What this year’s winners tell us about the Man Booker and Nobel prizes

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Like Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel-winner, Marlon James’s Booker-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings was praised for its polyphonic writing – just one of the striking motifs to emerge from this year’s awards, John Dugdale writes in this article for London’s Guardian.

It must be a pure coincidence, but it’s nonetheless an intriguing pattern. Ever since the Man Booker prize announced that American authors would in future be welcome, prompting concern that this would be at their Commonwealth counterparts’ expense, the Commonwealth has kept on winning, as it did in its “The Empire Strikes Back” Booker heyday in the 1980s and 90s: New Zealand’sEleanor Catton in 2013 (chosen after the revised rules were revealed but before they were implemented), Australia’s Richard Flanagan in 2014, and this week Jamaica’s Marlon James. Meanwhile, some illustrious US figures have either got only so far in the elimination process – Joshua Ferris, Jhumpa Lahiri, Marilynne Robinson – or, as with Jonathan Franzen, Donna Tartt and presumably Toni Morrison, failed even to make the longlist.

James, whose A Brief History of Seven Killings swirls around an assassination attempt on Bob Marley (identified only as “The Singer”) in 1976, is the first Booker laureate from Jamaica and the first Caribbean winner to write a Caribbean novel, since only one of the linked stories in VS Naipaul’s In a Free State (1971) is set there. The author of two previous novels, James is also the first black winner since Ben Okri in 1991, and the first gay winner since Alan Hollinghurst in 2004. Others, notably Thomas Keneally and Hilary Mantel, have won with books with historical figures at their centre, but his reggae star appears to be the first pop culture celebrity to have had a victorious novel built around him.

After Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (set in the 1530s), Catton’s The Luminaries(1860s) and Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (1940s), A Brief History of Seven Killings is the fourth consecutive historical novel to win, and shares with Mantel’s Tudor novels the technique (which Philip Pullman and Philip Hensher have criticised) of using the present tense to narrate past events. Another technical parallel with a previous winner is superficially unlikely too: as with Graham Swift’s very English Last Orders (1996), the model for its multi-narrator approach was As I Lay Dying – reading Faulkner’s novel was the “turning point” in its genesis, James has said. Titular anoraks will rejoice that it is the first ever Booker winner with a title beginning taboo-bustingly with the indefinite article, after eight “The” titles in the previous 10 years alone.

The big difference is the gender of those voices. Women are either equally represented (in her books on Chernobyl and Russia’s Afghan war) or dominate (in her study of female second world war veterans) in Alexievich’s oral histories. James, in contrast, has only three recurring female speakers in his novel, compared with well over a dozen male ones; though this wasn’t too bad a ratio in the context of a bafflingly blokey Booker shortlist in which, Anne Tyler’s even-handed A Spool of Blue Thread apart, the remaining novels had only one female protagonist (out of four in Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways) and no female narrators between them in tales of men in which women surfaced occasionally as girlfriends, wives or mothers.

For the original report go to http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/oct/16/what-this-years-winners-man-booker-nobel-prizes

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