Final Thoughts on the Booker Longlist

On Wednesday the 13th the Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced. I’d already reviewed six of the nominees and abandoned one; in the time since the longlist announcement I’ve only managed to read another one and a bit. That leaves four I didn’t get a chance to experience. Here’s a run-through of the 13 nominees, with my brief thoughts on each.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber): I can’t see myself reading this one any time soon; I’ll choose a shorter work to be my first taste of Auster’s writing. I’ve heard mostly good reports, though.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) (Faber & Faber): Read in March 2017. This is my overall favorite from the longlist so far. (See my BookBrowse review.) However, it’s already been recognized with the Costa Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, so if it doesn’t make the Booker shortlist I certainly won’t be crushed. 

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson): Read in March 2017. A slow-building coming-of-age story with a child’s untimely death at its climax. Fridlund’s melancholy picture of outsiders whose skewed thinking leads them to transgress moral boundaries recalls Lauren Groff and Marilynne Robinson. (Reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement; )

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) (Hamish Hamilton): I don’t have much interest in reading this one at this point; I didn’t get far in the one book I tried by Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) earlier this year. I’ve encountered mixed reviews.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) (Canongate): If you’ve heard anything about this, it’s probably that the entire book is composed of one sentence. Now here’s an embarrassing admission: I didn’t make it past the first page.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) (4th Estate): I read the first 15% last month and set it aside. I knew what to expect – lovely descriptions of the natural world and the daily life of a small community – but I guess hadn’t fully heeded the warning that nothing much happens. I won’t rule out trying this one again in the future, but for now it couldn’t hold my interest.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals): Read in August 2017. Simply terrific. (See my full blog review.) Overall, this dark horse selection is in second place for me. I’d love to see it make it through to the shortlist. 

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India) (Hamish Hamilton): I was never a huge fan of The God of Small Things, so this is another I’m not too keen to try.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury Publishing): Read in April 2017. An entertaining and original treatment of life’s transience. I enjoyed the different registers Saunders uses for his characters, but was less convinced about snippets from historical texts. So audacious it deserves a shortlist spot; I wouldn’t mind it winning.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (UK-Pakistan) (Bloomsbury Circus): This is the one book from the longlist that I most wish I’d gotten a chance to read. It’s been widely reviewed in the press as well as in the blogging world (A life in books, Elle Thinks, and Heavenali), generally very enthusiastically.

Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton): Read in November 2016. (See my blog review.) While some of Smith’s strengths benefit from immediacy – a nearly stream-of-consciousness style (no speech marks) and jokey dialogue – I’d prefer a more crafted narrative. In places this was repetitive, with the seasonal theme neither here nor there. 

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton): Read in October 2016 for a BookBrowse review. The Africa material wasn’t very convincing, and the Aimee subplot and the way Tracey turns out struck me as equally clichéd. The claustrophobic narration makes this feel insular. A disappointment compared to White Teeth and On Beauty

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) (Fleet): Read in July 2017. (See my blog review.) I’m surprised such a case has been made for the uniqueness of this novel based on a simple tweak of the historical record. I felt little attachment to Cora and had to force myself to keep plodding through her story. Every critic on earth seems to love it, though. 

 


If I had to take a guess at which six books will make it through Wednesday and why, I’d say:

  • 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster – A chunkster by a well-respected literary lion.
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid – A timely refugee theme and a touch of magic realism.
  • Solar Bones by Mike McCormack – Irish stream-of-consciousness. Channel James Joyce and you’ll impress all the literary types.
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – Effusive in tone and cutting-edge in form.
  • Autumn by Ali Smith – Captures the post-Brexit moment.
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead – Though it’s won every prize going, the judges probably think they’d be churlish to pass it by.

 

By contrast, if I were asked for the six I would prefer to be on the shortlist, and why, it’d be:

  • Days Without End by Sebastian Barry – Pretty much unforgettable.
  • History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund – A haunting novel that deserves more attention.
  • Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor – Though it’s not my personal favorite, I support McGregor.
  • Elmet by Fiona Mozley – A nearly flawless debut. Give the gal a chance.
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – Show-offy, but such fun to read.
  • Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – Timely and well crafted, by all accounts.

That would be three men and three women, if not the best mix of countries. 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?

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37 thoughts on “Final Thoughts on the Booker Longlist

  1. I think I agree with you, although I’ve only read Exit West (the concept is far more interesting than the execution). I really want to read Elmet and Home Fire, while a few of the others are on my Kindle. I think my problem is I prefer to read them after all the brouhaha has died down…

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  2. I prefer your list of six compared to your predicted list! Agree with your thoughts on Swing Time; I’ve read Exit West and didn’t care for it at all (maybe I missed the point…); haven’t read Bardo but I’m sucked in by the hype.

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    1. Lincoln in the Bardo was a rare case of a book living up to the hype for me, as opposed to ones like Smith (A. or Z.) and Whitehead.

      I’ve heard a number of not-so-enthusiastic reactions to Exit West now, but then lots of raves as well. Seems like a love it or hate it book?

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  3. I always value your opinions so this was very useful.
    I absolutely LOVED Lincoln in the Bardo (as did my husband) – never read anything remotely like it! I still think about it which is always a good sign with me, as much of the fiction I read is instantly forgotten.

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  4. Well, I’ve read none of them so far. Like you, I’m only lukewarm about Arundhati Roy, and the reviews I’ve read of her latest have been somewhat underwhelming. I did like Hamid’s The Relucatnt Fundamentalist though, so his book’s on my ‘to read’ list. If Penny reads this she knows me too well to be insulted – as far as fiction goes we simply can’t agree, ever. So ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ has gone further down my ‘must read’ list 😉

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    1. The voice didn’t grab me in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but I’d be willing to try it again someday.

      Maybe try a short sample of Lincoln and see what you think. It’s a very different method of storytelling, but some of the characters are riotously funny.

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  5. The only one from the list I’ve read is Swing Time, and I liked it but I agree it wasn’t as good as her others. I keep hearing about Solar Bones and I always just think, “why?” I’m impressed you made it through the whole first page to be honest. Punctuation was invented for a reason.

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  6. I’ve only read the Barry, the Whitehead and the Shamsie although I have Swing Time and Autumn on the book pile. I loved the First two but am apparently the lone voice having problems with the Shamsie. I simply didn’t believe in Karamat Lone. I thought at best he was a stereotype and at worst a caricature. This really hurts because Shamsie is one of my favourite writers. The one I want to get round to reading is the Saunders. I have heard such good things about that.

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  7. I haven’t read any, but I love your prediction lists!
    If I were to choose a couple to read, I’d probably go for Days Without End and Elmet. In fact Elmet sounds really good – I might even choose it first (based only on their premises).

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  8. I have read 10 of the books. My personal favourites are:
    1. Lincoln in the Bardo
    2. Solar Bones
    3. Elmet
    I haven’t read: Home Fires, 4321 & The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if Colson Whitehead, Ali Smith & Arundathi Roy make the list.
    I was impressed to see that you have read over 200 books this year. Very impressive, have you got any reading strategies?

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    1. Wow, you’ve nearly read them all!

      I read about 300 books a year, sometimes a little more. Some of the main factors are: I don’t have a TV, I work from home, I don’t have children, and some of my work (book reviewing for paid venues) involves reading.

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  9. I just did a post on this today comparing various predictions about the winner. Solar Bones comes high on people’s list but Underground Railway trails a long way behind. Ive not read any of them except as samples – didn’t much care for what I read of Solar Bones.

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    1. Yes, I saw your post. I wasn’t aware of that Goodreads group you mentioned. It was neat to see that their picks were almost a blend of my predicted and desired lists 🙂

      I feel that Underground Railroad has already gotten plenty of accolades, yet I can’t see Booker overlooking it for the shortlist.

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  10. This was the first literary prize that I ever followed (Possession hooked me) but now I go through phases of attention and neglect and, because I’m mainly reading from the backlist this year, it’s been a neglectful year. Have you always followed it? However, I happened to read George Saunders and Zadie Smith, just because I’m intrigued by them anyhow, and I am currently reading Underground Railroad because I loved Zone One, so now I’m halfway interested in the shortlist. A few others are on my TBR (McGregor, Ali Smith, Auster, Hamid) because I’ve really enjoyed at least one other by the author, but I’m not dashing in those directions right now either. I have a feeling you’ll enjoy the writing bits of that Paul Auster trilogy, although I’m not sure you’ll love it as much as I did. Good luck with your predictions!

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    1. I really got into the Booker in 2011, the year Julian Barnes won for Sense of an Ending. I was working in London at the time and attended a couple of shortlist events. It was a controversial race because the judges said they were looking for books that “zipped along,” which led to accusations of populism. Since then I’ve aimed to read at least some of the shortlist every year. I usually manage at least 3-4 of the books on it. However, I often end up preferring some from the longlist.

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