Much comment in the Irish media about this year's Man Booker shortlist centred on the failure of Colm Toibin and (Old Columban) William Trevor to make the cut. I have just finished reading both books and felt that they are very fine works. Not having read the six that the Man Booker jury chose, I can't say (yet) if their choices were justified.
On September 8th I was at the reception to announce the short list in the Orangery of Kensington Palace. It was a very convivial occasion, with everyone mingling and chatting on a beautiful, warm evening. I bearded the jury chairman, James Naughtie, about the Trevor/Toibin exclusions and he sighed with a world-weary “if only we could have” bit of flannel. Another jury member, Lucasta Miller, said something similar when I met her later. She has young children (her husband is the singer Ian Bostridge) and she was very interesting on the whole process of reading so many books while running a family home.
Of the two Irish novels, I felt that Trevor's Love and Summer was much stronger than Toibin's Brooklyn, though they have in common the strongly evoked sense of small town Ireland of the mid twentieth century. Both have young women as their central characters who fall in love with colourful young men from outside their own milieu ; even their names are similar, Ellie and Eilish.
Trevor's Ellie is a wonderful creation: a young woman from an orphanage who goes to a widower farmer as his housekeeper and later marries him. Her character, as she falls in love with the half-Italian photographer Florian, is completely convincing, as she tends to her chores beside her kindly but limited husband. Trevor's understated, beautifully limpid prose is almost heartbreaking in its empathy with her situation and how it is resolved. By contrast, Eilish's dilemma, choosing between her Italian beau in Brooklyn and her Wexford suitor, was not entirely plausible. I did enjoy the novel, though.
Back to Kensington Palace. I introduced myself to Lady Antonia Fraser, widow of Harold Pinter and a considerable author herself. I told her how much I enjoyed her husband's comment (which I often quote) that he believed there were no certainties in life, apart from the laws of cricket. She told me that the Gate Theatre hopes to have a Pinter festival in October 2010, when Pinter would have been 80. So no cigar, as they say, for the Irish this year. I strongly feel Trevor should have been short-listed. Could it be, as a friend suggested, that he's so consistently good that he makes it seem easy? Read it and see for yourself.
The full shortlist is :-
- A S Byatt - The Children's Book (Random House, Chatto and Windus)
- J M Coetzee - Summertime (Random House, Harvill Secker)
- Adam Foulds - The Quickening Maze (Random House, Jonathan Cape)
- Hilary Mantel - Wolf Hall (HarperCollins, Fourth Estate)
- Simon Mawer - The Glass Room (Little, Brown)
- Sarah Waters - The Little Stranger (Little, Brown, Virago)