This year’s Man Booker Prize was supposed to be a battle between books that are pleasurable to read and those that challenge the reader, but instead it became a triumph of experience over freshness as a seasoned British novelist at the apex of a long career beat two promising young Canadians at the beginning of theirs.
Julian Barnes, who once called the Booker ‘‘posh bingo” and decried its “public brutality” to The Globe and Mail the last time he was nominated, won the award this year for his slim and deeply felt novel The Sense of an Ending. It was the fourth time one of his books was shortlisted for the prize; this year he was the bride, not the bridesmaid.
In accepting the £50,000 prize, Mr. Barnes, 65, thanked ‘‘the judges, whom I won’t hear a word against, for their wisdom, and the sponsors for their cheque.’’
Among the other five books in the shortlist were two by Canadians – both second novels, and both from writers who hail from the West Coast.
Patrick deWitt, 36, who was born on Vancouver Island and now lives in Portland, Ore., was nominated for his blackly comic western The Sisters Brothers, about two hired-killer siblings who are better at squabbling than murdering.
Esi Edugyan, 33, who lives in Victoria, B.C., was shortlisted for her time-shifting novel Half Blood Blues, about an Afro-German jazz prodigy who is arrested in occupied France, and the band mates who set out to find him five decades later. (Both novels are also nominated for the trifecta of Canada’s top literary prizes: the Giller, the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award.)
After the ceremony, Ms. Edugyan – who brought her husband and eight-week-old daughter to London – said, “I feel like I’ve already won, being on the shortlist with my second novel.”
The other novels vying for the Booker were Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English, A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops and Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie.
The six books formed the best-selling shortlist in the prize’s 43-year history, selling almost 100,000 copies in six weeks ( Snowdrops, a nuanced thriller set in get-rich-quick Moscow, accounted for almost half the copies sold.)
This success has pleased the jury’s chair Dame Stella Rimington, the former chief of the spy agency MI5, who spent much of the past month fighting off criticism that the books on the shortlist were chosen for readability over excellence. (Literary critics were aided in their froideur by the fact that Dame Stella now writes bestselling spy thrillers and that one of her fellow judges said he was looking for books that “zip along” among the 138 titles submitted.)
Speaking about Mr. Barnes’s 150-page novel, which follows the memories of British everyman Tony Webster as he recalls his school days and the tragic incident that marred his life, Dame Stella said that it was “a beautifully written book, a book that spoke to humankind in the 21st century.”
The pleasure-vs.-rigour debate raged in British newspapers and blogs for weeks, something which at least one Canadian on the shortlist thought was both heartening and demeaning: “I do think it’s a positive thing to have so much debate about literature,” Mr. deWitt said after the awards ceremony. But, he added, “I find it insulting personally and I feel some hostility toward the people who are saying these things. I don’t need to defend my book; my book can defend itself.”
Still, there was enough bitterness over this year’s choices for a rival prize to be established this month. The Literature Prize, supported by novelists such as former Booker winners John Banville and Pat Barker, will be judged on “quality and ambition,” according to a statement from its organizers. This will set it apart from the Booker, which apparently “now prioritizes a notion of ‘readability’ over artistic achievement.”
Interestingly, the last novel by a Canadian to win the Booker is also one of the most readable – at least, it’s the best-selling book in the prize’s history: That book is Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which won the award in 2002 and is currently being made into a movie by Ang Lee. Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin won two years prior to that and in 1992 Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient shared the award with Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger.In 2009, Alice Munro won the Man Booker International Prize, given every two years for an author’s body of work.