January 10, 2012 by markstani
This year’s MAN Asian Literary Prize shortlist, announced today, includes an unprecedented seven titles, split between Pakistan’s pre-Taliban tribal lands, 19th century Canton, modern-day India and South Korea, rural China, swampy Guyana and misty, mysterious Japan.
Perhaps most notable for its omission is Haruki Marukami’s super-hyped, yet critically divisive three-volume tome, ‘1Q84’. Personally, I’m disappointed Anuradha Roy’s gleaming ‘The Folded Earth’ didn’t make the cut, but you can’t have everything. The winner will be announced on March 15. The choice of the Shadow Jury, of which I am a part, will be revealed prior to that. An index to all the Shadow Jury’s longlist reviews can be found here. In the meantime, here’s a cut-out-and-keep guide to the remaining contenders:
The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad (Hamish Hamilton)
Blurb: Set in the decades before the rise of the Taliban, Jamil Ahmad’s stunning debut takes us to the essence of human life in the forbidden areas where the borders of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan meet… in ‘The Wandering Falcon’, this highly traditional, honour-bound culture is revealed from the inside for the first time (via Hamish Hamilton)
Excerpt: The drums started beating in a Bhittani village late one evening. Their booming notes could be heard throughout the night, rolling over the hills with intermittent periods of rest to enable the drum beaters to rebuild their rhythm and energy. As the sombre thudding beat of the drums permeated the airless mud houses and hill caves where the families of the tribe lived, the men shook themselves awake, grabbed their weapons and hurried out into the night towards the source of the sound.
Shadow Jury verdict: ‘What Ahmad has crafted out of this land of endless dust-storms and unforgiving mountain ranges is a beautiful testament to the triumph of the human spirit’ (Eleutherophobia); ‘A brilliant book. Highly recommended’ (ANZLitLovers).
Rebirth by Jahnavi Barua (Penguin India)
Blurb: Rebirth is the story of Kaberi, a young woman coming to grips with an uncertain marriage. It is also an intimate portrait of the passionate bond between a mother and her unborn child. Moving between Bangalore and Guwahati the novel weaves together Kaberi’s inner and outer worlds as she negotiates the treacherous waters of betrayal and loss — an unfaithful husband, a troubled relationship with her parents and the death of a childhood friend (via Penguin India)
Excerpt: You certainly took your time to show up. Year after year, we waited, your father and I, nerves jangling… I never gave up on you, I want you to know that. In the last year I sensed that your father had given up and I tried to tell him not to but he was already drifting away from me and nothing I said seemed to make a difference any more.
Shadow Jury verdict: ‘Barua is strong on descriptive detail but less successful in developing plot interest’ (Read, Ramble); ‘This is a novel of self-rhetoric as Kaberi talks herself round to the fact that her husband isn’t the dream man she had wanted’ (Winstonsdad).
The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya (Macmillan/Picador)
Blurb: A twenty-six-year-old Indian journalist decides to give up his job and travel to a country where he can ‘escape the deadness of his life’. So he arrives in Guyana, a forgotten colonial society of raw, mesmerising beauty. From the beautiful, decaying wooden houses of Georgetown, through coastal sugarcane plantations, to the dark rainforest interior scavenged by diamond hunters, he is absorbed by the fantastic possibilies of this place where the descendants of the enslaved and the indentured have made a new world (via Picador).
Excerpt: On our fourth day a group of porknockers returned to the settlement. They were seven in all, rougher than rough, steppin like razor, they could chew bullets, kick down trees. They came with great big cheer and a supply of wild meat, eager to sport like sport going out of style.
Shadow Jury verdict: ‘This is a remarkably clever book; I’m not surprised that it won the Hindu Literacy Prize’ (ANZLitLovers); ‘masterfully written… the book plays like a graceful, rhythmic song’ (Read, Ramble).
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh (Penguin India)
Blurb: In September 1838 the fortunes of all those aboard three ships in the Indian Ocean – the Ibis, the Anahira and the Redruth – are upended in tempestuous seas. On the grand scale of an historical epic, River of Smoke follows the motley collection of storm-tossed characters to the crowded harbours of China. All struggle to cope with their losses – and for some, unimaginable freedoms – in the alleys and crowded waterways of nineteenth-century Canton (via John Murray).
Excerpt: Like other boat children, Ah Fatt grew up with a bell attached to his ankle, so his family could always keep track of him; like them he had to sit in a barrel when the boat was moving; like them, he had a wooden board tied to his back, so that he would float if he fell in. But the other children lost their boards and bells when they were two or three – Ah Fatt’s stayed on till long afterwards, making him a target of mockery.
Shadow Jury verdict: ‘an epic, intense, richly rewarding novel, as elegaic as it is exhaustive’ (Eleutherophobia); ‘a sophisticated work of literature… a great story by a master story-teller’ (ANZLitLovers).
Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Blurb: Please Look After Mother is the story of So-nyo, a wife and mother, who has lived a life of sacrifice. A few years earlier she suffered a stroke, leaving her vulnerable and often confused. Now, travelling from the Korean countryside to Seoul and her grown-up children, So-nyo is separated from her husband when the doors close on a packed train. Compassionate, redemptive and beautifully written, Please Look after Mother will reconnect you to the story of your own family, and to the forgotten sacrifices that lie at its heart (via Weidenfeld & Nicolson).
Excerpt: It’s been one week since mother went missing. The family is gathered at your eldest brother Hyong-chol’s house, bouncing ideas off each other. You decide to make flyers and hand them out where Mother was last seen. The first thing to do, everyone agrees, is to draft a flyer. Of course, a flyer is an old-fashioned response to a crisis like this. But there are few things a missing person’s family can do, and the missing person is none other than your mother.
Shadow Jury verdict: ‘a deceptively simple novel… if all Korean literature is this good, be prepared to see a whole lot more of it’ (A Novel Approach); ‘a heart-warming story of family… I can see why a million Koreans bought it’ (Winstonsdad).
Dream Of Ding Village by Yan Lianke (Corsair)
Blurb: Told through the eyes of Xiao Qiang, a young boy killed by his family’s neighbours, this seminal novel tells the tragic and shocking story of the blood-contamination scandal in China’s Henan province. With black humour and biting satire, Yan Lianke’s novel is a powerful allegory of the moral vacuum at the heart of Communist China, tracing the relentless destruction of a community (via Corsair).
Excerpt: Turning the soil at the edge of his plot was back-breaking work that had to be done manually. Now that Li Sanren was selling blood two or three times a month, his face had turned sallow, as if his skin were coated with a thin layer of wax. When he’d been the mayor, he could swing a pickaxe as easily as if it were the handle of a hoe, but now it felt like trying to heft a boulder.
Shadow Jury verdict: ‘Lianke’s beautiful descriptions of such a beautiful and desolate landscape sustain the reader through this gut-wrenchingly sad tale’ (Eleutherophobia); ‘his ability to create true, human characters amongst all this is perhaps his greatest gift’ (A Novel Approach).
The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto (Melville House)
Blurb: [The Lake] tells the tale of a young woman who moves to Tokyo after the death of her mother, hoping to get over her grief and start a career as a graphic artist. She finds herself spending too much time staring out of her window, though… until she realizes she’s gotten used to seeing a young man across the street staring out his window, too (via Melville House).
Excerpt: The lake had started looking blurry, and I realized a mist had gathered. All of a sudden, the world before me was shrouded in it. The lake, seen through the mist, was submerged in a pale, milky white, as if a gauzy curtain hung between it and me.
Shadow Jury verdict: ‘it is about grief, trauma and recovery, overlaid with the struggle in Japanese society to not follow the norm blindly’ (Whispering Gums); ‘not a lot happens here. Yoshimoto is far more concerned with character study and development than any kind of plot machinations’ (A Novel Approach).