First, Kevin Barry with City of Bohane. Set in the west of Ireland in 2053, this is a wild gangland story with, of course, a romance. 2053 is not as we might imagine it - for example it is singularly lacking in technology viz no internet or mobile phones and, oddly, the only means of travel appears to be on foot, train or tram. Barry's writing is tight and authentic and the speech of his characters wonderfully apt - even if they sometimes sound like lost dubs. Original and very much worth a read.
Second, Michel Houllebecq with The Map and the Territory. Houllebecq won the Impac with his previous novel, Atomised, and this book has won the Prix Goncourt in France. The story line is an examination of the relationship between art and the world it depicts and in a sort of mix of fact and fiction. Houllebecq himself plays a major role as a 'fictional' character in the story as do many real critics and members of the cultural elite in France. The narrative revolves around Jed Martin, an artist, who is going to ask Houllebecq to write the catalogue for an exhibition of his work. This is considered a favourite for the prize but I didn't find this book as captivating or absorbing as Atomised.
Third, Andrew Miller's Pure. This is perhaps the most surprising one on the list and I reviewed it on 30 January 2012. Unlikely winner.
Fourth, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. Clearly, from the title, this is Orwellian in concept. It is set in 1984 - Q being a version of a Japanese 9. While not reaching the heights of Norwegian Wood, this is a delightful read. It is fundamentally a love story even if the protagonists take simply an age to find each other. It opens with thirty-year old Aomame grid-locked in a cab on an elevated section of the Tokyo Expressway. She leaves the cab and descends to the street where it is obvious nothing is quite right - this is 1984 territory and this is Murakami! She has an abiding memory of holding hands as a young girl with a boy called Tengo and the story is then taken over in alternate chapters by Tengo and Aomame and how fate eventually reunites them. A likely winner I think!
Fifth, The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka tells the story of a group of mail order brides who travel to San Francisco in the early 20th century and meet up with their 'husbands' who are not at all as they expected. The story of their travails - working in America, their marriages, childbirths, language problems and so on are beautifully told with the quirk that none of them are named until the horror of WW2, Pearl Harbour and their subsequent incarceration ironically gives them a personal identification. A story that has been told before but not with such poetry and style.
Sixth, The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips. Another book where the author takes a major fictional role. In this novel, 'Arthur Phillips' is given an allegedly lost Shakespearian play by his conman father who is serving time for forgery. The play is reproduced in the text and Phillips does not a bad job at recreating Shakespeare! Apart from the question of the authenticity of the play itself, there is Phillips desire to impress his father and win his approval.
Seventh is Swamplandia by Karen Russell. This I haven't read and can only reproduce for you the publisher's blurb: Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree has lived her entire life at Swamplandia!, her family’s island home and gator-wrestling theme park in the Florida Everglades. But when illness fells Ava’s mother, the park’s indomitable headliner, the family is plunged into chaos; her father withdraws, her sister falls in love with a spooky character known as the Dredgeman, and her brilliant big brother, Kiwi, defects to a rival park called The World of Darkness. As Ava sets out on a mission through the magical swamps to save them all, we are drawn into a lush and bravely imagined debut that takes us to the shimmering edge of reality. Random House posting.
Eight: From Iceland comes From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjon. This is set in Iceland in 1635 allowing a mix of myths and science with the main character, Jonas, in exile on an island off the coast of Iceland for the crime of blasphemy. Sjon deals with the cruelties of nature and man alike, at the time, together with the myths and touches of magic that controlled people's lives - in Europe generally, no less than Iceland. He brings some fascinating details to the story of Jonas and captivating pictures of nature.
Nine is a poignant and charming story from Norway, The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am, by Kjersti A. Skomsvold, of which the publisher writes: Mathea Martinsen has never been good at dealing with other people. After a lifetime, her only real accomplishment is her longevity: everyone she reads about in the obituaries has died younger than she is now. Afraid that her life will be over before anyone knows that she lived, Mathea digs out her old wedding dress, bakes some sweet cakes, and heads out into the world—to make her mark. She buries a time capsule out in the yard. (It gets dug up to make room for a flagpole.) She wears her late husband’s watch and hopes people will ask her for the time. (They never do.) Is it really possible for a woman to disappear so completely that the world won’t notice her passing? The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am is a macabre twist on the notion that life “must be lived to the fullest.”
And, finally, tenth is from Holland, Caesarion by Tommy Wieringa of which the publisher writes:
In the port of Alexandria, a very long time ago, Julius Caesar impregnated and then abandoned Cleopatra. The child of their union – groomed for greatness by his devoted mother but destined for tragedy – was called Caesarion. Little Caesar.
History repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce. In our time, another boy, Ludwig, is born in Alexandria and again the father flees the scene of the birth. The boy and his mother are soon obliged to move on. She, Marthe, is stormy, impetuous and vain. She will not rest until she finds their ideal home – which needs to be both dramatic and cheap. And so Ludwig and his mother end up on a clifftop in Suffolk in a house being eaten from the inside by woodworm and eroded from the outside by the waves attacking its foundations. In the hours mother and son spend together preening in front of the dressing-table mirror, a melodramatic intensity is born. But this stormy novel does not develop as you might then predict. Instead it opens out into a page-turning exploration of the power of the absent parent versus the power of the too-present parent. And it moves between Cartagena in the Caribbean and Viennese crypts, the rugby pitch and the chemotherapy ward, LA and London, the Mediterranean and the Pacific, as Ludwig’s gifts as a pianist open the world up.
Caesarion is a novel that asks how anyone can ever know for sure how to be the right parent for their child, and how any child can know how to let themselves be parented. It is a beautiful, strong and brave novel. It confirms Tommy Wieringa as a storyteller of great range and real distinction.