I love brand new fiction. Each week I devour the book review pages in the newspapers and magazines I buy and daydream about what books I could read. I get excited when a blogger turns me onto a new author or book that sounds like something I'd love. Yet, in spite of this, I rarely read books in the year they're first published. This could be because I let my library membership slip years ago and don't generally like forking out for a hardback when I know the paperback will be around in a year or so. Or it could be that I tend to think "new fiction" means anything published in the last few years...anyway, back in September, I realised that the only piece of 2008 fiction I'd read was Preeta Samarasan's excellent Evening is the Whole Day. So when my birthday rolled around in I thought I'd treat myself to the entire Booker shortlist and try to read them all before the winner was announced. Well, tonight's the night the winner is announced and (drumroll please!) I've managed to read them (almost!) all of them (currently reading Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, with only Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole left to go). Best laid plans and all...in my defence, I'm not a terribly fast reader and the shortlisted books tend to be on the long side (Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency is a stonking 738 pages long and the others range from about 300 pages to about 500 pages).
My reading's been influenced by the Booker shortlist for years - reading over the shortlists and winners from the last 40 years on Wikipedia (see here), quite a few of the books I've enjoyed most or that have stayed with my longest were either shortlisted or won. So while no list could define the best of what's on offer (how could one list that excludes US novels define something so subjective?), I was expecting it to be a good guide to cream of contemporary fiction in the UK. Now, after reading most of them, I'll be interested to see what finally wins. I didn't generally see the "extraordinary example[s] of imagination and narrative" the judges praised (see here for more from the judges). I'd be more interested to know what didn't make the shortlist (or even the longlist) in order to get a better sense of whether these really are the best of the 112 or so novels submitted for consideration. Perhaps that'll be the next step - we've got the longlist so perhaps it's a matter of time before we get a list of every book submitted...
Regardless, I've enjoyed my experiences. I loved Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture and it's the one I'd like to see win. I also enjoyed Philip Hensher's marvellous The Northern Clemency (which I actually expected to hate!) and would be almost as happy to see that win. Amitav Ghosh's The Sea of Poppies is a great read, though it wears its learning heavily (the details of the ship or the opium making process or life in that part of the 19th century in general were laid on thick and I kept thinking "yes, yes I can see you've done your research but please get your research out of the way of my enjoyment of your novel."). As it opens a trilogy, it didn't feel like a complete enough novel to me to warrant inclusion on the list (although Pat Barker's The Ghost Road won so being the start of a trilogy is no bar to winning). I'm afraid I intensely disliked Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs, finding the characters cliched and hard to care about. Reading it was like wading through treacle, so even though it's the shortest novel on the list it's the one I laboured over most. Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger is enjoyable so far. It's a truly contemporary novel out of India, and is especially interesting to compare to the more traditional The Sea of Poppies. Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole also looks interesting. I'd prefer if neither of the debut authors won, as I always feel a bit sorry for authors who scoop up big prizes on their debut - I worry that the critical expectation for all their subsequent work can hamper their development.
Anyway, I'm off to heat up some pumpkin soup made on Sunday and settle back down with The White Tiger.
UPDATE: ...The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga is this year's winner. Just announced live on the BBC's ten o'clock news. I do like when book news makes the headlines!