Booker Prize 2020: Two More Shortlist Reviews and a Prediction

The 2020 Booker Prize will be announced on Thursday the 19th. (Delayed from the 17th, the date on my commemorative bookmark, so as not to be overshadowed by the release of the first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs.) After I reviewed Burnt Sugar and correctly predicted half of the shortlist in this post, I’ve managed to finish another two of the novels on the shortlist, along with two more from the longlist. As sometimes happens with prize lists – thinking also of the Women’s Prize race in 2019 – this year’s shortlist fell into rough pairs: two stark mother–daughter narratives, two novels set in Africa, and two gay coming-of-age stories.

 

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook

In a striking opening to a patchy novel, Bea goes off to the woods to give birth alone to a stillborn daughter. It’s such a different experience to when she birthed Agnes in a hospital eight years ago. Now, with coyotes and buzzards already circling, there’s no time for sentimentality; she turns her back on the baby and returns to the group. Bea is part of a wilderness living experiment that started out with 20 volunteers, but illness and accidents have since reduced their number.

Back in the toxic, overcrowded City, Bea was an interior decorator and her partner a professor of anthropology. Bea left to give Agnes a better chance at life; like so many other children, she had become ill from her polluted surroundings. Now she is a bright, precocious leader in the making, fully participating in the community’s daily chores. Settlement tempts them, but the Rangers enforce nomadism. Newcomers soon swell their numbers, and there are rumors of other groups, too. Is it even a wilderness anymore if so many people live in it?

The cycles of seasons and treks between outposts make it difficult to get a handle on time’s passing. It’s a jolt to realize Agnes is now of childbearing age. Only when motherhood is a possibility can she fully understand her own mother’s decisions, even if she determines to not repeat the history of abandonment. The blurb promised a complex mother–daughter relationship, but this element of the story felt buried under the rigor of day-to-day survival.

It is as if Cook’s primary interest was in how humans would react to being returned to primitive hunter–gatherer conditions – she did a lot of research into Native American practices, for instance, and she explores the dynamics of sex and power and how legends arise. As a child I was fascinated by Native cultures and back-to-the-land stories, so I enjoyed the details of packing lists, habits, and early rituals that form around a porcelain teacup.

But for me some nuts and bolts of storytelling were lacking here: a propulsive plot, a solid backstory, secondary characters that are worthwhile in their own right and not just stereotypes and generic roles. The appealing description induced me to overcome my usual wariness about dystopian novels, but a plodding pace meant it took me months to read. A lovely short epilogue narrated by Agnes made me wonder how much less tedious this chronicle might have been if told in the first person by Bea and Agnes in turn. I’ll try Cook’s story collection, Man V. Nature, to see if her gifts are more evident in short form.

My rating:

My thanks to Oneworld for the free copy for review.

 

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Over the course of one late summer weekend, Wallace questions everything about the life he has built. As a gay African American, he has always been an outsider at the Midwestern university where he’s a graduate student in biochemistry. Though they vary in background and include several homosexuals, some partnered and some unattached, most of his friends are white, and he’s been so busy that he’s largely missed out on evening socializing by the lake – and skipped his father’s funeral (though there are other reasons for that as well).

Tacit prejudice comes out into the open in ugly ways in these few days. When he finds his nematode experiments sabotaged, a female colleague at his lab accuses him of misogyny, brandishing his identity as a weapon against him: “you think that you get to walk around because you’re gay and black and act like you can do no wrong.” Then, in a deliciously awkward dinner party scene, an acquaintance brings up Wallace’s underprivileged Alabama upbringing as if it explains why he’s struggling to cope in his academic career.

Meanwhile, Wallace has hooked up with a male – and erstwhile straight – friend, and though there is unwonted tenderness in this relationship, there is also a hint of menace. The linking of sexuality and violence echoes the memories of abuse from Wallace’s childhood, which tumble out in the first-person stream of consciousness of Chapter 5. Other male friends, too, are getting together or breaking apart over mismatched expectations. Kindness is possible, but built-in injustice and cruelty, whether vengeful or motiveless, too often take hold.

There are moments when Wallace seems too passive or self-pitying, but the omniscient narration emphasizes that all of the characters have hidden depths and that emotions ebb and flow. What looks like despair on Saturday night might feel like no big deal come Monday morning. I so admired how this novel was constructed: the condensed timeframe, the first and last chapters in the past tense (versus the rest in the present tense), the contrast between the cerebral and the bodily, and the thematic and linguistic nods to Virginia Woolf. A very fine debut indeed.

My rating:

 

I also read two more of the longlisted novels from the library:

 

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such a fun book! I’d read the first chapter earlier in the year and set it aside, thinking it was too hip for me. I’m glad I decided to try again – it was a great read, so assured and contemporary. Once I got past a slightly contrived first chapter, I found it completely addictive. The laser-precision plotting and characterization reminded me of Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith at their peak, but the sassy voice is all Reid’s own. There are no clear villains here; Alix Chamberlain could easily have filled that role, but I felt for her and for Kelley as much as I did for Emira. The fact that I didn’t think anyone was completely wrong shows how much nuance Reid worked in. The question of privilege is as much about money as it is about race, and these are inextricably intertwined.

 

Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward

An intriguing set of linked short stories that combine philosophy and science fiction. Rachel and Eliza are preparing to have a baby together when an ant crawls into Rachel’s eye and she falls ill. Eliza wants to believe her partner but, as a scientist, can’t affirm something that doesn’t make sense (“We don’t need to resort to the mystical to describe physical processes,” she says). Other chapters travel to Turkey, Brazil and Texas – and even into space. It takes 60+ pages to figure out, but you can trust all the threads will converge around Rachel and her son, Arthur, who becomes an astronaut. I was particularly taken by a chapter narrated by the ant (yes, really) as it explores Rachel’s brain. Each section is headed by a potted explanation of a thought experiment from philosophy. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the alternative future of the two final chapters. Still, I was impressed with the book’s risk-taking and verve. It’s well worth making a rare dip into sci-fi for this one.

 


Back in September I still thought Hilary Mantel would win the whole thing, but since her surprise omission from the shortlist I’ve assumed the prize will go to Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. This was a DNF for me, but I’ll try it again next year in case it was just a matter of bad timing (like the Reid and The Go-Between – two books I attempted a second time this year and ended up loving). Given that it was my favorite of the ones I read, I would be delighted to see Real Life win, but I think it unlikely. My back-up prediction is The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, which I would consider reserving from the library if it wins.

 

Have you read anything from the Booker shortlist?

Which book do you expect to win?

37 responses

  1. It’s the only one I’ve read on the shortlist so I’m not qualified to judge but I’d be delighted if Shuggie Bain won.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you may get your wish! Are you interested in any of the others?

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      1. Fingers crossed! I have a copy of Real Life and would be happy to read all but The New Wilderness.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Real Life is very comparable to Memorial, so I think you’ll enjoy it too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The only ones I’m tempted by are Such A Fun Age and Real Life.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t fancy reading Shuggie Bain at all, though it does seem to be heavily tipped; I might go for the Goldsmiths Prize winner instead, with apologies to Douglas Stuart. The Maaza Mengiste is amazing. I read it back in March and was blown away http://readingandwatchingtheworld.home.blog/2020/03/10/the-shadow-king-book-by-maaza-mengiste-ethiopia/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I got about 100 pages into Shuggie Bain before giving up. Alcoholism, poverty, dialect … tough things to get into! Though I did like some of the characters and scenes.

      I’m not drawn to war stories and have read some less than enthusiastic reviews (even yours mentions a slow start and some familiar material), but I’d consider reading the Mengiste if it won.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I always find dialect difficult to get into, with the exception I guess of A Clockwork Orange! We read the Mengiste for my RL book club and I must admit a couple of others weren’t that impressed (and thought it over-long). Not sure if you’ve read Madeline Miller at all, but if you like her you would probably like this I think. I like the sound of Such a Fun Age, but wondered if it was hype – your review sounds v positive so will add it to my list…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m afraid the Miller reference was a turnoff! (The Song of Achilles is one of the few Women’s Prize winners I couldn’t get through.)

      I’d been very sceptical about Such a Fun Age, but it ended up being very worthwhile.

      Like

  5. I think you ended up liking Such A Fun Age more than I did! I was disappointed by the final twist concerning Alix which I thought rendered the novel too morally simplistic.

    I admired Real Life but found it very distancing – Taylor inhabits Wallace’s head brilliantly but I thought that the rest of the cast were very thinly characterised, which made it feel like it was all taking place in a vacuum. I think it has a strong chance of winning, though.

    I only made it halfway through The Shadow King which I found very erratic – some brilliant chapters, but others that were pretty overwritten and cliched.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Now asking myself if I can remember the final twist … I am terrible for forgetting how books end! I’ve heard so many people say they’ve done this as a book club book and it was great for conversation.

      I loved how intense and concentrated the action in Real Life was, even when it was internal. There were a few places where I thought Taylor via Wallace came on a bit too strong with the “white people” generalizing, but I just chose to accept it for what it was, a view of life borne out of experience.

      I suspect I’d be similarly frustrated with The Shadow King.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I thought Taylor did a great job of showing how Wallace’s view of white people was conditioned by the constant micro-aggressions he faces. The conversations with acquaintances in the lab were so painful. I wasn’t as convinced by the characterisation of Wallace’s inner circle, who all blurred together for me.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. That’s a fair point. I wanted him to stick up for himself more!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Of the ones you mention, I’ve read Real Life (very promising but found, as Laura did, that there was a level of distance to the narration that knocked it down a bit for me; still think it’s a strong contender though), The Shadow King (wanted to like a lot, substantially annoyed by the overly poetic/opaque style), Such a Fun Age (perfect title for a fun book that shouldn’t really be anywhere near the Booker Prize list, although what it does, it does extremely well), and Love and Other Thought Experiments (the biggest surprise of all: I absolutely adored it and am now devastated it wasn’t shortlisted). I’ll seek out Shuggie Bain if it wins!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Real Life would make a very interesting winner. I can’t quite see it happening, but I’d be delighted. I’ve not read any Hollinghurst, but I wonder if Taylor is a similar writer. I think it was the Woolfian cast to the opening and closing chapters that really clinched it for me.

      How wonderful that you also loved Love and Other Thought Experiments! I was intrigued by the premise but wouldn’t have managed to get hold of it had it not been longlisted (my library system buys the whole longlist for the Booker and Women’s Prize every year). Often this is the way: the Booker race introduces me to a few excellent books I wouldn’t have found otherwise, but I don’t engage much with the actual winner or a few other high-profile nominees.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The Woolf comparison is legit! I think it reminded me the most of Edith Wharton. Someone described the style as “dry and effete”, which I think is about right (they meant it negatively; I don’t, necessarily, but I can see why they do.)

        If the Booker race functions to introduce people to some excellent and otherwise unknown titles, I think it’s doing its job! The winner is certainly rarely the highlight for me.

        Like

    2. Ha ha, I think that was me characterizing other people’s reactions to Real Life, in my comparison to Memorial by Bryan Washington. I can see the criticism, but I liked both books very much; Real Life stood out just that little bit more.

      Like

  7. The only one I was really interested in is the Cook – but the more reviews I see, the more I’m sure the judges don’t normally read dystopian books (unless they’re Margaret Atwood), so I’ve put off reading The New Wilderness. I find Scottish dialect particularly difficult, more so than others!, so Shuggie Bain isn’t for me. I would read the Kiley Reid though – once the paperback is out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s hard to predict what the judges are looking for this year. The Reid is so fun; you’ll race through it. I think you’d also enjoy Love and Other Thought Experiments.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Just took a wonderful writing class from OneStory on using fact in fiction, led by Maaza Mengiste–so her book is on my radar. Such a Fun Age has been recommended a lot–glad to get yours, now I know I need to give it a try.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The only other novel set in Ethiopia that I can remember reading is Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. The particular events that Mengiste writes about are completely unknown to me. I’ve read varying reactions: some wish they’d known more about the history beforehand, while others found the amount of information in the novel overwhelming.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A tricky tightrope: providing enough history but not too much as to overwhelm the story is something that Mengiste discussed quite a bit in her class. And I can’t think of any novels set in Ethiopia, so I think I should give it a try!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Ooh, glad you liked Such a fun Age so much in the end! I really like the look of Real Life but am a bit worried the violent bit would be too much for me. I will probably come across it locally once the charity shops are open again, and will pick it up if I do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s fairly graphic in the sex scenes and the memories of abuse, so do keep that in mind.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, dammit. I mean, I know these things must be told, but it does rule out enthusiastic readers!

        Thank you for clarifying that for me.

        Like

  10. I would be absolutely thrilled if Real Life won – it’s in my top five reads for the year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, great! I think I missed that you’d read it. One of my top few fiction reads of the year as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ve not been tracking this year’s overseas prizes very well this year but I remain vaguely interested in whatever captures the interest of Booker judges. The Taylor I’ve added to my TBR with your recommendation in mind. And you already know that I have the Diane Cook on my stack (up soon) and that I loved her short stories…I believe you thought that I would enjoy it more than you had…so that would be good.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll be interested to see what you make of the Cook; I do expect you to get more out of it than I did.

      Like

  12. Well done on predicting the winner!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I didn’t so well on reading it 😉 I tried twice with it this year; I’ll leave it a good while and try again next year.

      Like

  13. […] year I correctly predicted Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart and Surge by Jay Bernard as the winners of the Booker Prize and the Sunday Times Young Writer of […]

    Like

  14. […] Real Life by Brandon Taylor: Over the course of one late summer weekend, Wallace questions everything about the life he has built. As a gay African American, he has always been an outsider at the Midwestern university where he’s a graduate student in biochemistry. Tacit prejudice comes out into the open in ugly ways; sex and violence are uneasily linked. I so admired how the novel is constructed: the condensed timeframe, the first and last chapters in the past tense (versus the rest in the present tense), the contrast between the cerebral and the bodily, and the thematic and linguistic nods to Virginia Woolf. A very fine debut indeed. […]

    Like

  15. […] Filthy Animals: Stories by Brandon Taylor [June 24, Daunt Books / June 21, Riverhead] “In the series of linked stories at the heart of Filthy Animals, set among young creatives in the American Midwest, a young man treads delicate emotional waters as he navigates a series of sexually fraught encounters with two dancers in an open relationship, forcing him to weigh his vulnerabilities against his loneliness.” Sounds like the perfect follow-up for those of us who loved his Booker-shortlisted debut novel, Real Life. […]

    Like

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