From New York dental surgery to rural Bengal, Country Life assesses the 2014 Book Prize shortlist.

We are all completely beside ourselves
Karen Joy Fowler
(Serpent’s Tail, £7.99 *£7.59)
A quarter of the way through this tale of Rosemary, an American student trying to find her disappeared twin sister and animal-rights activist brother, she reveals that the ‘sister’ is a chimpanzee. At this point, I wanted to throw the book against the wall. Their destructive father treated his family as a laboratory experiment and, after a hauntingly awful, but inevitable, incident, he got rid of the chimp. The subject is worthy, but the understandably dysfunctional Rosemary is not endearing, masking her pain with a smart-arse tone. It’s had rave reviews, but this doesn’t smell like a Booker winner to me.

J
Howard Jacobson
(Jonathan Cape, £18.99 *£15.99)
Dystopian novels are not my cup of tea, but this has winner written all over it. The plot is cleverly, if slowly, revealed, the subject thought-provoking, the characters well-developed and the premise original (if unashamedly Orwellian). But J is heavy, bleak, profoundly unsettling and hard work. It’s set in a country that’s vaguely recognisable as Britain, with characters who are vaguely recognisable as British, although they live in a post-apocalyptic time, after an event known only as ‘WHAT HAPPENED IF IT HAPPENED’ or, in a rare smile-generating moment, the ‘pissastrophe’. The central theme follows a romance between a paranoid wood-turner and a young orphaned artist. Drip-fed small details of the apocalypse, the reader pieces together a jigsaw puzzle of nano-facts: some kind of pogrom has occurred, place names have changed, everyone is forced to adopt Jewish surnames, the country’s mood is monitored by Ofnow and communication has taken a backward step after ‘people wrote to one another by phone and wrote such horrid things that the practice had to be discouraged’. But persevere; it’s worth the journey.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
Joshua Ferris
(Viking, £12.99 *£11.69)
Paul O’Rourke is a Manhattan dentist suffering an existential crisis. As the self-confessed atheist searches for more meaning to his life while telling patients to floss more, he contemplates such issues as the meaning of being a true baseball fan and why he can’t enjoy ‘normal’ pleasures like buying rugs. But when someone starts impersonating him on Facebook and Twitter, the comic theological thriller takes a darker turn. Mr O’Rourke feels helpless in combating this cyber mind-burglar, particularly as his online doppelgänger is uncannily well-informed about his thoughts. Some of the prose passages are sublimely constructed and witty, but the links are occasionally clunky and, sometimes, it comes across as one long Woody Allen-esque Jewish joke. It won’t win, but never have fillings been so amusing.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Richard Flanagan
(Chatto & Windus, £16.99 *£14.99)
‘It’s everyday living that does us in,’ a colleague says to military surgeon Dorrigo Evans. And so it proves. A survivor of the Burma death railway, Evans is unwillingly thrust into the limelight as a hero on his return, but struggles to re-engage with normal life.  The narrative jumps around in place and time, but the strongest passages are when we return to the jungle. In many ways, the techni colour depiction of extreme violence being meted out in a tropical circle of hell can’t possibly be matched by the scenes of Evans at home in Australia, but perhaps that’s the point and the fact that it was the quotidian that ended up defeating those who made it out alive. A powerful book with a few trying digressions, this isn’t a favourite to win, but that’s no reason not to pour a stiff drink and get stuck in.

The Lives of Others
Neel Mukherjee
(Chatto & Windus, £16.99 *£14.99)
The beginning and the end of this novel are particularly disturbing and there is much that is unbearably harsh in between and, yet, there is something strangely gripping, inspiring a desire to know what happens to these flawed and often unsympathetic characters. It’s a story of the breakdown of a family whose members rarely show attractive character traits, but who are all too believably human. Set in Calcutta and rural Bengal, alien surroundings to most of us, the author manages to create a vivid sense of place and of the grinding, inescapable poverty. It’s a dark book, but it invokes a gradual, if grudging, respect from the reader it could be a prize-winner.

How to be both
Ali Smith
(Hamish Hamilton, £16.99 *£14.49)
For readers of Ali Smith’s new novel, the fun begins before you’ve even left the bookshop. The parallel narratives telling the stories of a recently bereaved teenage girl and a 15th-century artist are ordered differently, depending on which of the two versions you take home. You can savour them either way round, but your starting point will inevitably (and indelibly) shape your experience of the whole. If this sounds like an infuriating piece of meta-textual trickery, it isn’t. It’s clever, wry and thought-provoking like everything in this deservedly shortlisted book. If I were the gambling sort, I’d wager the contents of my wallet on it to win.

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