As with every year when the Booker prize long-list and the subsequent shortlist are announced I take a look, ostensibly for the purpose of finding new things to read but always in the hope of seeing something on there that I have already read. The usual turn of events is that the list features some books that I had seen in the bookshop but, for one reason or another, neglected to actually read. I don’t know what it is I am hoping to achieve, whether some sense of keeping up with developing literature or simply the thrill of being there first. I suppose on the one hand I quite admire the Booker lists, and on the other don’t want to have my reading choices dictated to me. Childish, I know.
This year though the long-list featured a book I had in fact already read. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. A speculative purchase from a Saturday meander in the local Waterstone’s. Not only had I already read it, I had thought quite highly of it, and even, if distant memory serves, thrown off a nonchalant tweet about it. Had I struck the Holy Grail of speculative book purchases and incidentally bought and read a future Booker winner before the judges had even been assembled? No, as it turns out. It didn’t make it onto the shortlist. I’m not going to say it should have made it onto the shortlist. As much as I liked it I haven’t read any of the other 11 books (yet, I am currently enjoying Will Self’s Umbrella,) and it would be, I think, ridiculous to state which book should win without having read them all. Part of the Booker’s magic is in the controversy it courts, and that controversy exists in the contradiction between making definitive conclusions about something fundamentally indefinite. The Booker is decided by a panel of arbiters who judge it arbitrarily. How else can it be judged? By my mind being the twelfth best novel of the year is an achievement markedly similar to being the best.
But it seems with every stage of the Booker’s ever shortening list of finalists the ones that don’t make it fall away drastically. I don’t have the numbers. I have no real idea of what the sales figures are like between longlisted and shortlisted novels. But this is how it appears from my distant perspective anyway; fail to make the cut and fall into oblivion. Which seems a shame to me. The difference between a long-listed novel and a shortlisted one is not the difference between quality and rubbish; they will all be of quality. It is, I know, a terrible suggestion that would take away more than it adds, but I would much prefer a process that ends at the shortlist. These novels are remarkable. They all deserve our attention. That one is better than all the others is a truth that will vary from reader to reader.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry pulls off a deft trick with its ending. The climax doesn’t build with a rising crescendo, it drops like a great lump. It feels like a fairy tale, but it isn’t one. Fry’s journey feels wondrous, but we are never promised wonder. There is a magical element, of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, but no actual magic. Without wanting to spoil it, because as one of the twelve best books of 2012 you perhaps might want to go and read it, when the ending comes the novel almost pointedly reminds us that we were never promised magic. It lets our imaginations wander and come to all kinds of fanciful conclusions, but come the end the novel gently reminds us; we were never promised anything.
If a novel can pull off one great moment in 350 pages then it is worth reading.
But then, just as the great lump that is Harold Fry’s ending has settled, the final page has a little something extra that bring all the wonder crashing back again. Harold Fry is a book with two great moments and isn’t just an early casualty of the Booker race, it is one of the best 12 novels written in 2012.
25/02/2013 – Reading this post back I feel obliged to point at that The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has not fallen into oblivion. It has been in the top ten sales charts as listed in the Guardian for a while now. Utterly deserved, or course, and evidence, it seems, that the process of stripping half the selected books out does not damage them so severely.