Category Archives: Book prizes
It’s Booker Prize season once more. The 2019 longlist was announced this week, triggering a process that will end on October 14 when the winner will pick up their £50,000 cheque.
It all felt very familiar.
But there was one thing different this year.
The judges made their usual remarks about the diversity and richness of the novels submitted for consideration. And, as so often in the past, they described their experience of reading 151 novels as “exhilarating.” It’s not my idea of exhilaration but perhaps that’s why I’ve never had the call inviting me to become a Booker Prize judge.
There was no controversy about the longlist.
No complaints about the imbalance between male and female authors.
No complaints that the judges were dumbing down the prize, trading literary experimentation and creativity for re-readability and popularity
And no complaints that the prize was becoming dominated by American authors at the expensive of those from Commonwealth countries.
The reaction to the longest announcement was in fact rather muted.
Booker Prize: Reactions from Experts
What’s all the fuss about?
The surprise about this year’s Booker longlist? That for the first time in years, there are few surprises.Justine Jardin, The Guardian
Justin Jardin’s reaction encapsulated the responses of many literary editors and arts editors who work for national newspapers around the world.
The longlist … is ever so woke-flavoured; it’s very Hackney book club. It’s solid … but it lacks thrillers.
Robbie Millen, Literary Editor , The Times
Reading these articles I got the feeling that journalists were struggling to make a decent story out of the Booker Prize longlist.
The mystery novel
A number of them like Alex Marshall, European culture correspondent for the New York Times, homed in on the one book on the list which is a mystery.
Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, doesn’t get released until after the shortlist is announced on May 3.
“….its contents and plot are a closely guarded secret. Little is known except that it is set 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale and is narrated by three female characters.Alex Marshall, New York Times
According to The Guardian, the Booker Prize judges were so constrained by “a ferocious non disclosure agreement’ that they couldn’t give any details about plot, setting or characters. All they could say was :
… it’s terrifying and exhilarating.
Big names dominate
Several of the editors focused on the presence of previous award winners, like Margaret Atwood, in the longlist.
Irish News speculated that Salman Rushdie, who won the Booker Prize almost four decades ago could win again. His novel Quichotte, which is published in August, is described a picaresque road trip through contemporary America and was inspired by Don Quixote.
Other newspapers highlighted that this will be the third nomination in a row for Deborah Levy. Her novel The Man Who Saw Everything, contains two versions of the same story.
Although the list is packed with the names of well established authors, only The Guardian mentioned some notable omissions such as Ian McEwan, Mark Haddon and Ali Smith all of whom had well received novels published within the eligibility period.
Weighing in at 1,000 pages
It was the inclusion of Lucy Ellman on the Booker Prize longlist that caught the attention of Anita Singh of The Daily Telegraph.
If you’re looking for a long read, the Booker Prize has just the thing.
Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, consists of a single sentence running over 1,000 pages. It is the interior monologue of an Ohio housewife … a stream-of-consciousness written without paragraphs or full stops.
The 426,100-word sentence is broken only a handful of times,Anita Singh, The Daily Telegraph
As if anticipating the eyebrow raising and pursed lips that would greet Ellmann’s inclusion, Anita Singh quoted the judges’ comments about how readable people will find this book.
The thing to know is that it’s extremely funny. So although it looks very dense and worrying on the page, actually every single page is full of puns and jokes. And there is a plot in thereJoanna MacGregor, Booker Prize judge
The nationality game
Every year the announcement of the prize is followed by an analysis of its geographic diversity.
After the rule change in , there were complaints that there were too many American authors selected, which was unfair to authors from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa etc
We didn’t get that reaction this year , largely because American authors were noticeable for their absence.
As David Sanderson, Arts Correspondent for The Times, noted, there is only one American on the longlist (Lucy Ellman) and she moved to UK as a teenager.
The list will go some way to appeasing British publishers who last year wrote to the Booker trustees to object to the broadening of entry criteria to include American authorsDavid Sanderson, The Times
Patriotism did however rear its head. The Irish Times (of course) led its Booker story with the fact local boy Kevin Barry had been chosen for Night Boat to Tangier. They’re no doubt hoping 2019 will see Barry emulate the success of last year’s winner, Belfast-born Anna Burns
There was cause for celebration in Africa however with the inclusion of two Nigerian authors and another whose work explores the African disaspora. The Johannesburg Review of Books, was obviously nursing old wounds since they couldn’t resist mentioning the absence of any African authors on the list for the past two years.
And the winner is???
None of the journalists at this stage are predicting a winner or even what will make it to the shortlist on September 3. In any case, history has shown us that it isn’t always the favourite that walks off with the prize.
If you enjoy a little speculation, take a look at the Booker Prize 2019 longlist discussion board at Goodreads where the members of the Mookse and Gripes group are voting for their favourites.
I’m definitely underqualified to give my own predictions because, for the first time since I started my Booker Prize project, I’ve not read even one of the longlisted titles.
But if you have, then do post a comment below with your reactions and comments.
Booker Prize Longlist 2019
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood – Canada– (Vintage, Chatto & Windus)
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry – Ireland– (Canongate Books)
My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – Nigeria – (Atlantic Books)
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann – USA/UK – (Galley Beggar Press)
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo –UK – (Hamish Hamilton)
The Wall by John Lanchester – UK– (Faber & Faber)
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy –UK – (Hamish Hamilton)
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli – Mexico/Italy– (4th Estate)
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma – Nigeria– (Little Brown)
Lanny by Max Porter – UK– (Faber & Faber)
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie –UK/India– (Jonathan Cape)
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak – UK/Turkey – (Viking)
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson –UK– (Jonathan Cape)
Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight, is a stunning tale about loss and displacement set in the mysterious world of espionage.
It opens in 1945 when 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister Rachel discover their parents are off to Singapore, supposedly in connection with their father’s job.
They are left in the care of a strange man called The Moth and an odd assortment of his friends who drift in and out of the house in Ruvigny Gardens in London. The purpose of their visits and their connection to the absent parents only becomes clear in the second half of the book.
Chief among the visitors is The Darter, a former boxer turned con artist, who ropes Nathaniel into his illegal nighttime expeditions through the streets and waterways of post-war London. Together they collect illegally imported greyhounds and smuggle them to racing tracks around the capital.
Education in life
The first half of the novel is essentially about Nathaniel’s education in life, when “cut loose by my parents, I was consuming everything around me.”
Through the Moth’s connections he begins working as a dishwasher at the Criterion hotel, mingling with the mainly immigrant staff, and bunking off school. And he has his first sexual experience with a girl who calls herself Agnes (we never learn her real name), in empty houses that have escaped bomb damage and are now up for sale.
In the footsteps of a spy
Part two of Warlight sees Nathaniel, now aged 28, and working in a department of an unnamed branch of British Intelligence. Though he is narrating his strange adolescence we come to realise that this book is not about him, but about his now-dead mother Rose and his attempts to piece together her life. In particular he wants to discover what happened during the final year of the war when he was left in the care of The Moth.
In furtive forays through the basement archives of his employer, he traces his mother’s double life as a spy whose radio transmissions were monitored closely by the Nazis. But though he can piece together fragments of her life, including her narrow escape from capture, she remains an enigma. Equally puzzling is his mother’s relationship with another agent, whom she first met when she was a child and he was the boy who fell from the roof of her parents’ house while working as a thatcher.
But as Nathaniel reflects towards the end of the book that all he has done is to “step into fragments of their story”.
We never know more than the surface of any relationship after a certain stage, just as those layers of chalk, built from the efforts of infinitesimal creatures, work in almost limitless time.
In particular his ability to convey character and atmosphere through sharply perceived images: Nathaniel’s night time trips through the waterways of the darkened city, his assignations with Agnes in grand mansions as greyhounds romp around the empty rooms. They are scenes that will longer long in my memory.
There is a poignancy too in this novel.
Nathaniel never sees his father again; his role in the whole escape to Singapore remains unclear, he cannot even find a photograph of the man.
Though he does re-unite with his mother who has hidden herself in a cottage in “a distant village, a walled garden”, the relationship between them is taut and uncomfortable. The boy’s desire to find that bond is palpable but Rose is too much on her guard to be at peace with her son, fearing that one day, she will be discovered by those who believe her actions during the war were dishonourable.
Questions of morality
Warlight is a thoughtful book. Ondatjee doesn’t focus only on the human dimension of relationships but about the morality of actions committed during war. Rose and her fellow agents were acting in the name of piece but they were still responsible for many deaths It’s a point that Nathaniel reflects upon:
In this post-war world, twelve years later, it felt to some of us, our heads bowed over the files brought to us daily, that it was no longer possible to see who held a correct moral position.
Warlight is such an outstanding novel that I am completely perplexed how it didn’t win the Booker Prize in 2018.
What a disappointment The Line of Beauty, winner of the 2004 Booker Prize, turned out to be. It was so dull at times that I was tempted to abandon it in preference for the ingredients panel of a cereal packet.
It’s meant to be a novel reflecting on the nature of Britain in the 1980s, the era of Margaret Thatcher and a time of economic euphoria and ultra confidence among the privileged governing classes. This is also the decade that saw the emergence of the Aids/HIV crisis.
Alan Hollinghurst tackles both topics via the story of Nick Guest, a young homosexual who comes from a middle class background but has mingled with the great and the good during his time at Oxford university. He’s invited by his friend Toby, the son of a rising Tory MP (Gerald Fedden) to move into their upmarket family house as a lodger while he undertakes his postgraduate research on Henry James. His presence in the house gives Nick a chance to mingle with aristocrats and politicians, to party in castles, holiday in French chateaux and even to dance with the Prime Minister.
Nick is a charmer, an aesthete who is entranced by beauty in all its forms. A piece of furniture, a Gauguin painting; the shape of a man’s buttocks and especially the double “S” shape of the ogee, the double curve cited by Hogarth as the “line of beauty”. Where the Feddens see art as a commodity, Nick appreciates beauty for its own sake.
Over the course of the novel, we see the changing nature of his relationship with the Feddens. But more fundamentally we also witness the development of Nick’s sexuality. The Feddens accept his sexuality if only to the extent of never mentioning it but when it threatens their privileged lives and Gerald’s prospects of high office, they turn on him. The tolerated lodger becomes persona non grata.
Hypocrisy is just one of the themes explored in The Line of Beauty. The book also considers the relationship between politics and homosexuality, the bubble world of the the Conservatives in the 1980s (summed up by one civil servant “The economy’s in ruins, no one’s got a job, and we just don’t care, it’s bliss.”) and, of course, the nature of beauty.
So why do I say the novel is boring?
Firstly it’s incredibly slow especially in the first of the three sections which takes place in 1983 when Nick is in the first few months of his stay at the Feddens’ Knightsbridge home. He takes a lover for the first time, meeting him in secret in public parks and quiet streets.
Part 2 is an improvement. We now move forward to 1986 when Nick is in a relationship with Wani Ouradi, the wealthy son of a Lebanese businessman, with whom he enters the world of drugs and promiscuity.
Part 3 takes place just one year later when his lover has been diagnosed as HIV positive and deteriorating rapidly and the Feddens world is about to disintegrate.
The drama doesn’t materialise in any meaningful way until more than halfway through that second part. Until then we’re subjected to a series of eventful country-house parties and family gatherings where Nick is still very much the outsider (his surname – Guest – is a clue to his real status). They’re considerably more sedate than his other social interactions which involve sex and drugs.
The problem here is that the interest in a decadent lifestyle declined for me as rapidly as my appetite for a second ice-cream. Sex is seldom far from Nick’s mind. He only has to see a man in a street and he immediately imagines him as a sexual partner. But how many times do we need to know this? How many times do we need to read a passage describing furtive coke-snorting and sexual encounters? The repetitive nature of this book made it hard to enjoy.
One critic in The Independent thought The Line of Beauty was “fabulous” and Hollinghurt’s recreation of a “bigoted, nepotistic, racist, callous and mean-spirited epoch” was “brilliant”. Not for the first time I find myself considerably at odds with critics and with the judges of the Booker Prize.
And then there were six.
The Booker Prize judging panel announced today the books that have made it through to the shortlist round of the 2018 prize.
One surprise is that the biggest name on the longlist has now been removed from the prize. I’m still waiting for my copy of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight to become available in the library but I’ve seen nothing but praise for this book so it’s strange not to find it on the shortlist.
One disappointment is that Donal Ryan’s From A Low And Quiet Sea didn’t make it through. As you can read in my review I thought this was even better than his earlier Booker contender The Spinning Heart.
No surprises that Belinda Bauer’s Snap is not on the shortlist. Frankly it was a surprise to find it on the longlist. Much has been made of the fact that this was the first crime novel to be included in the Booker longlist. That’s not factually correct (Eleanor Catton’s The Illuminations was a crime novel in a sense) but even Snap isn’t anything remarkable according to many comments and reviews I’ve seen in recent weeks. I’ll reach my own conclusion shortly since this has been chosen for our next book club read.
The other longlisted title about which there was a lot of fuss was Sabrina by Nick Drnaso, the first graphic novel to be included on the list. This has now disappeared from the contenders.
So what are we left with? These are all the shortlisted titles, ranked in order by members of the Mookes and the Gripes group on Goodreads.
Robin Robertson (UK): The Long Take (Picador): debut novel from a Scottish poet, written partly in verse. Chronicling the drift of a Canadian D-Day veteran across post-war America, Robertson fuses poetry, cinema and the traditions of noir into an elegy for a lost age.
Richard Powers (USA): The Overstory (William Heinemann): Pulitzer- winning novelist longlisted in 2014 for Orfeo. The Overstory is a mosaic of stories spanning time and space, joined together by the overarching strata of the world’s trees and a mission to save the last virgin forest
Daisy Johnson (UK): Everything Under (Jonathan Cape): debut novel that reimagines The Oedipal myth of divided families, inter-generational rivalry and twisted fate. Set in a remote cottage in the British countryside, the novel centres on the complex and fractured relationship between an isolated young lexicographer and her mother, a woman gradually succumbing to dementia.
Anna Burns (UK) : Milkman (Faber & Faber): described as a darkly wry – but disquieting – coming of age novel set in a thinly-disguised Belfast of the “Troubles”. The narrative focuses on a nameless, 18-year-old narrator and her affair with the somewhat sinister ‘Milkman’, a much older married man allied with the paramilitaries.
Rachel Kushner (USA): The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape): a novel partly set in a women’s correctional facility from an author who says her inspiration is Don DeLillo. The narrative follows convict Romy Hall as she begins two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility.
Esi Edugyan (Canada): Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail): Edugyan is a previous nominee having been shortlisted in 2011 for Half-Blood Blues. Her new novel is described as a dazzlingly inventive new story of antebellum-era slavery and exploration that spans the globe.
I have three of these on hold at the library so with a little luck I might get to read at least a few before the winner is announced on October 16.