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Booker Prize 2015

I’m back!

Kind of.

I know this place has been kind of quiet this year – real life keeps getting in the way of me sitting down to write about what I’ve written – which is a shame, ’cause I’ve read some crackers this year: The Spare Room being the most memorable example.

Anyway, in an attempt to get back on the writing horse, I set myself a little goal: read the whole Booker Prize longlist and review them. Which, somehow, I have done.

Over the next day, I’m putting up all my reviews of this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist. I’ve done something a little different, though, and will leave it up to you to see what that is.

Just a few thoughts before we get started. I think the shortlist is about half right, which is symptomatic of the longlist a a whole. About half of the entries are brilliant, and about half are not.

I’m still worried about the introduction of Americans into the mix changes the identity of the prize, and since the official longlist has several Americans on it – and the fact that the favourite to win is American – I think that worry is justified, but it’s clearly not going to change back, so we have to deal with it.

I’ll put up my shortlist and winner tomorrow night, just before the official announcement, with some final thoughts.


Masks (1958) – ENCHI Fumiko

原文名: 女面
作家: 円地 文子
発行年: 昭和33(1958年)

Recommended to me by a colleague, this is the last of my January in Japan reviews. Any keen readers will have noted that I have managed to get through the month reviewing only female authors—this was deliberate, and I hope to do it again in the future.

Ibuki and Mikame are two men fascinated by the same women, Yasuko. Recently widowed, she is still working for her deceased husband’s mother, Mieko, in completing his academic work. But as Ibuki and Mikame are drawn to this beautiful young woman, they find themselves caught up in something much larger than themselves. And though they realise they are being manipulated, they cannot work out by whom, and if it really is all for the best.

Perhaps the best place to begin the discussion is the title. Though translated as Masks in English, the Japanese title, 女面 (on’na-men), refers to a kind of mask used in noh theatre, worn by men playing female roles (noh is so traditional, it doesn’t let women on stage, leaving men to play these roles). As with other noh masks, there are several stock on’na-men that represent certain stock characters—including those from which the three sections—ryo no onna, masugami (増髪) and fukai (深井)—come. The implication, of course, that the three female characters of the novel each align with one of these masks.

Enchi takes this idea of female masks quite literally. The two main female characters are almost impossible to read in their motivations, and as such, the title becomes a little obvious. This is a novel that suggests that women are inherently unknowable—that men are unable to understand what it is that drives women, because everything a woman does is an act, a mask they wear to hide their true motivations.

So we arrive at the end, and are still not quite sure which plan was in action the whole time, and whether or not it actually worked. Did Mieko set out to ensure her daughter died in childbirth, removing the stain from the family line? Or was Yasuko so determined to have a child, she was happy to sacrifice her late husband’s twin to get a child that shared his DNA? Perhaps we will never know.

Perhaps it’s a simply cultural misunderstanding. I have read my fair share of Japanese literature, but Genji is not one I’ve ever been brave enough to tackle. And since Masks is so heavily reliant on a fairly deep understanding of that novel, perhaps it is just beyond me. Because when I finished, there was a definite sense of deflation, of waiting for the next part of the story to begin. The women have tricked the men, hiding behind their womanly masks, but that’s about it. I’m not sure the concept of people hiding behind facades is exactly new—even Mishima was doing it in 1949.

Masks is fascinating, but ultimately frustrating. The lack of exploration of the character motivation is, of course, the point of the novel, but without an understanding of the masks that are being used to define the women, it leaves one a little cold. Maybe a reread after tackling Genji is the way to go.

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Some Thoughts on the 2013 Miles Franklin Award

The winner of the 2013 Miles Franklin Award is announced tonight. Before that, I wanted to add my two cents to the thousands of words about to be written about it.

For the first time I can remember, I have actually read the entire shortlist. There are links to all my reviews below. Note, I didn’t review Modjeska’s The Mountain because I gave up halfway through. Needless to say, I won’t be super excited if it wins.

I’m really hoping Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel wins. I do genuinely think it’s the best novel on the shortlist, but I also said to our Allen and Unwin rep when it came out that I thought it would win the Miles Franklin. I’m really hoping I’m proved right.

However, I will be super surprised if it does. There seems to be so much love out there – from both judges and reading public – for Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship With Birds, that I can’t see anything else beating it.

The Beloved and Floundering are both great first novels, but neither quite reach the heights I would expect from a Miles Franklin winner. I won’t be unhappy if I’m proved wrong on either count.

I’m curious to know what everyone else is thinking about this. Let me know.

My reviews:
Floundering – Romy ASH
Questions of Travel – Michelle DE KRETSER
The Beloved – Annah FAULKNER
The Mountain – Drusilla MODJESKA
Mateship With Birds – Carrie TIFFANY

Announcement: Shadow MALP Jury 2012 Winner

It is our great pleasure to announce the winner of the Shadow Jury’s Man Asian Literary Prize for 2012.

The four-member Shadow Jury has chosen Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil.

WG 02 - Narcopolis

Described variously by the members of the jury as a “strangely compelling” and “utterly, compellingly addictive” novel that “marries a beautiful prose style with some deeply unbeautiful subject matter”, this novel could not be further apart from our winner last year, Please Look After Mother, by Kyung-sook Shin. The fact that such different novels can win the same prize is a testament to the breadth and depth of Asian writing uncovered by the Man Asian Literary Prize. Full reviews of the novel are available at each participating blog.

If Narcopolis wins the Man Asian Literary Prize, it will be the first debut novel to do so under the new rules introduced in 2010. It would also be the first novel from outside North East Asia to win the prize.

The Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize Jury was formed in 2010 to promote the Man Asian Literary Prize throughout the world. It comprises four bloggers: Matthew Todd (, Lisa Hill (, Mark Staniforth ( and Stu Allen ( In its first year, it correctly picked the winner of the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize, Please Look After Mother, by Kyung-sook Shin.

Each blogger reviewed the entire shortlist. Their reviews can be found here.

The Man Asian Literary Prize began in 2007 as a prize for unpublished manuscripts, though was revamped in 2010 to recognise the best Asian novel each year.This is the last year the Prize will be sponsored by the Man Group.

The official Man Asian Literary Prize winner for 2012 will be announced in Hong Kong on Thursday 14 March 2013.

A Slight Delay

Sorry guys for the lack of posts in the last fortnight – real life has become a little tricky, so I haven’t had time to write.

Hopefully this will change this week – I’ll keep you updated.


A Year in Reading (Later Novels)

This is the second part of my end-of-year round-up. For the first part, about first novels, see here.

I guess it’s that time of year, when we all take stock of what we’ve done throughout the year, and decide whether it was all worth it.

Despite my several-month-break in the middle of the year to write a thesis, I’ve managed to squeeze in some good books. And some not-so-good, but this isn’t the place for that. I’ve done something a bit different this year, and instead of a top 5 or a top 10, I’ve just gone with some novels I enjoyed very much. There are no criteria for the list and, as always, these things are purely subjective. I should note, this isn’t just stuff written in 2012 – it’s anything I’ve had a crack at over the past twelve months. So maybe some of these don’t need more people piling praise on them, but I’m only just coming to them.

In an inspired move, I’ve split the list into two: first novels, and others. This post is dedicated to the others.

Writing one novel is a huge achievement. Writing more than one, then, can only be applauded for doing it all over again. Some never have (I’m looking at you, Harper Lee), while others go again, only to be lost to the remainder tables. For those authors that do it again, and then again, it’s proof that a combination of hard work and talent can get you anywhere. Here are some later novels that I’ve very much enjoyed reading this year.

The Glass Canoe, by David Ireland
Reprinted this year in the rather excellent Text Classics series, David Ireland’s Miles Franklin winning novel about a pub in Sydney is a forgotten classic that needs to be read more. A tale about men in Australia, Ireland’s surprisingly tender look at a blokish culture that no longer exists, the inherent tension in the subject matter – that it’s probably a good thing people like this don’t exist anymore, but it’s also a little sad – makes for interesting reading.

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka
It’s like picking your favourite child, but if I had to pick my favourite book from this year, I think Julie Otsuka’s tiny novel would take the crown. The only novel I’ve ever read in first-person plural, she manages to condense several decades worth of history into less than 150 pages, while maintaining a huge cast of protagonists. I don’t want to give away too much, but if you get a chance, please, pick this up.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
Of course, having said that, Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay would have to be a close second, though the two couldn’t be more different if they tried. Ostensibly a story about comic books in America, Chabon tackles the persecution of Jews in twentieth-century Europe, as well as gay rights, as well as magic tricks and superheroes. And though it’s a brick, it’s easy to read and enjoy. Definitely a worthy Pulitzer Prize winner.

The Uncle’s Story, by Witi Ihimaera
What happens when you are gay, and your culture completely rejects you because of it? That’s the question at the heart of Ihimaera’s novel, which takes place in two time periods: the Vietnam War, and present-day New Zealand. The two men at the heart of this novel, one in the 60s and one now, are both dealing with the same question, but in different contexts. It’s an interesting way of viewing the shift in gay rights over the last 50 or 60 years.

The Valley of Masks, by Tarun J Tejpal
Though I’m glad Please Look After Mother won the Man Asian Literary Prize this year, my favourite book on the longlist is still Tejpal’s third novel, an almost sci-fi tale about a cult living in the mountains of India. Denied individuality and pleasure from a young age, these people are turned into trained killers – though as the unnamed protagonist discovers, not everything is as it seems.

A Year in Reading (First Novels)

I guess it’s that time of year, when we all take stock of what we’ve done throughout the year, and decide whether it was all worth it.

Despite my several-month-break in the middle of the year to write a thesis, I’ve managed to squeeze in some good books. And some not-so-good, but this isn’t the place for that. I’ve done something a bit different this year, and instead of a top 5 or a top 10, I’ve just gone with some novels I enjoyed very much. There are no criteria for the list and, as always, these things are purely subjective. I should note, this isn’t just stuff written in 2012 – it’s anything I’ve had a crack at over the past twelve months. So maybe some of these don’t need more people piling praise on them, but I’m only just coming to them.

In an inspired move, I’ve split the list into two: first novels, and others. This post is dedicated to first novels.

There’s something about first novels. Uninhibited by public perception or opinion, first-time writers are simply trying to tell the best tale they can. Of course, without any experience, they don’t always succeed, but there’s something refreshing in reading a piece of writing unadulterated by external factors experienced by more established writers. Here are some first novels that promise great things from writers all around the world.

Chinaman, by Shehan Karunatilaka
Anyone who knows me is aware of how disinterested in cricket I am. I know, it’s un-Australian, but any game that takes five days and requires meal breaks is just not worth my time. So congratulations to Karunatilaka for writing book about an obscure part of Sri Lankan cricket history that I fell in love with. The tale of a drunk old sports journalist, Chinaman is, by turn, funny and heartbreaking, informative and irreverent.

Wulf, by Hamish Clayton
I’m guessing this is the least known book on my list, and that’s ok. It’s a first novel from New Zealand, and Hamish Clayton has done something quite clever in it. Taking an Old English poem, Wulf and Eadwacer, and combining it with a well-known (in New Zealand, I assume) tale about the interactions between the Maori and Pakeha settlements in the 1800s. It is beautiful, restrained and enigmatic. Definitely a hidden gem.

Past the Shallows, by Favel Parrett
What a book. Maybe it’s my English degree kicking in, but it takes a lot to get me emotionally invested in characters – I’m usually more concerned with the actual process and artifice of writing. But Parrett’s debut novel barrelled right past my defences and hit me for six. It’s not a complicated story, but the beauty lies in its simplicity. No exaggeration, I was tearing up by the end, which was awkward, because I was reading it in public.

The Roving Party, by Rohan Wilson
If Parrett appealed to my emotional side, Rohan Wilson appeals to my love of language and innovation that I want to see more of in Australian fiction. Taking the horrific tale of real-life roving parties in Tasmania – groups dedicated to exterminating the Indigenous population – Wilson taps into that streak of Tasmanian Gothic that is truly one of the best sub-genres of Australian fiction.

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers
No one needs to hear another rave review for this book, which is good, because it really deserves the largest audience it can find. It’s the tale of an American soldier coming to terms with the death of his friend in Iraq. Powers is a poet by trade, and the juxtaposition of gorgeously descriptive language with a brutal subject turns this novel into something truly special.

I’m Back!

My thesis has been handed in to the printers, so it’s all over!

Which means … I can start blogging again properly! Wooo!!!

Regular readers will not I’ve fiddled around with the design of this place a bit – it’s cleaner, neater and much nicer, I think.

Weekly reviews are back; they will now go up at 9am Saturday, Sydney time, so you can read a new piece with your morning paper. Assuming anyone still buys a newspaper.

There are two things to watch out for: the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize Jury will be back again this year, though some changes have been made. Keep an eye out for more news in the coming weeks. And I’m also embarking on a reading project I’ve been meaning to do for a long time now, and now that I don’t have uni work to do, I can devote a proper amount of time to it. I’ll hold off announcing what it is exactly until next year, but keep an eye out for it.

I’m also thinking of doing some non-review writing, but I haven’t decided yet what exactly that will be. Depends on how I feel and how much spare time I have. Who am I kidding – an unemployed arts graduate? So much time.

A Short Break

I’ve put this off as long as I can, but unfortunately, due to real life, I’m going to have to take a short break from blogging for a while.

For anyone who cares, I’m writing a thesis about this guy here: Lee Hoe-sung. It’s due in October, and I really need to write it, so I am rapidly running out of free time to read things that don’t relate to the thesis.

Hopefully I’ll see you all on the other side, with a completed thesis.

Winner of the actual Man Asian Literary Prize 2011

Well colour me surprised. We (the Shadow team), picked the right book!!

Please Look After Mother has won the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. Clearly we and the judges have similar (read: good) taste. Woo!

Here’s a picture of Kyung-sook Shin with David Parker. Isn’t it lovely?

Interestingly, a rep came into work today, and we were talking about Korean literature being the Next Big Thing. I wonder if this is the start of a beautiful relationship between Korean literature and the English speaking world?

EDIT: Here’s the official press release.