The winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize will be announced on October 17 at a ceremony in London’s Guildhall. It’s an interesting and diverse shortlist of six authors, featuring three Americans, two British and one British/Pakistani. According to the chair of judges for the competition, Lola, Baroness Young “this year’s shortlist both acknowledges established authors and introduces new voices to the literary stage. Playful, sincere, unsettling, fierce: here is a group of novels grown from tradition but also radical and contemporary.”
Ironically, the two novels on the shortlist that seem best to represent “grown from tradition,” are written by the two youngest authors, the 38 year- American, Emily Fridlund and the 29 year-old British Fiona Mozley. Fridlund’s History of Wolves seems to me derived from the literary tradition of the isolated and marginal individual grappling with the prescribed mores of society, reminiscent of the writings in a bygone era by Robert Louis Stephenson, and today in the works of Stephen King. Linda, the teenage protagonist of the book, lives in the backwoods of Northern Minnesota, and has to fend on her own when the Hippie commune where her parents had lived falls apart.
Another teenager, Daniel, narrates Mozley’s debut novel, Elmet. Set in rural Yorkshire, Daniel’s family is also isolated from the mainstream society. I find derivatives in this fine novel in the writings of Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence, especially in the struggle of the individual against society, as well the preference to live close to nature and all its attendant beauties and perils over placing one’s roots in the mundaneness of settled communities.
The most “radical” of the two shortlisted novels are by the esteemed American authors, Paul Auster and George Saunders. Auster’s book, 4321, experiments with four different narratives and timelines for the same fictional protagonist, who happens to resemble the author in so many aspects of his life. I must admit that I truly enjoyed the first two hundred pages of the book because Auster writes superbly. Then the author’s self-abortion started to run amok, and by its conclusion on page 862, I felt bored and intellectually dissatisfied.
The main ploy utilized by Saunders in his book Lincoln in the Bardo i.e. the dead in the cemetery commenting on the actions of the living visitors evokes Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Saunders also intersperses actual passages from Civil War era newspapers and periodicals to move the narrative and embellish characterization. Both literary devices work splendidly, creating a brilliant and unique work of fiction.
The “contemporary” novels that complete the shortlist are Ali Smith’s Autumn and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. This is the fourth time that Ms. Smith has been shortlisted. She is universally respected by the British writing establishment, and is an acknowledged mentor and role model for an ascending younger generation of women writers in her country.
Autumn is a complex and intricate novel with several parallel stories that move around in time. It is often described as a post-Brexit model for its setting of a mood of estrangement and xenophobia in contemporary Britain.
Exit West traces the long journey of a young man and woman escaping their unnamed war-torn country seeking to find open doors and safe havens in their wanderings. Hamid’s distant and objective writing tone is almost Kafkaesque. Yet the book that it most reminds me of is J. M. Coetzee’s 1983 Booker-winning Life & Times of Michael K.
Who will the coveted prize this year? If I were a judge, I would vote for Ms. Mozley’s Elmet. It stirred my emotions more than any of the other selections. The author carefully crafted each and every word, blending magnificent lyrical language within a suspenseful and powerful storyline.
Will it win? Perhaps. We are overdue to have a British woman win the prize. The last woman to capture the coveted Man Booker was Eleanor Catton in 2013. The last British writer to win was Hilary Mantel in 2012. Although I believe that Elmet is more deserving this year to win than Autumn, sentiment for Ms. Smith might overtake the merit of Ms. Mozley’s outstanding debut novel.
I always enjoy the air of anticipation this time of year, less than a month away from the announcement of the 2013 Man Booker Prize Longlist in London on July 23. Obtaining the over one hundred eligible books is a challenge for the American reader, as many books are not as yet distributed in the States. However, because of several wonderful bookstores that I frequent and a great local public library, I have managed to find and read five of the eligible books so far. All five are excellent novels, and I recommend all of them to you.
English writer Jim Crace’s Harvest is set in an unnamed English village in the unspecified distant past. It’s a spellbinding mood piece, layered with plot twists and a fascinating array of characters that reflect the class and caste structure of the time. Crace’s pacing of the narrative is first rate, as is his lyrical writing style.
Colm Toibin, the outstanding Irish writer, has produced a short literary gem in The Testament of Mary. He chronicles the thoughts of Mary of Nazareth in her last years residing in Ephesus. Mary is depicted as a mournful mother, confused about the meaning and purpose of her son’s life and the turbulent aftermath of his death. Her ambiguity about the deity of Jesus is contrasted with the unquestioning faith of some of the Apostles who care for her.
The Pakistani author, Mohsin Hamid, dazzles us with his satiric novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. The setting is an unspecified South Asian nation, but it is crystal clear that Hamid is dissecting the social and commercial fabric of his homeland, especially life in the big cities of Lahore and Karachi. The novel is fraught with ironies and contradictions, much like Pakistan itself. Although I found some superfluous bathos in the storyline and characters, in its entirety the book manages to be an entertaining and satisfying read.
Ghana Must Go is the debut novel of Taiye Selasi, a woman born in London, raised in the States, to parents born in Nigeria and Ghana. It’s a splendid depiction of both the psychological and emotional struggles of an immigrant family in the United States, as well as life in post-colonial West Africa. Selasi’s characters are nuanced, and she unrelentingly probes their minds until suppressed emotions and feelings are revealed.
Finally, Irish author Colum McCann covers 165 years of Irish and American history in his amazing novel TransAtlantic. The construct of the book is brilliant. He weaves actual historic events such as Frederick Douglass’ fundraising trip to Ireland at the onset of the Great Famine and former Senator George Mitchell brokering the Good Friday Accords into the fabric of his incredible fictionalized narrative. It is historical fiction at its best, allowing us to see how troubled pasts can eventually lead to hopeful futures.