The 2018 Man Booker shortlist of six books will be announced on the September 20. This is a longlist packed with surprises. Only two US writers are longlisted this year, an interesting development considering that the 2016 and 2017 Man Booker winners were Americans. There has been some noise about this, with authors like Julian Barnes and Peter Carey stating that the unique Commonwealth nature of the award has perhaps been blighted. Belinda Bauer’s Snap, a genre crime novel is longlisted this year. The real coup is the listing of Sabrina by Nick Drnaso, a graphic novel, the first time ever that a graphic novel is included in the Man Booker longlist. Selecting six books from this diverse list is rather difficult, but, as last year, I have gone ahead anyway. This is my version of the 2018 Man Booker shortlist.
Everything Under, Daisy Johnson
Everything Under is Daisy Johnson’s debut novel, with her earlier collection, Fen, being a short story compilation. The narrator, Gretel, is an etymologist who updates dictionary entries. This itself is a significant clue, signifying that words are important to this story. Gretel grew up on a houseboat with her eccentric mother, Sarah, who abandoned her when she was 16. At 32, Gretel recollects the secret language they invented and shared, and sets out to search for her mother.
The other characters in the book, Marcus/Margot and Fiona, are important to the story. Johnson uses the setting of a river community, which lends an otherworldly charm to the novel. The story also shifts between timelines and narratives, and the reader has to stay focussed.
There are eight main sections, each broken into subsections titled “The River”, “The Hunt”, “The Cottage”, etc. These are parallel narratives that continue through the novel. They are opaque in terms of who is narrating, and when they take place. Johnson uses first, second- and third-person narratives to shift perspectives throughout the story, which adds an element of uncertainty. Fiona, who is a transgender friend, makes a prophecy that causes ripples and makes the narration veer off in a different direction.
This text reworks a Greek tragedy (to disclose which one would be an unpardonable spoiler). It also effectively uses myth and introduces a fantastical element by the inclusion of the character named The Bonak. The Bonak lives at the bottom of the river and snatches animals and children. The mother and daughter, who share an invented vocabulary, have given it this name. The Bonak is an allegorical sum of all fears. Gender fluidity is also a theme that is explored in the book. Does The Bonak exist? Does Sarah still exist in the current timeline? This exposition of a troubled mother-daughter relationship lies at the heart of the novel. It is a compelling read.
In Our Mad And Furious City, Guy Gunaratne
Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City is easily the most kinetic, and angry novel in this year’s longlist. This gives it a contemporary edge over the other novels listed.
The book is set in a North London housing estate in Neasden in the late 2000s, and takes place over 48 hours in the tinderbox atmosphere immediately after the murder of an off-duty/back-from-service soldier (echoes of the 2013 killing of Lee Rigsby) by a black man. Racial and religious tensions in the area are ratcheted up. A radicalised Muslim group hovers around the local mosque, and white nationalists plan a conflagration-provoking march through the area.
The book is written in a third-party observational point-of-view style with short chapters progressing between three young men, Selvon, Ardan, and Yusuf, who are close friends. There are chapters also by Selvon’s father, Nelson, a migrant from Montserrat, and Ardan’s mother, Caroline, from Ireland. The young men call themselves “London’s scowling youth”, and are second generation immigrants from the West Indies, Ireland and Pakistan respectively. They identify themselves primarily as disenfranchised Londoners, as “a young nation of mongrels”.
The language they use is largely urbanspeak, which adds to the authenticity of the novel. It opens with a prologue from Yusuf, by far the strongest written character in the book, reflecting on the recent murder of an off-duty soldier, “butchered by a homegrown bredda”, which is filmed. What jolts Yusuf most is that he feels close to the killer, who “spoke the same road slang we used” and looked “as if he had just rolled out the same school gates as us...his face like a mirror, reflecting our own confused and frightened hearts.”
The story is peppered with slang like “allow it”, “ennet”, “nuttan”, “yuno”. In this virtuoso polyphonic novel, Gunaratney unflinchingly voices the fears of marginalised urban youth. Do persevere, for this novel is very rewarding.
The Long Take, Robin Robertson
Like Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, Robin Robertson’s The Long Take is written in verse. It is set immediately after World War II, in three cities – New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Robin Robertson, via third-party narration, captures the first sighting of New City by the protagonist in this stunning opening paragraph:
“And there it was: the swell
and glitter of it like a standing wave –
the fabled, smoking ruin, the new towers rising
through the blue
the ranked array of ivory and gold, the glint,
the glamour of buried life
as the world turned around it”
The protagonist, Walker, paces the city restlessly at night. He is a Canadian veteran of the D-Day landings. Walker suffers from PTSD, which is depicted in heartbreaking short flashbacks. A fresh attack is triggered by the Fourth of July fireworks in New York and the ceaseless construction in Los Angele His recollections from wartime France are written in a spare style, highlighting the brutality of a soldier’s life in war.
He starts his journey in New York City, before moving on to Los Angeles in 1948 where he finds work as a journalist and spends an interim period (1951-1953) in San Francisco. He subsequently returns to Los Angeles where the book comes to a conclusion over the next four years.
The city narratives are gritty and tell us about life in post-war America, interspersed with flashbacks in prose to Walker’s pre-war life in Nova Scotia. The brief opening section in New York city is easily the most poetic one. Los Angeles dominates the landscape of the story. As a newspaper reporter writing for the city desk, he covers the violent, local crime scene, where he is moved by people on Skid Row, particularly the dispossessed veterans. Walker is influenced by Classic Noir movies of the 40s and 50s. A substantive Notes section at the end of the book refers to the specific movies of that era.
The book closes with these lines:
“I can stop now he said
putting his mouth to the mouth of the bottle
‘I’ll make my city here’”
The Long Take is a moving elegy to post-war trauma, and a cautionary tale of progress at human cost. The writing is both haunting and accessible.
Warlight, Michael Ondaatje
I loved Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Warlight starts with the 14-year-old Nathaniel’s story. Nathaniel lives with his parents and 16-year-old sister Rachel. The first part is set in 1945, with World War II just having ended. The story opens with Nathaniel’s parents announcing that they are heading to Singapore, where his father has a new position in Unilever.
His mother, Rose, packs her trunk, explaining to the siblings in great detail where she’s to wear which of these clothes. The information turns out to be false, as after a few days following the departure of the parents, the mother’s trunk is found in the basement. The children are left in care of a person enigmatically called “The Moth”. The novel is peopled with strange characters like The Pimlico Darter, supposedly a friend of The Moth.
Nathaniel and Rachel are sent off to boarding school, which they detest. The father is written out of the story almost immediately. Nathaniel is fascinated with his mother, Rose’s life. He thinks he glimpsed her at a nightclub whilst he’s dancing with his friend. Over time, Nathaniel and his sister’s relationship unravels, the trauma of being abandoned playing out in different ways.
Later on, Nathaniel works as an archivist with British Intelligence and learns the mystery of his mother’s past. Ondaatje creates a beautiful mid-century English landscape, with arcane details on rural pursuits like beekeeping and thatching.
Warlight is an evocative novel of shifting and uncertain memory. Ondaatje’s telling use of mystery and doubt run though the book. Reality and recollection form the bedrock of the story. Ondaatje makes masterful use of time as a prism to view the unfolding story. The book gets stronger as it progresses. This is a rewarding read that improves on re-reading.
From A Low And Quiet Sea, Donal Ryan
Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea is a meditative novel of three interlocking stories. The books opens in a town in war-torn Syria and tells us the story of Farouk, a doctor, his wife and daughter. The town is overtaken by a group of fanatic Muslims (a reference to the Islamic State). Farouk and his family flee by sea, aided by people smugglers. The voyage is doomed, and the wife and daughter die in the interim. Farouk awakens in a refugee camp in Europe, sapped of his will to live, and unable to come to terms with the deaths of his wife and daughter.
The second story is of an Irish youth, Lampy, who lives with his mother and maternal grandfather, who is called Pop. Lampy leads a dreary life, working part-time as a driver for a care home. He obsesses over the loss of his ex-girlfriend, and lives in a featureless Irish small town. The overall tone is that of pointlessness and despair. Pop is a bawdy, colourful character whose anecdotes and Irish brogue provides a counterpoint to the grandson’s narrative.
The third story is that of an elderly man named John, which is narrated in a confessional style, speaking of years of cruelty and malice on his part. John’s tale is rivetting as he asks for piety and forgiveness.
The fourth part is happier. It is a testament to the strength of Ryan’s prose that the narratives are never bogged down. It is only after three quarters of the book is over that the three stories come together. Ryan voices his Irish characters with verve and panache. At 181 pages, this is more a novella than a novel, but it has all the character of a longer work. The lyricism in Ryan’s prose adds beauty to his authorial voice.
Normal People, Sally Rooney
I started Sally Rooney’s Normal People with a trepidation which turned out to be completely misplaced. Normal People is ostensibly a book about relationships. Rooney weaves the complex interplay of two young people into a larger story about society.
Marianne and Connell grow up in the same Irish town. Both are academically bright, but Marianne is from a wealthy family and Connell’s single mother works as a housemaid in Marianne’s home. In school, Marianne is despised and does not have any friends, whereas Connell is popular.
They start a secret relationship, which turns out to be far from secret as Connell’s mother and most of his friends know about them. He treats Marianne casually and she ends the relationship. The story moves on to Trinity College, where, in a role reversal, Marianne is vivacious and Connell is lonely. They bump into each other at a party and they discover that they are still attracted to each other.
The novel has a fractured temporal narrative structure with chapter titles like “Six Weeks Later”, “Three Months Later”, and “Five Minutes Later”. But Rooney’s handling of their story is so sure-footed that this fragmented structure does not feel obscure. Very little happens in the book in terms of a plot. Its shimmering beauty lies in how expansive Rooney allows it to be. This is a tale of on-again off-again lovers, told over several years. The conversations are sometimes elliptical and sometimes lucid. The sexual dynamic between the couple, constantly shifting, is beautifully written. A spectrum of emotional abuse also forms the backdrop to this story. Connell constantly worries about money; Marianne has to deal with a violent family.
From a story of adolescent lovers, Normal People quickly moves on to becoming a complex tale of relationships and its workings. Rooney’s first book, Conversation with Friends, was good too, but Normal People is extraordinary, and it is amazing how the author, who is just 27, writes with such wisdom and felicity.
I was torn about including Richard Powers’s The Overstory, a book that eviscerates us for our neglect of the environment. It is marvellously written, but the characters and their motivations did not ring true to me. This shortlist is a strange but wonderful combination of both debut authors and seasoned writers, dealing with themes of intrigue, war, relationships, and urban angst. It is a list that is both raw and mature, but never callow.