Judging the Booker

October 2010 - Radio Times

The invitation to join the panel of Man Booker Prize judges is a hard one to resist. The award occupies a particular place in our national consciousness, an annual moment when we coalesce around story telling the way human beings have since long before words were first written on a page. For those of us whose CVs claim 'loves reading and conversation', the invitation is an irresistible opportunity to immerse oneself in a wide range of literature and discuss it with a group of brilliant, enquiring minds who've done the same. So when Ion Trewin, the Prize's Literary Director, extended the invitation, it didn't take me long to say yes.

The first trio of books arrived in December, as I started an intense two-week course related to my 'day job' at the Royal Opera House. Reading late at night, my brain already full of leadership and strategy, I suddenly understood just what I'd taken on. Over the next six months, 139 books arrived in my office, first in drips and then as a deluge, each box full drawing a 'you got yourself into this' smirk from my assistant as he piled them on my desk. I learnt to read fast and Martini style - any time, any place, anywhere - snatching every opportunity I found. Perhaps other judges down the years have had the luxury of devoting themselves entirely to the process: this one had to read as 'normal' people do, between the tasks of a full-time job. I didn't mind the pace, but I missed the bookish equivalent of the post-coital cigarette, the moment the critic Roland Barthes compared to la petite morte. For Booker judges, there is no chance of wallowing in that period of melancholy and transcendence which follows a good read. You note down impressions and plough on.

The landscape we covered in those 139 titles was impossibly varied: austere, richly rolling, filigree, squalid, painful, touching and funny. The quietly perfect prose of some amplified the clichés of others; they hit us between the eyes, rang in our ears, stuck out like sore thumbs. Mostly, the journey was enriching. Roundabout the halfway mark, it felt a bit like penal servitude.

Our lists, when they came, were noted for their range, for the absences (as always) and for their humour, as if humour were a surprising tool to find on a writer's desk. Not for this panel. We are the generation for whom Spitting Image was created. For us, humour represents a seriously effective way of making a point. As GK Chesterton said, 'humour can get in under the door while seriousness is still fumbling at the handle'.

It has been a surprising delight to go back, for the third time, to our short list of six. With as many weeks for the task as titles, I've been able to read the books as they deserve to be read: sitting down, for a start, and without the clock ticking in my head. It's unusual to re-visit books three times over nine months, but they are each rewarding this insistent scrutiny. Without the more formal critical tools of my fellow judges – who all work with words for a living – I ask the questions I ask of any creative endeavour: Does it have something to say and is it communicating that effectively? Does it have the spark that marks it out as original? And does it make me look at the world (and myself) anew? For all of these books, there is already a resounding yes to each of these questions. I'm now looking forward to the debate that brings the winner to the fore.

Room – Emma Donoghue
Jack is five. He lives with his Ma in Room, which has a locked door, a TV and a skylight, and measures eleven feet by eleven feet. The only people in his small world are Ma, himself and 'Old Nick', who visits Ma in the night, as he sleeps inside Wardrobe. And then Ma admits there is a world outside. Inspired by the stories of Elizabeth Fritzl and other kidnap victims held prisoner, Room shines light on the darkest predicament imaginable. It's written in Jack's voice, and his innocent acceptance of confinement allows us to move beyond a standard shock horror response to imagine a world defined by walls and to consider what actually constitutes life, when life itself is suspended by imprisonment.

In a Strange Room – Damon
A young man makes three journeys, through Greece, Africa and India, cast as Follower, Lover and, finally, Guardian by those he travels with and those he meets along the way. Each one ends in disaster and, together, they change his life. The raw simplicity of this interconnecting series of episodes – three long chapters, rather than three short stories – belies the carefully constructed prose of this haunting book. In Galgut's sparse style, every word matters. There are no histrionics; even the drama of the final section unfolds in measured tones, the author a detached observer of his own actions. The effect is pervasive, like a faint, thin humming in the night which, however distant, still penetrates your sleep.

The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson
Julian Treslove (professionally unspectacular), Sam Finkler (best-selling philosopher) and Libor Sevick (their former teacher) dine together at Libor's home. With Libor and Sam recently widowed and Treslove's litany of failed relationships rendering him an honorary widower, they each remember a time before they had loved and lost. Walking home that night, an attack on Treslove outside a violin dealer's shop is the catalyst for a total re-evaluation of who and what he is. In this wonderfully incisive and witty book, Jacobson puts humour to work to make a serious point about identity, grief, friendship and, of course, what it is to be Jewish. Jacobson handles his material like a musical maestro, introducing his themes, playing with them, pausing some and accelerating others and then bringing them effortlessly together in harmonious accord, at just the right moment for maximum impact.

Parrot and Olivier in America – Peter Carey
Told through the parallel narratives of Olivier, a French Aristocrat, and Parrot, the orphaned son of an itinerant English printer, the two lives intertwine when Parrot is sent both to serve, and to spy upon, Olivier as he embarks on a journey to study the penal system in the New World. Through their story we see the adventure of American democracy unfold in this ingenious improvisation on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville. Carey's meticulous (yet lightly-worn) research and his mastery of the written word come together in a work which almost bursts from its binding. Spanning continents, class, decades and cultures, it's a vast drama in which you sometimes believe you can see, hear and even smell the encounters he describes.

The Long Song – Andrea Levy
July is born on the Amity Sugar Plantation in Jamaica, daughter of Kitty, a plantation slave, and the Scottish overseer, Tam Dewar. Favoured for her pale skin, July is taken from her mother by the white mistress, Caroline Mortimer, to act as lady's maid in the big house. Set in Jamaica during the last years of slavery and the early years of freedom that followed, the story is written by an old Jamaican woman (who we later learn is July) for publication by her (now rich and successful) son. The book is a richly detailed tapestry, with characters brought vividly to life. Levy's humour brings a new perspective to a subject which has inspired much serious fiction and, remarkably, she provokes the reader to empathise with each of the book's characters, however flawed, stupid or downright despotic they are. By reserving her judgement, she leaves us room to make our own.

C – Tom McCarthy
Serge Carrefax, born to the sound of one of the very first experimental wireless stations, lives in a world of transmissions: cryptic and poetic signals of all kinds. In this story of his short life, we travel with him through pre-war Europe, the prison camps of Germany, drug-fuelled 1920s London and, finally, the tombs of Egypt. It's a remarkable tour de force which uncovers hidden codes and connections between the most unlikely people, places and events. There is a timeless feel to the book, its early 20th century setting in contrast with McCarthy's modern approach. His principal characters, too, are out of time, thoroughly ahead of technological developments and woefully behind when it comes to emotions. McCarthy's exploration of his central theme adds a coda to TS Eliot's famous conundrum: Where is the communication we have lost in Information Technology?