Man Booker 2014 short-list contenders and their work

  • Reuters, London
  • Updated: Oct 13, 2014 18:02 IST

The winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, considered one of the world's most prestigious literary awards, will be announced on Tuesday in London. Here are capsule reviews by Reuters correspondents of the six short-listed contenders.

J by Howard Jacobson
Howard Jacobson's J shifts from the contemporary London Jewish world of The Finkler Question, which won the Booker Prize in 2010, to a dystopian setting around 60 years in the future. But the questions of identity and assimilation remain.

Ailinn Solomons and Kevern Coco Cohen are having a slightly on-off love affair in the bleak coastal town of Port Reuben. Kevern was brought up there but has never felt at home in a place where men are routinely violent to their women, and the only entertainment is to get drunk in the Friendly Fisherman. At home, he has carried on his father's puzzling habit of putting two fingers across his lips whenever he says the letter J.

Ailinn is an orphan from another part of this country, where everyone has surnames like theirs or with endings like -kind or -berg, and the population, lacking in culture or much sign of industry, is required to say sorry for "what happened, if it happened". It seems like the two of them are destined to be together. Or is that just part of somebody else's plan?

It's a slow-burning novel, with some brutal humour as an escape from a landscape of ugliness and despair, in which secondary characters have few redeeming qualities. But the plot gains twists as the story progresses, and it's not all grim- Jacobson captures tenderness and love too, alongside a dissection of the feelings that lead to hatred.

J is a slow-burning novel, with some brutal humour; The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a self-consciously literary novel that has no plot to speak of

The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan
In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the Australian novelist Richard Flanagan takes up the familiar story of Allied prisoners of war building the Siam-Burma railway line during World War Two.

His protagonist is Dorrigo Evans, a doctor and a soldier in the Australian army who is taken prisoner on Java, presumably in 1942. Pinning down exactly what happens when in the novel can be difficult, because Flanagan chops up his narrative and hops back and forth in time. Consequently, he often tells us effects before he shows us their causes, which can be entertaining in a Quentin Tarantino film but is annoying in a novel.

The disjointed narrative is mostly notable for what it doesn't include: the surrender by the Allied troops, any fighting they might have done before surrendering, most of the actual work on the railway and the end of the war, for example. It also skips over Evans's marriage after the war, the birth of his children or their names or sexes. It doesn't even give us much detail about the most important event of Evans's pre-war life, a brief affair with Amy, unloving wife of Evans's uncle.

Flanagan's work is a self-consciously literary novel that has no plot to speak of. Its characters are sketched only in outline and we are more often told how they feel about something than shown how they acted while it was happening.

How To Be Both by Ali Smith
Ali Smith's How to be Both contains the twin stories of George and Francescho, one a teenager of the 1960s, the other a young artist in 15th century Ferrara, joined by a single thread that spans the centuries. The story is cleverly divided into two parts, both titled One, that can be read in either order.

The chapter devoted to painter Francescho del Cossa bursts into a rushing stream of consciousness, that gradually catches its breath and slows into punctuated prose, as his memories become more lucid and fall into place. Del Cossa existed. The son of a stone carver, much of his work at Ferrara in northern Italy has been destroyed and his main surviving works are frescoes painted after 1470. In Smith's narrative, he must balance his public identity, with his private- that of a girl disguised as a boy to pursue a life in art.

George, in her leaking bedroom in Cambridge, is struggling to come to terms with the sudden death of her mother months before, alongside her bereft father and a younger brother. Her story flits between the present day and the memories of a trip to Ferrara with her art-loving mother.

The book describes itself as a literary double-take, in which present and past, fact and fiction, appearance and reality, life and death swirl around each other. Time, space, perspective and even gender overlap and multiple realities intertwine to form the fabric of a vibrant, engaging story.

How To Be Both is a literary double-take, in which life and death swirl around each other; To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a decent read

To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
Can you choose your spiritual path? Or are you chosen for it? Is doubt more powerful than belief? Joshua Ferris's tight, theological thriller To Rise Again at a Decent Hour mulls a number of these fundamental questions. It answers one, unequivocally: Yes, it is certainly better to floss.

For all his neuroses and ill-advised escapades, Dr Paul O'Rourke can be trusted on this point of preventative care. The 40-year-old obsessive baseball fan, on whom Ferris centres his novel, is a Manhattan dentist. He makes lots of money from his posh practice, but something is missing. Prematurely curmudgeonly, O'Rourke is a man forever on the outside looking in. An avowed atheist, he craves acceptance and belonging and bizarrely seeks it through an over-enthusiastic embracing of girlfriends' religions. First the Catholic Santacroces, then Connie Plotz and her large Jewish family.

When, still giddy with anaesthetic, a man O'Rourke has treated lurches from the building, leaving the dentist with the parting news that he too is an Ulm- a member of an underground group whose history can be traced back to the early Israelites- the book teeters over the edge of the rollercoaster.

After 40 years of searching for belonging, O'Rourke's people have come to reclaim him, and what follows is a fireman's hose of hysteria, identity theft, paralysing rejection of 21st century technology, and dynamic interplay between the workers at the surgery. Meandering and lengthy detail on the history of the Ulms and the Amalekites touch the brakes on Ferris's narrative, but the author's gift for characterisation and crackling dialogue override this.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Skip the beginning, the weary father of the talkative protagonist of Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves advises. Start in the middle. And she does, beginning this haunting, often whimsical narrative 17 years after the event on which the book hinges- the disappearance of her sister and companion, Fern. Other reviewers have warned of spoilers, and spoiler risk is high indeed. There is a twist- a very good one- on page 77.

But the book is about more than the intriguing reveal (about which this reviewer, at least, will keep silent). Rosemary Cooke, the protagonist and engaging narrator of the tale, is the daughter of an Indiana University professor who brings his work home, filling the farmhouse with experiments, blackboards and graduate students. Part-inspired, no doubt, by Fowler's own father, a psychologist at the same university who, she says, ran rats through mazes. It ends, perhaps predictably, in tears. The biggest experiment of all is abruptly terminated.

"One day, every word I said was data, and carefully recorded for further study and discussion. The next, I was just a little girl, strange in her way, but of no scientific interest to anyone," she writes.

Fowler, a writer of fantasy and science fiction who impressed readers with The Jane Austen Book Club, turns out a heartbreaking tale of loss, grief and dysfunctional family, reminiscent of Jonathan Franzen or Joyce Carol Oates. And without adopting the preaching tone of other authors' efforts - think J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello- Fowler writes what is one of the most touching discussions in recent times of animal rights, animal intelligence and the questionable ethics of experimental psychology. It is a book that is about so much more than an exercise in nurture versus nature.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is so much more than an exercise in nurture versus nature; The Lives Of Others brings this world to life with beautifully crafted prose

The Lives Of Others by Neel Mukherjee
Set in Calcutta in the late 1960s, The Lives of Others is the story of the Ghosh family whose head, Prafullanath, owns paper mills in the city. Mukherjee describes in extraordinary and vivid detail the relationships between the various family members who live on different floors of their house.

Arranged marriages, births, deaths, fierce personal rivalries and resentment are stitched together with great skill as the family unravels amid a changing society. The eldest grandson, Supratik, morally horrified by the lives of the countless starving people in the country, leaves home to join the CPI(M), Communist Party of India. His letters about his experiences form one thread of the book.

Mukherjee brings this world to life with beautifully crafted prose, describing the weather, trees, jewellery and buildings in intricate detail. Food is a recurring theme while scenes of brutal torture, rotting flesh, blood and sickness provide a shocking backdrop to the story.

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