Booker Shortlist 2019 Announced

Here.

The shortlisted novels are:
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

I must confess to being a little behind on this project, as I have somehow managed to read all the longlisted novels that didn’t make the shortlist (except for Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything which was only just released). I have read enough of the Shafak and Evaristo to feel their inclusion is merited. An Orchestra of Minorities is stunning. I’m mildly dreading Ducks, Newburyport.

So what of the books that didn’t make it? Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry was engaging and pacy, somewhat reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. Lanny by Max Porter was a gorgeous little novel: not the most inspiring of prose or plot, but it shone by turning snippets of everyday speech into poetry. Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli is magnificent: it’s the only longlisted book I’m surprised didn’t make the shortlist. It weaves together multiple stories, plays with structure and voice, and is technically superb throughout. It also left me feeling completely cold: for a story with real pathetic potential, it just lacked a hook to get me invested in any of the characters and their struggles.

Most impressively, there is no book here (that I have read so far) that I would warn against. This is a really strong longlist and even those that haven’t merited comment from me (My Sister, The Serial Killer, The Wall, and Frankissstein) are entertaining and have something to say.

With the award of the winner scheduled for 14th October, I aim to publish a review of one book per week for the next 6 weeks. I will be interested to know your thoughts as I go through!

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Booker Longlist 2019 Announced

Here.

This year has been a big year for the Booker Prize with the Man Group withdrawing after 18 years of sponsorship to be replaced by Crankstart. I doubt that will have any effect on the process of selecting novels, and am reassured to know that the prize is supported for at least the next five years.

This year’s longlist has me quite excited: I have read at least one novel from half the nominated authors and am pleased to see a relatively diverse field in terms of gender and ethnicity. As ever, The Guardian has a fuller summary of the longlist than I could hope to provide, having read none of the nominees. I look forward to the next few months of reading, and shall be posting reviews of the shortlisted books once they are announced in September.

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The Long Take — Robin Robertson

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While I don’t think it will win, I am really glad that The Long Take made the shortlist. This year’s longlist contained two books using less conventional media: Sabrina was a mediocre graphic novel and The Long Take is largely verse. In the past, I sense Booker judges have been reluctant to shortlist books with less mainstream appeal. A case in point would be the utterly superb The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, which failed to move past the longlist in 2014 despite being better than a good half of those that did.

The Long Take tells the story of Walker, a Scottish WWII veteran suffering from PTSD, trying to make a living in America. The story is a fascinating blend of the internal and external, using the verse to show Walker’s thoughts and experience, while drawing heavily on cinema and the real world setting, as well as using the occasional photography to explore America’s post-war boom. It is to the recurring theme of American cinema that the book owes its title.

At no point was I moved in reading The Long Take. I never truly engaged with Walker or the surrounding characters. But I admired it for its achievement and would love to see more work in its mold. Moreover, in drawing attention to a highly acclaimed but little known poet’s first novel (quasi-novel?), I think the Booker is performing an important service for British literature, an essential part of its mission from conception.

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The Overstory — Richard Powers

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I’ve made little secret of the fact that this is the book I shall be rooting for tomorrow. I think in many respects, it’s the most ambitious on the list, as well as being very well crafted and, in places, highly moving. It’s also not without its flaws, of which more in a moment.

The Overstory is an ecological call to arms, primarily focusing on trees, and following nine different story threads which intertwine throughout the book. This is ambitious, and the ambition is impressive in itself. But even more impressive is that Powers accomplishes it successfully. The characters he describes are distinct, compelling and thoroughly plausible.

Powers’ strengths here are twofold: firstly, he is very good at portraying relationships and motivations. His characters act according to clearly identifiable traits and desires and because of this, keeping track of the wide cast of characters is actually quite easy. Their clear motivations mean one quickly settles into the book, and I could readily identify with many of them. Secondly, Powers packages his research in an engaging fashion. I came away from reading this knowing more about some trees than I had going in, and wanting to know more. Some passion, albeit fleeting, was stoked and that’s an indicator to me of quality.

The book’s emotional peak falls 70% of the way through, and I found it incredibly moving. Two characters are brought together quite quickly and Powers portrays their relationship beautifully. The peak is crushing, and I shan’t say more. But its crushing-ness (yes, it’s not a word, but I’m running with it) speaks to the power of Powers’ (yup, I’m running with that too) narrative.

However, this is also the book’s biggest problem: that it peaks too soon. Sometimes this can work, and Powers clearly is trying to use the remaining 30% to some extent to explore the emotional fallout of a key event. But his skills lay in the build-up, and the back third of the novel felt more like clean-up than anything. The end itself, when it comes, is faintly unsatisfying, at least in a couple of the storylines.

I’ve been questioning my preference for The Overstory over the past couple of days, hence the delay on the review. Washington Black has its flaws, but at least it’s consistently very good. While The Overstory is never bad, I would probably venture that you could stop reading after page 350(ish – crucially, read to the end of “Trunk”) and have a phenomenal experience. So do I feel comfortable saying a book I wouldn’t necessarily recommend you read in its entirety should win?

I think so. Powers’ writing is incredibly strong and that emotional peak I mentioned is just that good. The dilemma he poses reminded me of Martin Amis’ comment, as reported by the New Yorker, when asked to name Ian McEwan’s greatest achievement: he replied “The first 200 pages of Atonement”. The first 350 pages of The Overstory deserve to win the Booker Prize this year. Even if it means taking the other 150 pages along for the ride.

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The Mars Room — Rachel Kushner

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OK, I realise I’m starting to sound like a broken record. I disliked Milkman but from then on my opinion on the shortlisted books I’ve talked about has pretty much been “yeah… they’re good, but could have been better”. I’m going to be upfront: they’re all like that. Some are better than others. Washington Black will probably win. I most enjoyed The Overstory. But they’re all flawed.

Here’s the thing. The shortlist is never mind-blowing. At best you get two or three brilliant books, two or three pretty good books, and one or two “Why was that there?” books. 1996 (and maybe 2005) stand out for their sheer depth of quality, but they’re aberrant. Look at any other year and ask yourself: if the two best books in that year were stricken from the record, how well would that year continue to hold up? Because that’s what happened this year.

So. The Mars Room. It’s definitely not in “Why was that there?” territory. Its main character (Romy Hall) is serving two consecutive life sentences for murder and is faced with a personal loss which threatens her son’s well-being. Incapable of helping from prison, the book addresses her frustrations with the system, as well as providing a description of her life behind bars and recollections of her life prior to the sentence.

The perspective is unusual and welcome. Women in prison often aren’t much discussed and Kushner does so sympathetically. She also does so unsparingly, providing a well-researched and compelling portrayal of an underclass brutalising each other having been brutalised themselves, and frequently failed by a system that now blames them.

And this is also the problem. The Mars Room is hampered by this research and Kushner’s determination to make what is undeniably an important point. In having her characters all serving to deliver her message about the structural flaws in America’s justice system (and welfare systems beyond that), too little time is devoted to developing characters outside of that. Really, if Kushner wanted to do this justice, she might have been better served writing narrative non-fiction, maybe collaborating with somebody actually in the prison system. As it is, she tries to do too much with too little space, and The Mars Room is the lesser for it.

So yeah… it’s good. But it could have been better.

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Everything Under — Daisy Johnson

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Everything Under was a difficult book to form an opinion of. A re-imagining of the Oedipus story, Johnson follows a lexicographer, Sarah, and her attempt to find her mother who abandoned her as a child. She intertwines this with stories from the mother, now suffering from dementia, who gradually reveals details of Sarah’s childhood, as well as with stories from Sarah’s own memories. This intertwining is clever, and subtly done, and I greatly appreciated the trust Johnson placed in her readers to follow barely developed side characters across time, with little effort placed in really locating a scene.

Johnson’s description of the waterways of Oxfordshire reveals her appreciation for the landscape. It’s little surprise that her first collection of stories was titled Fen, and I may need to try that at some point.

Unfortunately, there are some aspects of the book that fall short. A monster in the waterways haunts Sarah, but I never found the descriptions of it particularly compelling or menacing. Sarah herself is largely unsympathetic. And ultimately, I think Johnson ends up constricted by her source material. The end felt inevitable not because the characters involved were pulled inexorably towards it, but more because Johnson had signalled her paralleling of the Oedipus plot so frequently that she couldn’t not finish as one might expect.

This isn’t to be taken as a general criticism of retelling old stories: writers can do so with great success. But they either need to be adding something to our understanding of the story, or subverting our expectations in some way. Johnson did neither. Hence my difficulty in forming an opinion. I really liked Johnson’s style, but felt the overall plot and characterisation let down a potentially very good book.

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Washington Black — Esi Edugyan

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I have mixed feelings about Washington Black. The story is really good: Washington Black (Wash), a slave on a Barbados plantation, is selected as personal servant to the brother of the owner. A friendship grows between the two of them, and Wash is ultimately liberated through an adventure on a hot air balloon. He journeys across the US to the North Pole before the brother abandons him, leaving Wash to fend for himself. Wash is freed from his circumstances, but trapped by his history and colour, and the remainder of the book wrestles with this, culminating in a strong ending.

Edugyan’s writing is consistently sound and largely devoid of distracting artifice. Between its story, themes and writing, I think this is a very strong contender for the prize.

Unfortunately, it didn’t engage me. While the writing is sound, it lacks emotional resonance. The start is a good illustration of this: Edugyan begins on the plantation and within a few pages is depicting the brutality of a slave society. However, with no time to establish character, the harsh treatment of slaves is rendered almost clinical. A character is introduced by name, tortured, and killed within the space of about two paragraphs and it’s hard to feel invested in a character we only meet in death. Moreover, these scenes are rendered in descriptive detail with little emotional response, yet this is ostensibly the perspective of an eleven year old Wash. Edugyan hasn’t just squandered an opportunity to elicit an emotional engagement with the setting; she’s not establishing a connection with her protagonist either. And while the specifics change, the book follows a pattern of detachment throughout, despite being a first person narrative.

As I said, I wouldn’t be surprised if this won the overall prize: it is a very good book. My objections are that the book could have been great. But this year, very good may be sufficient. The best books didn’t make the cut. And if I were betting on the outcome, I’d put my money on Washington Black. Even if I personally continue to root for The Overstory.

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