A few weeks ago, I challenged myself to read the entire Man Booker Prize shortlist before the winner was announced. The ceremony takes place today, and I can proudly say that I will have an Opinion on the winner no matter who it turns out to be! Here are a couple of thoughts about each of the books:
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS by Marlon James
This is the story of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the 1970’s, but more broadly spanning three decades of turmoil and violence in and around Jamaica. I struggled with this one more than any of the others. It begins with about four pages of dramatis personae, which is always daunting. (Some people like books that have maps in, I just feel intimidated by the idea that I’ll need them for reference.) It’s a staggeringly ambitious piece of writing, and it rewards persistence. By the end of the book you’ve spent so much time with these characters, many of whom are not good people, that you end up missing them when they’re gone. I would like to see this win, as its scale and scope are astonishing, but the writing is glorious, too. Should I read it? Yes, if you’re feeling determined.
THE FISHERMEN by Chigozie Obioma
In which brothers growing up in 90’s Nigeria fall under the shadow of a prophecy foretelling fratricide within their close knit family. I loved this one; it’s full of things I’m very fond of in fiction, namely complex familial relationships and magic realism and trauma. The writing is utterly lovely, and although the story is ultimately a tragic one (I’m not sure that’s a spoiler) there is plenty of lightness to enjoy in the many anecdotes of the boys’ shared childhood. Should I read it? Definitely. Obioma deserves to become a star.
A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD by Anne Tyler
If you like Anne Tyler, you’ll probably like this book, but I was fairly unmoved by it. We’re introduced to a series of characters, and then a different generation of the same family, and then another generation again. Everybody kind of lives their lives and has conversations about things, and that’s about it. I suspect I just don’t “get” it. Should I read it? If you’re into that sort of thing.
SATIN ISLAND by Tom McCarthy
The more I think about this book the more I like it, which goes to show what an impression it made in under 200 pages. Our narrator, U., spends the whole novel taking us on a series of self-indulgent digressions. The plot is probably quite interesting, but as it’s all filtered through this rambling anthropologist character, we’ll never know. It’s an unconventional narrative technique, which makes SATIN ISLAND a divisive book. Enjoyment of it is based heavily on the reader’s patience for pretentious intellectual nonsense. I am fuelled by pretentious intellectual nonsense, so I enjoyed it quite a lot. Should I read it? Only you can answer that question.
THE YEAR OF THE RUNAWAYS by Sunjeev Sahota
Four characters from very different backgrounds find themselves going through the trials of immigrating from India to the UK. The themes are topical and important, and Sahota does an excellent job of humanising the people the papers term “migrants” and worse. However, as a novel, this didn’t quite work for me. The multiple back stories are juggled deftly, and didn’t drag, and I wasn’t even too bothered by the constant untranslated slang. Yet I was still left cold; these characters go through horrors, but I found them oddly unaffecting. It all felt a bit worthy. Should I read it? Maybe get it from the library.
A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara
If I were judging, this flawed, fantastic, unforgettable book would win everything. Reading it was emotionally and physically exhausting, and I regret nothing. A LITTLE LIFE is devastatingly romantic. It made me want to call my friends and tell them I love them. It’s eloquent on loss, trauma, and grief but also on friendship, kindness, and love. I was dreading reading this; it was the last of my Man Booker reads and I was expecting a slog and a struggle to make the deadline. Instead I have confirmed my belief in literature as a tool for learning empathy; after A LITTLE LIFE, my own life feels a little fuller. Should I read it? Only if you’re in a good place emotionally and have a box of tissues on hand.
That’s the wrap-up! Have you read any of these yet? Strongly disagree with me? Want to form a post-“A Little Life” support group? Let me know in the comments!
See you on the other side of the announcement!