I set myself the task of reading all six shortlisted books, and failed… three more to go on the eve of the announcement.

However, I did get a taste of all six books, as well as an introduction to their creators, at an event at the Southbank tonight where the shortlisted authors read an excerpt from their work and were interviewed live by James Naughtie. It was a thrilling event, and a literary buzz pervaded the auditorium as the six very different authors, both in terms of personality and literary style, shared the stage.

But there did seem to be a common thread across all the books presented. An audience member questioned whether the thread might be mental illness. This was answered by Deborah Levy, author of Swimming Home. She disagreed that insanity was the central theme of her book, but rather that the central characters, outwardly ‘normal’ who were just about coping with life and its challenges, were easily unhinged, like many of us perhaps, by external and unexpected events. Will Self (Umbrella) questioned the prominence and popularity of mental illness in literary fiction today, and particularly the ease with which we so cleanly separate insanity from sanity, similar to good from bad, whereas in fact the distinctions are arbitrary.

So, mental illness is not the accepted common thread.

For me, memory, its essentiality for our functioning and being, and the act of remembering as a re-enactment of loss and suffering, appeared prominent throughout most of the texts. In Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, the central character Futh is haunted and driven by Proustian memory that he cannot escape nor move on from. In Umbrella, those affected by encephalitis lethargica can spend significant lengths of time in a coma, a void of memories and of remembering. In Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists, the central character develops aphasia as she seeks to deal with memories of war and the loss of her sister.

The fact of memory inevitably implies a remembering, and a past. Hilary Mantel (Bringing Up the Bodies) put forward an interesting take on the past, as important in its own right, rather than a going back or an imprint on the present…

And then there is Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, which has a Bombay opium den in the 1970s and 1980s at its centre… A performance artist primarily, the brief excerpt Thayil read tonight was poetic and seductive.

I will continue and complete reading the shortlist, beyond tomorrow’s announcement. It promises to be a diverse and rich read.

The stuff of memories…

CQ

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