The US takeover failed to materialise—this year's award went to the Australian author for his story of prisoners on the Burma Death railwayby Claire Lowdon / October 15, 2014 / Leave a comment
Three Brits, two Americans and an Australian: not a bad joke, but the shortlist for this year’s faintly controversial Man Booker Prize. Since its inception in 1969 the prize has been open to writers from the Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland and Zimbabwe. This year, for the first time, any book written in English and published in the UK was eligible, opening the prize to writers from the US. Commentary leading up to the announcement of the winner on Tuesday 14th October focused on the pros and cons of Stateside competition: would all those Great American Novels crowd out the Commonwealth?
In the end it was the Australian Richard Flanagan who won—a safe choice not only because of his country of origin. The novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, deals with suitably weighty subject matter for a major international prize. It tells the story of prisoners of war working on the Thailand-Burma Death Railway, a project that resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 labourers. Partially inspired by the PoW experiences of Flanagan’s father and dedicated to him as Prisoner 335, the book comes complete with a poignant creation story. “This was the book I had to write if I was going to go on writing,” Flanagan told Newsnight after the ceremony. It took him 12 years and five discarded drafts. The day he emailed the finished book to his publisher, his 98-year-old father called and was told the good news. Later the same day, he died.
At the ceremony in London’s Guildhall, Chair of Judges AC Grayling talked about coming across a book “that kicks you so hard you can’t pick up the next one on the pile for a couple of days… That’s what happened in the case of this book.” His fellow judges were Erica Wagner, Jonathan Bate, Sarah Churwell, Daniel Glaser and Alastair Niven – six in total instead of the usual five, to reflect expansion of the prize. The panel chose Flanagan from a shortlist that included books as diverse as Joshua Ferris’s comic novel about a dentist whose identity is stolen online, and Ali Smith’s formally inventive How to be both (printed in two versions, so that the book could begin with either one of the two parallel narratives.)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North appeared in the UK in July, to a clutch of rave reviews alive to the book’s explicit preoccupation with poetry. Christina Paterson in The Sunday Times described the prose as “strong, muscular, rhythmic, sometimes biblical in its resonances, and charged with a hypnotic power. ‘To say Flanagan creates a rich tapestry is to overly praise tapestries,” declared Thomas Keneally in The Guardian. Dissenting voices included two poets. Craig Raine in the TLS remarked on Flanagan’s propensity for melodrama: “For Richard Flanagan, ‘poetry’ means exaggerated imagery, an uncertain, elevated tone, and generous rights of repetition.” On the BBC’s botched coverage of the awards ceremony (a microphone malfunction meant that viewers at home missed Judges Chair AC Grayling’s introduction, the announcement itself and Flanagan’s acceptance speech), Andrew Motion (Chair of Judges in 2010) also expressed reservations. At a “sentence-by-sentence” level he was worried about “passages of vagueness and grandiloquence”—although he found the story of the book’s composition powerful: “You can’t not be moved by the non-literary adjunct.”