Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
It was love at first sight. Our romance started this summer in Wolf Hall, where Thomas Cromwell and I were first acquainted. At first I was unsure of him: he grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, had a penchant for loose women and was quick to swing a sword around. However, after a brief spell abroad Cromwell reinvented himself, and I swiftly fell head over heels for the most complex fictional character I have ever come across. He is man of contradictions, conflicting passions and sometimes less than altruistic motives. In Bringing Up the Bodies, we see a darker side of Cromwell but he is just as compelling to watch in action. He has achieved the ultimate position of power, but at what price, and how long will he sit at Henry VIII’s side?
Mantel’s series is dazzling, noisy, crowded, rich, bloody and brilliant. The fact that my review has basically consisted of me banging on about her main character as if he were a real person is testament to her skill as a storyteller – and her ability to breathe new life into a historical period which has been much represented. I will be cheering on for her and Cromwell come Booker Night. Bring it!
Sam Eades, Publicity
Umbrella by Will Self
Will Self’s first novel is a paragraph-free stream-of-consciousness affair, with a perplexing smattering of italics. Challenging – yes. And I like a challenge. The problem is – and perhaps this is some self-indulgent weakness on my part as a reader – I’m the sort that likes to be rewarded for it, too. I love Ulysses. Perhaps I didn’t discover this until I read it through for the second time, when I began to appreciate its rhythms, its many personalities, its celebration of the complex, surreal, heterogeneous nature of human experience. And I loved it because of its audaciousness: breaking new literary ground, becoming, of course, a byword for Modernist experimentation in form.
And I think that was my beef with Umbrella. I hesitate to say that all fiction must have a point, but, in a sense, perhaps it should. It should, in some way, contribute to or challenge our understanding of ourselves and of the world in which we live. And I’m afraid I didn’t feel that Umbrella was making any such contribution. It felt, instead, like a kind of literary historical re-enactment. Joyce was smashing preconceptions of what a novel should be, putting up two fingers to the form that had, in one way of another, persisted for several centuries. Will Self, meanwhile, is aping Joyce – a writer who did the same thing, only far better, almost a century ago.
Lucy Foley, Editorial
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
Coming in at under 200 pages, this is the skinniest book on the shortlist, but one that packs a significant punch. It’s the story of some family friends whose villa holiday in the South of France is disturbed when they find a naked woman swimming in the pool. It turns out to be an unstable young woman called Kitty, who believes she has a special connection to a member of the party, Joe, a famous poet. Levy is brilliant on atmosphere and from the moment Kitty emerges from that pool, you sense that any equilibrium that existed between the characters assembled at this villa has been irreversibly disturbed, to be replaced by an uneasiness that pervades the entire novel. Levy’s writing is super sharp and taut; every sentence is charged and every scene is loaded. The end result is massively compelling and hugely unsettling; this is a novel that leaves a strange taste in your mouth, in the very best way.
Leah Woodburn, Editorial
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore
‘The Honeymoon was dreadful – they had delayed fights and lost luggage, twin beds and upset stomachs, bad weather and arguments.’
A bleak tale of a man’s continual attempts to explain the tragedy of his past – from his mother’s abandonment to his wife leaving him after yet another betrayal. The protagonist, Futh, leaves for Germany in an attempt to escape his demons. But by stumbling into the paths of an unhappily married couple running the hotel in Hallhaus, his fate is sealed as soon as he unwittingly adds to their misery. Alison Moore’s skill is to keep the tension high in what is an otherwise immensely depressing story.
Richard Roper, Editorial
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
This novel was a pleasure to read. Tan Twan Eng’s writing style is so calming, despite at times describing the horrors of life in a slave labour camp for our protagonist, Teoh Yun Ling. She is a fascinating character, soul survivor of a prisoner-of-war camp who becomes a judge, prosecuting war criminals and terrorists both to seek justice for the tortures she endured and to find out more information about the camp. The novel is split between the present day, where she has recently retired and is reconnecting with old friends in Malaya and 1951, when she first starts out as prosecutor and is forced to face her demons and seek out Aritomo, ‘a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan’ to ask him to build a garden for her sister who did not survive the camp. Both characters are unapologetic of their feelings and beliefs regarding the hostilities but Aritomo agrees to teach Yun Ling the art of Japanese gardening so she can build the garden herself. It is full of cultural and historical complexities that do echo other books that I’ve read but there are some fascinating concepts unearthed, which I absolutely relished.
Laura Skerritt, Creative and Marketing
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
I’d heard good things about this unusual, opium-soaked tome, and was pleased to find it as eccentric, vibrant and narcotically stimulating as I’d been led to expect. I’ve always been intrigued by portraits of drug addiction (Melvin Burgess’ Junk, anyone?!), and Thayil paints a disturbing but charged portrait of a group of people enslaved by opium, and their slow descent into hallucinatory madness. And through the opium smoke is an evocation of the chaotic city of Bombay and the quirky, diverse people who populate it. I’d recommend this for anyone who wants something different – or a reading experience which is the literary equivalent to meandering through an opium-induced dreamworld.
Emily Kitchin, Editorial