Polishing off the Booker Prize Shortlist

This is the second year in a row that I’ve managed to read the whole of the Man Booker Prize shortlist before the announcement of the winner. (In 2013 and 2014 I only got through four of the six titles.) Here’s my take on the final two from the shortlist (see my quick impressions of the others here and here), plus one from the longlist. I finish with thoughts about my favorites and the likely winner.

All That Man Is by David Szalay

all-that-manIn a riff on the Ages of Man, Szalay gives nine vignettes of men trying to figure out what life is all about. His antiheroes range from age 17 to 73. Each section has several chapters and follows a similar pattern: a man from one European country travels to another European country; there are lots of scenes set at airports or otherwise in transit, and part of the overall atmosphere of dislocation is simply the effort of having to adjust to foreignness. These trips are made for various reasons: feckless French twentysomething Bérnard has been fired by his uncle so goes ahead with a vacation to Cyprus; tabloid journalist Kristian flies from Denmark to Spain to confirm rumors of a government minister’s involvement in a scandal; recently impoverished oligarch Aleksandr takes his yacht for a farewell Adriatic cruise.

Predictably, sex is a major theme: reluctant hook-ups, fantasy lovers, affairs regretted, wild oats never sown. At times I was ready to fill in the title phrase in my best Cockney accent with “All That Man Is…is a bloody wanker.” As individual stories, there’s nothing particularly wrong with these. Inevitably, though, some are more interesting than others, and they don’t quite succeed in feeding into an overarching message, unless to confirm a mood of hedonism and angst. Life is short and pointless; enjoy its moments while you can, eh? Overall, I didn’t find this to be the philosophical and elegiac experience I expected. The prose is great, though; I’d certainly read a more straightforward novel by Szalay.

Favorite lines: “How little we understand about life as it is actually happening. The moments fly past, like trackside pylons seen from a train window.”

My rating: 3-star-rating

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

do-not-say“Music and stories, even in times like these, were a refuge, a passport, everywhere.” A sweeping epic of life in China in the turbulent 1960s–80s, this is the Canadian novelist’s fourth book. Narrated from the present day by Marie (or Ma-Li), who lives in Vancouver with her mother, the novel plunges into layers of flashbacks about her family’s connection to Ai-Ming and her musician father, Sparrow. With loyalty to the Communist Party (the title is a line from its anthem) considered the gold standard of behavior and Western music widely denounced as revolutionary, these characters are in a bind: will they pursue their identity as artists, or keep their heads down to avoid trouble? This theme reminded me of Julian Barnes’s fictionalized biography of the Russian composer Shostakovich, The Noise of Time, which also asks whether music can withstand political oppression.

If, like me, you know next to nothing about China’s Cultural Revolution and the transition from Chairman Mao to successive leaders, you will learn so much. There is no denying the power of this portrayal of history. In addition, I was consistently impressed by the book’s language. Thien incorporates Chinese characters and wordplay, musical bars, and snatches of poetry and folk songs. However, I didn’t find this easy reading. The flashbacks can feel endless, such that I experienced Marie’s sections as a relief and wished for more of them. I had to set daily reading targets to get through the novel before the library due date. Yet it is the sort of epic the Booker Prize loves – with echoes of Ruth Ozeki’s The Tale for the Time Being (which should have won in 2013) and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North – and is full of wise observations about what keeps us going when life falls apart. (See my full review at Nudge.)

My rating: 4-star-rating

And here’s another from the longlist that I read recently:

The Many by Wyl Menmuir

many-wylA short work of muted horror, all about atmosphere and the unexplained. Set in a Cornish fishing village, it sees newcomer Timothy Buchannan trying to figure out what happened to Perran, the man who occupied his rundown cottage until his death 10 years ago, and why everyone refuses to talk about him. Flashbacks in italics give glimpses into Timothy’s life with his wife, Lauren, who is meant to join him when he finishes the renovations; and into the fisherman Ethan’s past. I enjoyed the unsettling mood and the language used to describe the setting and Timothy’s dreams. Ultimately I’m not sure I fully understood the book, especially whether the late turns of the plot are to be viewed literally or allegorically. What I take away from it, and this is perhaps too simplistic, is an assertion that we are all joined in our losses. A quick, creepy read – you could do worse than pick it up this Halloween.

My rating: 3-5-star-rating

My two favorites from the shortlist are #1 His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet and #2 Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. But my prediction for tomorrow’s winner is Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien.

What have you managed to read from the Booker shortlist? What’s your prediction for tomorrow?

20 responses

  1. Wow – impressive! As usual, I’ve read none of them!


    1. From my limited knowledge of your taste, I feel like the Madeleine Thien would appeal to you.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re correct there; that’s the one that appeals to me most! Good work there!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Having just finished – and not enjoyed Ancbee Min’s Becoming Madame Mao, I’m attracted by Do Not Say We Have Nothing. But I can wait for the paperback edition.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I do hope your crystal ball proves accurate. I’ve not read all of the in full (just Thien and Szalay and the others in sections) but I’d agree with you that Do Not Say We have Nothing is the best of the bunch.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It feels like the most “serious” and “important” book from the shortlist.


      1. Interesting comment – I’m just hoping they don’t choose Szalay which I don’t think even counts as a novel


  4. I’m almost finished Do Not Say We Have Nothing, and I pretty much agree with your review of it. And, I learned a lot! Even though I haven’t read them all (I also read Eileen), I’m hoping your prediction is right!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “All That Man Is…is a bloody wanker.”: thanks for the warning. The book didn’t appeal to me before, but I’ll be certain to steer clear.

    I’ll be very surprised if Madeleine Thien doesn’t win.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve only read Eileen and there’s no way it’ll win. The popular opinion is leaning toward Hot Milk and Do Not Say.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good to know. I’m starting to wish I’d put some money on this 😉

      I agree: Eileen is a fun genre riff, but not a prize winner.


  7. I’ve read all except Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which I expect will win. I liked All That Man Is, but don’t think it has what it takes to win – I did love your comment however! The Sellout could be in with a chance. I personally loved His Bloody Project, different and clever. Still smarting over The North Water not making even the shortlist 😦


    1. Hi Genevieve, thanks for commenting. I loved His Bloody Project too, but I’m not sure it has the weight of a winner. I, too, was shocked The North Water didn’t make the shortlist. The Sellout is a very interesting book, but I’m still surprised it made even the longlist. I didn’t think the racial satire would translate in the UK.


  8. I have read not a single one, alas. I’ve heard buzz about Hot Milk, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My second fave for the win. Do any of the shortlisted titles appeal to you?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hot Milk, I think!


    2. Ah yes, I can definitely see you liking that one.


  9. I’m so off the pace when it comes to these prizes as I haven’t been reading much in the way of newly-published fiction in recent years. That said, I do recall seeing several positive views of Hot Milk, so I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed it too.

    If you’re ever looking to try something else by David Szalay, I would recommend The Innocent. I read it a few years ago and was really impressed. Even though the story moves backwards and forwards in time, I suspect it’s a more straightforward novel than All That Man Is. The setting was very atmospheric too as far as I can recall.


    1. I would definitely try another novel by Szalay. Thank you for the recommendation!


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