My reviews of all six the 2017 Man Booker shortlisted novels

Extraordinary Novel Set To Be A Timeless Classic (Rating: 10/10)

Which novel shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 will win
Lincoln In The Bardo
Author: George Saunders
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Set during the American Civil War (1861-1865), this is a book about life and death, and what might come after that. It is also a story of the unbearable tragedy of losing a child. That child is the Lincoln of the title, 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, third son of the 16th American president Abraham Lincoln. Having recently succumbed to typhoid fever Willie is as yet unaware that he is dead.
Most of the novel takes place in one night, in and around the Oak Hill cemetery in Georgetown, Washington DC, where young Willie’s body lies in a crypt. Distraught and grieving, Abraham remains in the dark about his son’s fate beyond death. Nonetheless he ventures into the graveyard and plays an important role in accompanying his son through his transmigration.
With its stylistic risks and quirks, not least of which is the 19th century diction, short-story writer George Saunders’ first novel is refreshingly unconventional and a little disconcerting.
A chaotic jumble of more than 160 narrators results in something larger than the sum of its parts that would have been impossible to apprehend if written more conventionally. These narrations are interspersed with quotations, historical, fictional, and occasionally contradictory.
Conflict drives a story, but here the conflict is a complicated affair, a border skirmish fought somewhere on blurred boundaries between life and death, with characters foraying back and forth into each other’s territories, mirroring the very real-life conflict of the on-going Civil War. The death of his son emphasises the death of so many other sons on the battlefields, and though Abraham’s grief threatens his sanity, it ultimately strengthens his resolve to conclude the war as swiftly and efficiently as possible.
This is an extraordinary novel, both funny and deeply touching, and destined to become a timeless classic.

A Deserving Contender (9/10)

Which novel shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 will win
Author: Ali Smith
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Hotel World in 2001, The Accidental in 2005, How To Be Both in 2014, and now, Autumn in 2017 – Scottish author Ali Smith is certainly no stranger to the Man Booker shortlist. Irish writer Sebastian Barry (whose long-listed novel Days Without End is one of the most remarkable omissions from this year’s shortlist) has described Smith as “Scotland’s Nobel laureate-in-waiting”, and her latest novel further cements that reputation.
Taking place in contemporary Britain, Autumn is the first in a planned quartet of seasonally themed novels. It is a book about mother-daughter relations and feminism, about Brexit (Britain’s upcoming exit from the European Union) and unconventional friendship, about “arty art” and the founding member of the British Pop-Art movement, Pauline Boty.
Junior art lecturer Elisabeth Demand is living the dream “if the dream means having no job security and almost everything being too expensive to do”. The book revolves around her precarity, her conflicted relationship with her mother, and her friendship since childhood with Daniel Gluck, a former neighbour almost 70 years her senior. “What you reading?” he asks by way of greeting, every time he meets Elisabeth.
Autumn is beautifully and sensitively written, and not without quite some amount of humour. The near Kafkaesque ordeal of Elisabeth renewing her passport at the post office is hilarious as are her mother’s forays into the world of television. The action is set against the backdrop of the Brexit vote and portrays a society divided, cleavages becoming apparent across landscapes and through families in the construction of fences and weighted silences around dining tables.
The surreal opening sequence alone, where we are introduced to the dreaming 101-year-old Daniel, is worth the price of admission in itself.
Autumn is one of my favourite books of the year and, to my mind, a deserving contender for this year’s Man Booker Prize.

A Novel For Our Times (8/10)

Which novel shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 will win
Exit West
Author: Moshin Hamid
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Ten years after The Reluctant Fundamentalist was featured, Moshin Hamid returns to the Man Booker shortlist with his fourth novel, Exit West, a magical-realist love story about the global migrant crisis.
Exit West is a book in two parts. The first deals with the macrocosms of a city, country, and society falling apart, and a larger civilization taking quite a bashing into the bargain. The second section is more subtle and deals with the microcosm of a couple falling apart. That couple are Saeed and Nadia, refugees forced to flee their homes in an unnamed Middle-Eastern country caught in the thralls of civil war.
Hamid sidesteps the gruelling travel that refugees generally endure, transporting his characters through hidden portals disguised as ordinary doors in buildings and homes, allowing them to emerge instantly into new and unfamiliar surroundings.
After a short spell on a Greek island, Saeed and Nadia step through another doorway that takes them to London. This is not a conventional modern London, but rather an imagined London where much of the city centre has become a ghettoised refugee settlement under siege by the armed denizens of political authorities. A compromise is reached and the refugees are put to work building the new homes and communities they will inhabit – Hamid’s inversion of the result the Brexit vote was touted to achieve.
But Nadia has set her sights further afield. Saeed dutifully joins her as they exit stage west to the hills of California’s Marin County, now overrun with squatters and refugees.
Their odyssey is transformative, for each in his and her own way. Ultimately they learn to live life separated, not only from their home country but also from one another.
Exit West is a novel for our times, putting a human face on the plight of migrants and refugees everywhere.

Stunning Debut (8/10)

Which novel shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 will win
Author: Fiona Mozley
Publisher: J.M. Originals
Along with Emily Fridlund’s History Of Wolves, this is one of two first-novel-coming-of-age books on this year’s Man Booker shortlist. Both feature teenaged protagonists living on the margins of society in cabins in the woods. But there any resemblance ends.
Narrator Daniel and his older sister Cathy live more or less in isolation with Daddy, a giant of a man who makes a living by competing in illegal boxing matches. They squat on land that used to belong to the children’s mother (who has disappeared from their lives) but now belongs to the shady Mr Price.
Elmet is a lyrical exploration of the fractured nature of family life in contemporary Britain and the abusive informal economy that feeds the bloated underbelly of society. The main narrative revolves around family members trying to protect their home and each other. While it was clear from the outset that there is danger lurking, not just in the shadows but in broad daylight, I was unprepared for the level of visceral violence that ensues. “One in the eye for the patriarchy” could be one reading of this book. That “one” comes at a terrifying cost.
Fragments reveal some of Daniel’s bleak fate in the aftermath of the main events. Like his father he uses his body for survival, but instead of fighting he turns tricks for money, but perhaps also for intimacy.
Elmet is not a perfect novel. Daniel is unusually eloquent. Characters border on cartoonish. Superhero Daddy is so huge that a fully grown man could sit curled up inside his chest. Super-villain Mr Price is he-who-must-be-paid. But these are small bones to pick when placed in the greater scope of this beautifully written novel.
Elmet is a powerful book and a stunning debut by Fiona Mozley.

Telling Rather Than Showing (6/10)

Which novel shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 will win
Author: Paul Auster
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Paul Auster’s doorstep of a novel is almost as long as all the other books featured on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist put together. It is arguably four (or three and a quarter) separate novels intertwined into one.
Auster, never one for straightforward narrative structure, imagines alternative histories for his main character, Archibald Isaac Ferguson. In one scenario Ferguson is a film critic, in another a journalist, and yet another incarnation sees him as a fiction writer.
Each Ferguson takes a different path, allowing the author to explore the what-might- have-beens of life. Another interpretation could be that Auster wrote four (or three and a quarter) different drafts of the novel, couldn’t settle on one that satisfied him and decided to weave them all together. There’s a lot of writing in this book, a big long list of words lined up one behind another like steps on a near-endless staircase.
There’s the old saw of fiction writing that a writer should show rather than tell. Auster goes out of his way here to invert that dictum.
Most of the action happens during the late mid-20th century. It’s a novel of baseball (yawn), college romances, the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy, basketball (more yawns), and second guessing (and third guessing) choices and possibilities.
Though it doesn’t feature in the book, I found it impossible to look at the title and not have Manfred Mann’s 1964 hit, 54321, play as a constant earworm throughout my reading.
I have no objection to long books, but 4321 drags on interminably, particularly towards the end. At the risk of offending Auster fans, if there’s one novel on this year’s shortlist (actually there are two) that you can safely skip, it’s this one, or four, or however many books you want to consider this protracted novel might be.

A Somewhat Disappointing Read (3/10)

Which novel shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 will win
History Of Wolves
Author: Emily Fridlund
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Readers of Emily Fridlund’s debut novel seem to fall into two camps: those who effusively enthuse and those who don’t. I’ll set my tent up in the grounds reserved for the latter category.
This book is a mystery, not so much in terms of plot, but in how it came to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The mystery further thickens with the book making it to the much coveted shortlist.
History Of Wolves has little or nothing to do with wolves. I didn’t count, but my guess is there are a dozen lines about wolves at most.
It’s a coming of age novel featuring a disaffected 14-year-old named Madeline, Maddie, or Linda, depending on her mood, but written from her perspective as a woman in her late 30s.
She grows up in a washed out hippy commune in the woods on the outskirts of a small town in Northern Minnesota, just south of the Canadian border. By the time she reaches her teens the commune is just a broken dream and the only ones remaining are Maddie and her eccentric parents.
The Gardner family moves in to a cabin across the lake. Linda is hired to babysit the family’s son, an intense little boy named Paul, and to an extent his mother, Patra. Leo, the Christian fundamentalist father, is often absent, but casts a long shadow, and a dark one at that.
The last 50 pages were an uphill struggle for me and I finished this book just on principle. In fairness, on a sentence level the writing is masterful, even beautiful at times. It might have worked better as a short story, or maybe even a novella, but there really isn’t enough of a plot to hang all that lovely writing on.
A somewhat disappointing read.

These reviews originally appeared in The Star


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