I’d hoped the presence of the poet Imtiaz Dharker among this year’s judges would ensure there was some verse on the short list for the Ondaatje Prize, announced yesterday, but it hasn’t. It’s a strong list, though, featuring two novels (one set in the Pakistan/Afghanistan border region, the other moving between Bondi and the labour camps of the Burma Railway); a memoir by a former Labour Home Secretary of his London boyhood; and three books dealing in one way or another with natural history: on badgers, urban wildlife in Aberdeen, and green spaces ranging from the Cambridgeshire fens to the exclusion zone at Chernobyl. The green spaces are visited by Tim Dee in Four Fields, which has already featured on Deskbound Traveller. I’m looking forward to dipping into the other books for extracts to run in Telegraph Travel next weekend (in print on May 10, online possibly earlier).
Here’s the full list, with the judges’ summary of each book:
The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam (Faber)
Set in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the months following 9/11, this novel brings home the complexities of life and belief on the frontiers, reminding us that the essence of a place can be one of conflict rather than harmony, almost impossible to resolve.
Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham (Granta)
A lyrical, deep and humane investigation of our relationship with one of the British countryside’s more controversial animals.
Spirit House by Mark Dapin (Tuskar Rock Press)
A compassionate, subtle and darkly humorous novel about a complex subject – it deals with male psychology and the architecture of historical wounds terrifically well.
Four Fields by Tim Dee (Jonathan Cape)
The seemingly restrictive framework of four fields is used to throw open a wide-ranging meditation on the world and how we live in it. There are moments of horror, beauty and sheer poetry.
This Boy by Alan Johnson (Bantam Press)
A scrupulous yet moving memoir of a particular area of London, with its boundaries, streets, people and poverty – which also captures the elusive spirit of place that imprints itself on a child, and is never forgotten.
Field Notes From a Hidden City by Esther Woolfson (Granta)
Aberdeen has never seemed so rich in wildlife as it does in this book, which follows the rhythm of a year, moving from loving observation of local dunes, streets, woods and gardens out to wider considerations of the universe, and our attitudes to the natural world.
The winner will be announced on May 19.