Man Booker 2017- Is it possible to pick the winner?

The winner of the Man Booker prize 2017 is announced in just a few hours.  The Duchess of Cornwall is due make the presentation this evening.  I have managed to get through the six titles on the shortlist and thought I’d give a kind of end of term report and make my prediction for the prize.  I’ll list them in the order the bookies are favouring them:

lincoln

Lincoln In The Bardo – George Saunders – The bookies hot favourite was just a little too odd for me both in structure and content.   Latest sale figures suggest it has sold around 10,000 copies  ***

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Exit West– Mohsin Hamid – Also notching sales of around 10,000 this is a sparse novel which impressed but I felt it fizzled out towards the end.  ****

elmet2

Elmet – Fiona Mozley – A debut which was apparently partly written on the author’s phone which sounds terribly modern but this is a traditional, poetic literary novel which packs a good punch.  Another one with sales figures around 10,000 ****

auster

4321– Paul Auster – It’s just too long and with too much detail.  It’s ambitious, clever and probably has the most memorable moments but it is an exhausting read. Now published in paperback which at least makes it lighter, around 15,000 people have bought this so far.****

autumn

Autumn – Ali Smith.  With around 50,000 copies this is definitely the commercial hit of the bunch but the bookies place it at 8-1.  I think it’s a strong contender and is the most enjoyable of Smith’s books I have read.  ****

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The History Of Wolves – Emily Fridlund – The Bookies outsider and my outsider as well.  It just didn’t sparkle like I hoped it would.  (So probably the winner then).  Not really tempting the book-buying public with sales so far of around the 3.5 thousand mark. ***

Phil’s Tip For The Prize– I’m going for Elmet by Fiona Mozley.

POST ANNOUNCEMENT UPDATE– And the winner is……………….George Saunders for Lincoln In The Bardo proving once again I just cannot second-guess the Man Booker judging panel.  In her summing up Baroness Lola Young, the Chair of the Panels “This really stood out because of its innovation- its very different styling and the way in which it paradoxically brought to life these not quite-dead souls in this other world.”  I said in my review, with equal gravitas; “what I couldn’t get out of my head was a manic, adult version of “Rentaghost”.” So each to their own, I suppose and congratulations are certainly due to George Saunders for beating off the competition with this great award for his first full-length novel.  Now it has won the prize many more will be seeking out the book.  It certainly hasn’t been the biggest seller of the list to date and a copy prominently on display in one of the libraries where I have been working has been sat ever since it came in without anyone taking it home.  All that will change now………Roll on, Man Booker 2018 where I will no doubt once again be barking up the wrong literary tree.

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Lincoln In The Bardo – George Saunders (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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saundersI’m feeling a little discombobulated.  Firstly, congratulations are due to highly esteemed American author Saunders who comes onto the shortlist much praised for his previous published works which includes essays, short stories and novellas. This is his first full-length novel and its arrival was much anticipated.

I’m disturbed firstly because it is distinctly odd. The whole thing is written as observations, either as quotes from books or character statements. These are often in short sections and in common with first-hand sources can be contradictory so you get different opinions of the same event. This does make it quick to read but the short length of these breaks up any real flow. It does on occasion lead you in almost addictively when there’s a barrage of different views on an event, but generally, although it is undoubtedly cleverly done, it feels a little too much like style over substance to me.
The subject matter also disturbs. It’s very much an account of grief. President Abraham Lincoln’s young son dies of a fever. The “Bardo” is a graveyard-set half-life where spirits who have not yet resolved themselves to their demise drift in a shape-shifting existence and are joined by the spirit of Willie Lincoln. This disparate group of beings from the cemetery and mass graves beyond attempt to reconcile the boy to his death. At times these sections reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s “Graveyard Book” and what I couldn’t get out of my head was a manic, adult version of “Rentaghost”.

The whole thing just feels a little off-kilter. Anyone actually experiencing grief or recent bereavement would be advised to steer clear. This was the bookies’ early favourite to win the Man Booker Prize. Do I think that this should get the prize for the best work published in English this year? No, I don’t and perhaps I might have enjoyed the whole thing more if I wasn’t aware the whole time if this wasn’t stirring around in my mind and that the judges favoured this over longlisters “The Underground Railroad” and “Home Fire”. I will give it points for cleverness and originality but the style and theme are just too unsettling for me to really get behind this one.

threestars
Lincoln In The Bardo was published in March 2017 by Bloomsbury

Autumn- Ali Smith (2016) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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Ali Smith is attempting to make her 4th appearance on the Man Booker Shortlist with this longlisted title, her first novel since winning the Baileys Prize and the Costa Novel Of The Year with “How To Be Both” (2014).  That was the only novel I have read by her to date and although I applauded its technical expertise I caught a whiff of style over substance and found it ultimately a little disappointing because I lacked a consistent emotional attachment, which is what I’m always on the lookout for when reading.  Smith is a brave writer whose non-linear narratives can lead to a distancing and if slightly off-balance risks becoming a tad pretentious and ending up with a book of segments of writing (in her case often superb) rather than a coherently flowing piece.

 With that in mind, theories based purely on “How To Be Both”, I hasten to add, I was a little bit unsure about beginning my Man Booker longlist reading with this book.  Coincidentally for the last couple of years the first book I’ve read off the list has ended up scooping the prize, (I’m sure the judges are not bearing this in mind!) so I wanted this to be good.

 And it is.  For me, it is considerably better than the award-laden “How To Be Both”.  The reason?  I got that emotional attachment towards the relationship between the two main characters very early on and this relationship is a thread which runs throughout the novel.

 It’s not going to be easy summing this up in a few words.  A young girl befriends an elderly male neighbour who educates and stimulates moulding her into the adult she becomes.  Now a woman, Elisabeth visits him in his care home where he resides as a semi-comatose centenarian.  From the stories he has told her about the Art world she realises he knew Pauline Boty, a 1960’s female pop artist who Elisabeth bases her dissertation upon.  The time of these care home visits coincides with the Brexit vote and the uncertainty and tensions which fills the country comes across superbly.  Meanwhile Elisabeth’s mother has her own life changes ahead of her when she takes part in a TV antiques programme.

 The writing is often sumptuous, occasionally powerfully poetic as in a section about the mood of the country in the days following the vote and incredibly realistic as the characters grapple with the frustrations of modern life.  A section early on in the novel where Elisabeth attempts to use the Post Office Check and Send Service for a passport is a joy to read and is the section which really pulled me into the narrative, where I remained for most of the novel.  It is also highly visual, not least by its encompassing of art and story into the narrative.

 Smith is both a poet and a storyteller and her sheer unpredictability is both impressive and challenging.  The reader needs to yield to her skills as there is no way to ascertain how the novel will pan out.  There are digressions, plot twists, memories and dreams which make it a narcotic experience in more ways than one.  On this occasion I found her writing addictive and read it quite quickly, it will repay re-reading.  There’s the whole “Autumn” theme which I haven’t touched on which is part of the novel’s life-blood.  If this is the standard of the longlist it is going to be a good few weeks for me and a tough choice for the judges.  This is so close to being a five star read (How To Be Both I rated three stars) and is certainly shortlist worthy.

fourstars Autumn was published by Hamish Hamilton in 2016