Yesterday saw the announcement of the 2018 Man Booker Prize short-list, a huge event in the literary calendar, particularly for those who made it from the long-list. A short-list nomination usually means a significant jump in sales and the opportunity to emerge out of the shadows and into the literary limelight. So which books made it to the short-list and what did we make of them?
Anna Burns (UK) – Milkman (Faber & Faber). A secret relationship in small town creates scandal. The book is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.
Esi Edugyan (Canada) – Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail). Eleven year-old field slave Washington Black is selected as personal servant to an eccentric Englishman. They’re soon forced to escape Barbados and Washington is left to his fight for himself.
Daisy Johnson (UK) – Everything Under (Jonathan Cape). A mother and daughter with an unusual past are reunited after 16 years. Memories of their life on a canal boat communicating in a secret language come back.
Rachel Kushner (USA) – The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape). Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences, plus six years, at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. She sees the future stretch out ahead of her in a long, unwavering line — until news from outside brings a ferocious urgency to her existence, challenging her to escape her own destiny.
Richard Powers (USA)- The Overstory (William Heinemann). Nine strangers, each in different ways, become summoned by trees, brought together in a last stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. An environmental novel taking the reader to New York, the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
Robin Robertson (UK) – The Long Take (Picador). Walker is a D-Day veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder; he can’t return home to rural Nova Scotia, and looks instead to the city for freedom, anonymity and repair. The Long Take is about a good man, brutalised by war, haunted by violence and apparently doomed to return to it — yet resolved to find kindness again, in the world and in himself.
The first thing that struck me about this list is the number of new names. There’s usually at least one literary ‘grand old’ man or woman, but not so this year. In fact, there was only one of those on the long-list, Booker and Golden Booker winner Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, which I read half of before giving up. Excluding that was the right choice, I feel. New names are a good thing in my book.
The second thing that surprised me was the absence of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. I really enjoyed this book, and although I’m not sure it necessarily deserves to win, I feel it should have made it to the short-list.
Rachel Kushner is one of those authors I’m expecting to publish something amazing any moment. I’ve read her novels The Flamethrowers and Telex From Cuba which were both almost but not quite perfect. I’ve also read about half of The Mars Room (yes, there are quite a few books I give up on!) and I’m afraid the same goes for this one.
I struggle a bit to get excited about the remaining books to be honest. The two that I will give a try is Esi Edugyan Washington Black, because I enjoy historical fiction and Richard Power’s The Overstory, because it comes highly recommended from a friend.
The question is whether a Canadian or an American will win this year? I’m not sure. Americans have won the last two Bookers (George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo in 2017 and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout in 2016). Before that, a Jamaican, an Australian and a New Zealander ran away with the prize. How many years can pass before a Brit ‘must’ win the prize to avoid criticism that the prize fails to acknowledge British talent?
We shall find out on the 16th October.