Never before have I read the Man Booker longlist, or even the shortlist, in its entirety. When this year’s longlist was announced and I had a couple lying around to be read it started a process the whispering gremlin of completion saw through to the end. I’ll learn for myself what constitutes a Booker-worthy book, I thought, beyond the amiable admiration or high-literary scepticism. In the end, it wasn’t necessarily what I’d have expected. There were books I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise I’m glad I did. Others, very promising, but not yet matured in style. One downright awful.
Here follows very brief reviews in the order I read them, my ideal shortlist, and what I guess will be the actual shortlist.
Everything Under by Daisy Johnson. I gave this a glowing review in the Skinny. “Tales from the riverbank are tangled with murky memories in this assured debut novel from Daisy Johnson. A loose retelling of the Oedipus myth, the prophesy drives Margot, now Marcus, away from home to the banks of a river where he meets wild young Gretel and her mother living on a boat…” Self sufficiency, a language for two, and the wilderness of forest/canal land. Atmospheric and accomplished, one of my top debuts of 2018.
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh. Three sisters live in an isolated house with sinister mother, following regimes of purification involving a variety of water tortures and an immense distrust of men, until one day three strangers arrive in a boat. Comparisons have been made to The Virgin Suicides, that other tight feminine unit at odds with the outside world. The major themes of self-segregation by gender and paranoia around toxins (very GOOP) are contemporary and clever, and the growing wedge between the sisters reveals cruelty and vulnerabilities.
In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gutaratne. A rare and rhythmic look at the inner worlds of three young men from North London living in and around an estate. Football, grime and clique rivalries give way to more serious tensions of Islamic radicalisation and riots following a murder. It’s a fast-paced, immersive novel which gets into the heads of the three main characters over 48 hours of action, telling stories of their families and Caribbean and Irish immigration to London in the mid 20th century. It’s a lot – a little too much – to incorporate successfully, and the narration could be more layered. But that aside, it captures an uneasy summer and the vulnerabilities of the estate’s mix of inhabitants very well, and thank god for a novel removed from middle class London. Looking forward to Gutaratne’s next.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. Opening with a bus journey from one prison facility to another, The Mars Room tells the story of Romy, serving a life sentence for the murder of her stalker. It’s a critique of industrial, profit-driven incarceration, in the same realm as Orange is the New Black, and it illustrates the grand arc of American societal inequalities in individual, crushing unfairness, most tender when Romy tries not to think too much of her son as it’s too painful. Like OITNB, there’s a host of colourful characters with soundbites working the system as best they can, but I’d have liked to hear more from them. As a whistlestop tour through regimised cruelty, The Mars Room makes a short, sharp impact but fell a little flat for me in the end, never reaching the promise of the early, characterful introduction.
Sabrina by Nick Drsano. Notable for being the only graphic novel to make the Booker longlist. Calvin, separated and living alone, works in a military base in some kind of computer-facing job. His old schoolfriend Teddy comes to stay, in a period of grieving for missing girlfriend Sabrina. Drsano’s illustrations are muted in colour and focused on small, everyday experiences and conversations. Themes emerge of depression, shock-jock punditry peddling paranoia and the erosion of truth in online discussion of news. I spent a couple of quiet hours looking through this, and was really impressed by Drsano’s storytelling. A favourite.
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje. Prior Booker winner Ondaatje returns with a tale of abandoned children bonding with a motley crew of post-war crooks and characters, making a living in a variety of colourful ways while absent parents are gradually revealed to work in a governmental intelligence capacity. There are some beautiful passages in here, notably one where smuggled greyhounds are let into an empty house in the middle of the night. They run around, up and down the stairs, in the moonlight. What let down this book for me was the second half, where the children are suddenly picked up again by their mother, and whisked off to new lives, separately. It feels an oddly shaped book, where themes of adventure and trust transports suddenly instead into grief. It doesn’t quite hang together, for me.
The Long Take by Robin Robertson. A sort of film-noir infused poem following a war veteran settle first in New York City, then San Francisco and LA, where he becomes a newspaper reporter developing stories of aggressive gentrification and homelessness. It’s a look at cities during an intense period of redevelopment and the communities which shift to accommodate. Walker is a loner, making contacts and friends here and there, but largely reliant on his own will to get by, reflecting on his wartime trauma and deciding what his life will be. I didn’t expect a film-noir-poem but I got one, and I liked it. The film-noir atmosphere rather than being whisky-and-tough-guy gimmickry works successfully to sketch out the light and dark of the cities as well as man’s isolation.
From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan. Three men’s stories – a refugee who loses his family on a nightmare boat crossing, a young boy struggling with his job as a carer in a small town, and an old man ruminating on his regrets or lack of. This is absorbing, humane writing which gets into the intricacies of each man, laying their hearts bare and understanding their motivations. Simply an excellent book.
Milkman by Anna Burns. With narration unlike any other, Milkman tells the story of a young woman living in a curtain-twitching community, unnamed but parodied, where suspicion of anything out of the ordinary can prove fatal. She is pursued by an older man, whose unwanted attentions cause her great anxiety, as all she wants to do is read books, alone. It’s neurotic and humorous, looking at each situation from every possible angle, introspective to an advanced degree while wickedly getting the mark of each supporting character. I tired a little of the style by the end, but enjoyed its novel take on pressure-cooker societies circling around civil war, and the survival strategies of young women trying to preserve their individuality within them.
Normal People by Sally Rooney. The second of Rooney’s novels set around Trinity College, Dublin, this one follows Connor and Marianne who bring their schoolday magnetism to uni with them where his easy popularity and her artsy lonerism reverse fortunes. From different sides of the tracks, there are some insights into class, occasionally a little too on the nose. The meat of this novel is the vulnerabilities faced by both at formative ages, and how they bounce off of one another during their on-and-off-again relationship, achingly awkward and often sore, pressing on old wounds. As ever, reading Rooney with her gift of capturing early twenties life makes me very, very glad to no longer be of student age, but I prefer Conversations with Friends just a little more.
Snap by Belinda Bauer. When a car breaks down, children are left on the side of the road while their pregnant mother treks to call for help. They discover she has disappeared, and off they go into an adventure which will see the eldest boy develop house-breaking skills and team up with the local police to investigate his mother’s killer. This frequently calls for disbelief to be suspended, most notably when a pregnant woman who finds a knife by her bed shrugs it off. There have been some interesting discussions around genre and its inclusion in the Booker. My opinion is that, there must, absolutely must, be many more genre novels worthy of accolade than this one-dimensional farce.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. Picked from the violence of a slave plantation to assist the master’s brother with his investigations into an early weather balloon, young Wash follows him to Antartica where they become separated, and later tracks him to Europe. In one scene, an Underground Railroad scenario arises, but is not the road Wash wants to take. The extensive travel and accomplished forays into beautiful science and art are fantastical, but at the root of the novel is the question of freedom; physical and intellectual. This is a solid, compulsive novel probing both true-to-life historic injustice and the potential of wonder.
The Overstory by Richard Powers. I left this one til last because it is the thickest, heaviest, and most expensive on the list. It’s an epic told through an array of characters whose stories gather together around trees, and specifically, the way in which the forest thrives as a whole. There’s a bit of overlap, favouring introverts who set them aside from family members to indulge intense interests. I had to refer back to keep them straight as the story progresses. Now, Powers can write a beautiful sentence, if prone to using three when one will suffice, circling around a description. But you might have seen a sentence floating around on twitter recently: “…her tits glowing like precious pearls.” The context for this is a student who is high. It follows glorious description in the same paragraph, “When she places a palm on her thigh, the push of it keeps gliding out to the idea horizon.” Later on, the air caresses her “like a sex toy.” And this character is referred to as a ‘bitch’, reasons unknown. It’s puzzling, and detrimental to the overall effect of the novel. Beautiful writing with a blindspot for writing women, where an accomplished woman scientist exists simultaneously with a quip about science projects done by student’s dads. A love story to trees impressive in its scope, if too long and tending towards the worthy.
My ideal shortlist? I’d go for…
Everything Under by Daisy Johnson
Sabrina by Nick Drsano
From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan
The Long Take by Robin Robertson
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
Milkman by Anna Burns
My predicted shortlist?
I’ve mostly learned from reading the long list that the Booker can defy expectation, but I think Warlight by Michael Ondaatje and The Overstory by Richard Powers are likely to be in there.