A flutter on the Booker Prize ought to be a tasty bet. Not this year; the favourites’ odds are short and the serious gambler will wonder if there is enough meat on the bone to justify a punt: Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin and Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (reviewed in the LRB, 5 October and 13 April) are quoted at 2-1 and 5-2 with William Hill. And it’s difficult to fancy the four other shortlisted novelists. Trezza Azzopardi’s The Hiding Place – the 7-1 outsider and the only first novel on the list – is narrated by Dolores Gauci, a young girl whose Maltese father gambled away his Cardiff café on the day she was born. Frank Gauci is a weak, compulsive man who ignores the difficulties of his family and hides behind the pages of the Sporting Life. Azzopardi has a keen sense of the shame of poverty and the humiliation of having to make do; the novel’s wide-eyed child-narrator, who retreats from the difficulty of day to day life to the safety of her imagination owes something to the narrators in Frank McCourt’s memoirs. But Azzopardi’s social criticism is clumsy: ‘down at the Miners’ Welfare … all they ever drank was Mild or Bitter, depending on how they felt.’ And her prose sometimes strains to have an effect on the reader. In the McCourt house, people’s teeth turned ‘brown and black in their heads’. Dolores’s friends haven’t got teeth at all, ‘just a row of brown stubs, like iron filings, top and bottom’. White Teeth, Zadie Smith’s polished, attractive fictional debut (LRB, 21 September) didn’t make the shortlist; it seems a shame.
Frank Gauci is happy to ‘gamble on anything that moves’, a problem for shortlisted novelists leading sedentary lives, but not for the impressive Michael Collins – author of The Keepers of Truth and a keen runner. As well as completing his novel, Collins has managed to finish a marathon. A jog through the streets of London dressed up in rhino costume wasn’t quite challenging enough for him, however: he ran the 26 miles in Antarctica. (Kingsley Amis was satisfied to have come last but one in his school’s under-twelves 440 yards: Booker contenders aren’t meant to be that good at Games.) The set-up of Collins’s novel is engaging. Bill is a feckless sports hack working on a rinky-dink paper in small-town Middle America. He gets to cover the local baseball team but hard news passes him by: ‘television is where it’s at these days. The written word is dead.’ He loses interest in his job – ‘I was like a goddamn baker selling day-old doughnuts’ – until he hears about the murder of Old Man Lawton, a local troublemaker whose body has been snipped into pieces with a pair of pruning shears. Bill begins to investigate the murder and the case seems exciting; but the novel’s plot is loose and the story soon flags. Collins falls back on the tired formulae and staple characters of crime fiction. Bill is at odds with an inept local policeman who makes a habit of missing the point – ‘Why the hell am I always the last to know what the hell is going on?’ – and during the investigation falls for a flighty, no-good blonde: ‘Bill, don’t lie to me. Men been lying to me all my life.’ Bill’s narrative voice has a cloying folksiness – ‘Ordinary, that’s what I looked like, just plain ordinary, but maybe ordinary was far more complicated than I ever thought it could be’ – which only relents when he becomes earnest and ponderous: ‘What compels people to go on existing on the dark side of night?’ The Keepers of Truth has been surprisingly well received by critics, though the reaction from Collins’s friends in the running world has not been as favourable. Steve Cram – Olympic medallist turned BBC pundit – was quiet on the sofa in Sydney this autumn, but couldn’t be stopped in a far-reaching Guardian interview when asked for his thoughts on contemporary fiction: ‘there’s a lot of crap out there.’ His opinion of The Keepers of Truth? ‘A bit gruesome.’
Not as gruesome as Brian O’Doherty’s The Deposition of Father McGreevy, however, a novel which made the reviewer in the Evening Standard blush: ‘the unspeakable subject matter … we needn’t go into.’ In the opening pages of this delightfully sinister novel, the dour, inward-looking townspeople of County Kerry recall the grim fate of a nearby mountain village and feel much the same: ‘some things are best left alone.’ But Father McGreevy, the village priest, doesn’t share their fatalism. His wartime deposition forms the centre of the novel; it is a mild account of the village’s strange demise. Before the Second World War, it had had a strong connection with its pagan past. Life was organised by superstition – ‘fairy hostings and dances and hares that turn into beautiful women’ – and governed by chance: the touch of a dead man’s hand would make you invisible, a red-headed woman crossing your path on the first of May would bring bad luck. The deposition’s dark secret is the story of the villager who had sex with sheep. The revelation upset the people of wartime County Kerry – and some present-day reviewers – and the villagers were ‘scattered like the wind … nobody left up there’. But the priest suggests that what he witnessed on the mountainside – ‘as strange a beast as ever man did see. It had four spindly legs and maybe more and a man’s head, and out of the man’s stomach … was a sheep’s head’ – is only a part of the village’s terrible ‘darkness of superstition’.
O’Doherty’s priest tries to ‘cast out that darkness’ in long, troubled sermons; the unctuous Victorian cleric in Matthew Kneale’s novel English Passengers has given up trying to struggle in the pulpit with the discoveries of science. At first, the Rev. Wilson writes a lengthy pamphlet against the ‘poisonous assault on the good name of the Scriptures’. But is has little effect and Wilson decides that to prove his point he must leave behind the numbing regularity of his provincial Yorkshire past and discover the Garden of Eden. It is a journey which will take him to Tasmania: along the way the reader is led through events by a dizzying number of narrators – including a shady surgeon, coarse Manx sailors involved in smuggling, and the aboriginal son of an escaped English convict. English Passengers is crowded with careful local detail and crafted anecdotes; Kneale has an appealing talent for old-fashioned storytelling and seems to be the candidate most favoured by startled journalists, unsettled by these unknown names. Will the judges go for it? It’s hard to say. The final decision always lacks ‘prestige’, Martin Amis has complained, because it is so arbitrary – ‘administered’, he writes in Experience, ‘by an ad hoc and not a standing committee’. Amis has had a rough deal from Booker judges in the past. In the week that this year’s shortlist was announced, he appeared on Channel 4’s Late Night Poker, seated at the table with Anthony Holden, Patrick Marber, Al Alvarez and Stephen Fry. It was a close, colourful game – Holden was the wiliest of the players and picked up seven grand. The stakes will be higher on Booker night, but it’s hard to imagine that Channel 4’s live broadcast from Guildhall will be as much fun.