Two Irish masters vying for this year’s Man Booker Prize

What does the Man Booker Prize mean for established, perhaps even great writers, who have not become huge mainstream successes? Alan Hollinghurst, who famously takes many years to write a book, said it buys time to write.

More than that, though, I suppose it means a far wider readership than before. The Man Booker is one of the most talked-about literary prizes in the English-reading world; it is as mainstream as it gets; and, therefore, it means that a writer on winning it can become known to – and, with luck, admired by – many people other than his already devoted followers.

Colm Toibin and William Trevor are two Irish masters on this year’s longlist. Both have been shortlisted before. Neither has won the prize. Will either of them go the distance this time around?

Trevor has been publishing for half a century. Toibin is, for my money, one of the finest living writers in English. And neither actually have the sort of readership that, say, Ian McEwan has.

How many books by either/both have you read?

Toibin’s Brooklyn, set in an Irish town and New York, is a sparse, elegiac, deeply affecting novel shot through with longing and loss. Its memorable protagonist leaves her hometown for New York; she loses herself, and then finds herself there. Then something dreadful happens, and we see how she is torn between desire and duty, the succour of the familiar and the thrill of the new. Focusing on the themes of belonging and exile, this is one of Toibin’s best novels.

Trevor, now 81, sets his minutely calibrated Love and Summer in a quiet, uneventful Irish town. The action unfolds over the course of a summer in which a reticent farmer’s wife falls in love a photographer. That cursory plot synopsis does no justice to Trevor’s humanity, his alert eye and ear, and his nuanced, beautiful prose. Love and Summer may not be Trevor at his best. But even when not at the top of his game, he is a better writer than most.

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