Well, guys, it’s that time again. The Man Booker prize 2018 is going to be given out this evening by the Duchess of Cornwall, at a ceremony at Guildhall, London, which will be aired by the BBC.
I’ve made it through 5 ½ shortlisters. Devastatingly, I have an hour left to go on ‘The Long Take’, so my predictions for this year are based on the first half of that one only!
Unlike the International shortlist, I found that every single one of these books was accessible, interesting and unique. I enjoyed reading all of them and there were no real outliers for me. I’d say it’s possibly more of a ‘mainstream’ shortlist than previous ones have been.
For me, this year’s books fell pretty neatly into two groups.
In this category, I’ve put books which I admired but which I don’t think will take home the prize.
‘Everything Under’ by Daisy Johnson
Readers of ICOBMS will know that I have a soft spot for Daisy Johnson, who, at the tender age of 27, is already an extraordinary literary talent. I’m sure much more will come from her in the next few years. For me, ‘Everything Under’ was original and brilliantly written but at times quite opaque and tricky to connect with. It’s an impressive reworking of a well-known myth, but I wonder if it has the resonance beyond this that a Man Booker winner often has.
‘Washington Black’ by Esi Edugyan
It’s rare to find an adventure story on awards shortlists, with many judging panels preferring something loftier. ‘Washington Black’ was probably the easiest read on the list, due to Edugyan’s straight-forward style and the natural pace of her story. But, as you can read in my full review, I wondered whether some of the character depth had been sacrificed in order to include another pit-stop on the hero’s epic journey.
‘The Long Take’ by Robin Robertson
OK, I hold my hands up! Not fair; not fair at all to put this into the outlier box when I haven’t finished reading it. But what I will say (and what I will say in more detail when I get my review up) is that this is an astonishing book. Whilst written in ‘verse’ (personally, I think it’s written in prose with lots of line breaks), it reads like a novel with an extra side-helping of poetic flair. There are moments when our hero, a veteran of WWII with PTSD, flashes back to moments of complete horror from his war days; these hit you like a brick. The result is brilliantly effective, but I suspect slightly too niche in terms of style and theme to win the prize. Not that it wouldn’t deserve to, however. Much like Han Kang’s ‘The White Book’ on the International shortlist, it might be remembered for style more than substance.
THE FRONT RUNNERS:
My front runners, I know already, are not necessarily everyone’s favourites. But I truly believe these three are ahead of the pack as we cross the finish line.
‘The Mars Room’ by Rachel Kushner
I read this book on holiday a couple of months ago, and like a fine cheese, it has only matured in my mind. Many holiday books are easily forgettable, but not this bleak little number about a women’s correctional facility. The heroine Romy’s story is enough to make you feel sad, angry, and weirdly guilty at the same time. It highlights just how unfair our society can be to people who are born into bad circumstances; so much worse so if you happen to also be a woman. However, it also deals with broader themes like belonging, inevitability, hope and acceptance. It’s a book I’m sure I’ll read again, and it has much to say beyond its own pages.
‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers
This epic has a debt of guilt to the trees that were chopped down to make its 500+ pages, but will probably do much more for them in the long-term. A series of short stories which intertwine to bring several well-drawn, complex characters together, it focuses on the role of trees in our lives. Not only is it an ode to the beauty of trees and their steadfastness in the face of frantic human change, but a rational reminder that their benefits extend far beyond the uses we have thus far discovered. It’s the bookie’s favourite, and has been all along. Read it, and be changed.
‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns
One of the joys of reading the whole shortlist is that it makes you read books you’d never have picked up. ‘Milkman’ is a classic example of a book I’d walk past in Waterstones, but I was blown away. How does a book about an 18-year-old girl fending off the advances of a paramilitary during the Troubles manage to be tragic and hilarious at the same time? Often while reading this book, I thought: “Me!” despite obviously not growing up in Ireland in the 70s. But Anna Burns is so very sharp in this book; she has a crystal-clear understanding of flawed teenage logic, the frustrations of being powerless to shape your future, and just generally attempting to be a woman in society. And it is very funny.
So, who’s going to win?
As much as I’d be pleased if everyone were to be proved wrong, I think it will probably be ‘The Overstory’. It moved me, it changed my outlook, and it tackles important and urgent real-life themes.
However, I would be equally delighted if Anna Burns (or indeed Rachel Kushner) took home the prize. Both of their novels were really a cut above the rest.
And my favourite?
‘Milkman’, without a doubt.
Who are you backing to win?