Monday, 12 April 2010

Lost and Found

The Booker Prize shortlist has been announced - but not for this year. Instead, because of some complexity in the rules, the year 1970 was missed out, so this year the balance will be reset and we will all jump into a time machine and zip back to the era of the flower child. This may sound like a marketing opportunity, but what it is doing is bringing into the news some excellent novels, and that surely is a good thing.

Out of the six books listed, I have read four - interestingly, all by women. Mary Renault's Fire From Heaven is a marvellous, sleek, intense piece of work, about the youth of Alexander the Great; Nina Bawden's The Birds on The Trees details the tragedies that befall a family whose son is expelled from school; Shirley Hazzard's The Bay of Noon is a sun-lit affair, all repressed emotion and smouldering sex, and Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat is poetic, dark and surprising. All these books might just as well have been written yesterday; it is a mark of their writing across the board that they do not rely on gimmicks or flashiness, just good, elegant, well-moulded sentences. Also, too, they deal with issues - homosexuality, incest, drug-taking, adultery - in clever, clear ways. They throw light upon the time they were written, and yet stand as comments upon human nature. What is rather marvellous is that they are all short. I wonder whether both these points could be applied to many of the books shortlisted for the prize in the last couple of years.

This week I have also been in contact with many South African writers, talking about a way forward for the country and its literature. It seems particularly appropriate in the weeks after Easter, with the sun rising and the story of the Resurrection ringing in our ears (whether you believe in it, or have been listening to the discussions about Philip Pullman's new book, The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ). I attended a christening at the weekend: a new life, old friends, and hope.

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