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All eyes on the prize

THE Man Booker Prize for contemporary fiction is to be announced on October 15. You've got your work cut out if you want to read up before the winner is revealed! Or you could just take my word for it. I'm not sure who started the fetish for footnotes in fiction – David Foster Wallace, maybe? – but it is a fetish, and as such, annoying to those who don't find it funny, or clever. Unless, of course, it works.

Ruth lives with her husband Oliver on a tiny island off the North American side of the Pacific. The former Manhattanite is struggling to write a memoir about living with her mother's dementia; one day, a Hello Kitty lunchbox pitches up onshore, containing the diary of Japanese teenager Nao.

The annotations to the text are Ruth's, as applies to details of Nao's life: place names, translations of Japanese characters, and sundry other details that illuminate not only Nao's thoughts, but Ruth's, as well.

When we realise that Ruth the fictional character may or may not be, or is to some extent, Ruth the actual author, the slippage is complete, as Ruth the diary-reader slowly and unhappily realises that she is not reading the diary in real-time, and the threats that Nao makes as to suicide have, perhaps, already happened, and there is nothing that she can do.

The sheer complexity of this work is spectacular: the myriad themes are woven together seamlessly as we shift between the realities, that of a bullied Japanese teen who identifies as American, and a blocked American novelist who is half Japanese. The cultures don't clash so much as wish to merge in some fashion, to balance. As Ruth reads on, we too become invested in hope for Nao, and feel some of Ruth's impatience and dread.

There's a self-reflexive quality, the whole author-as-character thing that you will probably either love or hate, but get over it: this is an amazing achievement, and it gets my vote as winner of the prize.

The home team author, and should-have-won for The Master in 2004. Jesus' mother is trying to live a quiet life after the drama of her son's death, whom she does not believe was the Son of God; she is harassed by the writers of the Gospels, and appalled at the spin they are applying to the story.

It is brief, and brutally honest, and the recounting of the crucifixion is astonishing and powerful. Its brevity leaves much to be desired, in a good way, I suppose: how much more I would have liked to have known about Mary, in her revisioned form ...

Crace's voice is spare and lean, and gives nothing away as regards what era he is speaking of. Details betray the narrative as set in a feudal past – or is it?

The politics, relationships, and conflicts are clearly reflected in modern times, as fears about one's place in society, and a threatening influx of newcomers wreak havoc on what had been a simple life of established boundaries and behaviours. Two stars because this book is short and direct, and the publishers chose to inflate it by using a large font size and binding it in hardcovers. This seems to be a thing lately, and every time I come across this, it infuriates. It is deceptive, unfair to the consumer, and unfair to the author, too.

Set in a shanty called Paradise – which is as heavy-handed as it gets, really – Bulawayo treads ground that we've all visited before. It doesn't get any easier to read about children who are living on the extreme edge of sustenance and dignity, whose dreams are distorted notions of what will bring them happiness, when all they really want is safety and care.

That these children were once middle class, and the failure of the Zimbabwean state resulted in their poverty, is truly gutting and terrifying, but this very important reality is subsumed by many other themes that are awfully familiar.

At the other end of the voluminous spectrum lies this, 832 pages of dense yet entertaining writing, about gold digging in New Zealand in the 1860s. Catton is like a goldsmith herself, crafting sentences of such vividness that you feel as though you are bobbing along placidly on a sea of prose.

One may begin to feel like one is drowning, however, we begin to feel that we're running out of time to get to know the characters. If there weren't so many in the cast of characters, you'd think that the people weren't in the author's interest. Somewhat confusing in execution, then.

As spare as Catton is verbose, and as direct as Ozeki is circuitous, Lahiri nevertheless presents a strong contender for the £50,000 prize. Brothers Subhash and Udayan live on the fringes of their colonised society; born only 15 months apart, they represent the binary of the colonised male: the one who adapts and the one who rebels.

If Lahiri's voice was not so assured, this binary would seem simplistic at best.

Because of her detached, yet compassionate approach, the novel is generational/national saga that is deep and moving.

This is my second choice.


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