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Man Booker Prize 2002

Longlist

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Who's Sorry Now?
Howard Jacobson


Ann Oliver

What happens when a couple reach a comfortable but seemingly passionless middle age, with two grown up kids, in an early 21st century society that upholds the absolute right to personal happiness and fulfilment as the highest state to which mankind can aspire?

Howard Jacobson asks the question of children's writing team the CC Merriweathers, and of their old university friends Marvin and Hazel Kreitman. Marvin, once an academic with an interest in Francis Place, now South London's king of small leather goods, is a sentimental but serial womaniser, Hazel a serial shopper. A boozy Soho dinner leads Marvin and Charlie down a haphazard path along which they find out whether the marital grass really is greener on the other side of the fence.

The bike-messenger catalyst that sets off this chain reaction of exploding relationships is Nyman (or Niemand or Norman, as he tells everyone he was known during the reality-TV exposure that makes him the darling of both couples' late-teenage kids). He is remiscent of Till Eulenspiegel, the clownish German folk character. And Nyman is the antihero who holds up the owl-mirror (Eulenspiegel) to reflect the characters' (and particularly Marvin's) folly, but as everyone is busy pursuing their own sexual and emotional nirvana, his merry pranks finally spill from slapstick over into violence.

Jacobson accurately conjures the atmosphere of contemporary emotional malaise, punctuating it with satisfying sideswipes at current trends from Harry Potter to multiculturalism. And just like in the Connie Francis torch song, Marvin, devotee of pain, gets his comeuppance. But it hurts us just as much as it hurts him.

 

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