Who will win?

We pre­view the Booker Prize short­list and place our bets

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

El­met

Fiona Mo­z­ley (John Mur­ray, £10.99) Teenagers Cathy and Daniel, the nar­ra­tor, live with their Daddy in a house he built for them in the clear­ing of a wood. They don’t go to school, but they’re ex­traor­di­nar­ily prac­ti­cal, con­jur­ing up epic feasts from the land. Un­for­tu­nately, how­ever, it’s not tech­ni­cally Daddy’s land and this lov­ing idyll is threat­ened by Daddy’s vi­o­lent past as a bare-knuckle fighter.

The set­ting is con­tem­po­rary with over­tones of So­cial­ist and Green pol­i­tics, but the at­mos­phere folksy and me­dieval (the pe­riod in his­tory stud­ied by the 29-year-old au­thor) and a well­paced sense of im­pend­ing doom reaches a bloody cli­max.

I found the story, and the dis­ci­plined writ­ing, orig­i­nal and more en­gross­ing than ex­pected. I don’t think it’ll win, but I look for­ward to her sec­ond book Kate Green

Lin­coln in the Bardo

Ge­orge Saun­ders (Ran­dom House, £18.99) The rest of us might as well pack up and go home: this ex­tra­or­di­nary book, which will al­most cer­tainly net him the Booker, is Ge­orge Saun­ders’ first novel.

In 1862, Abra­ham Lin­coln’s 11-year-old son Wil­lie died of typhoid. His body was in­terred in a Wash­ing­ton crypt and news­pa­pers re­ported that the Pres­i­dent vis­ited ‘on sev­eral oc­ca­sions’ to hold his son. Mr Saun­ders opens with Lin­coln there, at night, griev­ing, alone. Or is he?

The novel takes its ti­tle from the Ti­betan idea of the bardo, a kind of pur­ga­tory in which spir­its linger, and the ceme­tery is teem­ing with larger-than-life pres­ences. A trio of them act as nar­ra­tors, backed by a phan­tas­magor­i­cal sup­port­ing cast.

Grisly? A bit—but the au­thor brings real hu­man­ity, ten­der­ness and hu­mour to the pro­ceed­ings. Ear­lier this year, he said that the chal­lenge fac­ing him was ‘to make a group of talk­ing ghosts… charm­ing, spooky, sub­stan­tial, mov­ing’. He’s suc­ceeded to an ex­tent that’s al­most, well, spooky. Emma Hughes

Au­tumn

Ali Smith (Pen­guin, £8.99) The first of a planned quar­tet, Au­tumn ex­plores the ex­pe­ri­ence of time through a se­ries of flash­backs, dreams, mem­o­ries and present re­al­i­ties. At its heart is the friend­ship be­tween Elis­a­beth, whom we first meet at the age of eight, and her much older neigh­bour Daniel, who teaches her about books, art and truth and is now dy­ing, aged 101, in Malt­ings Care Providers plc.

This isn’t a novel in the con­ven­tional sense, but rather a bar­rage of in­ter­link­ing themes and ideas, with the men­ac­ing af­ter­math of Brexit a source of dark im­agery coun­ter­bal­anced by ra­di­ant shafts of hu­mour and hope. The pack­ing in of so much— from friv­o­lous plays on words and riffs run­ning to 15-line sen­tences, to med­i­ta­tions on art and sto­ry­telling, di­vi­sion and wry evo­ca­tions of con­tem­po­rary Bri­tain—makes at times for in­co­her­ence. But the clev­er­ness and in­ven­tion for which Ali Smith is so revered might well make her the win­ner. Mary Miers

His­tory of Wolves

Emily Frid­lund (Wei­den­feld & Ni­col­son, £12.99) Ev­ery page of this first novel echoes with grief and lone­li­ness, yet there’s a great beauty to it. Emily Frid­lund’s lan­guage is pre­cise, but gives depth to the world of Linda, the Min­nesota woods in which she lives and her strained re­la­tion­ships—with her (prob­a­ble) par­ents, her disgraced teacher, her peers and the ‘per­fect’ fam­ily in the cabin across the lake.

From the start, we know that Paul, the four-year-old she babysits, will die. This knowl­edge hangs over the nar­ra­tive like a shadow and the truth of what hap­pens is more aw­ful than what you might imag­ine. Miss Frid­lund cov­ers love, sex, Na­ture, science, re­li­gion and life in such a man­ner that you won’t be sure who to sym­pa­thise with or who de­serves to be de­spised— she would be a wor­thy win­ner.

Vic­to­ria Marston

4321

Paul Auster (Faber, £9.99) You must sharpen your wits to dis­en­tan­gle the com­plex­i­ties of 4321. Archie Fer­gu­son, born in 1947, takes four dif­fer­ent paths through Amer­i­can life to the 1970s. Each un­folds in well­writ­ten de­tail, the four jum­bled to­gether like a pack of ran­domly dealt cards, so it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to re­mem­ber which Archie is on the stage at any time. Some char­ac­ter­is­tics are shared: the Archies are all randy, some­times bi­sex­ual; they love sport and are tal­ented writ­ers. Par­ents, re­la­tions, lovers and friends have the same names and share Archie’s de­viant paths and des­tinies.

If 4321 wins a prize, it should go to the judges who had to read and com­pre­hend this in­tri­cate, 1,070-page tome and find suf­fi­cient merit to put it on a short­list. Richenda Miers

Exit West

Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamil­ton, £14.99) When Alan Kurdi was shown dead on a Turk­ish beach, for a mo­ment, the hu­man as­pect of the refugee cri­sis be­came real. We saw the cost of the jour­ney to a bet­ter life and it’s this jour­ney that Mohsin Hamid draws from in Exit West. A young cou­ple, Saeed and Na­dia, seek to es­cape their rav­aged city and, through a se­ries of doors, trans­port them­selves fur­ther away from home and each other. Doors rep­re­sent more than just a means to es­cape: they em­body change, both good and bad.

We’re warned that ‘when we mi­grate, we mur­der from our lives those we leave be­hind’ and Exit West, which would be a wor­thy win­ner, is fur­ther proof that, when the story of the in­di­vid­ual is ex­cised from the col­lec­tive, the nar­ra­tive of the refugee changes from cri­sis to tragedy. James Fisher

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