Booker Longlist Mini Reviews

Tomorrow the Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced. I’d already read and reviewed four of the nominees (see my quick impressions here), and in the time since the longlist announcement I’ve managed to read another three and ruled out one more. Two were terrific; another was pretty good; the last I’ll never know because it’s clear to me I won’t read it.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

his-bloodyWhat a terrific, propulsive tale Burnet has woven out of a real-life (I think) nineteenth-century Scottish murder case. The seams between fact and fiction are so subtle you might forget you’re reading a novel, but it’s clear the author has taken great care in assembling his “documents”: witness testimonies, medical reports, a psychologist’s assessment, trial records, and – the heart of the book and the most fascinating section – a memoir written by the murderer himself. As you’re reading it you believe Roddy implicitly and feel deeply for his humiliation (the meeting with the factor and the rejection by Flora are especially agonizing scenes), but as soon as you move on to the more ‘objective’ pieces you question how he depicted things. I went back and read parts of his account two or three times, wondering how his memories squared with the facts of the case. A great one for fans of Alias Grace, though I liked this much better. This is my favorite from the Booker longlist so far.

4 star rating


Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

eileen“I often felt there was something wired weird in my brain, a problem so complicated only a lobotomy could solve it—I’d need a whole new mind or a whole new life.” This isn’t so much a book to enjoy as one to endure. Being in Eileen’s mind is profoundly unsettling. She’s simultaneously fascinated and disgusted by bodies; she longs for her alcoholic father’s approval even as she wonders whether she could get away with killing him. They live a life apart in their rundown home in X-ville, New England, and Eileen can’t wait to get out by whatever means necessary. When Rebecca St. John joins the staff of the boys’ prison where Eileen works, she hopes this alluring woman will be her ticket out of town.

There’s a creepy Hitchcock flavor to parts of the novel (I imagined Eileen played by Patricia Hitchcock as in Strangers on a Train, with Rebecca as Gene Tierney in Laura), and a nice late twist – but Moshfegh sure makes you wait for it. In the meantime you have to put up with the tedium and squalor of Eileen’s daily life, and there’s no escape from her mind. This is one of those rare novels I would have preferred to be in the third person: it would allow the reader to come to his/her own conclusions about Eileen’s psychology, and would have created more suspense because Eileen’s hindsight wouldn’t result in such heavy foreshadowing. I expected suspense but actually found this fairly slow and somewhat short of gripping.

3 star rating


Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

hot-milkThis is a most unusual mother–daughter story, set on the southern coast of Spain. Twenty-five-year-old Sofia Papastergiadis has put off her anthropology PhD to accompany her mother, Rose, on a sort of pilgrimage to Dr. Gómez’s clinic to assess what’s wrong with Rose’s legs. What I loved about this novel is the uncertainty about who each character really is. Is Rose an invalid or a first-class hypochondriac? Is Dr. Gómez a miracle worker or a quack who’s fleeced them out of 25,000 euros? As a narrator, Sofia pretends to objective anthropological observation but is just as confused by her actions as we are: she seems to deliberately court jellyfish stings, is simultaneously jealous and contemptuous of her Greek father’s young second wife, and sleeps with both Juan and Ingrid.

Levy imbues the novel’s relationships with psychological and mythological significance, especially the Medusa story. I don’t think the ending quite fits the tone, but overall this is a quick and worthwhile read. At the same time, it’s such an odd story that it will keep you thinking about the characters. A great entry I’d be happy to see make the shortlist.

4 star rating


[One I won’t be reading: The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee. I opened up the prequel, The Childhood of Jesus, and could only manage the first chapter. I quickly skimmed the rest but found it unutterably dull. It would take me a lot of secondary source reading to try to understand what was going on here allegorically, and it’s not made me look forward to trying more from Coetzee.]

do-not-sayAs for the rest: I have All That Man Is by David Szalay and Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy on my Kindle and will probably read them whether or not they’re shortlisted. The same goes for Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, for which I’m third in a library hold queue. I’d still like to get hold of The Many by Wyl Menmuir. That leaves just Hystopia by David Means, which I can’t say I have much interest in.

I rarely feel like I have enough of a base of experience to make accurate predictions, but if I had to guess which six books would make it through tomorrow, I would pick:

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

The North Water by Ian McGuire

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

That would be three men and three women, and a pretty good mix of countries and genres. I’d be happy with that list.

What have you managed to read from the Booker longlist? How do your predictions match up against mine?

25 thoughts on “Booker Longlist Mini Reviews

  1. I’d be shocked if Hot Milk, The North Water and Lucy Barton don’t make it through. From my own reading, I’d also nominate Serious Sweet and Eileen, and then… hmm. I didn’t really enjoy The Many (so ominous! so inconclusive!) It could be All That Man Is, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, or His Bloody Project, really – I’ve read reviews of all three but no one seems really inflamed by any of them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I need to go back and read your review of Eileen and some others — I know a lot of people got more out of it than I did.

      I’d love to see His Bloody Project on the shortlist, but I guess it’s a longshot being such a little known author and publisher.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I mean, I’ll admit that Eileen is very odd. I enjoyed it because I kept expecting something awful to happen and the awful thing that did happen was not one of the Bad Things In Fiction that I’m programmed to expect!


  2. I’m definitely not in a position to predict, as I’ve only read Eileen. But it’s fun to follow along and see what everyone else thinks! I do have my fingers crossed for Madeleine Thien. I can’t get a copy of her newest book right now, so instead I read one of her others over the summer (Dogs at the Perimeter) to get a sense of her writing, and I thought it was good.
    I would love to read The North Water and My Name is Lucy Barton. And Hot Milk sounds intriguing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. All that a Man Is is an odd book, I hesitate to even call it a novel because there seems no over-arching theme that links the different stories together. The Manynis a terrific novel. Like you I have no interest in Hystopia having read the first chapter.


      1. To be honest, not really! But then I’m not sure they ever really do, to be honest. I don’t shy away from the difficult book or the unpleasant character, but I’ve just not been enamoured by most of the recent shortlists!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, I managed 50% on my predictions, with Burnet, Levy and Thien making the shortlist. Hooray! Very surprised that North Water and Lucy Barton didn’t make it but The Sellout did. I’ve read 4 out of 6 of the shortlist already and will try to read the other two before the prize announcement on the 25th of October, though this depends on my library hold for Thien coming in.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I picked 4 out of 6 my other two picks being Lucy Barton and The North Water, which I had actually picked to win, being my favourite of all the Longlisters so far! So there you are – really surprised that The North Water didn’t make it….is anyone else? Have read all shortlisters except All That Man Is (hard to get in Australia until now) and Do Not Say We Have Nothing, so I’d better get on it….
      Btw love your site 🙂


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