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The writers' island

The writers' island

National pride is nothing to be sniffed at and Ireland has good reason to feel chuffed with itself courtesy of three nominations on the Man Booker longlist – Sally Rooney, Donal Ryan and Anna Burns (Northern Ireland). As an article in the Irish Independent pointed out: “Given the same number of US titles appear, it's hugely impressive for our island to fill three of the precious 13 berths to contend the £50,000 gong.” The article went on to note that sales of literary fiction, “even critically lauded, award-winning fare, can be notoriously sluggish in the small Irish market. But bigger cash awards can provide some years of security and industry door-opening, a dream to most novelists.” Regardless of who eventually wins: “The message is clear: Ireland remains a nursery for exceptional wordsmiths.”


As things stand, the three Irish writers are faring very differently with the bookies. William Hill has Rooney as joint second favourite at 5/1, Ryan joint fourth at 8/1 and Burns joint eighth at 16/1. The clear favourite is Michael Ondaatje at 4/1 with Warlight and level pegging with Rooney is, bizarrely (because there is no previous history to go on), Nick Drnaso's comic book Sabrina at 5/1. Meanwhile, the other genre break-out book on the list, Belinda Bauer's crime novel Snap, is barely fancied at all. Like Burns, however, it offers punters the greatest returns at 16/1.


One of the Man Booker judges, Jacqueline Rose, had a book of her own out in April, Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty. In an interview about that work she also touched on the thinking behind the longlist: “In each case it felt as if our chosen novels were alerting us to something very hard to take on board but that we urgently needed to think about,” she said. “In such dire times, we urgently need the dissident, awkward, creative, voice of fiction.” The eclectic and unexpected nature of the longlist has drawn much comment but, said Rose, that is simply a reflection of the novels themselves; reading them “I found myself truly stretched.”


Rachel Kushner's longlisted The Mars Room is set in a women's correctional facility in California. It was during a prison visit when researching the novel that she met a man who inspired one of the characters in the book – a former police officer convicted of murder. During the visit, the warder accompanying her left her temporarily alone with the murderer and he confessed to more killings for which he'd never been prosecuted. “The potent short interaction with him in the confined space of his cell, during which he started to recount how it was he got away with the killings while he was on duty in the LAPD, just stuck with me,” says Kushner. “It was easy for me to write in his voice. It just rolled out.” Thus the character of Doc.


Kushner will be reading from her book at HMP Edinburgh, home to Scotland’s largest number of female prisoners, as one of her appearances at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The Booker Prize Foundation, the Prize's charitable wing, has long worked with literacy in prisons and another Man Booker nominated book, Neel Mukherjee's The Lives of Others, was recently the selected book for a reading group at Styal women's prison in Cheshire. Mukherjee was interviewed about the book in the prison by Jim Naughtie, chair of the 2009 MB judges, for Radio Four's Bookclub and the group of women prisoners also had their say – a tough audience for any author, you might think, except that the women admitted that the book was a form of escape. 

Another of the longlistees, Richard Powers, has confessed to a secret weakness for sci-fi novels: “The more 10-foot reptilians who somehow speak English, the better.” He has put aside such critters for moment though in favour of the Knight of La Mancha. “It’s said that a person might profitably read Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes three times in life,” he notes; “in youth to laugh, in middle age to think, and in old age to cry. I’m doing the crying, slightly ahead of schedule.”