THE SIX BOOKER HOPEFULS
The Nobel Prize has been spoken for and it is a big win for the quiet, understated Kazuo Ishiguro. But more on that in our next piece. At present, all attention is on the next big literature prize that’s up for grabs — the Man Booker Prize. The prize has upped its stakes over the last couple of years by looking beyond the Commonwealth to cross the Atlantic and open the award to American writers as well. Paul Beatty (who visited Calcutta earlier this year) became the first American to win it, and the US is well-represented in this year’s shortlist as well.
Here’s a bit about the final six and how they stack up. Personally, this year’s books did more for me than the candidates of last year. They are very literary, assume incredibly smart structures and speak of themes that cover ground between real-time crises and a graveyard in Lincoln’s era. That certainly is a huge amount of literary flying miles!
The nominees are...
4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
The novel has an audacious structure with the protagonist’s life being followed in four strands. Robert Frost’s poetic reflections on the road not taken and the more prosaic but imponderable question, ‘What if’, are examined through Archie Ferguson’s life. The book is a classic bildungsroman at one level but has an incredible structure where the alternative lives are interwoven with historical events to create a rich tapestry of 20th century history.
C Plus: The structure, Auster’s supreme prose and the masterful way in which the novel is not just about Archie’s life, make it a wonderful read. Auster also shows many pretenders the writing skill and historical perspective needed to make private life and public history compatible bedfellows in a book.
D Minus: At a bicep-building 850-plus pages, non-Kindle readers in particular might be alarmed by the length — and weight — of the novel. Auster, however, jumps off the blocks with lightning speed. That said, the end does drag for a bit. At a time of memes and 125-page novels, readers might find the leisurely style and references to other authors and books (this is rare in books but all the books on the shortlist other than Elmet do have these intertextual references) may make it seem nerdy and bookish to some.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
This is the favourite for this year’s prize, with betting houses backing it to win on Tuesday night (October 17). Once again an American novel, it shows tremendous literary sleight of hand to tell the real story of the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie Lincoln at the age of 11, in the midst of presidential banquets, and more importantly, the Civil War. Willie gets stuck in an otherworldly waiting room, a Bardo in Tibetan belief, unable to let go of his father and his joyful life. He is in the company of misshapen souls (quite literally) who are similarly unable to let go. The whole book is narrated in quotes and testimonies — real and fictional — of Lincoln and his Civil War years. Beyond the ingenious structure of the book, there is also the universal message of learning to cope with loss and moving on.
C Plus: Beautifully rendered as a fable of loss and hope, Saunders is able to tell the story with joy, humour (missing in most of the other nominations) and gentle philosophising. Some parts do stay with you, like the thoughts of a slave or the pathos of forbidden homosexual love. However, all of this and indeed the tragic premise of the novel, never weighs it down, thanks to the levity brought in by the levitating characters.
D Minus: The suggestion that Lincoln’s war strategy was impacted by his son’s death and his grief makes it a tad too pat. Also, Saunders’s desire to tie up every loose end makes the ending seem like a multitude of endings. I loved this book dearly but I do not think it is good enough to win.
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
The third American novel on the list, the story plays its cards in the first three chapters, where we know a young child will die and a middle-aged schoolteacher will be indicted for his sexual vices. The story then peels away like an onion, removing layer after layer, as the teenaged protagonist Linda escapes from her off-beat home (her parents were the followers of a defunct cult) to try and find companionship. Set in the cold, stunning Minnesota landscape, in the lap of nature, the story is unsettling because it’s told in a measured and unhurried style but conveys a sense of doom and tragedy at all times. The way the setting insinuates itself into the plot and the sensitive portrayal of teenage angst is remarkable.
C Plus: A coming-of-age novel with dark shades that questions the American dream and the need to conform.
D Minus: Beautifully written, it sometimes lacks the fire and intensity that the story demands. Much of the action takes place on either side of a frozen lake, and Fridlund’s writing style is often the icy upper layer, not plunging into the depths to create something even more special.
Elmet by Fiona Mozley
The landscape is Wuthering Heights, the setting a post-Thatcher How Green Is My Valley, and the climax as bloody as a Jacobean play. Elmet is an intensely told, very literary novel, which is truly the jewel — blood red ruby if you will — on this list. It is dark, even though it is narrated by a young boy desperately loyal to his quest for happiness and to his unusual, misfit family. The bare-knuckle fighter John and the tightly wound-up Cathy are stunningly etched characters who propel the story to its climax at a breathless pace. This is a noir novel and presents a heroine who lives in the wild but has the strength to fight for herself in conventional society.
‘It is my life and my body and I can’t stand the thought of going out into the world and being it all, all of the time,’ she tells her brother in a heartrending monologue towards the end of the novel. Pundits think Mozley is too young and “raw” for silverware so early in her writing career, but the shortlist is richly deserved.
C Plus: Lyrical prose combines with the dark circumstances of the plot to create a unique style. Like Fridlund, Mozley’s descriptions of the countryside and the trees and animals around the home of the narrator make nature a character in proceedings — providing cover, solace, nourishment and hope at different times of the novel.
D Minus: Picture perfect, perhaps the absence of social service groups and the unusual strength of Cathy are plotholes that might worry some readers.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
This is it! Hamid returns to stellar form with a book that is based everywhere and yet nowhere. The gradual overrunning of one’s home by fundamentalists, the flight and the shift from citizen to refugee to immigrant all comprise newspaper headlines and is as current a topic as is possible. The flight of Saeed and Nadia, lovers and fellow refugees, and the denouement of their story is what can be termed as an unlove story of our times. But the real magic of the novel is in the way Hamid creates doors as an image of flight.
In a recent interview to t2oS he said the doors were created to “collapse distance” and what they allow Hamid to focus on is the anxiety of arrival and the tussle between assimilation and identity. That this tussle is never the same for two individuals is what makes the story and indeed the real crisis such a grave one. The form of the novel that is without specific time or place is spot on.
C Plus: Very, very topical and this often works well with the Booker jury. When refugee crises and immigrant rights are what media is focusing on all the time, a novel on these issues sounds real. The way Hamid combines magic realism with unsentimental storytelling of the tragedy of occupation and violence shows why he is one of the foremost writers of his time.
D Minus: The narration does not have conversations but reported speech almost right through. That apart, truth be told, Exit West is quite flawless.
Autumn by Ali Smith
If Hamid’s novel is about the anxiety of arrival, Ali Smith speaks of the same problem from a post-Brexit Briton’s point of view. Elisabeth Demand and her mother come to terms with a changing, increasingly hidebound and xenophobic world even as the former is caregiver to a century-old man who lit up her uneventful teenage years. The novel is again intertextual and also highlights pop art and one of its practitioners. This is supposed to be the first of Smith’s Seasons Quartet and if Autumn is this good, ‘Winter is coming’ can only be a good thing.
The novel has been written in almost real time and perhaps that is what makes it one of the most important books of the year.
C Plus: The magical and indefinable relationship between Elisabeth and the much older raconteur par excellence, Daniel Gluck. The lyrical prose describing nature, the paintings of Pauline Boty and the eccentric Mrs Demand make it a quick read.
D Minus: At times Elisabeth’s ramblings veer towards navel-gazing. Often, it seems that the leaps in time leave the author winded, and not enough is there about a post-Brexit world, even though it is one of the main themes of Autumn, which is being seen as UK’s first novel after the referendum.
And the winner is...
It is hard to look past Hamid’s Exit West. He should have won it for The Reluctant Fundamentalist and simply cannot be two times unlucky. Also, the sheer quality of Exit West makes it stand above the competition. With Syria, Rohingyas and IS dominating the headlines a novel that tells us, ‘When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind’, has got to be an important one.
Elmet is a really strong contender because it has been written like some first novels, with all the skill and time in the world. It has the advantage of being written by the homegrown Mozley — a writer from the UK has not won the prize for quite a few years now. [The last was Hilary Mantel for Bring Up the Bodies in 2012.]
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is absent from the shortlist, and that has stunned several readers of this Pulitzer winner. Perhaps the shortlist could not accommodate both Hamid’s doors and Whitehead’s rattling trains in the same list. Too much magic in one list is injurious to readers, the wise jury seems to have ruled.