Books James Bradley names his pick for the impending Man Booker Prize
This year’s Man Booker Prize will be announced on Wednesday. Novelist and critic James Bradley applauds the diversity of the shortlist, and tries to pick the winner
Two years ago, when the organisers of the Man Booker Prize announced that from 2014 the award would be open to Americans, many in Britain (and indeed Australia) decried it as the death knell of diversity, ending what some saw as the Booker’s proud history of support for writers from the Commonwealth nations.
Those fears were allayed somewhat when last year’s Booker went to Australia’s Richard Flanagan for The Narrow Road to the Deep
North, but an undercurrent of concern remained that the award would simply become a rubber stamp for American literary blockbusters.
On the face of it, this year’s shortlist, made up of Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven
Killings, Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, Sunjeev Sahota’s The
Year of the Runaways, Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread and Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, would seem to put those fears to rest. Skewed heavily but not exclusively to younger writers (at nearly 74, Tyler is 46 years older than Obioma), it also suggests something of the increasing ethnic diversity of the literary world and, although still biased toward men, at least gestures toward gender equality. It’s also, pleasingly, a strong shortlist, despite a couple of notable omissions (I was surprised Marilynne Robinson’s Lila didn’t make the cut, and continue to think the failure to shortlist Anne Enright’s The Green Road was a mistake).
Nonetheless some will ask questions about how diverse it really is: as has been observed, four of the six shortlisted authors live in the US and both the others in Britain. And, although this is rarely discussed, the prize’s requirement that books be published in Britain to be eligible immediately excludes most writers working outside Britain and the US. Still, there’s little doubt to my mind that this year’s shortlist feels representative of the literary world’s growing diversity in a way few have felt before.
Of the six novels the most technically dazzling is James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. He is the first Jamaican writer to be shortlisted for the Booker. Set in Jamaica and New York, the novel centres on a fictionalised retelling of the events leading up to the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Kingston in December 1976.
This attack — itself the subject of considerable mythology — is further mythologised in James’s account, which replaces the real Marley with another, shadowier figure known only as “the singer’’. Yet although the question of what happened on that December day is not irrelevant to the novel, neither is it really the point. Instead, filtered through the voices of a sprawling cast of gang members, politicians, journalists and CIA operatives, James presents a portrait of a society convulsed by violence and, more deeply, the process of decolonisation and the Cold War, and the degree to which the effects of these processes continue to reverberate through seemingly unconnected lives decades later.
James is an astonishing stylist, extracting a brutal poetry and sensuality from the densely vernacular voices of his sprawling cast and giving shape to the intricacies of their inner lives and the complex and often fatal ways their per- sonal circumstances intersect with the world they inhabit. A Brief History of Seven Killings is also structurally audacious, leaping and vaulting from character to character as it circles the events at its centre, and then, seemingly effortlessly, curving outward as it arcs forward in time.
Yet despite its virtuosity, the real triumph of James’s novel isn’t merely technical. Instead it lies in the way it seeks to move beyond the surface of conventional history to reveal the hidden patterns of power and connection that lie behind it, and to give voice to people whose voices are too often passed over and forgotten.
The Fishermen, the debut novel of Nigerianborn Obioma, shares some of A Brief History of
Seven Killings’ interest in both violence and the ways in which political instability can shadow individual lives. Narrated by the youngest of four brothers, the novel begins shortly after the boys’ father is transferred to a new position in a city a 15-hour drive away. Without their father present the boys begin to run wild, spending their days fishing in the once pure but now polluted and poisonous river near their home, an activity that leads to an encounter with the village madman, who tells the boys that one of them will murder another.
As its title suggests, The Fishermen functions at least partly as a sort of parable, a fact that lends its portrait both of the conflict between the brothers and the decline of the family a quality of inevitability. Yet as its explicit invocation of Chinua Achebe makes clear, it should also be read within the broader tradition of African fiction, a quality that lends its domestic dramas a wider significance.
The result is powerful if slightly uneven. Although Obioma writes with great vividness about the physical and sensual detail of the world the boys inhabit, he also has a taste for explicit symbolism, which can be a bit clunky, and, at least partly because of the way the novel depends on the accretion of detail for its effect, a tendency to overwrite. Likewise the connections Obioma wants to make between the unravelling of the boys’ family and the unravelling of Nigerian society as a whole are sometimes a little forced. Yet despite these quibbles there is no denying the power of the book’s final pages, or its portrait of a family and a nation transfigured by the weight of history. English author Sahota was selected as one of
Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2013 on the basis of his first novel, Ours are the
Streets, and The Year of the Runaways bears out the promise of that debut in every way. Set in England and India, it offers an unsparing and deeply distressing glimpse of the lives of the millions of people who cross borders in search of work or safety, or simply in the hope of a better life.
At its centre are four characters: Randeep, Avtar, Tarlochan and Narinder. As the novel opens, three of the four — Randeep, Avtar and Tarlochan — are living in an overcrowded house in Sheffield. Isolated by poverty and their ignorance of the country in which they have ended up, the three of them fight for whatever work they can find, travelling long distances to labour on building sites and working cheaply in various illegal jobs.
None of the three is in England entirely legally. Randeep is there on a marriage visa, having agreed to a sham marriage with Englishborn Narinder. Avtar — who was forced to sell his kidney before he left India — has a student visa, and Tarlochan has arrived illegally.
Yet their mutual vulnerability does not breed solidarity or fellow feeling: instead they all — and in particular Tarlochan, whose status as an untouchable makes him an outcast even among his fellow immigrants — fight to survive as best they can.
If the antecedents of The Fishermen lie in the work of writers such as Achebe, it’s tempting to suggest the antecedents Sahota’s thrilling novel lie in the great social realist novels of the 19th century, in particular those of Emile Zola and George Gissing. For while a good part of the novel is set in India, there is nothing exotic about its portrait of the insecurity of its characters’ lives, and much that would be familiar to Zola (and indeed Friedrich Engels) in the depiction of the gruelling physical hardship of the men’s work on building sites and in kitchens.
But The Year of the Runaways is leavened by a deeply humane awareness of the way small moments can transform lives, and by the possibilities of unexpected connection, most obviously in the bond forged between Narinder and Tarlochan.
And it’s this quality, as much as its capaciousness and unsentimentality about the hardship and misery of its characters’ lives, that makes its portrait of one of the central experiences of the early 21st century so compelling.
British writer McCarthy is the only previous shortlistee, for C in 2010. His latest novel, Satin
Island, is, like Sahota’s, a book about the 21st century. Yet where The Year of the Runaways draws on other, older conceptions of the novel,
Satin Island seeks deliberately and self-consciously to embody the weird textures and disjunctions of our historical moment.
As the novel opens, the narrator, “U”, an anthropologist employed as a consultant to a vast multinational, has just been instrumental in helping the company land the Koob-Sassen Project. Exactly what Koob-Sassen is remains a mystery. As U observes at one point, although the project is so important that “there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way, touched on, penetrated, changed”, he is unable to divulge its nature, partly because of the web of commercial and governmental stipulations surrounding it, and partly because it is, in his view, “a pretty boring subject”.
With Koob-Sassen in hand, U’s employer suggests he return to his original “epochal commission”, the drafting of “the Great Report”, a work that will provide “the First and Last Word on our age”, modelled on the work of U’s great hero, Claude Levi-Strauss. To this end he watches videos of oil spills, talks to his colleagues — all of whom seem, like him, to be engaged in work that is at once immense and meaningless — and surfs the net, seeking to understand the patterns of connection, meaning and unmeaning that underlie it.
Readers acquainted with McCarthy’s two previous novels, Remainder and C, will notice similarities in Satin Island’s engagement with modernism and its frustration with the ideas of the self embodied in more conventionally humanist fiction (there are also echoes of C’s descriptions of aeronautics in Satin Island’s subplot about a skydiver who killed by a sabotaged parachute).
Yet Satin Island is neither as oblique as Remainder nor as expansive as C: instead it occupies an interesting midpoint between the two, its cursory plot allowing McCarthy the freedom to explore the questions about contemporary reality that interest him.
The result is oddly engaging, sustained not by plot but by the novel’s meditations on the phenomena that draw U’s attention, meditations that are held together by the sheer intelligence of McCarthy’s writing and the many finely observed images of our technologically mediated and alienated lives. The contrast between Satin Island and A
Spool of Blue Thread, by American author Tyler, is so stark that it’s tempting to say it’s difficult to imagine how the same judges could shortlist them. Where Satin Island is ruthlessly, unsentimentally modern in its affect and method, A Spool of Blue Thread is an open, gregarious and perfectly pitched example of precisely the sort of realism McCarthy’s novel defines itself in opposition to.
Yet to characterise it in that way is to run the risk of missing what is most impressive about A
Spool of Blue Thread, a book that offers a lucid and compelling reminder not just of Tyler’s consummate skills as a novelist, but of the pleasures of the realist novel more generally. At first blush the family at the novel’s centre, the Whitshanks, seem happy enough, give or take some of the usual frictions and problems, pleased with their success and comfortable in their ideas about who they are.
Yet as the narrative progresses it becomes clear that many of the myths that sustain the family are just that, convenient fictions that disguise more complex truths, a fact that is underlined in the novel’s second half, when the action shifts seven decades back to offer an account of the courtship and marriage of the Whitshank patriarch, Junior, and his wife that is uncomfortably at odds with the version passed down to their descendants.
It’s to Tyler’s credit that none of these revelations feels forced or melodramatic — indeed their ordinariness is part of what makes A Spool
of Blue Thread so engaging — yet they feed the darker thread that is woven through the sundappled foreground of the action, and are of a piece with the lively authorial intelligence that animates the novel as a whole.
And, just as significantly, Tyler is as deft and alert and slyly witty in her depictions of the various Whitshanks as she always is, even if A
Spool of Blue Thread doesn’t bear comparison with the best of her work.
While the bookies have Tyler as the outsider in the field, her compatriot Yanagihara is the warm favourite for A Little Life. The novel tells the story of four friends — Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm — tracing out the intersecting lines of their personal and professional lives across four decades. At one level it is a particularly well-crafted fantasy of New York life that owes more than a little to Donna Tartt, and The
Secret History in particular. Yet Yanagihara undercuts this fantasy with a second, much more troubling thread concerning the long history of horrific abuse suffered by Jude as a boy.
There is, it must be said, much that is impressive about A Little Life. As her first novel,
The People in the Trees, demonstrated, Yanagihara is an accomplished stylist, and her control of A Little Life’s sprawling narrative and cast barely falters across the book’s more than 700 pages. Similarly the novel is never less than absorbing, and the things it has to say about the intractability of damage and the impossibility of escaping one’s past are important and salutary, especially in a society so addicted to narratives of recovery.
Yet, while A Little Life has been eagerly embraced by readers and critics, many of whom have found it a transformative experience, I personally remain deeply ambivalent about the novel as a whole. Not just because I feel uneasy about the long sequences detailing Jude’s abuse, passages which seem to me to shade into something close to kitsch, but because the book as a whole often feels uncomfortably adolescent, fixated on the specialness of its characters, their brilliance, beauty and suffering.
Which brings us, inevitably, to the question of who will win.
Although these things are always difficult to predict, I think it’s safe to say Obioma won’t, and McCarthy probably won’t, if only because
Satin Island is so unlike the other books on the shortlist. I also suspect it’s safe to assume Tyler is unlikely to win, although there’s an outside chance the judges may want to acknowledge the novel because she has said it is her last.
That leaves James, Sahota and Yanagihara. If it were up to me I’d almost certainly pick James — although it’s both extremely male and extremely violent, A Brief History of Seven Kill
ings is a remarkable book on many levels — with The Year of the Runaways a close second (part of me also wouldn’t mind seeing McCarthy win, but that’s another story).
But despite my reservations about it, I think the most likely winner is A Little Life, a book that, with its recent longlisting for the National Book Awards, seems to be in the process of sweeping all before it, and which will, I suspect, be a popular choice among readers.
IT’S A STRONG SHORTLIST, DESPITE A COUPLE OF NOTABLE OMISSIONS