So which books of the 120 or so, will get on THE LIST? I have collected the Booker listed novels ever since it first started, and the long list ever since that was published, so I am looking forward to a busy summer – but I have not been idle the whilst. I have already read 2 big hitters, Graham Swift and David Lodge, who by dint of their having been on lists already are almost certainly among the 120, I am about to start Alan Hollinghurst – by all accounts a shoe-in for the Short List (already?). Also in the pile are Amitav Ghosh, Hisham Matar, Aravind Adiga and Mohsin Hamid – all of these have been short-listed already and are likely to be taking up space in the judges’ studies/living rooms or kitchens!
So to start with the ones I have read. Graham Swift Wish You Were Here. This is a brilliant story, even by GS’s high standard. The reader is drawn in, from early on, to a story of fluctuating emotions: tears and smiles, relief and anxiety chase one through the pages. We start near the end in a torrential rainstorm – and haven’t we seen a lot of those recently – with two characters apart on the Isle of Wight, we have no idea why they are there but already there is a sense of place and a sense of dread. And then we are gradually given the build up to this moment and we find out eventually what Ellie said to Jack to bring them to this crisis.
Between the three or so hundred pages that separate this, we are led into a landscape, and into a Devon community of farms and farmers, devastated first by BSE and then by Foot and Mouth and really, one does not have to have lived in Devon, Somerset or Cumbria to recognise the aweful silence that fell over those counties when there were no cows to be milked, no sheep bleating in the fields, one had only to be near a TV set to remember the grisly sight of burnning carcases. The brooding absence permeates this novel, and then there is the War (in Iraq).
So a farm gets sold, and with it a tree – if the silence covers the land, the tree fills the view: magnificent, solid, beautiful. And the reader dangles like a last leaf in winter, buffeted by breezes, dampened by rain, warmed by the sun right up to that last gust that rips the leaf away from its moorings.
Graham Swift gives us memorable characters always, and a sense of place that is utterly, compellingly real – the waterery ditches, the lengthy pub crawl, the narrow and windy lanes of Devon – it does not matter where – the reader is there too.
More another time!