And the winners are…

Margaret Atwood and Bernadine Evaristo.

An unusual move to choose two winners and neither of them expected by me. But then, my track record of predicting winners is pretty terrible. Neither of these is a bad book and both are worth your time. Congratulations to Atwood and Evaristo in an unusually strong year!

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Ducks, Newburyport — Lucy Ellmann

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For the last five years, I have succeeded in reading all shortlisted books for the prize before the winner was announced. In the past couple of years, I have managed to cram in the longlist as well. This year I failed. And the reason is Ducks, Newburyport.

Ducks, Newburyport is long, sitting at around 1,000 pages. It’s also a very demanding read. With a small handful of interruptions, it’s one uninterrupted stream of consciousness with no periods or paragraph breaks to give you time to breath. I have made it a third of the way through so far and unfortunately am unlikely to get further before the announcement of the winner tomorrow.

And this is a pity. Because Ducks, Newburyport is incredible. And I think it should win.

Ellmann has done something in this book that I don’t think I’ve seen before. She has taken a character (an unnamed woman in Ohio juggling her family commitments and home-based pie baking services, building up to a cocktail party she is not looking forward to) and rendered her perfectly on the page. In essence, the whole book is this woman’s thoughts as she is having them, so it’s almost entirely either her responding to stimuli such as news or what’s go on around her, or free-wheeling associations between ideas and memories prompted by the thought immediately prior. There’s virtually no narrative.

The entire exercise could have been a disaster. I don’t much like stream-of-consciousness writing at the best of times, and I was skeptical that anyone could sustain compelling prose of this sort for so long. Ellmann manages to do so (with the obvious caveat that I’m a third of the way through). Her character is captivating and funny and feels utterly real.

The obvious point of comparison is with Ulysses. Ellmann’s father, Richard Ellmann, wrote probably the definitive biography of Joyce and I can hardly imagine his daughter is unfamiliar with the work. But whereas Ulysses puts weight on style and wears its literary influences on its sleeve, Ellmann’s style is far more subtle, revolving around choice turns of phrase and never losing sight of the person at its heart. It’s remarkable. And I think one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve read in years.

I have nothing more to say. Ducks, Newburyport is superb. Easily my favourite book this year from on the shortlist and off it. Possibly my favourite book of the past five years. And I am looking forward to continuing to enjoy its company for the remaining two thirds. Much as I dislike rooting for a book I haven’t finished, the experience of reading this is simply too good to rush.

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The Testaments — Margaret Atwood

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30 years ago, The Handmaid’s Tale was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Since then, it has maintained its reputation for its exploration of gender relations. And after the success of the Hulu television series based on the novel, Atwood has revisited Gilead to explore how it fell.

I don’t think it’s possible to talk about The Testaments without reference to The Handmaid’s Tale. But stylistically they’re actually quite different. Although both are told with a framing device that presents the stories as historical artifacts of a fleeting theocracy, their subject matter is opposed. The Handmaid’s Tale is an unsettling depiction of the powerless. The Testaments is a somewhat more clinical exploration of power.

Three women’s narratives form the basis for The Testaments: one born within Gilead, one born without, and one at the top of the female hierarchy who had been instrumental in Gilead’s creation. How these stories intersect is interesting and Atwood is at her best when examining how people respond to trauma. She’s much less good with the more overtly political elements.

I’m not going to examine the plot and characters further: Atwood’s marketing team worked to keep the story under wraps and clearly some people derive pleasure from the unexpected. I will however note a handful of my reservations.

Firstly, it is not clear to me why The Handmaid’s Tale benefits from a sequel. As I mentioned in my review linked above, Atwood’s world building in the book wasn’t strong. It worked best as a piece of commentary and further extending that world exposes some of its flaws. Secondly, the characterization of the character outside Gilead isn’t strong, and there are some plot points that don’t entirely mesh with what we know of the characters. Thirdly, although the book is eminently readable, I wasn’t blown away by the writing style. I didn’t think anything particularly innovative was happening here.

All of which makes me wonder what exactly The Testaments is doing on this shortlist. It is probably clear from my other reviews that I have been really impressed by this year’s shortlist. I think there are five really good books on it (spoiler alert: the further I get through Ducks, Newburyport, the more inclined I am to think it should win) and that’s an unusually high hit rate. The Testaments probably wouldn’t have looked out of place in another year, but against this competition it stands out. Particularly when something as strong as Lost Children Archive didn’t make the cut. And I doubt The Testaments’ presence on this list would affect its sales: if you’re anything like me, this was a guaranteed read no matter what prize committees said.

Maybe I buy too heavily into the idea that all else being equal, prizes should be looking to elevate less mainstream writers and if a book’s quality is comparable (or, regrettably, lower) than that found elsewhere, a writer’s reputation and marketability should, if anything, work against them. Probably I’m overthinking this. As with winners, I suspect shortlists represent the least objectionable selection that the judging panel could get behind. In that light, I can see the readability of The Testaments and its themes counting for a lot. I just don’t think it represents the best of this year in fiction.

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Girl, Woman, Other — Bernardine Evaristo

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Girl, Woman, Other explores black female identities in modern Britain. This doesn’t do the book justice, but it’s the core strand connecting the twelve intersecting characters that Evaristo develops across the book’s twelve chapters.

And her development of these characters is impressive. Evaristo has real craft in her use of voice. While the novel remains structurally similar throughout (all first person narrative with a different narrator each chapter, all narration presented largely without punctuation, instead using line breaks to follow lines of thought, four sets of three chapters that tightly connect within the cluster and loosely connect without) each character’s voice is unique.

I used the term ‘black female identities’ at the start deliberately: Evaristo makes clear there is no single ‘identity’ attached to gender and race. Each character is unique and their personal history, family, class identity, friendships and aspirations all lead them to where they are. I was reminded of David Szalay’s All That Man Is, shortlisted in 2016, which set out to accomplish something similar with male identity. I liked, but had reservations about, Szalay’s book. I was genuinely impressed by Evaristo’s.

Which isn’t to say Girl, Woman, Other is without its flaws. Some characters are much better developed than others and at least one fell completely flat for me. But these felt like minor quibbles over what otherwise is a valuable novel, and one definitely worth your time.

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An Orchestra of Minorities — Chigozie Obioma

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An Orchestra of Minorities is a gorgeous book and is, so far, my preferred choice for the prize this year (I should caveat this by saying that I am only 100 pages into Ducks, Newburyport which I strongly suspect is the other main contender). I was left a little underwhelmed by Obioma’s first novel, The Fishermen (shortlisted in 2015), but had really enjoyed his style and An Orchestra of Minorities blew me away.

The novel is focused on Chinonso, a chicken farmer in Nigeria whose love for Ndali, a woman from a higher social class, leads him to attempt to radically change his life. Told from the view of Chinonso’s chi, his guardian spirit, An Orchestra of Minorities unravels along the lines of a classical tragedy.

Obioma handles multiple elements of the story beautifully. Good tragedy unfolds with a sense of inevitability behind every step and, despite the reader knowing how it will end, compels you to follow along. This does precisely that. Obioma also handles his main character of Chinonso wonderfully. Chinonso is at once sympathetic and really frustrating. He keeps making bad choices but Obioma hooks you into caring.

And the narrative voice! It’s superb! Obioma has a deft touch with imagery and whereas Chinonso’s voice reflects his upbringing and limited education, his chi’s voice has genuine a sense of gravitas and heft.

If I had one criticism, it’s that Obioma doesn’t apply these talents to his female characters nearly so well. But I loved this book and it is by a decent margin my preferred pick for the winner this year.

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Quichotte — Salman Rushdie

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My first draft of this review began with the sentence: ‘Quichotte is a mess’. However, in looking around at other critiques, I came across an NPR review saying the exact same thing. Which feels validating, but I wouldn’t want to feel as if I were plagiarizing. So here we are. I’ve called out my reference so it’s still an original comment.

Or is it?

I’m not going to go into the plot of Quichotte too much. It’s a sort of but sort of not re-imagining of Don Quixote told by a fictional Indian-born, English author of spy novels now living in America, written by a real Indian-born, English author of novels now living in America. It’s quirky, has good humanizing elements, and is very much a book intended to offer a metacommentary on literature as well as a critique of American culture. And it does these things pretty well. It’s engaging, at times poignant (Rushdie is very sympathetic in his exploration of the writer and his family), and at times funny. Other reviews cover the plot, but you wouldn’t be wasting your time in reading the book. It’s pacy and entertaining.

I found Quichotte intriguing and wanted it to blow me away. But some elements didn’t quite sit right. The first is that Rushdie is too heavy-handed with his references and research. A lot of things are thrown in more to show that he knows them than because they lend anything to the plot, character development, or broader point of the novel. I also suspect that some of the cultural references will date the book fast. This isn’t necessarily a problem: it’s fine for a book to be of the moment. But some things felt a little dated even while I was reading. And the book’s just come out.

I like that Quichotte exists and I think I like Rushdie more for having written it (Rushdie himself, or at least the reader’s idea of Rushdie, is the target of much of the book). I’m not convinced that Quichotte completely hits the mark it was aiming for, but I love its ambition.

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10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World — Elif Shafak

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In 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World, Elif Shafak creates a rich cast of characters and uses them to explore themes of trauma, love and friendship. The novel is (for it’s first half) a first person narrative told by Leila, who we find at the start dead in a rubbish bin. She is a sex worker who has been murdered. As she dies, she reminisces on the formative experiences in her life and the friendships she has formed, which go on to shape the second half of the story.

Sexual violence is a recurring motif in the book and Shafak doesn’t shy away from exploring the effect it can have on a person. But she is keen to stress that these experiences do not define her characters, and infuses them with a warm core of humanity. This is story about those living on the fringe of society and the family they create with one another.

All this is to say that Shafak has accomplished something quite special: she has created a novel that is at once a condemnation of the treatment of the marginalized, and particularly women, in society and an uplifting narrative. To do so alongside an explicit critique of modern Turkish history and society is impressive. Although this isn’t top of my list to win the prize, I can wholeheartedly recommend it.

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