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The Booker Prize and the ‘Beryl Question’

According to Queeney, a small but beautifully formed account of the last days of Samuel Johnson, had been the clear and popular favourite for the £21 000 prize. Yet none of the judges apparently argued strongly for her work to be among the six in the final reckoning. Instead two former Booker winners, the Australian Peter Carey, with True History of the Kelly Gang, and Ian McEwan, with Atonement, emerged as the most fancied to pick up the prize at the prizegiving on October 17.

Other shocks were that Melvyn Bragg’s acclaimed A Son of War and Nick Hornby’s even more admired How to Be Good failed to make the final six.

It was the exclusion of Bainbridge, described by the late Auberon Waugh as the ‘greatest writer never to win the Booker”, that caused most protest when the shortlisted six were announced amid the gilt and stucco of the patrician Savile Club in London’s West End.

Asked how the five judges could be so heartless as to drop Bainbridge ‘when the public clearly wanted her”, one of their number, writer and critic Philip Hensher, retorted: ‘So we are to let the prize be decided by public sentiment then? I thought it was a literary prize.”

The jury chairman, Kenneth Baker, former Tory minister and part-time poet, was equally bullish, batting away the ‘Beryl Question”, with a flowery flourish to the effect that ‘this Booker list has reconnected with the reading public … This is a very rich year indeed. Everyone has their own views, of course, because this has been a truly splendid year for fiction.”

Baker asserted that the final six had been arrived at unanimously. One or two of his colleagues privately begged to differ, but there appeared to have been no tantrums, fist fights, or raised voices among the jury— although the final reckoning is yet to come.

Bookies have made a killing on Bainbridge, who was attracting heavy betting even at odds of only 3/1 after she was placed on the longlist.

The full shortlist is:

  • True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey, a rollicking yarn of the Irish-Australian bandit;

  • Atonement by Ian McEwan, a study of lust and betrayal set against a backdrop that reaches from the country house parties of the 1930s to the horrors of Dunkirk;

  • Oxygen by Andrew Miller, about a retired schoolmistress dying of cancer and a gay Hungarian writer living in Paris;

  • The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert, dealing with German war guilt;

  • number9dream by David Mitchell, a multilayered Blade Runner-style tale of cyborgs and yakuzas set in a feverish, hyper-real Tokyo;

  • Hotel World by Ali Smith, interlinked stories of hotel life told by the ghost of a dead chambermaid.

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Fiachra Gibbons
Editor of culture, food and fashion at AFP.

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