Last-Minute Thoughts on the Booker Longlist

Tomorrow, the 20th, the Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced. This must be my worst showing for many years: I’ve read just two of the longlisted books, and both were such disappointments I had to wonder why they’d been nominated at all. I have six of the others on request from the public library; of them I’m most keen to read The Overstory and Sabrina, the first graphic novel to have been recognized (the others are by Gunaratne, Johnson, Kushner and Ryan, but I’ll likely cancel my holds if they don’t make the shortlist). I’d read Robin Robertson’s novel-in-verse if I ever managed to get hold of a copy, but I’ve decided I’m not interested in the other four nominees (Bauer, Burns, Edugyan, Ondaatje*).


The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

(Excerpted from my upcoming review for New Books magazine’s Booker Prize roundup.)

The first word of The Water Cure may be “Once,” but what follows is no fairy tale. Here’s the rest of that sentence: “Once we have a father, but our father dies without us noticing.” The tense seems all wrong; surely it should be “had” and “died”? From the very first line, then, Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel has the reader wrong-footed, and there are many more moments of confusion to come. The other thing to notice in the opening sentence is the use of the first person plural. That “we” refers to three sisters: Grace, Lia and Sky. After the death of their father, King, it’s just them and their mother in a grand house on a remote island.

There are frequent flashbacks to times when damaged women used to come here for therapy that sounds more like torture. The sisters still engage in similar sadomasochistic practices: sitting in a hot sauna until they faint, putting their hands and feet in buckets of ice, and playing the “drowning game” in the pool by putting on a dress laced with lead weights. Despite their isolation, the sisters are still affected by the world at large. At the end of Part I, three shipwrecked men wash up on shore and request sanctuary. The men represent new temptations and a threat to the sisters’ comfort zone.

This is a strange and disorienting book. The atmosphere – lonely and lowering – is the best thing about it. Its setup is somewhat reminiscent of two Shakespeare plays, King Lear and The Tempest. With the exception of a few lines like “we look towards the rounded glow of the horizon, the air peach-ripe with toxicity,” the prose draws attention to itself in a bad way: it’s consciously literary and overwritten. In terms of the plot, it is difficult to understand, at the most basic level, what is going on and why. Speculative novels with themes of women’s repression are a dime a dozen nowadays, and the interested reader will find a better example than this one.

My rating:


Normal People by Sally Rooney

Conversations with Friends was one of last year’s sleeper hits and a surprise favorite of mine. You may remember that I was part of an official shadow panel for the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, which I was pleased to see Sally Rooney win. So I jumped at the chance to read her follow-up novel, which has been earning high praise from critics and ordinary readers alike as being even better than her debut. Alas, though, I was let down.

Normal People is very similar to Tender – which for some will be high praise indeed, though I never managed to finish Belinda McKeon’s novel – in that both realistically address the intimacy between a young woman and a young man during their university days and draw class and town-and-country distinctions (the latter of which might not mean much to those who are unfamiliar with Ireland).

The central characters here are two loners: Marianne Sheridan, who lives in a white mansion with her distant mother and sadistic older brother Alan, and Connell Waldron, whose single mother cleans Marianne’s house. Connell doesn’t know who his father is; Marianne’s father died when she was 13, but good riddance – he hit her and her mother. Marianne and Connell start hooking up during high school in Carricklea, but Connell keeps their relationship a secret because Marianne is perceived as strange and unpopular. At Trinity College Dublin they struggle to fit in and keep falling into bed with each other even though they’re technically seeing other people.

The novel, which takes place between 2011 and 2015, keeps going back and forth in time by weeks or months, jumping forward and then filling in the intervening time with flashbacks. I kept waiting for more to happen, skimming ahead to see if there would be anything more to it than drunken college parties and frank sex scenes. The answer is: not really; that’s mostly what the book is composed of.

I can see what Rooney is trying to do here (she makes it plain in the next-to-last paragraph): to show how one temporary, almost accidental relationship can change the partners for the better, giving Connell the impetus to pursue writing and Marianne the confidence to believe she is loveable, just like ‘normal people’. It is appealing to see into these characters’ heads and compare what they think of themselves and each other with their awareness of what others think. But page to page it is pretty tedious, and fairly unsubtle.

I was interested to learn that Rooney was writing this at the same time as Conversations, and initially intended it to be short stories. It’s possible I would have appreciated it more in that form.

My rating:

My thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.


*I’ve only ever read the memoir Running in the Family plus a poetry collection by Ondaatje. I have a copy of The English Patient on the shelf and have felt guilty for years about not reading it, especially after it won the “Golden Booker” this past summer (see Annabel’s report on the ceremony). I had grand plans of reading all the Booker winners on my shelf – also including Carey and Keneally – in advance of the 50th anniversary celebrations, but didn’t even make it through the books I started by the two South African winners; my aborted mini-reviews are part of the Shiny New Books coverage here. (There are also excerpts from my reviews of Bring Up the Bodies, The Sellout and Lincoln in the Bardo here.)


Last year I’d read enough from the Booker longlist to make predictions and a wish list, but this year I have no clue. I’ll just have a look at the shortlist tomorrow and see if any of the remaining contenders appeal.

What have you managed to read from the Booker longlist? Do you have any predictions for the shortlist?

28 thoughts on “Last-Minute Thoughts on the Booker Longlist

  1. I’ve been thoroughly put off The Water Cure – I’ve seen a lot of reviews like this! That first line is horribly clunky, even if intentional. I’m sorry to hear you were disappointed by Normal People, though I liked Tender a lot more than you did, so I might give that one a go.

    I’ve read Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under and Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City, and am halfway through Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black. None of them have really blown me away, though I’m enjoying Washington Black. I found Everything Under dominated by its (beautiful) writing, and I thought In Our Mad And Furious City also suffered from being a bit overwritten, though it had some wonderful chapters. A theme developing?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t read Normal People but must have been one of the few people who wasn’t blown away by Conversations either. It felt, as you say: ‘Hmmm, neat little observations, but how does it all hang together and what is the point?’

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hmm…I loved Tender, but I did think there was a distinct story arc with the James and Catherine (I may not be remembering those names right!) relationship. So, I’ll go into Normal People with some caution when it comes out in the US.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Big agree with your assessment of The Water Cure. Haven’t read Normal People but have been told by others that it’s better than Conversations With Friends! So that’s still on the am-interested list. The Overstory is marvelous; Everything Under is beautifully written and evocative but I take Laura’s point about the weight of that beautiful writing; The Mars Room is very good but didn’t really last long in my head, for some reason; and Washington Black is also very good, although narrative tension sags after the story leaves Barbados.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m reading (or listening to, actually) Warlight at the moment and am enjoying it–the language, especially, and the themes of knowing and unknowing who we are and who our parents are. However, the moody and mysterious post-war atmosphere doesn’t make up for the fact that there’s not a long going on. Definitely character-driven.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s would be a shame to dismiss the Ondaatje outright; it’s got a lot going for it – secrets, lies, identity and retribution. A teenager’s perspective of strange a puzzling events… I found it very atmospheric – and quite different from the others of his I’ve read.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The only one I’ve read is the Ondaatje; I’ve enjoyed his work since I was in high school (In the Skin of a Lion) and was thrilled to snap this one up shortly after publication. But I can see where he wouldn’t be your cup of tea beyond memoir/poetry. The other one in my stack is Esi Edugyan’s because I really liked Half-Blood Blues, which has also been listed for the Giller Prize in Canada, so I’m definitely reading that one. I’m sure there are a couple of others on the Booker list that I’ll get to eventually, but I can only obsess about so many prizelists and this one isn’t at the top of my list these days (mostly because it’s sometimes complicated re: publication overseas and import costs).It’ll be interesting to see the shortlist though!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I have The Water Cure from Netgalley but I’m not so sure I’m that interested. I do plan to read Milkman and Normal People (although I wasn’t blown away by Conversations with Friends). I am kind of rooting for Donal Ryan to make the shortlist.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I’ve only read two – Washington Black, which I really enjoyed a lot, and the Donal Ryan which was excellent although I preferred his previous book. I have Powers, Gunaratne, Rooney, Johnson and Burns on my shelves – and will read them (eventually) whether they make it or not onto the shortlist.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Did I miss your reason for not having wanted to read this one in the first place? Did you have a disappointing experience with one of her other books?


    1. I think I got the impression that it was like The Underground Railroad — slave escape with fantasy elements — and I wasn’t big on that novel. Also, it seems a touch long 😉 But I’m willing to give it a go now that it’s a finalist. I placed a hold on the library copy that’s on order.


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