The reason that I love the Man Booker Prize over all other book award programs is that I always discover a book among its nominees that profoundly impacts me. A few years ago it was Pigeon English, an incredible story about a young immigrant boy in England that I still think of almost once a month - it was just that good.
This year, the book that knocked me for an emotional loop was definitely The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. More on that book - which also gets my vote to win the Prize when it's announced tonight - in just a bit.
First, let's talk about the fact that, for the first time, the Man Booker Prize committee opened up the contest to English-language books from any country, rather than just the U.K. I had high hopes for that, imagining Hilary Mantel-like writers squaring up against Philip Roth-esque American authors.
But the selection committee shortlisted two U.S. novels that I don't think are up for the challenge: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris, and We Are Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.
Fowler's previous novel was The Jane Austen Book Club, and her Man Booker contender is just as light and entertaining. I'm not knocking the fact that it's a less substantial book, but it doesn't offer anything new. And Ferris's book examines religion's role in today's tech-savvy world in a way that's supposed to be funny, but fell flat for me. In fact, it was an exasperating read. So these two books, out of all of the fabulous American fiction published this year, are what caught the eye of the Man Booker group? Hmmmm.
I also wasn't thrilled with Neel Mukherjee's The Lives of Others, a story of a '60s family in Calcutta that gets caught up in political uprisings. There were almost too many characters, leaving me little time or inclination to get to know any one of them well enough to engage with them.
Luckily, there are other (better) books on the short list. Ali Smith offers a really new way of telling a tale - or two - in How to Be Both. The novel centers on two characters who tell their own story, one a modern-day teenage girl and the other a female Italian Renaissance artist living as a man. Depending on which copy of the book you pick up, you will begin with one of the two characters first, and then wind your way through two stories that twist around each other. It's fabulous storytelling for a modern world.
Howard Jacobson takes on (yet another) dystopian society with his novel J. In the scary future imagined by Jacobson, no one is allowed to use words that begin with the letter J without making a motion like pulling a zipper across his or her lips. The fear of the unknown is the key to this novel, with some of the frightening shadows never fully explored. It's a good book, but I'm tiring of the "future is scary and vaguely Big Brother-ish" stories that are constantly fed to us through books, movies, and video games. The overabundance of similar story arcs kept me from really embracing this one.
And then we come to The Narrow Road, the lone Australian entry on the list. Flanagan tells the story of Australian POWs forced to build a road in Burma, a harrowing real-life event that involved some of the worst atrocities by the Japanese army. Yes, there are shades of Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, but The Narrow Road goes deeper and is more visceral, giving us a visual imprint that's hard to shake off. Flanagan juxtaposes the darkness of the jungle with the bright light and sandy beaches of Australia, going back and forth between the POW camp and the love story of the central character Dorrigo Evans. It was a difficult story, but one that I could not put down. Flanagan is a master of pulling the reader in, and then never letting go. But it is a tough read emotionally; let's just say I had to have a palate cleanser of Philippa Gregory immediately after.
So tonight, I predict that Flanagan will win the award. But if he doesn't (just as Pigeon English didn't), I'm still a winner for having read his novel.