On September 13, the 13-book longlist for the Man Booker Prize will be whittled down to six by the five-member jury chaired by Baroness Lola Young. But before that, a reader decided to read all 13 titles on the longlist and pick his own shortlist. Over to our one-person jury:
I endeavoured to read the Man Booker longlist in its entirety in 2016. By the time the winner – Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was announced, I had read nine books out of the 13. This year I finished reading the longlist a fortnight before the shortlist is to be announced.
This is my 2017 Man Booker shortlist:
Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is a modernist retelling of the Greek Tragedy Antigone. The story is set in Massachusetts, London, Syria, and Karachi, and is about five principal characters, siblings Isma, Aneeka, and Parvaiz, and father and son Karamat and Eamonn Lone. Aneeka’s twin brother Parvaiz has joined the media wing of ISIS. Karamat Lone is the Home Secretary in Londonn. The story unfolds like an impending disaster. Shamsie’s writing is sharp, assured and evocative.
The novel weaves a complex thread of family, loyalty, faith, and society. Home Fire takes a few chances with the structure of Antigone, for there is no incest or fratricide here, but these risks make this novel tighter in both plot and structure. This, along with Ali Smith’s Autumn, is a very current novel.
An ode to Irish pastoral life, Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones is elegiac, and structurally confident. The novel starts on November 2, 2008, All Souls’ Day. This is contextually important, with the Angelus bell tolling, signifying the ascension of souls to heaven. The narrator is Marcus Conway, a civil engineer who works for the local council and lives in Louisburgh, County Mayo, Ireland.
The entire novel is one single sentence, broken up in paragraphs. McCormack writes with verve. His voice is poetic, and he uses it to reminisce about many things – the life of his parents, meeting his wife, their life together, his children growing up, and his career. As you start reading Solar Bones, you quickly forget the narrative quirk and get immersed in the story. The prose has an immediacy and a poignancy that is haunting.
A daring entry to the longlist is Fiona Mozley’s Elmet. The story is narrated by Daniel, an effeminate teenage boy who is on the run. The two other main characters are his father John, a giant of a man, a bareknuckle fighter, and his sister Cathy. John builds a house in a copse. The family hunts and largely live off the land. The land owner is Price, and the confrontation that is built up is both brutal and explosive.
The novel grapples with themes of rural exploitation and creeping poverty in a working-class neighbourhood in an area where coal mining has run aground. The language of the narrator sticks to a rural, Yorkshire dialect. The tone of the novel is modern Gothic and this lends the narrative a savage beauty.
Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 is ostensibly about a 13-year-old girl named Rebecca Shaw. Rebecca’s family is holidaying in a village in the Peak District for the New Year when she goes missing. The novel takes us on a cyclical, circuitous path through changing seasons, weather, flora and fauna. We are meant to see the effects of Rebecca’s disappearance on the evolution of lives of the villagers.
McGregor has a panoramic eye for nature and its rhythms. He writes about rural life in an unfussy manner. The effect of this prismatic, cyclical change is spellbinding as it keeps the readers focussed. The novel may be termed “plotless” by some, but its narrative journey is the true reward.
Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End is the story of Thomas McNulty, a young lad who flees poverty and hunger in Ireland and ends up enlisting in the US Army of the 1850s. With his friend and lover, John Cole, Thomas fights in both the Indian Wars and the Civil War. The men endure terrible hardships and suffering during their tumultuous lives.
The tone of the novel is moving and despite the horrors of war, the writing remains remarkably fluid and beautiful. It confronts issues of cruelty, justice, identity, and belonging in a remarkably non-judgemental vein.
Ali Smith’s Autumn is the first of a series of seasonal novels she plans to write. Autumn is a novel on pop art and friendship, set firmly in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Elizabeth is a 32-year-old contractual junior lecturer at a London University, and the novel is about her relationship with Daniel, a 101-year-old man, now in a care home. Smith cleverly juxtaposes the current political climate with the Profumo scandal of 1963 and the pop art of Pauline Boty. Autumn is often wry, absurdist and melancholic.
The other two novels that were contenders on my list were Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness fuses fluid writing with politics and modern Indian history. The two halves of the novel never really come together.
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is a powerful narrative. The understated writing shines a light on slavery in the South. But it unravels towards the end, bringing it to an unsatisfactory conclusion.
The novels included in my shortlist showcase themes of identity, loss, community, politics, indigenous Indians and their sacred land, faith, and loyalty. All the six novels are beautifully written and are a rare combination of art and craft. This is a shortlist which chooses itself.