Man Booker Shortlist Feelings

Image from the Guardian

This is totally brilliant–the two Man Booker longlisted books that I’ve managed so far are also on the shortlist! That’s nearly half my work already done (although I doubt that I will actually be able to manage the entire shortlist by the date of the announcement, I’ll give it a try)!

A quick rundown:

A Brief History of Seven Killings (link to review) was one of the best books I’ll read all year. I said I didn’t think it would win, but I’m now having to reconsider–obviously the judges have some sense of taste and discretion. It’s a magisterial exercise in controlling a sprawling plot and maintaining two dozen-odd separate voices; the only thing that I thought might challenge its place on the shortlist would have been a judicial tendency to prefer the contemporary-realism on offer from most of the white/Anglo writers. With most of them out of the way, the most plausible challenger to this book’s ultimate victory is A Little Life.

The Fishermen (link also to review), by Chigozie Obioma, is impressive too, albeit in a totally different sort of way. Control of voice is still the key to its success; having a child narrator who isn’t obnoxious and still gives the reader the information she needs is hard, and Obioma does it. He also integrates themes of classical tragedy and postcolonial trauma in a way that never feels forced or showy. I doubt this will win, though, pitted against the other big beasts on the list.

A Spool of Blue Thread has now made it onto both the Man Booker and Baileys Prize shortlists, which means there has got to be something to it, but I still can’t bring myself to be more than marginally interested in it, given a plot blurb. If it wins, I’ll read it and get some sense of what this is all about; if not, I won’t seek it out. I’ve never read any Anne Tyler before; maybe if I had, I’d be more keen.

A Little Life is the least surprising presence on the shortlist. Pretty sure it was Yanagihara’s contest to lose from the get-go; now it’ll be interesting to see if her book has a different effect in the context of a smaller, more focused list. This is the one I most want to have read by the time of the announcement.

Satin Island‘s inclusion surprises me. As I think I said before, the premise seems entirely slick and heartless, a bit cynical and ironic and po-mo, a sort of dying gesture towards the cult of David Foster Wallace. I’m still not about to back it for the win, but perhaps there’s more to it than its summary would make it seem.

Finally, we have The Year of the Runaways, which I expect will stand or fall as a book based on its ability to make us care about a very current-events sort of premise, and as a contestant based on its ability, again, to measure up to James and Yanagihara’s books. I know next to nothing about it, but it might be the feel-good entry. Or it might be brilliant! Anything is possible.

I’m genuinely shocked to see that Lila isn’t on the list. Marilynne Robinson writes beautiful prose that conveys humane, complex ideas; if there’s a better description of what a good novelist does, let me know, but I rather think she fits that one. If anything was almost guaranteed to be on the shortlist, it was Lila. I wonder whether that’s the very reason the judges left it off. You’d like to think not, but there are all sorts of behind-the-scenes decisions being made…

Anyone have any other feelings about the shortlist? Anyone read some, most or all of the books? Anyone think they can confidently predict a winner?!

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13 thoughts on “Man Booker Shortlist Feelings

  1. Having just finished A Little Life, I wasn’t entirely won over by it. A literary soap opera with many faults that was totally unputdownable. I doubt I’ll have time to read any of the others before the prize is announced. Surprised to see Tyler there over Robinson though – maybe that’s a little bit of a career recognition nod.

    • Mm–I’ve heard equally cautious commentary from others, which is why I want to read it so badly! Agree with you about the Tyler/Robinson thing; the career-recognition theory must be the most plausible explanation.

  2. Haven’t read any of them. The way things stand, I’ll probably be a dullard and just read the winner.

    Your perception of Satin Island 100% matches mine. And those are the types of books I dislike most. If it wins though, I may have to do some digging to see if it is more than what I currently think it is.

    • Just reading the winner has basically been my MO up until this year 🙂 Absolutely floored by Marlon James, though, so would recommend that to almost anyone.

  3. I really hope A Brief History takes the prize, although I’ll be pretty happy to see Sahota win. But I fear the Yanagihara momentum will continue, and I’ll keep being utterly bewildered at all the praise it’s getting. As Annabel says, it’s hard to put down, put the plot becomes utterly ridiculous.

    I so hoped Robinson would be on the shortlist. I find her writing to be extraordinary, and Lila is no exception. But I notice that the other book with really lovely prose, Sleeping on Jupiter, isn’t there, so maybe the judges just weren’t drawn in by the writing. I suspect there’s also a sense among the judges that she’s also already much celebrated, but then I don’t know what to do with Tyler being there.

    • I think sometimes people feel that the more over-the-top something is, the better, which (I am privately convinced) accounts for why big books sell better than small ones, at least contemporarily. There’s that whole “more is more” mentality, especially with novels. (It helps that you can point to something like Middlemarch and be like “LOOK AT HOW AMAZING AND VIVID AND BURSTING WITH LIFE THIS BIG-ASS BOOK IS.”) It was a real revelation to me to read Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which, quite apart from its astonishing take on gender, is ridiculously short by today’s standards. She packs in about two years’ worth of events, and it never feels strained. All of which is a long way of saying that, yeah, I feel you about Yanagihara-Fever, and I want to read it so badly because it feels like something about which one must very much make up one’s own mind.

  4. I’ve only read A Little Life so far but would like to read A Brief History of Seven Killings too. I think the way Yanagihara used the concept of timelessness was very clever although I can also understand why some people were not enamoured by it.

    • I think A Brief History of Seven Killings ought to become a modern classic even if it doesn’t win, so would definitely recommend it. Also, if you like it, look up James’s earlier novel, The Book of Night Women–it’s incredible.

  5. I’m intruiged, although I think A Little Life will win. I’ve tried to read it, but it’s too brutal for me.

    I really want to read The Fishermen, that’s my next purchase. I’m surprised A Spool of Blue Thread is one there, it was good, but not amazing (unless I missed something).

    • Just bought A Little Life in the airport (I know…) and will be attacking it soon! The Fishermen is very good too. I worry it will get lost because it’s so short that the judges might just…forget about it.

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