In a literary year widely acknowledged as the most glittering in a generation, several big names were shortlisted on Tuesday for this year's Man Booker prize, with the tantalising possibility raised of JM Coetzee becoming the first triple winner or AS Byatt only the second double winner.
Judges for this year's prize, to be announced in four weeks, believe they have chosen one of the strongest shortlists ever. They have chosen from 132 books that included some mighty literary figures and eight former winners, John Banville, Thomas Keneally, Anita Brookner, Penelope Lively, Kazuo Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood.
The two biggest names shortlisted are the South African-born novelist Coetzee, for Summertime, a self-flagellatory fictionalised autobiography, and Byatt, for The Children's Book. But the runaway favourite for the prize is Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall, her enveloping, evocative account of Henry VIII's fixer, Thomas Cromwell. At 650 pages it is the longest book on the list and it has proved enormously popular, weighing down hand luggage on many summer holidays and accounting for more than nine out of 10 bets placed on the prize. Ladbrokes made it 10-11 favourite while William Hill, which made it 4-5, said a win for Wolf Hall would "be the worst-ever result for bookies".
The other books on the list are Sarah Waters – her third shortlisting – for The Little Stranger; Adam Foulds for his poetry meets insanity tale, The Quickening Maze; and Simon Mawer, an established and respected writer, nominated for The Glass Room. Jim Naughtie, the BBC broadcaster who chaired this year's judges, said they were proud of the list and had been judging on the quality of books, not reputations. He said "quite a few bad books" had been entered for the prize and added: "Just because you are an accomplished writer with a great reputation it does not mean you can't write a bad book".
The shortlist was whittled down from 13 and if eyebrows are raised at omissions, they may be over the exclusion of William Trevor and Colm Toibín. Trevor, 81, is forever a Booker bridesmaid, shortlisted in 1970, 1976, 1991, and 2002.His latest novel Love and Summer had been widely tipped, while Toibín's Brooklyn was similarly adored by many. Judges also discarded the wild card book on the longlist, James Lever's Me Cheeta, which tells of the Hollywood life of Tarzan's chimp.
One theme that has emerged this year is the strength of historical fiction, not least the other doorstopper on this year's shortlist: Byatt's The Children's Book. Author and critic Lucasta Miller, one of the five judges this year, said it was less like "a book that's been researched but more like the accumulation of a lifetime's reading. The depth of knowledge in it is extraordinary."
The outsider to win, but not one to be discounted, is Foulds' mesmerising The Quickening Maze based on real events at a mental health asylum in Epping Forest around 1840 and featuring at its centre the unhinged nature poet, John Clare. The broadcaster Sue Perkins called it "an extraordinarily lush and lyrical book which speaks volumes about his poetic instincts and poetic love".
Foulds, the youngest nominee at 34, is an emerging talent and won the Costa prize poetry category this year for The Broken Word.
Judges discussed whether Coetzee's Summertime was fiction or autobiography but journalist Michael Prodger said they quickly decided on the former. "What is most remarkable about this book is the unbelievably self-flagellatory picture that he paints of himself," Prodger said.
"It is very painful to read in many places. He describes himself as a man without human qualities, a lover describes him as a man who loves by numbers. He is a frog not a prince. It is really quite distressing stuff at times. We all came away wishing we could write like JM Coetzee but profoundly grateful that we were not JM Coetzee." The publicity-averse Coetzee, who has now taken Australian citizenship, is the only double Booker winner, for Life & Times of Michael K and Disgrace, and was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 2003.
If Mantel wins there will be many people who say about time too. Naughtie said Wolf Hall was "a huge bold novel with a fantastic sweep. You can hear the rustle of Wolsey's gown in some darkened room, you can see the flicker of a cardinal's eye as an errand is put in train."
(The Guardian, UK)