The Man Booker Prize 2004
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Date: 20 October, 2004

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'It is rather like a heady mix of Kingsley Amis and Jilly Cooper - a well written sex and power romp.'

 


Alan Hollinghurst has won The Man Booker Prize this year with his latest novel The Line of Beauty. He was from the start, one of the front three runners, alongside David Mitchell and Colm Toibin. Is he deserved of his newfound status as writer of the year or should one of the others have won?

Charlotte Haines Lyon reviews the short list and tells you her thoughts.

Bitter Fruit
Achmat Dangor, Atlantic £7.99Click to buy
Set in the Mandela years of Post Apartheid South Africa, Dangor has powerfully told a story that I fear is all too common.

Whilst aware and thankful for their newfound freedom, can the Ali family ever be truly liberated from the past? After a chance encounter with a retired security officer, Silas and his wife Lydia are forced to relive a rape from 20 years ago.

It is later discovered that the perpetrator is to claim amnesty for his crime regardless of the wishes of the family. Can they ensure that their story will be told properly and communicate the lasting effects of violence?

Dangor captures the harshness of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Were survivors' needs really acknowledged during the pleas for amnesty? Compelling, vivid writing makes Bitter Fruit my personal favourite. It is not often that reconciliation and retribution are dealt with so deftly and with wry humour.

The Electric Michelangelo
Sarah Hall, Faber £10.99Click to buy

Often we see the body as something to be controlled or sexualised. Rarely do we savour what it is, in all its flawed splendour. It is safest to be ignored and kept under wraps unless you are young, supremely confident, or you are Sarah Hall.

Hall is a fantastic storyteller who relishes detail whether it is sinking sand enveloping each part of Cyril Parks' body or the phlegm of the patients in his mother's boarding house.

Cy, a Morecambe tatooist moves to Coney Island, America and becomes embroiled in what some may understand as the seedier side of the early 20th Century. What is the body beautiful? How do we view difference? Such questions are robustly and viscerally answered.

Not the most pacey of books but the rich narration is perfect for long winter evenings and cocoa.

The Line of Beauty
Alan Hollinghurst, Picador £16.99Click to buy

Nick Guest is a young PhD student who has recently graduated from Oxford with his idol Toby. The latter is the son of a Gerald, a Tory MP and invites Nick to live in the huge Notting Hill family home.

We are treated to scene after scene of glamorous parties, mawkish politicians and peers. These are interspersed with Nick's attempts to come to terms with life that is literally a class above him.

One of the most humorous scenes is when Nick manages to get the Iron Lady herself to dance with him, much to the envy of Gerald. This is soon followed by the possible downfall of the green-eyed minister due to financial scandal.

Life in the house is complicated. Nick's friendship with Toby's sister Catherine is affected by her history of self-harm. Toby's playboy antics make it clear that unrequited love is all there will be for Nick. And just how will the surrounding Tory hierarchy deal with the anti-hero's games on the gay scene?

This year's winner deserves an award for being one of the easiest to read winners ever. It is tremendous fun being transported back to the eighties and remembering the greed, the class issues and the anxiety around the then new disease of HIV.

However, I am not overly convinced of its status as the most amazing book of the year. It is rather like a heady mix of Kingsley Amis and Jilly Cooper - a well written sex and power romp.

Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell, Sceptre £16.99Click to buy

This peculiarly ambitious novel was the favourite from the start and it is not surprising. Mitchell has written what are effectively six short stories, each varying in genre, voice and time. Surely the perfect combination for a Booker winner? Well the judges never like to please the bookies.

Each narrative whether set on a pacific island in the 1850s, pre war London or an all to real frightening 22nd Century, is linked to the other either subtly or occasionally overtly. His play with words can be dizzying at times which whilst brilliant can also be frustratingly difficult to read.

Whilst the style has a touch of carnival about it, the book is actually quite intellectual and covers the impact of colonialism, alongside personal failure. I would love to dismiss it as too clever but suspect if I read it again I may grow to love it.

The Master
Colm Toibin, Picador £15.99Click to buy

In what is quite a move from his usual fare, Toibin has written about Henry James. Instead of trying to build a whole biography, Toibin has dissected just 5 years of the great writer's life.

Starting with the failure of his 1st play in London, which happens to coincide with success of Oscar Wilde, we begin to see just what a haunted lonely person James was. Thinking that he cut off all his feelings after the death of his parents and sister he is shocked to find himself tortured by failure and further hurt.

His friendships are tenuous and not helped by his unresolved sexuality. Indeed he is most offended when during the Wilde trial, a friend hints that James may have secrets that may force him to flee to France.

The Master is sensitively written, evoking the age and literary style of James without being too heavy handed. It portrays the romanticism of the tortured writer with fantastic melancholic pathos. A great read for literature lovers everywhere.

I'll Go to Bed at Noon
Gerard Woodward, Chatto and Windus £12.99Click to buy

The stand-alone sequel to August portrays strained family politics against the backdrop of the three-day week of 1974. Woodward has openly said that it is somewhat autobiographical and explains the sheer brilliance of how he explores a family slowly eroded by alcohol.

The book is disturbing but it is not case of looking at a family and thinking how awful they are. On the contrary, it is far too easy to spot your own family characteristics at play.

Neither is the book depressing, despite one member of the family either dying or falling apart almost at the turn of each page. There is a dark bitter humour that makes the book all the more humane.

The concept of Janus Brian, the self sufficient alcoholic is quite brilliant. He makes alcohol out of anything he can find. Thus relatives at a funeral are fed cucumber wine and tomato sherry. At one point in the book there is even wine made from tea!

I would say you would want to accompany this book with a glass of wine but you might think twice before indulging once a few pages in.

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