he shortlist is:
Author, Title (Publisher)
Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon Books)
Deborah Levy, Swimming Home (And Other Stories/Faber & Faber)
Hilary Mantel, Bring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate)
Alison Moore, The Lighthouse (Salt)
Will Self, Umbrella (Bloomsbury)
Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis (Faber & Faber)
Novelists who struggled long and hard just to get their books into the shops after a string of rejections by big publishers have joined the more established literary names of Hilary Mantel and Will Self on a Man Booker shortlist which this year celebrates “the power and depth of prose.”
The six books in contention for the £50,000 prize came from what the chair of judges, Peter Stothard, called “an exhilarating year for fiction – the strongest, I would say, for more than a decade”.
Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, a follow-up to her 2009 Booker-winning Wolf Hall, is now one bookmaker’s favourite to take a prize that would make her the first British novelist to win more than once. Judges had compared it to her first instalment of the Thomas Cromwell story and “noted her even greater mastery of the method”, said Stothard.
Ladbrokes made it 9/4 favourite but it is far from a shoo-in. She faces Self’s widely admired novel Umbrella; books from two debut novelists in the shape of Jeet Thayil and Alison Moore; and two novelists – Tan Twan Eng and Deborah Levy – who have been rejected time and again by mainstream publishers.
Tan is shortlisted for his second book, The Garden of Evening Mists, a beautifully immersive story of love and guilt which takes readers on a slow journey through the brutal second world war Japanese occupation of Malaya, the post-war emergency and more recent settled times. Stothard said the book’s central character, Aritomo, once Hirohito’s gardener, was “one of the most memorable characters in all the 30,000 or so pages we’ve read this year”.
Tan is published by the small Newcastle-based company Myrmidon and he recalled on Tuesday just how many times his first novel, The Gift of Rain, had been rejected.
“I was turned down by almost all the publishers in the UK. They said it was difficult to market and they didn’t know what to do with it and it was Myrmidon who were brave enough to take a chance on me.”
He said there was no bitterness. “I quite understand it – I’m an outsider so to break into the British publishing scene takes a lot of work and a lot of perseverance. I quite understand that when publishers are confronted with something slightly different they would balk at the extra step they might have to take to market the book.”
The Gift of Rain was longlisted for the 2007 Booker and the rejections have at least led to a happy partnership. Tan, who divides his time between Kuala Lumpur and Cape Town, said there was no question of Myrmidon not publishing his second. After hearing the news, he said: “I’m screaming inside with joy, great excitement.”
Levy is shortlisted for her first novel since Billy and Girl 15 years ago and she too struggled to get a publisher. The result was publication by the new subscription publisher And Other Stories, which was set up with the express purpose of getting undeservedly rejected writers out there.
She recalled the rejections in 2008. “It was widely admired and all the rest of it but the feeling was that it was too literary, not commercial enough.”
It was “a really big blow”, she said, but like the Tan novel it has clearly worked out well and the book is now going to a wider audience because Faber has stepped in as co-publisher.
Levy said she was “thrilled” to be shortlisted and it enabled her to thank all the bloggers, tweeters and independent bookshops who have championed her book which centres on two middle-class families sharing a French holiday villa and a stranger in their midst.
Last year’s Man Booker shortlist decision was dominated by the judges’ quest for “readability”, and Self’s novel is probably the polar opposite of that. Umbrella, the story of a victim of the sleeping sickness epidemic at the end of the first world war, is a 400-page book without paragraphs or breaks or chapter divisions. Stothard said readers who persevered would be rewarded. “This novel is both moving and brainy and we place it on the shortlist with the conviction that those who stick with it will find it much less difficult than it first seems.”
The list is completed by the Indian poet Thayil’s first novel, Narcopolis, set among the opium dens of 1970s Bombay; and Moore’s The Lighthouse, about a man trying to find himself on a walking holiday, which continues the success of small publishers in this year’s prize as it comes from the stable of Cromer-based Salt.
The judging panel this year consisted of the academic and literary critic Dinah Birch, the historian and author Amanda Foreman, the academic and writer Bharat Tandon, and the actor Dan Stevens, who has been reading furiously on the set of Downton Abbey.
The shortlist meant there was no place for books including Nicola Barker’s The Yips and Michael Frayn’s Skios. But they are in distinguished company. This year’s prize has been notable almost as much for who has not made it as those who have – no Martin Amis, Rose Tremain, Zadie Smith, John Lanchester, Peter Carey, Ian McEwan, John Banville, Howard Jacobson or Pat Barker.
Stothard said they had made their decision by “argued literary criticism”. He added: “We read and we reread. It was the power and depth of prose that settled most of the judges’ debates and we found the six books most likely to last and to repay future rereading. These are very different books but they all show a huge and visible confidence in the novel’s place in the renewing of our words and our ideas.”
The winner will be announced on 16 October.