literary awards

The Man Booker shortlist shows how literary prizes can still help readers find unusual books

A breathtaking ride across this troubled world.

The announcement of the Man Booker Prize shortlist has been greeted with the usual razzamatazz. From an initial longlist of 13 hopefuls, six lucky authors have been chosen to go through to the final award ceremony in October: Paul Beatty, Deborah Levy, Graeme Macrae Burnet, Ottessa Moshfegh, David Szalay and Madeleine Thien.

As always, the shortlist is not without a surprise or two. William Hill had Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk and Iain McGuire’s The North Water neck and neck, both at 5/1. But it’s only Levy who makes the cut – Iain McGuire’s violent tale of Arctic whaling was a surprise omission. For me, McGuire’s violent depictions of frozen wastes take some beating.

The ones left out

Another eyebrow or two might also be raised at the failure of JM Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus to go any further. Coetzee joins a long list of jilted stars in this year’s competition, including Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan and Jonathan Safran Foer, authors who didn’t even make the longlist. Personally, I thought it would have been good to see Virginia Reeves’s Work Like Any Other go forward. Although not without its faults, the evocation of rural Alabama in the 1920s was quite brilliant, as was its central storyline of rural electrification.

What was already clear from the longlist was that this year’s competition was going to include a more eclectic range of writers than perhaps we’ve become used to. The expansive sweep of previous winning novels such as Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North or Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries seemed to be out.

Instead, there was a focus on more intimate stories, narratives grounded in what Wyl Menmuir, one of the longlisted authors, termed the exploration of geographical and psychological space. From rural Alabama, to London, a Cornish fishing village, and a remote Scottish crofting community, the longlist seemed to exude a fascination with the intimate spaces of our lives.

The overt experimentation of David Means’s Hystopia seemed an anomaly in this sense, a rather uncomfortable nod to a very different tradition of writing. It went against the general trend emerging from the longlist: a thematic anxiety around home, an existential interrogation of what such a thing might mean, and the myths and evasions such a concept relies on. Perhaps in part the longlist can be read as a response to globalisation and to the continued, localised, threat of terrorism on our streets.

The six contenders

Unsurprisingly, these themes continue across into the shortlist. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, one of two American authors to make it through, is a literary tour de force, a stream-of-consciousness ride through the social and racial absurdities of suburban America.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, the second American author, has an equally captivating first person voice, but the story is far darker, told by a narrator profoundly disturbed by the events in her life. For a debut novel, Moshfegh’s exploration of deep and lasting emotional damage is quite brilliant.

Canadian Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing examines the recent history of China, exploring the country’s recent global dominance through the lives of three young people. Yet central to the story is the way the author uses both Western music and Chinese art as a means of unlocking the hidden emotional landscape of her characters.

Then there’s David Szalay’s fourth novel, All That Man Is, which emerges out of nine separate stories, each about a different man. What seems to connect each of them is a need to find a sense of meaning in their lives. Under Szalay’s forensic gaze, the contradictions of modern masculinity are laid bare.

Of the British interest, it’s good to see Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project through to the shortlist. His novel is unashamedly an historical crime thriller, set in a small crofting village in mid-19th century Wester Ross. The novel’s shortlisting is as much of a success for the publishers as the author – Saraband is a tiny Glasgow-based house run by just two people.

But if one were to believe the bookies, the other UK contender, Levy, is already well ahead of the pack with Hot Milk. (Although I’ve often wondered how they come up with the odds for these sorts of things – it’s not as if past form has any tangible impact.) Hot Milk explores troubled family relationships, and through that, sexuality and love. Once again, we have a strongly internalised voice, a pared-down minimalism, that nevertheless remains hypnotic and beguiling. It is here, in the quiet and insistent gaps within the writing that the real power of the story emerges.

So, what are we left with? The shortlist certainly contains a somewhat more global flavour than the longlist, which was almost half British. Two of the six are British then, two American, and, perhaps surprisingly, two from Canada (I’ve included the British-raised David Szalay here).

Although we’ve lost some great novels along the way, the shortlist is still a fascinating collection of stories, a breathtaking ride across the troubled land of this world and the voices of those who live on it.

Spencer Jordan, Deputy Director for Creative Writing, University of Nottingham.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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