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Banville’s Blitz

Banville’s Blitz

John Banville, Man Booker Prize winner in 2005 with The Sea, is rattling the Royal cage. His new novel, The Secret Guests, is based in a rumour he heard that the current Queen and Princess Margaret hid in a stately home in Ireland during the Blitz. The Queen, he says, “disappeared for an afternoon” during her visit to the Republic in 2011 and “I bet she was down there”  – “there” being the house in the Irish Midlands where he thinks the princesses sheltered. “A friend of mine grew up in the midlands,” says Banville, “and was taking his father for a drive one Sunday afternoon and they passed by the gates of the big house demesne and my friend’s father said, ‘Oh, that’s where the princesses were during the Blitz.’” He elaborates: “My friend’s father was in charge of security in that part of Ireland and they told him about the princesses. So I do think they were there. Why not? They evacuated all the other kids from London, why not the princesses?” Why not indeed? Except that the Palace says in response: “This is not something we would comment on, and I would at this stage direct you to what has previously been reported, that Her Majesty and Princess Margaret spent most of the war years at Windsor Castle.”

Birds are not known to be readers of literary fiction but the feathered inhabitants of Ontario in Canada have reason to be grateful to one of the current Booker Prize champs, Margaret Atwood. With her late husband Graeme Gibson, Atwood helped to found the Pelee Island Bird Observatory (PIBO) in Ontario in 2003 which researches and promotes the conservation of birds. Atwood, currently the group’s honorary chairperson, is issuing a special edition of 300 slipcased versions of The Testaments, with all profits going to PIBO. The volume comes complete with Atwood’s signature, decorative endpapers, and “hidden ephemera”. As Atwood says: “Leaked documents from inside Gilead can be yours, plus bird protection! A total package!”. Yes, they can be yours, if you have $1,500 to spare.

The Booker Prizes’ Arabic equivalent, International Prize for Arabic Fiction, has just announced its shortlist. Each of the six shortlistees, representing five countries, will receive $10,000, with the winner receiving an extra $50,000. The prize is supported by The Booker Prize Foundation with the aim of spreading awareness of fiction from the region to a wider audience – partly through the winning book being translated into English (another element of the winner’s prize reward). Last year’s winner, The Night Mail by Hoda Barakat, is currently being translated by Marilyn Booth – the woman responsible for translating Jokha Al Harthi’s 2019 Man Booker International Prize winner, Celestial Bodies – and will be published in September by Oneworld. The prize will be awarded on 14 April in Abu Dhabi.

Increasing the number of different voices in fiction is also a motivating force behind the Vilcek Foundation in America. It was founded in 2000 by Jan and Marica Vilcek, two immigrants from Czechoslovakia, to honour immigrant contributions to the United States in the arts and sciences. This year it has just handed out $250,000 in awards. One of the recipients was Valeria Luiselli, who was selected for a Creative Promise in Literature gong. Some might argue that Luiselli, who was born in Mexico City and grew up in South Korea, South Africa, and India, has already done rather more than simply show “creative promise”. Her Lost Children Archive was longlisted for last year’s Booker Prize.

Where The Booker Prizes lead. . .  Canada’s premier literary award, the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize for Fiction is for the first time accepting submissions of graphic novels. This trail was blazed in 2018 by the Booker Prize when Nick Drnaso’s dark graphic novel Sabrina was longlisted for the prize.