The Long Take — Robin Robertson

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

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

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

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

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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Milkman — Anna Burns

Set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Milkman follows an unnamed 18-year-old who draws the unwanted attentions of a high-profile member of a paramilitary organization. Within their small community, gossip quickly spreads that they are having an affair, thus creating the book’s main thread of conflict.

I’m not going to dwell long on Milkman. I didn’t like it. I didn’t find the main character sympathetic or even, at times, believable. Burns writes dialogue that nobody would ever say. And she has a tendency to create paragraphs spanning multiple pages which would be fine if the quality of her prose created the natural rhythms required to help one to follow the writing. But it doesn’t. And this is compounded by her decision to have the narrator only refer to people by their relationship to her (if close) or other identifying features (if not), which quickly became tedious to follow.

For the sake of fairness, I should note that Milkman has been receiving widespread praise, from The Guardian, The Irish Times, The New Statesman, The Telegraph, and The Times (paywall). However, I don’t see myself recommending anybody read this. If you want something similar in tone, most of Margaret Atwood’s output would be a far better starting place. And for books addressing the Troubles, you have no shortage of options.

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Booker Shortlist 2018 Announced


The shortlisted novels are:
Milkman by Anna Burns
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
Everything Under by Daisy Johnson
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
The Overstory by Richard Powers
The Long Take by Robin Robertson

As with last year, I have read all bar one of the shortlist and the rest of the longlist. Washington Black was only very recently released, and I expect to finish it within the next couple of days.

Some thoughts on the shortlist:

One non-white face. The longlist managed two. That seems very few. Are we really saying that 85% of the best books published in English over the past year were written by white folks?

The construction “as if” appears to have been completely replaced by the word “like”. It’s as if (like?) nobody cares to make the distinction any more.

Two experimental novels made the list. The Long Take is genuinely interesting and I thought quite highly of it. Milkman was such a slog to get through that it delayed my progress by at least two weeks.

Warlight and Normal People were superb. Their omission is disappointing. Everything Under was good but not great. The Mars Room was better but still not great. My ideal shortlist would have cut Milkman and Everything Under in favour of Warlight and Normal People. I would have kept The Mars Room. This would have led to a serious competition for my favour.

As it is, of the five books I have read, I am rooting for The Overstory, which is highly ambitious and brilliant if a little flawed (of which more later). Washington Black may yet change my mind.

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Booker Longlist 2018 Announced


Having largely ignored this year’s novels, the longlist entirely comprises books I have never heard of. The Guardian offers some commentary and I intend to read through the entire longlist. I found last year that doing so was hugely helpful in commenting on the shortlist. Expect reviews immediately following the announcement.

To those who have stuck with me, thank you. I know I have been silent for almost an entire year. Writing does not come easily to me and I burned out on this project. Having in the past committed myself to bursts of reviews (I managed one a day for a month at one point) that were inevitably followed by long fallow periods in which I recovered, I need to rethink my approach. I may continue to be silent for some time after this Booker period and I apologise.

For anyone else reading through the shortlist, I’m interested to hear your thoughts as things go!

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And the winner is…

Lincoln in the Bardo.

Thoroughly deserved.

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Lincoln in the Bardo — George Saunders


My word. This book was made for my dual projects! A Man Booker shortlisted book about the president I probably hold highest in my estimation and, even better, it’s amazing.

Just under a year into the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s youngest two sons fell seriously ill with what was probably typhoid. The youngest son, Tad Lincoln, survived. Willie Lincoln did not. Saunders’ novel follows Willie Lincoln into the Bardo, a Tibetan Buddhist name for the liminal state between life and death, while his family, and particularly his father, grieve. The book has three components to it: the thoughts and actions of those in the Bardo who tell the story in their own (fictional) words; an imagined visitation by Abraham Lincoln to the tomb where his son lies, told by the living and dead characters who observe it; and an historical account of the events building up to, during, and after Willie’s death, told through the writings of contemporaries, historians, and biographers.

This is one of the most creatively imagined works of fiction I have encountered. The novel is filled with voices and Saunders slips effortlessly between them. Particularly impressive is his building of scenes and characters from historical sources: Saunders compiles multiple descriptions of the same aspect of the scene or character to build his description. Fascinatingly, the sources frequently disagree but the author offers no comment or resolution. The notion of liminality pervades the book.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a seriously clever book. Saunders handles abrupt shifts in tone, from the amusing to the deeply sad with ease, and he builds highly sympathetic characters. His novel is wonderfully inventive and original and his style is incredibly effective. It is, without a doubt, my favourite book of the shortlist and the one I consider most deserving of winning.

This year’s longlist has been remarkable. None of them would have looked out of place in the shortlist and in any year, I would say 4 3 2 1, Days Without End, and possibly Home Fire could have been weighty contenders for the prize. Elmet and Exit West shouldn’t be completely discounted either. And yet I would put Lincoln in the Bardo head and shoulders above all of those that made the shortlist.

And with that, I’m done with this year’s shortlist. All that remains is to tune in tomorrow to see the result!

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