By Sharon Bakar
The winner of the Man Booker Prize – one of the literary world’s most prestigious awards – will be announced on Oct 16. The RM270,000 prize-winner will be chosen from these six shortlisted novels.
Read what author and editor Sharon Bakar she thinks about this year’s quirky selection, and then tell us which book you think will win and why. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org before noon on Oct 16.
Author: Anna Burns
Publisher: Faber & Faber
“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died,” begins the 18-year-old protagonist of Belfast-born author Anna Burns’ Milkman. It’s the distinctive stream-of-consciousness narration and the – slightly nutty, breathless, convoluted – voice of the protagonist that carries the novel.
This is Belfast during the Troubles (the 30-year conflict, from 1968 to 1998, over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland) although the city itself is never named or the areas within it. The warring factions are referred to as “defenders” and “renouncers” rather than by allegiance or religion (though it is easy enough to work out who is nationalist Catholic and who unionist Protestant).
In fact, none of the characters are named but are instead referred to obliquely by their relationship to the narrator or by nicknames, so that we have “middle sister” (when the protagonist refers to herself), her “maybe boyfriend”, “first brother-in-law” and “Milkman”, who is actually not the same person as “real milkman” although he drives a white van like the real one does.
Middle sister just wants to keep her head down (quite literally, as she walks the city streets reading a Victorian novel) and stay out of the inter-community hatred that surrounds her, because to draw attention to yourself is to invite danger.
Despite her caution, though, she attracts the attention of the Milkman, a sinister older man who is a senior figure in the paramilitary. He stalks her, then threatens to kill her boyfriend if she continues to go out with him. She becomes the target of gossip and speculation by the rest of the community.
Burns captures so well what it’s like to be a young adult growing up in a period of civil unrest – the story could be set in any place facing repression and violence.
This is a darkly humorous book that borders on the absurd. Potential readers should be warned, though: This is a very demanding read which requires a great deal of concentration and commitment; it’s easy to lose the thread of the story because of the very long paragraphs, run-on sentences, and lack of chapters.
The novel is, though, one of the most interesting choices to have made the Man Booker Prize shortlist.
Author: Esi Edugyan
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Canadian author Esi Edugyan has crafted what is perhaps the most readable novel on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist.
We first meet George Washing-ton Black (“Wash”) as an 11-year-old field slave on Faith plantation in Barbados, working in the cane fields with his guardian Big Kit. The cruelties inflicted on the slaves by their master, Erasmus Wilde, are related in graphic detail and suicide seems the only way out.
Wash’s life changes when Erasmus’ brother, naturalist and abolitionist Christopher “Titch” Wilde, takes the boy on as his assistant because he is small and light enough to ride in the balloon Titch plans to launch from the summit of a nearby mountain. Titch mentors the boy, teaching him to read, calculate and carry out scientific experiments. Wash discovers an impressive natural talent for botanical drawing.
The pair is forced to flee after the death of a white man that Wash would certainly be blamed for. They take the balloon – the Cloud Cutter – but are forced to crash land on a ship before they can reach dry land. This is the beginning of a series of adventures that take them to Virginia, then to the Arctic where Titch disappears into the snow one day, to face almost certain death. Wash is forced to make his way without his friend and protector while needing to constantly dodge the bounty hunter who is pursuing him.
Washington Black is at heart a historical adventure story which borders at times on fantasy – with intriguing steam-punk elements. Most poignantly, though, it is a coming-of-age story which tackles deeper issues of slavery, race and identity. Wash is aware of his own potential, which can never be fully recognised or realised because of the racism that exists everywhere, even after the abolition of slavery.
The Long Take
Author: Robin Robertson
For this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist, the judges chose several unconventional literary works (including a crime novel, a graphic novel and two novels that incorporate stand alone short stories) that push the boundaries of what a novel can be.
Robin Robertson’s The Long Take is perhaps the most unusual in form, though: a long prose poem which also happens to be a most moving account of the personal toll that war takes.
It tells the story of a World War II veteran so broken by his experiences in France that he feels he can no longer return to his Canadian home. He decides instead to start a new life in America; first in New York City and then in Los Angeles where he gets a job as a reporter at the Los Angeles Times newspaper before being sent on assignment to San Francisco.
He has a particular interest in the plight of the homeless, especially veterans who end up on Skid Row because there are no jobs and society doesn’t care.
As Walker (“he walks. That is his name and his nature”) wanders the streets, Robertson provides descriptions of the cityscapes of the post-WWII years that are finely detailed and sensuously evocative. Woven into the novel is a fascination for films of the era and jazz. The research Robertson has put in to get the period details so precise is most impressive, and the sense of time and place is further enhanced by the inclusion of black and white photographs.
Walker still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder so any small sound – “A dropped crate or child’s shout or a car backfiring” – creates a whole string of terrible associations. Within the fractured narrative are vivid flashbacks to the past: to the natural landscape of Cape Breton Island where he grew up, to the woman he loves and whom he can never go back to, and then increasingly to Normandy; until we learn in the terrible climax of the novel exactly what he did.
The poetry never gets in the way of the story-telling. Robertson writes in the language of the everyday, but every image shines.
The Mars Room
Author: Rachel Kushner
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
American author and twice winner of the US National Book Award, Rachel Kushner here tackles the subject of women’s prisons in the United States.
Romy Hall is a stripper at the infamous Mars Room, “the worst and most notorious, the very seediest and most circuslike place there is”. She is sentenced to two consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole for the murder of one of her clients. She claims she did it self-defence; the man she killed was a stalker who threatened her safety and that of her seven-year-old son, Jackson.
What brought her to this point is told in flashback, and it is clear that the odds have been stacked against her from the beginning due to poverty, peer influence and drugs, and poor parenting. An inadequate and biased legal system seals her fate.
The usual routines of prison life are described but what is most interesting is how the women cope psychologically with their incarceration and even manage to build a sense of community. There are moments of humour and even joy in the bleakest of settings.
We are drawn into the stories of a number of women, including Buttons, the Hispanic woman who gives birth in a harrowing scene early in the book; the loquacious and bipolar Laura Lipp; and butch lesbian Conan. None of them is innocent of the brutal crimes she is charged with, but the inevitability of their situation is so clearly portrayed.
Other sections of the novel are narrated from the perspective of Gordon Hauser, a rather naive and easily manipulated prison teacher who supplies Romy with books.
The extensive research that Kushner carried out lends the novel its verisimilitude without weighing it down. Kushner is deeply compassionate towards her characters while not excusing their crimes, and the ending of the novel is both life-affirming and deeply moving.
Author: Richard Powers
Publisher: William Heinemann
The Overstory by American writer Richard Powers is about trees and a group of people whose lives are in some way shaped by them.
In the first part of the novel we are introduced to each of the nine main characters and their family history in a series of short stories.
These include artist Nicholas Hoel, the descendant of a Nor-wegian immigrant to Iowa; engineer Mimi Ma, the half-Chinese daughter of an immigrant from Shanghai; Neelay Mehta, who is crippled after a fall from a tree but goes on to become the world-famous creator of a virtual world; Douglas Pavlicek, a US Army Sergeant who falls from a plane and is saved by the branches of a banyan tree; Patty Westerfield, a researcher who discovers that trees communicate with each other through scent; and Olivia Vandergriff, a college student who emerges from a near death experience believing that her purpose in life is to protect trees.
Several of the characters are drawn together as eco-activists fighting for the survival of trees. Eventually, though, direct action is taken to dangerous extremes with far-reaching consequences.
Despite the novel’s complexity and large cast of characters, Powers keeps the plot heart-thumpingly tense for the most part, and we are fully caught up in all the individual stories.
The research that Powers draws on shows that trees are alive in ways that most of us hitherto have not recognised. They are as much characters in this novel as the human players, and include the generations-old chestnut tree of the Hoel family and the giant redwood named “Mimas” that is home to Nicholas and Olivia who for almost a year.
The conclusions of the novel are timely, given the fact that the human race is sleep-walking towards eco-suicide (as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report out this week has shown us). However, as one of the characters says, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” Yes, The Overstory is a necessary read.
Author: Daisy Johnson
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
British author Daisy Johnson is, at 27, the youngest author to have ever been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Everything Under is a reimagining in a contemporary setting of the ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus. (Such retellings seem to be having quite a moment – last year, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, based on the story of Antigone, was also shortlisted.)
The novel examines a very difficult mother-daughter relationship. Gretel grows up on a houseboat moored on a remote stretch of river with her eccentric mother, Sarah, who fosters the child’s love of words by sharing an invented language with her. But at 16, Gretel is suddenly abandoned. Now a further 16 years on, she is working as a lexicographer, writing dictionary entries.
Gretel sets out to track her mother down, and the novel shifts between time frames and narrative threads, which are woven together at the end as Gretel uncovers terrible family secrets. Each strand is clearly labelled, so that for all its complexity, the plot is easy to follow.
The “Hunt” follows Gretel’s search, not just for her mother but also for a boy named Marcus who she remembers staying with them during the final days on the river and who may hold the key to her mother’s disappearance.
In “The Cottage”, Gretel has been reunited with her mother and brought her to live with her. Sarah has dementia, though, and communication is limited. The “River” sections are written in the third person, and tell the story of Marcus.
The novel is atmospheric and beautifully written, and contains elements of dark fairytales, especially in the form of a water monster called the Bonak who takes the shape of each person’s fears.