Man Booker Prize reading 2015

>> Monday, October 12, 2015

The Man Booker Prize winner for 2015 will be announced tomorrow, so I thought I'd post my impressions of the nominated books. As I have for the past few years, I have read (or at least, had a very good go at reading) most of the books on the longlist and all of the ones on the shortlist.

I should stress that I do this not out of a sense of obligation, but because in previous years I've discovered many truly wonderful books on these lists. Not one or two, but several, more than enough to make the whole thing worth it.

This year it was different. I had a really high proportion of DNFs, and this was DNF after reading a good portion, at least a third and more than that in several cases, so I did invest a significant amount of time in those books. Half of the six books on the shortlist were DNFs! There were a few ok books, and only a couple that truly worked for me.

I don't think it's necessarily that it was a bad selection, more that the judges' concept of a good book does not ring my bells. It seemed to be very much a writers' selection (and yes, I realise not all of the judges this year are authors), in that formal experimentation seemed to be more important than whether the books delivered.

All that said, the two books that worked best for me are actually on the shortlist, which is unusual (my favourites usually don't make it through).

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler, was the one I enjoyed the most. It is the story of a family. At first sight it's a very domestic story, and when you go deeper, it still is a domestic story. And that doesn't mean that it doesn't deliver important insights or striking moments of truth. I loved that about it, as I loved that it was also a really good, satisfying read. The structural experimentation (shifting points of view, non-linear timeline) really worked for me here. Full review here.

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara was one I really wasn't looking forward to, based on all I'd heard about it (and it was probably the most talked about book on the list). I can't say I enjoyed it, but it was actually really good. It starts out as the story of 4 friends in New York but ends up being mainly the story of one of them, Jude, a man who survived horrific abuse as a child. This abuse has left him badly damaged, both physically and psychologically, and Hanagihara explores this in long, harrowing detail. It's tough to read but very powerful. However, I think it would have been even more powerful if the author had not made the childhood abuse quite as extreme, to the point that it made me disconnect because I found some of it unbelievable. I think a little bit less would have been more in this particular case. Anyway, I read it late and finished it while on holiday last week, so no review yet, but I think I'll do a full one soon.

Satin Island, by Tom McCarthy, was a weird one and I still don't know what to make of it. It's basically a guy philosophising about random stuff, as I said in my review "the sort of moderinst crap I detest: pretentious, self-indulgent, uncaring of the reader". But I actually enjoyed myself while I was reading it, so maybe it's not as uncaring of the reader as it might seem. I'm not sure I got the point of it (reading reviews, the theory that resonates the most is that it's satirising how people these days feel that every minute detail of their lives is significant of worthy of being examined in detail), but I found it compelling and still remember quite a few haunting images from it. Full review here.

I had high hopes for The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma. It tells the story of four boys in a small town in Nigeria. However, the writing just didn't work for me at all and I didn't connect with the characters, so I gave up when I was about 40% in. A shame, because it sounded like the story was right up my alley. Slightly longer review here.

I really liked the first sections of The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sahota. It was a story I wanted to read, an imagining of the real people behind the tabloid headlines about illegal workers and sham marriages. I liked the variety of the characters' backstories and the writing. And then I got to a scene in which a previously really sympathetic character tries to rape a young woman and it's portrayed in the vilest, most toxic way, the narration making it clear that it was just that he was overcome by his feelings. I quote the offending scene in my review. No. Just no. I lost all trust in the author right then, and put down the book.

Finally, the last book on the shortlist is A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James. It tells the story of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley, and through it, the violent history of Jamaica in the 70s and 80s. There are a lot (and I do mean a lot) of characters and a fair bit of stream-of-consciousness narration. It was the last book I picked up and I did so while I was on holiday, so I possibly wasn't able to give it the sustained attention it needed. I ended up DNFing it as well, I'm afraid.

In addition to the books on the shortlist, I read most of the books on the longlist (mainly before the shortlist was announced... I'm always crap at guessing which ones will go through!).

I liked The Moor's Account, by Leila Lalami, but it was one that felt more insubstantial in hindsight than while I was reading it. It tells the story of a real and doomed 16th century expedition to the Americas, told from the point of view of a black enslaved man whose perspective has been excised from recorded history. It felt fresh and I liked some of the things it had to say about erasure and the importance of being able to tell your own story. However, thinking back, a lot of it feels episodic and repetitive. Full review here.

I really disliked Anuradha Roy's Sleeping On Jupiter. It's the story of a young orphaned girl, Nomi, who grew up in an ashram in an Indian temple town, a place where the spiritual front shown to spiritual tourists covered horrific abuse perpetrated by the guru. Years later, Nomi returns to the town, ostensibly to film a documentary. Interspersed with her story are two other threads: the story of three old ladies on their last holiday together and that of a local guide who's sexually obsessed with a young man. The book started out well, but it soon unraveled completely. The different threads felt really disjointed, and none of them were developed into anything that made any sense. The whole book felt pointless. Review here.

I wasn't sure what to expect of Lila, by Marilynne Robinson. I tried to read Gilead a while ago and although I really liked the characters and the voice, the lack of any narrative drive whatsoever made it very easy to put down and gave me no incentive pick it back up. Lila had what I liked about Gilead (genuinely decent characters and some really lovely humour), but it also had a bit more stuff going on and propelling the book forward. I thought it ended with a bit of a whimper and kind of fizzled out, really, but on the whole, I enjoyed it.

Anne Enright is an author I've long wanted to try, but The Green Road was a disappointment. It's the story of an Irish family, but the writing did not engage me in the least. In fact, I found it kind of repellent, and gave up. Review here.

The Chimes, by Anna Smaill was probably the title on the longlist that sounded most intriguing. It's basically a futuristic dystopia, set in a world where the titular chimes erase people's memories every day. My problem with it was that I didn't find the way it dealt with this particularly convincing (i.e. the things that were remembered and forgotten didn't make much sense to me). So it was another DNF. Review here.

The other two books on the longlist, which I didn't get to in time (and I'll be honest, they didn't really interest me) were Did You Ever Have a Family, by Billy Clegg and The Illuminations, by Andrew O'Hagan.

So, predictions. A Little Life is the bookies' favourite and if it wins, I would be happy with the decision. I did have some issues with it, but it's got substance and style and it's really good. I enjoyed A Spool of Blue Thread more, and it would probably be my pick, but I don't really have much hope that a novel that is so much about the domestic could win. It did get on the shortlist, though, so I won't abandon all hope! I have a feeling The Year of the Runaways might be the dark horse here, as the story it tells is very relevant, but if I had to put money on it, I would probably go for A Little Life.


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