Book reviews, Man Booker Prize

Man Booker Prize shortlist

The Man Booker Prize shortlist was revealed this week. Let this guide to the six books up to for the prize help you pick your favourite.

Eileen reviewed by Jessica Jung

Eileen is an unusual, uncomfortable, and at times deeply unsettling first novel by Ottessa Moshfegh.

Eileen Dunlop is the unconventional and unfulfilled first-person narrator who sets out to tell ‘the story of how I disappeared’. This begins with a vivid account of the minutiae of her life as a 24- year-old, focusing on her unconventional and squalid home with her alcoholic father, dressing each day in her late mother’s clothes and heading out for her ‘deadly boring’ job as secretary at a local prison for boys. Here her lack of empathy for the inmates, their families, and her colleagues echoes her disgust with her own body, manifested as she repeatedly starves and purges it, seemingly in an attempt to dissolve herself out of her pathetic and desperate existence.

Set in the early 1960s in ‘X-Ville’, a dark, depressed and snowy New England town in the run up to Christmas, Moshfegh succeeds in creating a pervasive atmosphere both of a place with no prospects and no means of escape, and an impending feeling of both hope and and catastrophe through Eileen’s narrative, which is told from the viewpoint of a much older, still more world-weary Eileen.

This tension between what is about to unfold in the novel’s present and hints of what has happened in Eileen’s future (we learn that as an old woman she is childless and alone, having moved to New York and survived a number of relationships with different men) helps to propel the novel forward, and the pace picks up around a third of the way through when we are introduced to the mysterious ‘Rebecca’ who ‘like an angel and a devil debating the logic of longing’ seems to be the femme fatale that this noir thriller is crying out for.

Whilst the overall sense of (no) place feels immersive and at times inescapable for the reader, other details, such as the novel’s temporal setting and the social position of Eileen as a young unmarried woman earning her own money and, to some extent, author of her own destiny, are more lightly drawn.

Desperate for friendship and recognition, Eileen is delighted when the illusive Rebecca pays attention to her, but her remembered account is peppered with hints that Rebecca, and the friendship she proffers, are not what they seem. This suspense leads to a dramatic (although somewhat bizarre) crescendo which precipitates Eileen’s promised disappearance from X-Ville, and the novel’s conclusion. Whilst not a conventional ‘happy ending’ this does offer some resolution, although for me many ends were left untied.

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Check out the others in the running. These summaries give you a taste of the tiles – click on them for full reviews.

The Sellout reviewed by Frances Gallannaugh

The Sellout takes a satirical and sometimes surreal look at issues of race, community and identity in modern America.

His Bloody Project reviewed by Alix Bromwich

Burnet vividly creates the wild and wildly beautiful landscape of the Scottish moorlands where madness and sanity are merely a line in the sand apart.  You’ll be left questioning your moral compass as you live and breath Culduie; the village where power corrupts and loyalty is a deadly matter indeed.

Hot Milk reviewed by Jacqui Deans

Sofia and her mother Rose have travelled to Spain in a desperate attempt to cure Rose’s puzzling paralysis in her lower limbs. Both women need this trip to provide resolution as their relationship becomes more claustrophobic. The central tensions of mother/daughter dynamics, obsession and control are explored in this novel of short chapters and spare, poetic writing, beautiful and expansive in scope and yet dense with ideas and meaning.

All That Man Is reviewed by Mariana Mouzinho

This is a novel about what it means to be a man. Szalay gives the reader cinematic glimpses into the lives of nine men at different stages of their lives. Although the structure is that of a collection of short stories, the novel suggests the idea that there is something integral to manhood. The stories are presented with gritty realism in a punchy and poignant prose. A really engaging read.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing reviewed by Claire O’Sullivan

A multi-generational saga stretching from 1960s China to present day Canada. It is set against the backdrop of Shanghai, Beijing and the Chinese provinces, the Cultural Revolution and the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989. This is not an easy read but is well worth the perseverance and concentration as you get to know the characters. Beautiful and haunting.

Shadow judging

We also discovered this week that we’ll be reading His Bloody Project in our role as official shadow judges for the prize. We can’t wait to get started as it sounds like a brilliant read. Check out the other shadow judges here.

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