Who will win?
We preview the Booker Prize shortlist and place our bets
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
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.
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
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