The Man Booker Prize longlist is announced tomorrow, and if it were up to me (and, frankly, why isn’t it?), here’s what would be on it. These are all books that I’ve read, so it’s unlikely to correspond in every particular to the list that the panel comes up with; but it does represent the best new books I’ve experienced over the past twelve months. In order of author’s surname:
Mrs Osmond, by John Banville. A follow-up to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, revealing what Isabel Osmond actually does to escape her marriage to the odious Gilbert. As a technical achievement it’s stunning; attempts to mimic late-C19 prose often end badly, reading as parody or pastiche, but Banville’s control and intelligence means that he manages precisely to ventriloquise a Jamesian style, albeit a slightly less gnarly one.
The House of Impossible Beauties, by Joseph Cassara. Cassara’s prose is so evocative; he effortlessly summons the smells and sounds and sights of a world most of his readers will know nothing of—the piers where kings, queens and johns cruise and mingle; Times Square strip joints; bars on Christopher Street—and his dialogue is perfect, witty and human and liberally sprinkled with Spanglish.
Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway. Set in a near-future Britain where surveillance is total and civil order is maintained by a System that occasionally hauls in potential dissidents for a full mind-read, Gnomon follows a detective assigned to a case when a woman dies in custody. In the files of the dead woman’s consciousness, she finds four other minds that aren’t meant to be there… Mind-bending, inventive, wondrous, and very, very funny.
The Western Wind, by Samantha Harvey. Harvey sets her novel in fourteenth-century Oakham, a small and isolated village in Somerset (travellers who get lost in the area tend to end up in Wales). As the book opens, a local man has drowned in the river, and the village priest is under pressure to find his killer. It’s a very slow-rolling book, like a river after a flood but before the waters have gone back down, with a lot of unobvious things churning about in its depths.
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller. I know I’ve just read it, but I don’t think my love for it is a side effect of its recentness. Set in 1809, just after the Spanish campaign of the Peninsular War, it follows John Lacroix as he travels north into the Hebrides, trying to escape his memories of complicity in the conflict he has just fled. Beautiful, spare but evocative writing, and a sense of real historical groundedness.
The Wanderers, by Tim Pears. Set in Devon and Cornwall in 1913, as Leo Sercombe is cast out of his home on the Prideaux estate in Devon for some crime which remains unspecified. Pears’s writing, both about nature and about the complexities of the human heart, is delicate and precise and always slightly oblique; he is the master of presenting a situation or a piece of dialogue without comment, and letting the reader conclude what she will.
A Shout in the Ruins, by Kevin Powers. Alternating between chapters set during the American Civil War, and chapters set in the 1960s and 1980s, during which the Vietnam War and its aftermath crops up regularly, Powers presents the evils of slavery fully, but in a way that doesn’t read with the almost pornographic flavour of explicit violence. It feels as though the book respects its characters, even as their lives are made increasingly difficult.
The Overstory, by Richard Powers. Maybe his most ambitious book yet: it seeks, essentially, to instill in its reader a sense of sympathy and identification with trees. The reason it works so well, I think, is partly because Powers takes his time to establish the stories of each character, and partly because his writing about geological time, and about the biological miracle of plant life, is so stunningly beautiful. Quite possibly the best book I’ve read, or will read, this year.
The Italian Teacher, by Tom Rachman. What does it mean to be an artist? What constitutes art? Does genius excuse monstrosity? Twentieth century art and art criticism, the terrible void inherent in the knowledge that artistic value is a mere function of consensus, and the anxiety of influence not only from artist to artist, but from father to son: Rachman deals with them all, in this deeply engrossing and deeply moving novel.
Painter To the King, by Amy Sackville. In her third novel, Sackville zooms all the way in on Diego Velazquez’s life and work at the court of Felipe IV. While it might be described as a fictional biography, what Painter to the King does most consistently and remarkably is convey what it feels like to be someone who sees the world as a painter – as this particular painter – does.
The Madonna of the Mountains, by Elise Valmorbida. Quiet, but brilliant: it feels effortlessly emotionally engaging, without resorting to either melodrama or apparent anachronism. Reading it really feels as if you are peering into the head of, let’s say, your great-grandmother; someone whose world is not your world, whose socially conditioned responses are alien to your own. One of the most restrained, yet profoundly convincing, historical novels that I’ve read in years, perhaps ever.
Sing Unburied Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. It’s a road trip novel; it’s an examination of American racism and history; it’s modern-day Faulkner, lyrical and elegiac. Jojo, our young narrator, will stay with you for a long time, as will his strong love for his baby sister Kayla and his mother Leonie’s desperation to bring her boyfriend Michael home from prison. An utterly stunning book.
The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch. I described it on Goodreads as “Angela Carter in space”, which I stand by. There is so much going on in this book about bodies, the female body especially, and the reproductive capacities of the female body; how bodies can literally tell stories, carry history; never have I been made so aware of the body as the ultimate site of political resistance. It is resonant with where we are now, as a world, in ways that are both subtle and in-your-face.
Other books that I think might well end up on the longlist: Happiness by Aminatta Forna; Warlight by Michael Ondaatje; The Only Story by Julian Barnes (please God no); I suppose it’s possible that the ubiquitous Eleanor Oliphant will end up with a spot, in which case I will actually cry; The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock; Crudo by Olivia Laing; Transcription by Kate Atkinson.
We. Shall. See. Do any of you have predictions/desires for the Man Booker long list?