20 October 2012
What will you be reading this autumn?
"BOOKER NOVEL OR BLOCKBUSTER ?"
By: Graham Salter
On October 16th we found out the winner of the Man Booker prize. Look down the list of previous prizewinners and
you will find some impressive titles: "Remains of the Day", "Schindler's Ark", "The English Patient", "Wolf Hall",
"The God of Small Things" and, of course "Midnight's Children."
To give a little extra piquancy to their choice, a debate had been swirling round the Booker over the last two
years, over the dreaded issue of "dumbing down". In 2011 the panel, featuring retired spymaster Stella Rimington
and Labour MP Chris Mullin, declared that "readability" was to be the new keynote; "the winning novel will have to
zip along". Away with fusty ideas like literary merit, they seemed to say, we want a page-turner. Unsurprisingly,
the 2012 jury have rowed back a bit from last year's stance. Their shortlist includes ambitious (though hopefully
not pretentious) titles such as "Umbrella" by Will Self, and "Bring up the bodies" by Hilary Mantel, so it's clear
that we are not in "Richard and Judy Book Club" territory this year.
Last Saturday, in search of something "cutting edge" to read, I strolled down Broad Street to Waterstone's, and
picked up one of the less fancied Man Booker novels, namely "Swimming Home" by Deborah Levy. I also bought a book
which is not on this year's shortlist (though it might have stood a chance last year) a thriller by Max Kinnings
"Swimming Home" is a delight. It begins, mesmerically, on a French mountain road at midnight, where a poet is being
driven erratically through the forest by the wild-eyed girl he has made love to in a Nice hotel. Images recur and
interplay, like a fugue. As the story moves forward we sense the secret life of the characters' unconscious - the
swimming pool, shaded by pine -trees and the body floating in it, which is mistaken for a bear; insects calling to
each other in the forest, scurrying rodents, and circling birds of prey. And beneath the narrative, there is the
poet's fear of the past, his need for familiarity and security, encapsulated in the lines "To have been so intimate
with Kitty Finch had been a pleasure, a pain, a shock, an experiment, but most of all it had been a mistake. He
asked her again to please, please, please drive him safely home to his wife and daughter."
For a fuller review of this excellent novel, look online at
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/07/swimming-home-deborah-levy-review. Interestingly, Deborah Levy's novel,
which is now challenging for the Man Booker Prize, was originally neglected by publishers ; they claimed it was "
too literary to prosper in a tough economy."
The same cannot be said of "Baptism" by Max Kinnings. It is a thriller set in the London Underground, where a group
of extremist Evangelical Christian converts halt a tube train and hold the passengers hostage. The author cranks up
the tension when the train driver, George Wakeham, discovers that his two children have been abducted and hidden in
the boot of a car. Worse, far worse, is yet to come, as the terrorists reveal their apocalyptic plans (the novel’s
title and the dust jacket showing a watery Northern Line offer a clue to what they are plotting). Meanwhile blind
DCI Ed Mallory in the London Underground network centre desperately tries to trying to negotiate with the leader of
the religious fruitcakes.
Does “Baptism” zip along? Indeed it does. The action happens over an action-packed sixteen hours. The chapters are
short (which is a blessing) and are preceded by a timeline such as “09.16 AM Northern Line Train 037, sixth
carriage.” People die graphically, and often; here is a sample of what to expect. On page 3: “Before he could fire
off a shot, the entire top of his head, from the bridge of his nose upwards was sheered off and he fell backwards
onto the sleepers between the rails.” On page 53 “George looked round to see the trainee driver’s legs crumple
beneath him as ... a jet of blood pumped from a hole in the side of his head.” And on page 186 “It was as though a
piledriver was hammering chunks of flesh from bodies. Blood sprayed from gaping wounds. The five men were cut apart
by the exploding lead ...” The violence could not be more casual if it were part of an adolescent’s videogame. But
of course, in a tough economy it doesn’t pay to be too literary. And no-one understands that better than Mr
Kinnings, who lectures in Creative Writing at Brunel University.
I know what sort of creative writing I prefer. Give me “Swimming Home” by Deborah Levy in preference to “Baptism” -