This week saw the announcement of the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2017.
There were a couple of surprises – frontrunner The Underground Railroad didn’t make the cut and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time wasn’t in the final race – but we have been left with six stunning books to explore over the next few weeks.
It’s been noted that half of the authors are from the US, a reflection of the relaxed entry rules introduced by the prize a few years ago. But, that diversity hasn’t harmed the quality of writing on show (diversity never does, does it?) and there is some stunning literature being recognised here.
So, here is the lowdown on the Man Booker six and what you can expect from the finest in literary fiction.
At 880 pages (yep, that’s not a typo), this is certainly the longest book on the list. Is it worth the effort? Here’s the blurb from the publisher:
On March 3, 1947, in the maternity ward of Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the one and only child of Rose and Stanley Ferguson, is born.
From that single beginning, Ferguson’s life will take four simultaneous and independent fictional paths. Four Fergusons made of the same genetic material, four boys who are the same boy, will go on to lead four parallel and entirely different lives. Family fortunes diverge. Loves and friendships and intellectual passions contrast.
Chapter by chapter, the rotating narratives evolve into an elaborate dance of inner worlds enfolded within the outer forces of history as, one by one, the intimate plot of each Ferguson’s story rushes on across the tumultuous and fractured terrain of mid-twentieth-century America. A boy grows up—again and again, and again.
Still not sure? Listen to Paul read from the book in this excerpt from Faber & Faber. (It does sound rather good.)
Autumn is the first in Ali Smith’s seasonal series on modern day life in Britain. It’s contemporary, sharp and very observant. Here’s the blurb from the publisher:
Autumn. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. That’s what it felt like for Keats in 1819.
How about Autumn 2016?
Daniel is a century old. Elisabeth, born in 1984, has her eye on the future. The United Kingdom is in pieces, divided by a historic once-in-a-generation summer.
Love is won, love is lost. Hope is hand in hand with hopelessness. The seasons roll round, as ever.
Read this interview with Ali on why she wrote a novel like this.
Fiona is the second-youngest author ever to reach this stage. She wrote her book on her phone while commuting between York and London, and still works part-time in a bookshop while completing her PhD. Here’s the blurb from the publisher:
Daniel is heading north. He is looking for someone. The simplicity of his early life with Daddy and Cathy has turned sour and fearful. They lived apart in the house that Daddy built for them with his bare hands. They foraged and hunted.
When they were younger, Daniel and Cathy had gone to school. But they were not like the other children then, and they were even less like them now. Sometimes Daddy disappeared, and would return with a rage in his eyes. But when he was at home he was at peace. He told them that the little copse in Elmet was theirs alone. But that wasn’t true. Local men, greedy and watchful, began to circle like vultures. All the while, the terrible violence in Daddy grew.
Hamid has previously been shortlisted for the Man Booker for this novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Here’s the blurb from the publisher for this latest contender:
Nadia and Saeed are two ordinary young people, attempting to do an extraordinary thing – to fall in love – in a world turned upside down. Theirs will be a love story but also a story about how we live now and how we might live tomorrow, of a world in crisis and two human beings travelling through it.
Civil war has come to the city which Nadia and Saeed call home. Before long they will need to leave their motherland behind – when the streets are no longer useable and the unknown is safer than the known. They will join the great outpouring of people fleeing a collapsing city, hoping against hope, looking for their place in the world . . .
You can read an extract of the book here.
Emily lives in New York and has a PhD in literature and creative writing. This is her first novel and she has a short story collection coming out with Sarabande soon.
Here’s the blurb on History of Wolves:
How far would you go to belong? Fourteen-year-old Linda lives with her parents in an ex-commune beside a lake in the beautiful, austere backwoods of northern Minnesota. The other girls at school call Linda ‘Freak’, or ‘Commie’. Her parents mostly leave her to her own devices, whilst the other inhabitants have grown up and moved on.
So when the perfect family – mother, father and their little boy, Paul – move into the cabin across the lake, Linda insinuates her way into their orbit. She begins to babysit Paul and feels welcome, that she finally has a place to belong.
Yet something isn’t right. Drawn into secrets she doesn’t understand, Linda must make a choice. But how can a girl with no real knowledge of the world understand what the consequences will be?
This is another pretty epic novel. Here’s the blurb from the publisher:
The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.
From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling, supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself trapped in a transitional realm – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – and as ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.
The Sunday Times described this as a tour de force while the Evening Standard billed it a “surreal metaphysical drama”. It’s certainly bending genres and historical fact to create one of the most talked about books of the year.
This shortlist takes risks on newcomers and doesn’t shy away from strongly political narratives. The US half of the list explores the country’s history as a means of understanding its current identity crisis, while Ali Smith does the same with the UK’s Brexit-fuelled divisions. New voices hold their own among the established heavyweights and bring some intriguing debut fiction to the table. It’s also a shortlist split equally between male and female contenders which is refreshingly feminist for an industry notoriously dominated by male writers.
I’m excited by all of these books and can’t wait to see who picks up the prize in October.
I’ll be sharing reviews of each book and telling you more about the authors after Claire and I attend the shortlist readings in London next month.
Happy reading Man Booker fans!