The Booker season has passed, the year has passed, a lot of the buzz surrounding these books has passed, but it’s time to collect my thoughts on the 2019 Booker Prize now that I’ve read the whole list. (Well, almost the whole list.)
I’m going to start by ranking the longlist in order of personal preference, with a few words about my reading experience. I’ll link the titles to my reviews if you’re looking for more in-depth thoughts or general information about any particular book.
13. Quichotte by Salman Rushdie. I expect I’ll get around to reading this one eventually. BUT Quichotte wasn’t published in the US until the shortlist was announced, and I wasn’t prepared to read both Cervantes’s Don Quixote (which I would want to read beforehand) and Quichotte while the prize was going on, and now it feels less urgent. I know Rushdie is a big name in the literary world and a previous Booker Prize winner, but I can’t claim an opinion. (The only reason I’m placing it at the bottom of this list.)
12. An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma. 2 stars. I can see why this was nominated. There ARE some appreciable elements here: the commentary on racism and prejudice in Africa (and beyond), and what is, in most respects, a wonderful cultural snapshot; both fit in well with this year’s other nominees. But I found its structure more like a gimmick that never panned out and I HATED the male character’s attitude toward the woman he supposedly loved. While I can admit there are some good aspects here and that part of my dislike is personal (such as not enjoying the writing style), I was dismayed to see this made the shortlist.
11. The Wall by John Lanchester. 2 stars. This one was very readable and unproblematic, but I don’t understand the choice to longlist it at all. Despite how glaringly obvious its parallels to real-world issues are, it fails to offer any new observations or perspectives. There’s just… nothing to dig into here, and the ending addresses none of the concerns raised. Perhaps I somehow missed it, but I found no worthwhile statement or even question here, despite the story being perfectly fine.
10. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. 2 stars. I don’t begrudge this book its fan base, but this was not a good fit for me. I loved The Handmaid’s Tale especially for its ambiguous ending, and found myself frustrated with its sequel for spoon-feeding me the answers to all of the questions I didn’t ask. Which isn’t to say it’s objectively a bad book. My main criticism with seeing it longlisted is simply that it reads more like a predictable YA dystopia than literary fiction, so while ultimately I’m glad that this one’s making waves and capturing the hearts of many, I don’t think the Booker prize was the right placement for it, especially beyond the longlist.
9. Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry. 3 stars. Despite a premise that struck me as highly intriguing, I felt mostly indifferent toward this one in the end. It’s got some beautiful prose, if that’s your thing, but not much plot, and again, just nothing really to dig into. Unlike with The Wall, it did at least seem like an attempt was being made, and there were a few individual elements I enjoyed- a chapter here, a character there, etc. Ultimately I was left wishing it had simply gone farther in any of the promising directions it could have taken based on its premise. I can see why this is working better for some readers, but it was underwhelming for me.
8. Lanny by Max Porter. 4 stars. This was mostly a fun read (despite the heavy topics of otherness, child safety, and mortality) and beautiful on the page. It’s divided into three parts that are all very different from each other, and I had a very different experience with each: the first piqued my interest, the second COMPLETELY hooked me, and the third took the magical element too far for my taste. I wouldn’t have been heartbroken to have missed this one, but it doesn’t seem out of place on the longlist.
7. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak. 4 stars. This book is not without its flaws, but I came to it late after seeing quite a few negative reviews, which worked in my favor. Though the execution falls apart to some extent in the second and third parts of this narrative, it’s a readable tale with an interesting structure and worthwhile themes of prejudice and injustice in Turkey. I’m indifferent to its placement on the shortlist; its advancement encouraged me to pick it up, which I don’t resent, but it wouldn’t have been one of my top choices to advance.
6. Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli. 4 stars. Admittedly it did take a while for this one to convince me, but in the end it won me over. I thought the structure and plot worked well together, I was emotionally invested, and appreciated the dive into a timely topic. I think a spot on the shortlist would’ve been well-deserved and I’ll continue to be disappointed that it missed the chance both with the 2019 Women’s Prize and now the Booker. I highly recommend picking up Luiselli’s nonfiction Tell Me How it Ends alongside this one if you’re interested in the topic of Mexican and Central American migrants crossing into the US.
5. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. 4 stars. This was a very high 4-star read for me; I loved its themes, the narrative voice, the vignettes that read almost like individual short stories (though I’ll continue to argue that they’re not), the range of unique and fascinating characters. I had only a couple of small hang-ups about the overarching plot and the themes feeling a bit forced at times, but ultimately I appreciated this book quite a lot and highly recommend it- it holds up as a Booker winner. Even though it wasn’t my personal favorite read from the longlist, I would’ve been happy to see it as the sole winner this year.
4. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. 5 stars. This one’s ranked ahead of Girl, Woman, Other only by a very small margin, as is the next book. I simply had such a fun time with this one. It took me completely, pleasantly by surprise- the fact that it’s probably one of the first literary thrillers I’ve read couldn’t have hurt. I’m neither shocked nor disappointed that it didn’t advance farther than the longlist, but it’s quick, accessible, thought-provoking, and a bit hard to categorize; all elements I love.
3. The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy. 5 stars. Another short book that accomplishes a lot, this one manages to address a range of interesting topics while also being one of the most structurally innovating books on the longlist. It’s not quite as… politically charged as the shortlisted books, so I can see why it didn’t advance farther, but I am so glad it was longlisted; I for one, might have missed it otherwise, and found it entirely worth the read.
2. Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson. 5 stars. This is definitely a book for Frankenstein fans, of which I am one, so this was always going to work for me, I think. There’s not a lot of plot and the humor doesn’t always hit the mark, but on the whole I loved Winterson’s prose, I loved the emotion it was able to provoke and the avenues of thought it led me down. This one manages both to expand upon Shelley’s original themes and take them in new directions, while also Frankenstein-ing the structure, adding Shelley herself and her characters into the mix, and contributing to modern gender discourse. It’s absolutely everything I wanted it to be and I loved every page.
1. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann. 5 stars. This one takes patience. At 1000 pages, it’s probably the least “accessible” book on the longlist, though aside from the time commitment I did not find it particularly challenging to read. Some aspects of this worked better for me than others, but at the end of the day this is THE book from the longlist that impressed me most and will stay with me the longest. I love the import it gives to a seemingly unimportant character, I love the perspective it highlights, I love the way it loops around and doubles back on itself, drawing a complete narrative out of an exhaustive strand of thought. I understand that this isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but in my mind it was the most deserving of this year’s Booker win. It’s timely, it’s experimental and ground-breaking, it’s feminist, and, a lot of the time, it really is fun. At least, for me it was. This ended up being my favorite read of 2019 as well. It raises the bar high. There’s nothing like it.
As a whole, it’s not a bad or unusual longlist. Thematically there’s a lot of focus on political unrest, on the very divided opinions we’re seeing in the world right now and what the long-term effects might be. There’s a lot of fear for the future here, and a close examination of injustices. A fair amount of feminism as well, and more than half the list written by women. All of which I can appreciate.
It’s not been my favorite longlist though (I’ve only read one other full Booker list so take that as you will); despite the four 5-star ratings, this felt like a safe list, with a lot of big authors starring. Two that I liked a lot were titles I’d already read, and THREE 2-star ratings was a real low for me. I wasn’t originally planning to read the entire list, and I might’ve ended up having a better time if I hadn’t pushed myself through so many that weren’t doing much for me. So, a mixed year. What I’ve learned is that I shouldn’t ALWAYS read the full longlist, especially if it doesn’t appeal to me initially as a whole.
I’ll link my initial longlist reaction post here for anyone curious, though it’s mainly a preview of which books I expected to read or not at the time, which definitely changed.
Now for the shortlist. Unfortunately, the one book I didn’t end up reading was shortlisted, so I’m still not entirely informed here, but I’ll do my best.
On the shortlist: Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities, Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, Atwood’s The Testaments, Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, and Rushdie’s Quichotte.
Again, on the surface, not a bad list. Countries represented include: Nigeria, Turkey, US, UK, Canada, and India. 4 out of 6 are female authors. Every book here (that I’ve read, at least) is structurally interesting, challenges the political status quo, and offers a unique perspective, generally through a particularly well-drawn character. But… both authors with a previous win appear here (Atwood and Rushdie), as does a previously shortlisted author (Obioma). There are several here I would’ve traded, if the choice had been up to me. I would’ve loved to see Frankissstein in place of The Testaments (both are gender-focused sci-fi tales), Lost Children Archive in place of An Orchestra of Minorities (both tell a story of people traveling to an unfamiliar country) and perhaps The Man Who Saw Everything in place of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (the only similarity I can think of drawing here is a spoiler, so I’ll refrain). I have no idea whether I’d be willing to trade Quichotte or with what. Admittedly my choices would leave us with more UK- and US-based writers, which would be disappointing though not the only consideration.
I’ll link my initial reaction to the shortlist here for the sake of completion, though if I remember correctly it’s mainly a sum of what I’d read so far and still intended to read.
I hoped that Milkman winning last year while I was in the midst of reading it boded well for Ducks, Newburyport this year, which I was reading at the time of the winner announcement. Unfortunately, the winner(s) announcement turned into quite a mess, instead.
Both Atwood and Evaristo were named as the winners of 2019’s Booker Prize, which… a lot of people had a lot of issues with. I’ll link my initial winner reaction here, which includes some of the arguments being raised at that time; primarily, that Atwood’s book was not particularly literary, and that the joint win wasn’t fair to Evaristo, the first black woman ever to win the Booker.
After writing that post, quite a bit more drama ensued. I read several articles that were published after the fact, a couple of which stood out; this one, for instance, in which the judges discuss their deliberations and admit to choosing the winner not by weighing the literary merit of each story, but by looking at the authors’ careers and critical/cultural standing as well. Then there was this article from Ducks’ publisher about the difficulties small publishing houses face participating in big literary prizes, and thus the unfairness felt when they’ve put in the money and work and aren’t given a fair chance at winning. It was quite a debacle, and that’s not even taking into account the fact that the judges’ SOLE JOB was to choose a single winner, which they failed to do.
I can’t deny I wanted Ducks, Newburyport to win. I hadn’t finished reading it and I hadn’t read Girl, Woman, Other yet, but my opinion hasn’t changed after reading them. I do think that Evaristo’s novel is a quality winner. It’s arguably more readable than Ellmann’s novel for the sheer difference in size, and its themes are just as timely, insightful, and significant. Evaristo’s win puts a great story with a creative structure and messages of equality into the hands of readers who might not have bothered reading the Booker winner this year if it clocked in at 1000 pages. If I had to pick a second choice for a winner, Evaristo would’ve been it, and honestly maybe it is the better fit. I can live with it, anyway. I can be happy about it.
On the other hand, I mostly ignore Atwood’s win. I can’t help it. I love her writing, and she probably deserved to win for The Handmaid’s Tale, but for The Testaments? In a way, I feel that her 2019 win was a way for the judges to retroactively award her for Handmaid’s and the huge fandom it inspired. I think of Atwood’s 2019 win as a sort of lifetime-achievement award, which isn’t what the Booker should be, but I just can’t wrap my head around anyone thinking The Testaments is one of the top literary achievements of the year. It’s not a bad book. I’m not trying to say it’s not an achievement, or an important piece of modern culture, or fully deserving of its popularity. It’s just… not a Booker winner. Not in my mind.
And thus ends my experience with the 2019 Booker Prize. (At least until I eventually read Quichotte, but I’ll confine my thoughts to a single review for that.) I had a much better time with the 2018 list, so this isn’t going to scare me off of ever reading the Booker longlist again, but it does encourage me to be more choosy.
If you followed along at all last year, feel free to share your level of satisfaction with the 2019 Booker Prize below!
The Literary Elephant