Man Booker 2016: Thoughts, Rants and Predictions

I did it, everyone! I read all six books on the Man Booker shortlist. Not only that, I did it in time to make wildly inaccurate predictions about which one should win! I know, yay for me. I feel like I should win a prize myself for this astounding reading achievement.

The point of the Booker is to award “the best novel in the opinion of the judges,” which makes guessing what’s going to win very tricky. I’m writing this a week before the announcement of the winner (because I’m going on holiday in 2 days and should probably use that time to relax rather than second-guessing the literary viewpoints of complete strangers) and, at this point, the favourite for the prize appears to be Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which I reviewed here; I found it quite hard work to read but my impressions of it have grown more positive the more I’ve thought about it since. I’d say this would be a fair winner; it’s grand in scope and does that generations-of-family-saga thing which awards judges seem to really like. The writing is beautiful and it’s historically educational too, so a win for Thien would be fine with me.

I’m baffled by the fact that, right now, the bookmaker William Hill has Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk at odds of 11/4, given that I thought it was almost comically terrible. I can’t imagine how it was even longlisted, let alone still in the running for the prize now. It’s mercifully short and that’s basically the only positive thing I can say about it. Covering some of the same ground (i.e. crap holidays) is All That Man Is by David Szalay, which I found similarly uninspiring; I see the artistry in covering 9 stages of a man’s life in different stories, but I found the general air of stasis and misery overwhelming. I’ve seen a number of jokes riffing on the title so I won’t go down that comedic route, but Szalay seems to be saying that man’s experience comprises being white, privileged and suffering from a dual sense of ennui and sexual frustration which is neither sympathetic nor interesting. I kind of see why All That Man Is has made awards shortlists, but it’s not one I enjoyed reading.

I’m surprised that Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (reviewed here) doesn’t seem to be a favourite for the prize; the writing is astonishing in places and, although I think it suffers a little from trying to be clever, it is also very funny, particularly when the narrator spirals into lengthy cultural critiques. The racial satire didn’t entirely resonate with me; I though Beatty was going for a bit of a Swiftian Modest Proposal style, but then lost confidence in my own interpretation.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh was my first venture into the shortlist and I enjoyed its lowkey, murky narrative. In my review, I thought of it as a moody sister to Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton (longlisted but, criminally, not shortlisted- and I am increasingly proud of this genius comparison. I don’t think Eileen should or will win the Booker, but it is something I’m happy to have read.

My favourite of the shortlist, and a book I’d love to see win, is Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project. Of all the books on the shortlist, this was the one I was least enthusiastic about reading; I’m not really into crime fiction and, frankly, I thought it sounded dull, but I was completely wrong and I’m glad my Booker project brought me to this Bloody one. I liked the idea of using “found” documents to tell the story of Roddy Macrae, rightly accused of a brutal triple murder in 19th century Scotland; the author breaks up the narrative between a “memoir” by the murderer, medical reports, a testimony by a psychologist and accounts of the trial, which means the reader can never really gain a sense of what’s “true.” I found myself trying to put together the different accounts and answer the questions raised, which, for me, is the sign of a compelling and successful thriller. While some of the other books on the shortlist bear superficial similarities, His Bloody Project is completely different, and I’d love to see Graeme Macrae Burnet rewarded for his ingenuity.

So there you go. Do Not Say We Have Nothing will probably win, which is fine. Hot Milk might win, which would spell the end of civil as we know it. His Bloody Project should win, because it’s ace. You’re welcome.

The Man Booker 2016 winner will be announced on October 25th.

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