pages) to those who have been at the writing game for many years (Jim Crace, aged 67) – and every stage inbetween. This is surely too the first time a filmmaking Zen-Buddhist priest (Ruth Ozeki) has been included on the longlist. If ever a group of books offered proof that the Man Booker judges approach their task without a set of preconceptions, this is it.