In the past 41 years, 43 books have been awarded the Booker Prize, now called the Man Booker Prize. As of last night, I have read 27 of the 43 which is a pretty fair hit rate. Of the last 25 winners, I have read 21 (sorry, Barry Unsworth).
All that means is, I’m a sucker for awards. I’m the reason they give out literary awards. Statistics prove that I am more likely to buy a book by an author I have never read if it wins the Booker.
So how’s that working out? I just finished Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize. I don’t usually read much historical fiction. I didn’t read The Other Boleyn Girl or watch The Tudors. My knowledge of the life and times of Henry VIII was sketchy at best and while I might have been able to conjure up, “divorced, beheaded, died, etc.” I wouldn’t have been able to tell you which wife was which.
So the book worked for me as a fictional primer on the court of King Henry, but I’m not sure it was entirely successful as a novel. The focus of the book is Thomas Cromwell a lowborn man who dragged himself from the gutter to the loftiest heights of Tudor society. He has the King’s ear and the Queen’s favour. He is feared and loved exactly as he expects.
It’s a compelling portrait of a complex man, but occasionally there are moments where it all feels a little too researched. The death from the “sweating sickness” of Cromwell’s wife and children is probably historical fact. Included here, these facts are exploited to provide literary motivation to a fictional construct. Following the death of his wife, Cromwell seeks comfort in the arms of her sister, Johane. Again there may be historical evidence for this (or not), but it reads like a authorial device not an organic plot development. Simply put, the book is sometimes a little clunky.
Wolf Hall may be the best fictional representation of the real life of Thomas Cromwell, but it’s not the best fiction.
There is also something clunky about the prose. I don’t mean that the writing is bad, far from it. Just that sometimes sentences are constructed that seem hard to parse. I found myself on more that one occasion having to drop out of a sentence to work out who the subject was.
It may be unfair to quote out of context like this but I want to offer an example of Mantel’s confusing prose.
You could watch Henry every day for a decade and not see the same thing. Choose your prince: he admires Henry more and more. Sometimes he seems hapless and sometimes feckless, sometimes a child, sometimes master of his trade. Sometimes he seems an artist, in the way his eyes range over his work; sometimes his hand moves and he doesn’t seem to see it move. If he had been called to a lower station in life, he could have been a travelling player, and leader of his troupe.
At Anne’s command he brings his nephew to court…
In the first paragraph it’s clear that it is Cromwell who admires Henry VIII. There is a long description of Henry’s attributes where the “he” throughout is the King. But the paragraph immediately following begins, “At Anne’s command he brings his nephew to court…”. It’s not especially jarring, but we’re back on Cromwell again without due notice. I read a lot. I understand how sentences are constructed (or, at least, I think I do) and this was just one of many occasions where I only realized who we were talking about two or three sentences in. It could be me, but I don’t think so.
Since winning the Booker, Wolf Hall has also won the National Book Critics Circle Award in the US. So it must be kinda good, right?
There’s lots to like about Wolf Hall. It’s the best Booker of the past couple of years, but that’s not saying a whole lot. Last year’s winner was The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. It was a dreadful load of tosh. A first novel that felt like it on every page.
In 2007 the winner was The Gathering by Anne Enright. An Irish book so it’s bound to be jolly, right? Except it’s not. Equal parts dour and dull make it a joyless experience and unlikely that I will read Enright again. It’s not that everything has to be light and fun, but there’s only so much misery I can take.
Another year before that and we were back in India with Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss. My one-word review: yawn.
So why do I bother with award winners? Why do I persist with these meaningless indicators of other people’s taste?
The truth is that the hit rate for prize winners is about the same for every other kind of recommendation engine I could use. I try to read widely. I try to read books by authors I haven’t read before. And most of the time I’m disappointed. Most of the time the books are not revelatory works of exceptional brilliance. Most of the books I read do not change the way I look at the world. Most novels do not make me grateful for the gift of literacy.
But, once in a while, I read something truly great. Once in a while I’ll read something because it won a prize and discover that, perhaps coincidentally, it is also a tremendous work. It happened with Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, it happened with J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur.
And, of course, Midnight’s Children.
Maybe it will happen again this year.