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Sherlock Holmes and Sunjeev Sahota

Sherlock Holmes and Sunjeev Sahota

Man Booker aficionados might remember that last year's winner, Richard Flanagan, was predicted ahead of time by a ‘Mr Smith’, a mystery punter from the north east who claimed not to have read any of the shortlisted books but made his choice on the basis of scouring reviews and examining the judges' Wikipedia pages. ‘Mr Smith’ said ‘I never read any of the books because, quite frankly, fiction is not my thing. I had, therefore, to spend much more time reviewing the judges than the actual books themselves. I did a case study of each judge, using Wikipedia and YouTube, and read as much as I could about the books they had written, their interests, their politics and religious beliefs and then, through a process of Sherlock Holmes deductive reasoning, tried to intuit which book they would go for.’ His system worked, he placed 13 bets and cleaned up. ‘Mr Smith’, described as ‘middle-aged, well-spoken and fair-haired’ (not that that narrows it down too much) has been at it again. And the Sherlock Holmes of Darlington's decision this year? Sunjeev Sahota's The Year of the Runaways.

 

Sahota has just been the subject (victim?) of a ‘Five Fascinating Things…’ column on The Better India website. Among the morsels it unearthed is the information that ‘He published his first novel, Ours Are the Streets in 2011, while working in the marketing department of an insurance company’ and that he ‘loves reading Russian literature and is influenced by the classical mode of storytelling’. Elsewhere Sahota has been discussing the migrants theme of his novel and giving broad pointers as to what might come next: ‘I’m interested in a world where inhabitants have a strong, often conflicted, sense of cultural duality and the internal and external tension that creates. I don’t see myself ever writing a novel that’s entirely located in one country, India or the UK.’

 

Another of the shortlisted authors, Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings, has pointed out that turning fact – in his case, an attempt to assassinate Bob Marley – into fiction requires some sort of switch to flick and allow reportage to become literature. For James it was the whisperings of his home island: ‘All of it is rumours,’ he says. ‘In Jamaica, you trust rumours. You don’t trust facts. Facts come with an agenda.’

 

The slightly tongue-in-cheek words of the Man Booker chair of judges Michael Wood that the shortlist is ‘pretty grim’ have been widely reported. As one commentator points out though the shortlist is nothing new: ‘The classics of literature are full to brim with murder, madness, revenge and misery.’ By way of illustration Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye and Lolita are name-checked, as are two former Man Booker winners, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The reason for this? ‘The darkness of the world crouches at our door’ and fiction helps us deal with it. So think of this year's MB shortlist as a public service.

 

Finally, congratulations to two former Man Booker judges, Robert Macfarlane (chair of judges 2013) and Sir Jonathan Bate (judge 2014). Both eminent professors (Cambridge and Oxford respectively) have been longlisted for the pre-eminent non-fiction prize, the Man Booker's equally good-looking sibling the Samuel Johnson Prize. Macfarlane's Landmarks and Bate's Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life are among the 12 nominated titles. Fingers crossed they make it on to the shortlist which is announced on 11 October.