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Exam time nerves

Exam time nerves

Top marks to Salman Rushdie and Bernardine Evaristo, Booker Prize winners both. They have been shortlisted by OCR, one of the leading exam bodies setting A, AS and GCSE papers in Britain, as potential authors of set texts – surely a sign that your reputation is carved in stone. The OCR examination board is currently considering five works to add to its A-level English literature course next year in order to add diversity to its current list “the better to reflect society”. The new choices are being voted on by teachers and Rushdie’s Shame is in the “Gothic” section alongside Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, while Evaristo is in the “women in literature” section up against Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and another Bookerite, Ali Smith with her How to be Both. The winners of this literary arm wrestle will be announced in June.

Dame Hilary Mantel has been showing – again – that she is completely fearless. Back in 2013 she caused a right royal brouhaha when she made some comments about the bodies and breeding expectations surrounding the women who married into the Royal Family. Commentators piled in, often oblivious to the context of the great dame’s remarks – which were a plea for kindness from the public and media – and hounded her as if the hanging, drawing and quartering days were still here. Undaunted, Mantel has ventured back on to this inflammatory territory. In the wake of the death of Prince Philip, she has said she believes that the monarchy is facing the “endgame”: “I don’t know how much longer the institution will go on. I’m not sure if it will outlast William. So I think it will be their last big era.” So far Mantel’s head is still on her shoulders. . .

The Booker Prize and the Royal Family has, of course, another connection. The Duchess of Cornwall is a huge supporter of the prize and a regular attendee at the winner award ceremony. Now news emerges that she is to be played in the new series of The Crown by Olivia Williams. One degree of separation and all that: Williams herself is a Bookerite, being one of the actors who read excerpts of the shortlisted books at the 2017 Man Booker ceremony – indeed she met Camilla at the event. Depending on how Williams interprets her new role, it could make for an interesting problem for whoever works out the seating plan for a future Booker Prize dinner.

While the opening line of a novel can often be an indication that what follows is not going to be much cop, it doesn’t necessarily reveal how good a good novel is going to be. One enterprising media site recently printed the openings of the six books shortlisted for the International Booker Prize so that readers could do their own compare and contrast. The shortest opening sentence is just five words long (and two more contain just six), while the longest contains 46. It is hard to tell what, if any, conclusions can be drawn but Eric Vuillard (“His father had been hanged” from The War of the Poor) is in competition with Benjamín Labatut (“In a medical examination on the eve of the Nuremberg Trials, the doctors found the nails of Hermann Göring’s fingers and toes stained a furious red, the consequences of his addiction to dithrydocodeine, an analgesic of which he took more than one hundred pills a day”, from When We Cease to Understand the World) in the laconic vs expansive stand-off.

Ben Okri, a Booker Prize winner and stalwart, is never an idle man. The latest offering to emerge from the pen of the poet and novelist can be seen from July at the Young Vic Theatre in London. Okri has taken an ancient Egyptian poem, The Tale of Sinuhe, from c1875 BC, and recast it for the stage as Changing Destiny. The story explores “the essence of humanity and the complexities of immigration” as well as divine power and free will and follows the travails of a courtier, Sinuhe, who flees Egypt at the death of the king. Okri’s telling will gain added heft from a stage design by the lauded architect Sir David Adjaye and the director Kwame Kwei-Armah.