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Booker Prize 2020: Wrap-Up, Ranking, and Winner Prediction

The winner announcement for the 2020 Booker Prize will be upon us in a matter of hours, and as I’m mostly finished with what I wanted to read in relation to this prize, I want to share some concluding thoughts. I still have Mantel’s longlisted The Mirror and the Light on my schedule for next month, but am planning to include any Booker or Women’s Prize thoughts about it along with my review, so I’ll forge ahead here. There are also two other longlisted books this year that I’ve skipped entirely and don’t currently have any plans to read, so this round-up is slightly incomplete but I’ll do my best.

For more info on this year’s Booker Prize and my thoughts on the books, I’ll link here the official Booker website, my initial longlist reaction and shortlist reaction, and my reviews for each of the individual titles will be included below.

The shortlist, ranked in order of personal favoritism:

  1. Real Life by Brandon Taylor – 5 stars. A gay Black man in a Midwestern biochemistry grad program wrestles with the choice of leaving an area of study he enjoys in order to escape the pervasive racism that plagues his experience at the school. Over the course of a single weekend, the main character’s interactions with fellow students and friends take a large toll and expose numerous injustices.
  2. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart – 4 stars. One woman’s troubling experience with alcoholism in (recent) historical Scotland affects the lives of everyone around her. Hit hardest by her inability to hold onto sobriety and also by the harsh judgment of their surrounding society, her youngest son Shuggie clings to innocent love for his mother while trying to keep her afloat and battle bullies of his own. An exceedingly tragic read.
  3. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste – 3 stars. This historical fiction tale depicts the Italian invasion of Ethiopia just prior to WWII; with sometimes brilliant and sometimes beautiful prose, Mengiste brings the plight of a nation to life, highlighting individual experiences. Though feminist in intent (and indeed featuring particularly strong female characters) the book’s tendency to focus as well on male experiences diluted the woman warrior theme for me.
  4. This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga – 3 stars. A suitable end to an impactful trilogy, this volume follows the same Zimbabwean main character as the trilogy’s previous installments, this time as she approaches middle age. This woman is struggling to find meaningful work and a reasonable home for herself in the wake of a postcolonial education which has negatively shaped her life view and sense of self. A heavy and important read (just as the rest of the trilogy), I simply did not appreciate this volume as much as Dangarembga’s first, and felt that the similar themes addressed here had by this point become somewhat repetitive.
  5. The New Wilderness by Diane Cook – 3 stars. A woman and her young daughter leave the City to live in the Wilderness as part of an experiment to determine whether humans can live in raw nature without harming it. An engaging if unsurprising dystopian, this book compensates for a lack of social commentary and fast plot with indulgent landscapes and detailed world-building of its Wilderness.
  6. Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi – 3 stars. An Indian artist reflects on her past and sense of morality as she must provide increasing care for her carefree mother, who is losing her memory. The two women share a complicated relationship filled as much with judgment and disappointment as with love, and struggle to help each other even as they are also desperate to save themselves.

As you can see, this wasn’t my year for high shortlist ratings. The only real favorite for me was the title I’d read prior to the longlist announcement. Most of my Booker reading after that point failed to excite me, though I didn’t have any strong dislikes either, which may be a first.

All in all, though I was initially happy with the shortlist, now that I’ve read all of the books I find it a bit…stagnant and stuffy. While I think the themes and concepts on display here are worthwhile and interesting, and all of these writers succeed in laying out stories that are engaging and coherent, there seems to be a lack of innovation here, of playful inventiveness, of inspiring form and wording. Real Life is the exception for me, in that I think it manages to convey quite a lot without saying any of it directly; Taylor tells his story on a slant, where the surface level reads like an eyebrow-raising drama while a lot of powerful implications and emotions ride underneath. The rest, however, struck me as straightforward, long, wandering, and perhaps just a bit too focused on being called Literature to accomplish enjoyability. Perhaps I’m being too harsh on a collection of books that are indeed admirable each in their own way and simply don’t cater to my reading taste. I prefer my literary fiction a bit more raw and biting, which is not what I found here, and while that’s unfortunate for me it does not mean these are necessarily bad books or that anyone who finds more to enjoy in them than I did is wrong to do so- I do hope someone’s having a better time of it than I did.

With that in mind, if I were to pick a winner, I’d say my favorite for that slot all along has been Taylor’s Real Life. It’s a bit disappointing to have read nine other books from the longlist now and still feel that my top choice is the only title I read independently beforehand, but here we are. I think Taylor and his intelligent, emotional writing would make for a deserving Booker win this year, but in all honesty, I don’t think the judges will lean in this direction. Real Life doesn’t quite seem to match the rest of this shortlist for tone, and though its themes are just as heavy and important as any of the others highlighted on this year’s Booker list, there’s a lightness to the delivery that I suspect doesn’t appeal to the judges as strongly as it does to me, if the rest of this list is anything to go by.

Thus, my actual winner prediction is instead Mengiste’s The Shadow King which, while not quite fitting my expectations based on the synopsis and jacket copy, is a commendable piece of fiction that reveals an overlooked piece of history and whose corrections of that historical record feel timely and important. The judging panel this year is wonderfully diverse, and I suspect those judges will lean toward supporting an author, a country, and a story of a sort that has been underrepresented with the Booker in the past, which makes Mengiste’s Ethiopian epic an appealing choice.

Here is a not-quite-accurate shortlist photo, excluding two titles I didn’t have on hand at the time- Burnt Sugar and The Shadow King and instead including the one longlist title whose absence on the shortlist hurts me most- How Much of These Hills is Gold.

For a bit more fun, here is my current longlist ranking, along with brief recaps for the titles that missed the shortlist.

  1. Real Life by Brandon Taylor – 5 stars.
  2. How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang – 4 stars. In the dying days of the American gold rush and westward expansion, two Chinese-American children are orphaned after the death of their prospector father. Instilled with a love of the natural land from him and with Chinese traditions from their mother, the siblings set off to build lives of their own, rooted in their pasts and dreaming of better futures, all while facing rampant racial discrimination. It’s beautifully told with an interesting chronology, and Zhang is expert at playing on readers’ assumptions about character. An astute and heart-wrenching read.
  3. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid – 4 stars. An overly dramatic and not entirely believable soap opera of a novel about modern racism and performative allyship. It revolves around a young Black woman accused of kidnapping a white child that she’s babysitting, and the harmful ways that the people closest to her try to “help” with the situation. I wouldn’t call this a literary masterpiece, but I found it great fun to read. I appreciate that it brings timely and important topics to a wide audience in an accessible way.
  4. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart – 4 stars.
  5. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste – 3 stars.
  6. Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward – 3 stars. An incredibly intriguing format and plot centered around an ant that may or may not have crawled into a sleeping woman’s eye. The book, a cross between a short story set and a novel, is a sort of philosophical thought experiment in itself. UnfortunatelyI found it far too emotionless for a story rooted in love that’s meant to be strong enough to save humanity, despite loving the book’s structure and unpredictability.
  7. This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga – 3 stars.
  8. The New Wilderness by Diane Cook – 3 stars.
  9. Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi – 3 stars.
  10. Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler – 3 stars. This was just too incredibly benign for my reading taste. It’s the story of a man going on middle-aged who’s a bit misunderstood, and must change his solitary ways for the sake of important relationships in his life. It’s a brief and competent contemporary story that I’m sure will please readers who enjoy slice-of-life character studies.

Additionally, at this point I have not read these titles from the longlist:

  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. This book is still on my TBR; I’ve read the first book in Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy and have fit books two and three into my December reading schedule, so my reviews will still be forthcoming. I’m determined to read this before the end of the year and expect it would rank in the top half of this year’s Booker list for me, based on my experience with that initial Cromwell novel.
  • Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze. I was not particularly drawn to the synopsis of this book from the start, and it was too challenging for me to get a copy in time for the winner announcement at a price that I was willing to pay for my interest level. I’ve not seen any reviews thus far convincing enough for me to add this book to my TBR, and now that I’ve missed the optimal timing to read it I doubt I will ever get around to picking it up.
  • Apeirogon by Colum McCann. I have no interest in reading this one, and have actually made plans to read a different book with a similar setting as an alternative read (Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa). McCann has been accused of sexual assault and so I do not want to read or support this book or author even though I have heard positive things about the story itself.

Though I can’t give reliable stats for the titles I didn’t read, over half of the longlist titles that I did complete ranked only 3 stars for me. Which is not a bad rating, but it can be a frustrating one, especially when beginning with high expectations (which seems reasonable when approaching a prestigious prize list). 3-star reads are often difficult for me to review, and difficult for me to care about their advancement within the prize ranks or lack thereof. 3-star reads can also (regrettably) be forgettable, which is not a reaction I want to have for top literary reads of the year.

And so, my overall experience has been somewhat subpar. Even the books I rated higher, like Such a Fun Age and Shuggie Bain, I would not have minded leaving behind on the longlist, which is not a great sign. But despite this Booker season turning out to be an off year for me, it was not such a negative experience that I regret following along, nor do I plan to abandon reading along in the future. But I have learned along the way this year that it can be helpful to trust my first impressions, and that neither the world nor my blog will end if I don’t manage to complete the entire list- and so going forward I think I will be making an effort to be choosier about which Booker titles I will pick up instead of pushing myself through titles I’m less intrigued about for the sake of greater completion.

As usual, the best part of this prize season has been following along with other readers, comparing thoughts, making guesses about the upcoming announcements, and finding a sense of (virtual) community in discussing topical titles. I’ve very much enjoyed chatting with everyone who’s commented along my 2020 Booker journey whether having read the books or not- being able to share the experience is the part that makes sticking with sometimes difficult reads worth the effort.

Have you read any of this year’s Booker longlist, or have thoughts about the winner announcement?

The Literary Elephant

Review: Shuggie Bain

Another Booker Prize review! I happened to be working my way through Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain at the time the Booker shortlist was announced this month, and finished a week or so after. Even while taking it slow, I found Shuggie Bain immersive and emotional.

In the novel, Agnes Bain sinks deeper into alcoholism following her second marriage; Shuggie, the young product of this union, spends his childhood adoring a mother at odds with the world, and trying to save her from herself. Shuggie finds occasional help from the adults in his mother’s life, though very quickly it is apparent that his older half-siblings are going to look out for themselves first, and most of his mother’s “friends” are only looking to take advantage of her. It’s a rough childhood for Shuggie in many ways, though his love for his mother never wavers; through his affection Agnes’s addiction is revealed as a patient disease wearing her down over decades rather than the character flaw that everyone else around her seems to consider it.

“She was in the dangerous in-between place. Enough drink to feel combative but not enough to be unreasonable yet. A few mouthfuls more and she would become destructive, mean-mouthed, spiteful. He stared at her as if he were reading the weather coming down from the glen. He took hold of her and tried to shift her again, before the great rainclouds inside her burst.”

This book is Scottish through and through. Set is 80s-90s Glasgow and told in dialect, Shuggie Bain is a novel that feels inseparable from its time and location, though there’s certainly a universality and timelessness to alcoholism that becomes more pronounced throughout the book, especially as Shuggie meets others who understand his situation all too well. The dialect comes through mainly in the dialogue, where accented speech is spelled out phonetically; I found this easy enough to decipher, and otherwise there are only a few occasional words in the exposition that differ from what I would use in American English, but seem obvious enough in meaning from context. It’s possible other readers may find the writing more challenging, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to anyone interested in the premise on the basis of its style.

The title and general focus on Shuggie are interesting- in many ways this is Agnes’s story, though Stuart head hops just enough to give the reader a clear impression of all of the main characters and their particular perspectives. Everyone feels very real, their motives fully comprehensible and perhaps even frustratingly familiar. The obvious meaning in pointing the focus toward Shuggie in this tale is, I think, twofold: because we’re focused on a character who loves Agnes despite how difficult she makes things for him, sympathy is easy to come by even as the reader becomes acquainted with Agnes’s antagonism. Additionally, centering Shuggie helps convey how very large a challenge alcoholism can be, not only for the person who’s fallen victim to it but for everyone around them, even those they love and would most like to protect. Shuggie may be Agnes’s golden boy, but even he can’t compete with the draw of alcohol for her, whereas in Shuggie’s life, Agnes is a blazing sun that shapes him and his life experience almost entirely.

“He wondered how long it would be till she passed out, till he could have a rest.”

Less obvious but equally important, I think, is that Shuggie really is the lifeblood of this story. While Agnes may be a constant presence throughout these pages, it is nevertheless Shuggie who drives the novel forward. He is the young innocent with a future of great possibility stretching before him, if he can just survive all that is stacked against him. In addition to his mother’s addiction, he’s also got an absent, mean, and selfish father, siblings who leave him behind, a horde of bullies to contend with at school, and no true friends. He doesn’t seem to fit in with his peers at all, who taunt and torment him for being “poofy” even before he has any sense of his own sexuality. And yet, he is kind and caring and steadfast, willing to tolerate more than he should, and it’s impossible not to root for him. Despite the desperate, fraught situation, this is not a loveless tale. The love may be toxic and/or misguided, but it is very present nonetheless, lending the book an aura of tragedy rather than outright cruelty. Even characters who behave despicably don’t do so out of cold-hearted spite or evilness, but rather out of their own need to survive however they can, amid a lack of understanding for the magnitude of Agnes’s battle.

“It was hard at first to start moving again, to feel the music, to go to that other place in your head where you keep your confidence. It didn’t go together, the shuffling feet and the jangly limbs, but like a slow train it caught speed and soon he was flying again. He tried to tone down the big showy moves, the shaking hips and the big sweeping arms. But it was in him, and as it poured out, he found he was helpless to stop it.”

I’m not convinced we really need the full 430 pages that Shuggie Bain gives us, but there were no sections that I found myself wishing had been thrown out entirely, and no moment when I picked the story back up again that I wasn’t instantly hooked back into the flow of Shuggie’s and Agnes’s lives. Parts of it do feel repetitive, which would have been resolved easily by shrinking the page count, but I think ultimately the repetition speaks to the undifferentiated nature of Agnes’s (and thus Shuggie’s) days. It can feel a bit aimless, but I suspect that’s the point.

I can’t deny enjoying myself- if enjoying is the right word for a story this heartbreakingly sad. Very little good happens to Shuggie or his family in the pages of this book, so if you’re someone who needs a happy ending, I’ll warn you now to look elsewhere.

CW: alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide ideation/threats/attempts, child neglect, homophobia, rape, molestation, physical and verbal bullying, death of a loved one.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I knew what to expect, and it went on rather longer than I really needed it to, and yet I was fully drawn in and moved by the particularities regardless. Aside from the dialect, it’s a straightforward story told in a very straightforward way, and yet despite this I can understand its spot on the shortlist and I think anyone who appreciates a good sad book will likely find what they’re looking for here. I don’t think it’s my top choice for Booker winner this year, but it’s a worthwhile read for those who are interested in the premise and have a bit of time to dedicate to it.

The Literary Elephant

Review: How Much of These Hills Is Gold

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to catch up on posts or blog hopping before my job got real busy; I’m already in sporadic attendance mode for the rest of fall. I will still be responding to comments and catching up on blog hopping *eventually* and I do have a few posts in the queue, but please excuse me for basically falling off the face of the internet for the next few weeks, and know that as always I’m still very grateful for your likes and comments and look forward to interacting more as soon as I can!

Between work and my killer reading slump, this particular review has been a long time coming, but the book was a pleasure to read so I’ve been hoping to do it justice despite the delay. I picked up C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold as part of my Booker longlist reading; unfortunately since finishing it, this title has missed a spot on the shortlist, which I think is a shame. If you’ve been curious about this one at all, I highly recommend still picking it up regardless!

In the novel, Lucy recounts her experience as the child of a gold prospector / coal miner in mid-1800s America. It’s a dying era throughout Lucy’s childhood, and her family struggles greatly to find work and survive. Complicating an already difficult career choice, they also face extreme prejudice as an immigrant family- Lucy’s ma was born in China and arrived in America as an adult; Lucy’s ba looks like his wife, but he was adopted in America as a baby and knows nothing of the land across the sea that Ma longs for. The lack of gold and the rough conditions around the mines make life difficult for all of them, but this is only the beginning for Lucy and her younger sibling, Sam, when they suddenly find themselves orphaned and alone.

“Point is, there’s always been gold in these hills. You just had to believe.”

How Much of These Hills is Gold is a poignant tale that takes a period often romanticized (or at least white-washed) in Western lit and reveals its dark corners, without tarnishing in the process the simple dreams of prospectors like Ba, who have a love for the natural land and want to see the prettiness the world has to offer without destroying the earth in the process. From her parents Lucy learns both a respect for the land and an abhorrence for the mining lifestyle. Zhang manages to provide the gleam of gold that one expects from a prospecting trail while also uncovering the poverty and hardship faced by those who move west and west and west again, trying to find any patch of earth that hasn’t already been picked clean and ruined by the growing hand of industry. The family’s status as immigrants also gives the story a fresh angle that will appeal to readers who don’t usually go for Westerns; there’s plenty of social commentary to be found here, a pushback against those who have been able to do whatever they please from positions of unjust power.

“What moves in the heads of these people each time they look at us and size us up, what makes them decide on one day to call us chink and the next day to let us pass, and some days to offer charity? I don’t rightly know, Lucy girl. Never figured it out.”

In addition to providing a very moving story, the book also sports an interesting structure. It is divided into four sections, the years presented unchronologically. But more intriguing is the way Zhang plays with reader expectations, especially when it comes to character. With Lucy as our main narrator, we meet most characters through her eyes, in the thick of things. As things progress, the reader is often surprised by central facts that Zhang has hidden only to reveal later when they have greatest impact. For example, the gender and sexual identity of Lucy’s sibling is presented very cleverly, warning the reader early on not to make hasty assumptions about anyone. And yet, even after learning this lesson once, it is easy to be surprised again and again as Zhang reveals more about Lucy, her family, and her acquaintances. It’s a bold and necessary reminder that people aren’t always as they seem, and that beneath their appearance lies someone’s complex, personal history.

“In Lucy’s fondest dream, the one she doesn’t want to wake from, she braves no dragons and tigers. Finds no gold. She sees wonders from a distance, her face unnoticed in the crowd. When she walks down the long street that leads her home, no one pays her any mind at all.”

My only complaint comes from a single section of the book, where Ba comes to Lucy in a dream to explain his side of things, posthumously (this is not a spoiler, Ba’s death is in the synopsis and occurs very early in the book). Though Ba’s backstory is just as incredible as the rest, it is the only part of the book that we don’t see directly through Lucy’s perspective, and the fact that his voice comes to her in a dream to fill in the blanks is a writing tactic that always feels forced and inorganic to me. It’s possible there is a cultural aspect to this section that is lost on me (there is indeed a focus on burial rights that Ma has impressed upon her children from her own homeland, and Ba’s burial is delayed as they try to fulfill these requirements) and if so I can’t criticize the intent, I can only remark on the way that it read for me, a non own voices reader. Furthermore, this section asks the reader to sympathize with a character who has previously been presented as a hard and unbending man, willing to hurt and manipulate those around him; the sympathy feels unearned, no matter how well Ba’s past matches up with his personality.

Others may also feel frustrated over the vague ending. The book ends mid-sentence as Lucy decides what she wants for her future; I must admit to rereading the last couple of pages a time or two to see whether I could puzzle out the meaning, but it remains nebulous for me. If you have an idea of what direction is meant by the ending please leave your theories in the comments! But I find the longer I sit with it, the less I mind not having this final answer. It means enough for Lucy to want something after the horrors she’s been through, and leaving her desire open-ended feels indicative of the sort of wide open dreaming that drove her family to chase gold and an elusive happiness for so many years, though the one thing that seems certain with the final sentence is that Lucy will not be returning to a life of prospecting.

Despite these two small hiccups, I relished Zhang’s sharp writing, her skill with metaphor and her ability to twist the knife at just the right moment to drive this narrative straight into the reader’s heart. This is a fierce story of sibling love and loyalty, the trials faced by an immigrant family, and a fraught chapter of history for many who’ve previously gone unheard. It’s an impressive work by an impressive new writer, one I’ll certainly want to read more from in the future.

CW: racism, child labor, rape, forced prostitution, children orphaned and/or abandoned, near starvation, mass murder (by fire), infant death, parent death.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Despite my reading slump, which hit while I was finishing this book last month, I loved the writing and the narrative every time I picked this story up, and my slowness with reading and reviewing it should not be taken as a lack of appreciation for any part of this narrative. It would’ve made a great addition to this year’s Booker shortlist and I think will be one of my most memorable reads of the year.

The Literary Elephant

Booker Prize 2020: Shortlist Thoughts and Plans

Earlier this week, the Booker Prize for Fiction announced their 2020 shortlist:

The Booker Prize 2020 | The Booker Prizes

Thanks to the reading slump that hit me hard at the end of August and carried into the first half of September, I’ve only scratched the surface of the longlist so far and thus don’t have much in the way of significant reactions. But, upon first impression, I am fairly pleased with this result!

Real Life

The one title I was really rooting for did make the cut- Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. I loved this book, and would not be at all disappointed to see it take the win, though it’s too soon for me to place my bets. The other longlist read I would’ve been happy to see place (from what I’ve read up to this point) was C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold; I’ll still have a very positive review for that one coming soon and would recommend it despite its absence here.

The Shadow King

The other book from the shortlist I’ve completed thus far is Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King; it was a 3-star read for me, but I’m not surprised to see it here. There’s always one on the shortlist, it seems, that I can appreciate without truly liking very much, and this year I think that’s this book. I think it’s an important and beautiful story that many readers are right to love, though it just didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I don’t particularly want to see it win, but that certainly wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen in 2020, we’ll leave it at that.

Shuggie Bain

Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain is one of my current reads; I’m taking it slowly as I pull out of my reading slump, but I am enjoying it so far and don’t have any reason to complain about its placement on the shortlist. I’m not sure I’m excited enough about it to want it to win, but it’s too early to say for sure (I’m about 1/3 through). But to have read nearly half the shortlist already considering how few of the longlistees I’ve gotten to at this point is very encouraging!

Actually, I’ve only read one book from the longlist so far that didn’t make the cut: Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, which I enjoyed more than I thought I would but didn’t expect to see advance. So, no real complaints about how things have turned out, based on what I’ve read to date.

Burnt Sugar

Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar is the only title on the shortlist I’m somewhat unhappy to see, and that’s only because I wasn’t initially drawn to the synopsis and thus wasn’t sure I’d take the time to read it. This is the only title of the shortlist that I’m still uncertain about getting around to- it looks like a bit of a challenge to get a copy in the US, and I’m still not particularly looking forward to reading it, despite having now seen some encouraging reviews. But I will definitely read this if it wins, and will maybe read it if it doesn’t.

The New Wilderness

I’ve not seen any rave reviews of Diane Cook’s dystopian The New Wilderness yet, so this is the biggest surprise on the shortlist for me. But I was already curious about the premise and managed to grab a copy through my library, so I’ll definitely read this one. I don’t really envision it winning, especially after Atwood’s dystopian novel took half the win last year, but I’ll have to read before forming a firmer opinion.

Speaking of surprises, I think the biggest shock of this shortlist is what isn’t included- Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light! So many readers (not excluding myself) were considering Mantel a shoo-in for the win, after her notable Booker Prize successes with the previous two books in her Cromwell series. I am still planning to read and review The Mirror and the Light regardless of it’s exclusion here, and actually I am pleased not to see it advance. It’s a very long book that would’ve impacted my motivation to continue with the shortlist right now, but moreso I’m excited by the prospect of removing the “safe” choice from the possibilities- now it seems that anything could happen, each of these six books is just as likely to win as the next. It gives the prize a bit more thrill, in a year when we really needed that, I think.

This Mournable Body

Last but certainly not least is Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body; like Mantel’s book, this is also a third-in-a-series title, though from what I hear this can be read as a standalone. I read the first book in this trilogy years ago and remember quite liking it though I’m hazy on the details now. I’m still looking forward to rereading that first volume (Nervous Conditions) and then diving into this one, and am further encouraged to see that the judges considered it shortlist material. Will they think it winner material? I can’t guess yet, but time will tell.

It’s an excitingly diverse shortlist, despite the fact that at least three of the authors are American (Avni Doshi would be the fourth, though she’s currently living in Dubai and Burnt Sugar was not originally published in the US… which isn’t to say Doshi isn’t American, but that perhaps her book is not best represented with that label.) The settings of the books take us from the US, to Ethiopia, to Scotland, to India, to Zimbabwe, and to an unspecified (but likely American) futuristic City. Four of the nominated authors are women.

Thanks to my library resuming interloan services, I do have all but Burnt Sugar on hand from this shortlist, so I expect to read at least 5 out of the 6.

I’ve also got Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road checked out (I would have cancelled the hold except it came in the same day the shortlist was announced; now that I have it, it is very short…). Additionally I purchased a copy of Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward, which I was hoping to see advance but can’t really comment on at this point, and earlier in the year I also bought Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light thanks to the Women’s Prize. I’m unlikely to read Colum McCann’s Apeirogon now, though I have a few suggested alternatives (own voices authors who haven’t been accused of sexual misconduct) on my TBR, including Susan Abulhawa’s Against the Loveless World, which I’d like to read regardless. Otherwise, I’m unlikely to read Gabriel Krauze’s Who They Was at all now, as it’s hard to get ahold of in the US and I wasn’t especially interested in it when I read the blurb, though I have heard some great things about it recently.

All told, this makes it likely that I will end up reading 10 out of 13 of the longlist titles; tracking down Burnt Sugar for shortlist completion purposes would increase the tally, but I’m undecided on that at present. (If you’ve read it, please advise!)

The winner is scheduled to be announced October 27th; I’ll prioritize reviews for any Booker titles I complete before then, but this is a difficult time of year for me to keep up with blogging so I can’t make guarantees, unfortunately. Nevertheless, it’s always great fun following the Booker prize and the reactions of other readers, so please share all your shortlist thoughts below!

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Shadow King

I’m back with another Booker review! Today I’m looking at Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King, a historical fiction account of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia just prior to the start of WWII.

In the novel, Kidane prepares to defend his country by rounding up local Ethiopian men, training them, and arming as many as possible. This includes taking an old rifle from a slave woman in his house; it is the one thing Hirut has left of her father, and she doesn’t let go of it willingly. While she searches the house determined to take back what is hers, Kidane’s wife begins preparations of her own: to bring the women to war alongside the men, and join the fight for Ethiopia.

“I’ll teach every woman how to make gunpowder. I’ll teach all of you how to shoot a gun. You have to know how to run toward them unafraid.”

I’ve got to admit, I’m having a tough time making up my mind about this book. When I first posted about the 2020 Booker longlist, I mentioned that there’s usually one long, ponderous book that I appreciate having read but do not particularly enjoy reading- I pegged Colum McCann’s Apeirogon as this year’s book fitting that description, but I think actually The Shadow King is that book for me.

First, the pros: I learned a lot. This is a piece of history I wasn’t familiar with, and I now have a better understanding both of Ethiopian culture and history, and the early maneuvers of WWII. The Italians, of course, are the enemy here, but there are also African soldiers standing with Italy, perspective chapters from an Italian photographer of Jewish descent, a runaway Ethiopian emperor and the peasant that takes his place- these help make it clear that good and evil are not black and white in this story. Each character is a complex product of the circumstances that have shaped them. The women who want to fight are constantly hurt, belittled, and ordered about by their own men, slaves are treated cruelly by their masters, and respect is often tinged with hatred and resentment among the Ethiopians. Hirut follows Kidane and Aster to war and plays her role despite the ways both use and abuse her- she carries on for Ethiopia and herself, even if it means standing beside them. Mengiste doesn’t shy away from depicting African violence and unhappiness, and at the same time shows how a flawed system is worth defending, even by those who are made small within it; for any progress to be made it needs to happen from within, starting at the personal level, rather than at the hands of foreigners who don’t understand the country or its people.

The language of the story is occasionally very beautiful, and occasionally very powerful. There are some incredibly moving passages throughout the book. But between these moments of brilliance, I was not caught up in the writing. For me, this is a long book that truly feels like a long book. It’s episodic, which never seems to work for me anymore, and I wasn’t emotionally engaged the way I expected to be based on the story’s premise and content (CW: rape, death, slavery, imprisonment, assorted war violence). The book is divided into digestible chapters of a few pages each, but I found it easy to stop at any given point and harder to pick the story back up.

I think what held me back most was the book’s depiction of women, and the story’s tendency to stray from them despite claiming them as the book’s focus. Mengiste says in her author’s note:

The Shadow King tells the story of those Ethiopian women who fought alongside men, who even today have remained no more than errant lines in faded documents. What I have come to understand is this: The story of war has always been a masculine story, but this was not true for Ethiopia and it has never been that way in any form of struggle. Women have been there, we are here now.”

The book’s greatest flaw may be that in order to tell the story of these women, Mengiste must also tell the oft-overlooked (at least in Western literature) story of this Italian invasion, men and all. Though Hirut, she of the stolen rifle, is always at the center of this tale, even the book’s title highlights one of the men involved in this war. The women fight alongside the men, eventually, but they are not man’s equal here. In fact they have very little agency, despite their determination.

Until about 300 pages in, the women heroes train alone and mostly off page, tending to the men and obeying as ordered when Kidane tells them their place is on the sidelines, not in the battles. In those 300 pages, they are raped, beaten, and otherwise taken advantage of, and the war is primarily fought by the men, at least at the level of direct confrontation. Even after the point when the women are allowed to join in the fray, there are two fantastic battle scenes in which the women are finally able to utilize their own power, but between these they are also imprisoned and left to wait upon the men they expect to save them. It would be wrong to suggest that the trials these women face do not require their own brand of strength and resilience, but it is a learned response, a strength thrust upon them in the name of survival, and I spent most of the novel wondering when they would step out of the shadows and claim something for themselves.

It is, of course, not fair to judge a book about a culture and history I’m new to by saying its characters simply aren’t the “right” sort of heroes. And that’s not exactly what I mean. It is to The Shadow King‘s credit, I think, to display these women as a necessary part of the process of defending Ethiopia, even when they ARE at the sidelines, even when to “earn” their place in the fight they must first battle their own husbands and masters and fathers to get there. Surely even before they enter the fray, the men’s efforts would not have succeeded without the women standing firmly at their backs. It’s a great argument to make, that power lies in endurance and in the silent support that is often invisible in history books. But there’s so much more here as well; in the end I think the celebration of female strength is diluted by the attention spared for other aspects of this fight in both the Ethiopian and Italian camps, and while I appreciated the greater political overview and sympathetic characters, I suspect the story would have felt stronger had it been less divided in focus. Had I not read in Mengiste’s note and the jacket copy that this was meant to be a story of strong women, I’m not confident I would have noticed any emphasis on that theme at all, and that is what I struggled with the most in this read.

“She is a soldier trapped inside a barbed-wire fence, but she is still at war and the battlefield is her own body, and perhaps, she has come to realize as a prisoner, that is where it has always been.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m torn between 3 and 4; I do think this is an incredible story, though I found the premise a bit misleading as to its actual content and was never quite fully hooked. Perhaps I’m a bit biased, having read and loved what seemed to me a stronger story of women at war earlier this year- How We Disappeared. I am glad I read this one, but I simply didn’t find it as effective as I’d hoped.

Up next for me on the Booker list: C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold (which I am loving so far)!

The Literary Elephant

Review: Such a Fun Age

My Booker Prize 2020 reading is officially underway! I started with a quick read from the longlist to gain some momentum: Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, a contemporary novel that I had a good time with, though after reading I’m still a bit surprised by its placement on the Booker list!

suchafunageIn the novel, Emira is called away from a friend’s 26th birthday party for a late-night babysitting emergency; while the adult Chamberlains deal with a situation at home, Emira takes their toddler to a nearby grocery store, where the child enjoys looking at the nuts and smelling the teas. Except this time, Emira isn’t dressed like a babysitter, and when the security guard spots her holding the hand of the white child, he accuses her (a Black woman) of kidnapping. The situation is awful but resolved quickly, and Emira would like to bury the incident in the past and move forward. But Emira’s employer and her new boyfriend become a little too focused on proving how not-racist they are in the wake of this event, making Emira’s life harder in the process.

“For a moment she thought, What if I just took you and walked out the door? How far would we get? Shaunie’s apartment? Maybe Pittsburgh?

Such a Fun Age is a drama-filled novel that unfolds like a race-focused soap opera. As such, its characters feel somewhat exaggerated, their dialogue and actions somewhat insufferable, and some of the plot details a little too coincidental or extreme to feel truly realistic. Even so, it has an addictive, gossip-y feel and manages to convey a serious message without taking itself too seriously in the process. It’s a great summer read, a perfect book club choice, and a solid alternative to the often uber-white drama of similar titles in this style (think: Claire Lombardo’s The Most Fun We Ever Had).

The major players include: Emira, just a regular woman struggling with adulthood, whose pure love for the child she babysits is a beacon of joy amid the rest of the negativity and harm apparent in this tale; Alix Chamberlain, the influencer mom obsessed with her public image and what she can get out of any and every situation, including her babysitter’s vulnerability; and Kelley, the man who films the interaction at the grocery store and strikes up a relationship with Emira, who turns out to be only one of the many Black people Kelley insists on filling every aspect of his life with. Reid does an excellent job of focusing on each character’s story individually, including spouses, friends, and colleagues. Through them we see a wider view of key personalities and relevant motivations; importantly, the white characters are not the only ones whose actions hurt Emira, though they are frequently the ones who take matters too far.

Every chapter seems to present its own excitement; every dramatic revelation, even the ones that feel eye-roll worthy, had me mock gasping in delight at the ways in which the narrative is pushed as far as it will stretch. There’s certainly something to be said for Reid’s ability to turn a weighty discussion into a piece this entertaining, and I think in doing so she’ll be able to take these important messages to an audience that might not have bothered with a more heavily literary presentation, a victory not to be overlooked. But I do wonder whether Such a Fun Age loses a bit of impact and with its levity; it’s a delicious romp for the casual reader, but Emira (and the real people who experience situations such as hers) stand to lose plenty when the allies they trust don’t actually have their backs. There needs to be something more than fun here if Reid’s intent is anything other than for readers to take these matters lightly.

“Alix had started her day in Manhattan, ready to tell Kelly, I know who you really are. But now she sat in Philadelphia, participating in a losing game called ‘Which One of Us Is Actually More Racist?’ “

Because this book relishes over-the-top details and lacks a certain depth and engagement with form that I typically expect from Booker nominees, I think I might have enjoyed this title more if I had picked it up outside of the context of the Booker- but I don’t want to imply that the book’s themes or author are a bad fit for a literary prize. I might even have liked this title better alongside last year’s Booker list. As is, I do think it’s easy to compare Such a Fun Age and Real Life (also longlisted this year) in terms of racist microaggressions and erroneous expectations of what modern racism looks like for twenty-something Black Americans; once that comparison has been made (which seems an inevitable result when the two appear on the same list), from a literary standpoint I think Real Life author Brandon Taylor simply accomplishes more with his prose and implications. None of this is to say Reid’s book isn’t worth the read, and I did certainly find it worth my time. I am glad the Booker nomination will put Such a Fun Age into more hands, but for me it’s just not a title that’s going to leave a lasting impression (there’s not much to mull over once the final page has been turned), no matter how much I may have enjoyed my time with it.

” ‘How difficult is it to tell someone, “Hey, your boyfriend likes you for the wrong reasons?” If someone told me that I’d be like, “No, he doesn’t. Mind your business.” It’s not like Alix can tell her to not be with him.’ Then Rachel added this as if it were an unfortunate fact: ‘Emira is a grown woman.’ / ‘But she’s not, though! […] Emira is still so young,’ she said, and with this, Alix felt her eyes begin to water. She let her voice crack to say, ‘What the fuck is he doing with her?’ a tear dropped into her napkin. The idea of Kelley truly having feelings for Emira seemed slightly worse than him using her for his own gain. Just the thought of it put a sharp buzzing sound into her head.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. As I said, I had a good time. I’m excited to see what else the Booker list has in store this year, though I hope the next titles I read will prove a bit more memorable. I am glad I didn’t let the hype or mixed reviews dissuade me from giving this one a try, but I’m hoping my next Booker review will end with a stronger recommendation; I’m currently reading Mengiste’s The Shadow King from the longlist, to review next week.

If you’ve read Such a Fun Age, let me know what you thought! If you’ve read other Booker longlisters recently, let me know which title has been your favorite so far!

 

The Literary Elephant

Booker Prize 2020: Longlist Thoughts and Plans

It’s here! It’s likely you’ve already seen the 2020 Booker Prize for Fiction longlist and various reaction posts, but I always have a good time talking about lit prizes with you lovely readers! So here we are.

I’ve only read one of the longlisted titles so far, own one more, and ultimately am not expecting to have as much coverage for this prize this year as I did for this year’s Women’s Prize. I just am not interested enough to fully commit right now. Although, I believe I said the same thing last year and ended up reading 12 of the 13 titles, so who knows! Matters are further complicated this year by the fact that I’m not sure interloan services are up and running at my library, which will affect how many of these titles I can read.

Okay, let’s look at the list!

The New WildernessThe New Wilderness by Diane Cook

Pub: Aug. 11 2020 US ~ Sept. 3 2020 UK

Sci-fi/Dystopia in which a polluted City is fast becoming uninhabitable; there is one area of open land left, where our protagonist and her 5 year-old daughter volunteer to live with a small group in a sort of experiment to determine whether humans can exist in raw nature without destroying it.

My stance: Other than the focus on the mother/daughter relationship, all of this appeals to me. It’s not out yet and it doesn’t look like my library has it on order, but it might appear there closer to its release. I’d love to read this one.

This Mournable BodyThis Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Pub: Aug. 7 2018 US ~ Jan 16 2020 UK

Literary fiction set in Zimbabwe, following a protagonist whose hope and potential turns into a struggle for survival as she searches for an appropriate job and is eventually forced to return to her parents’ impoverished homestead. Themes revolve around the toxicity of colonialism and capitalism.

My stance: I’m excited about this one! I read Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions in a postcolonialism class in college and remember liking the experience. This newer release actually follows the same protagonist from Nervous Conditions, later in her life. If I can get this via interloan at my library, I am tentatively planning to reread Nervous Conditions and follow it with this one. There is apparently one more novel between these two- the jury’s out on whether I’ll be able to track down a copy (it’s not in my library’s catalog) or resign myself to reading the books out of order. I’m getting the sense that while they are sequential they also stand alone, so I won’t let the missing second book (The Book of Not) deter me from picking this one up.

Burnt SugarBurnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

Pub: unknown US ~ July 30 2020 UK

This is the story of a wild young woman who abandons a loveless marriage, joins an ashram, becomes a beggar, and chases an artist. It is also the story of her daughter, who, when grown, must return, “caring for a woman who never cared for her.”

My stance: I’m less interested in this one. It seems very focused on the mother/daughter relationship, which I learned with this year’s Women’s Prize list just isn’t where my interest lies right now. I’ve added this book to my TBR mainly to keep it on my radar- I’ll look for reviews and keep an eye out for availability before determining whether or not to give it a go, but initially I’m not prioritizing this one.

Who They WasWho They Was by Gabriel Krauze

Pub: unknown US ~ Sept 3 2020 UK

Literary fiction featuring the youth of London who scrape the bottom of the barrel and live in the moment.

My stance: Not sure. I can’t see when/if this will be available in the US, and I’m not getting a great sense of what it’s really about from the synopsis. Troubled people whose stories don’t typically get told? Does it dig into race, class, etc.? I need more info, and reasonable availability. Initially, I’m not drawn to this title based on its scant synopsis.

The Mirror & The Light (Thomas Cromwell, #3)The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Pub: March 10 2020 US ~ March 5 2020 UK

Historical fiction covering the final months of Thomas Cromwell’s stint as Henry VIII’s right hand man. This is the third volume in Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, which opens with Wolf Hall and continues with Bring Up the Bodies.

My stance: I’ll be reading this for sure. I am planning to finish and review both the second and third books in this series before the Women’s Prize winner is announced in September; I’ll probably work on this throughout August, but I’ll be shocked if it’s not shortlisted so I’m not feeling particularly rushed in relation to its Booker standing.

ApeirogonApeirogon by Colum McCann

Pub: Feb. 5 2020 US ~ Feb 25 2020 UK

Two men- one Palestinian and one Israeli- build a friendship based on loss. In a story that spans centuries and continents and tests the line between fiction and nonfiction, this is a grand tale told in small pieces, born in a world of violence.

My stance: Unsure. If interloan services are running I could easily read this, but I’m not including it in my test run of holds. I’m not especially drawn to it or the author, but here’s the thing: every year there seems to be a rather long, ponderous book written by a man that makes it to the shortlist that I maybe got something out of but did not ultimately enjoy- I think this is 2020’s version of that book. I’m torn because I suspect this is a book I might appreciate having read, but not appreciate actually reading it. So, to be determined. Please persuade me one way or the other!

The Shadow KingThe Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

Pub: Sept. 24 2019 US ~ Jan. 30 2020 UK

Historical fiction chronicling Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, specifically focused on women’s untold role in the early days of WWII. This is a tale of female power that “breathes life into complicated characters on both sides of the battle line, shaping a heartrending, indelible exploration of what it means to be a woman at war.”

My stance: Sure, why not? It’s a piece of history I’m not familiar with and I always like a good story of powerful women. I’ve placed a library hold through interloan services, so I’ll pick this up if/when it comes in.

Such a Fun AgeSuch a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Pub: Dec. 31 2019 US ~ Jan. 7 2020 UK

Contemporary fiction set in the US. A young African American woman babysitting a small white child is confronted in public and accused of kidnapping the child. Responses to the incident highlight racial tensions in America.

My stance: I’m so unsure about this one! I’ve seen rave reviews, I’ve seen some readers detest it, and I’m entirely uncertain about whether this will work for me or not. I haven’t been faring well with non-literary contemporary novels in general this year, but I was intrigued by the synopsis. If I can get it through the library, I might give it a try, but it looks like I’ve got a bit of a wait with the holds list so I have time to change my mind several times.

Real LifeReal Life by Brandon Taylor

Pub: Feb. 18 2020 US ~ Aug. 27 2020 UK

Literary fiction following a gay black man’s difficult decision over whether or not to stay in his biochemistry grad program while dealing with casual racism from everyone involved in his school and social circles.

My stance: This is the one I’ve read! I loved it! Highly recommend, and I’d be thrilled to see it shortlisted. Very deserving of its place on the longlist, and this positive experience is essentially why I’m feeling generous enough about the longlist to want to read what I can. You can find my review here if you missed it.

Redhead by the Side of the RoadRedhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

Pub: Apr. 7 2020 US ~ Apr. 9 2020 UK

Contemporary fiction featuring a “creature of habit” man who is faced with some sudden major surprises- like his woman friend confessing that she faces eviction, and the son he didn’t know he had showing up at his door. This is a story of “misperception, second chances, and the sometimes elusive power of human connection.”

My stance: I’m sorry, but I hate the cover image, hate that font, and am not at all interested in the synopsis. Everything about this is turning me off. This is obviously not a reflection of the book’s merit, as I haven’t read it yet. In fact, I’ve never read Anne Tyler. This is under 200 pages and as available through interloan services as any of the others, so maaaaaaybe I’ll end up taking a chance?

Shuggie BainShuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Pub: Feb 11 2020 US ~ Aug. 6 2020 UK

Historical fiction in which a young boy spends his 1980’s childhood in Glasgow with an alcoholic mother who can’t quite care for her children the way they need her to. The two remain close through the years even as they struggle with addiction, sexuality, and the flaws within their own relationship.

My stance: I’ve seen mixed reviews, but have been interested in this one for a while and am happy for the nudge to pick it up and see for myself. If interloan is working, I will be reading this one for sure.

Love and Other Thought ExperimentsLove and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward

Pub: unknown US ~ Feb. 6 2020 UK

Literary fiction in which two women hoping to have a baby have a bitter fight instead, when one of them wakes up convinced that an ant is stuck in her eye and the other doesn’t believe the claim.

My stance: I am so intrigued by this absurd situation, and by the fact that it’s inspired by philosophical thought-experiments. Unfortunately I can’t seem to find it in the US and have no idea when/if I might. This is the one I’m most tempted to buy.

How Much of These Hills Is GoldHow Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang

Pub: Apr. 7 2020 US ~ Apr. 9 2020 UK

Historical fiction in which two Chinese immigrant siblings whose parents have died find themselves on the run from their Western mining town in the dying days of the American gold rush. The book combines Chinese symbolism with American history and explores race in an expanding country.

My stance: This was already on my TBR and one of the titles here I’m most looking forward to reading, if interloan services pull through!

And that’s the list! (If you happen to know/find any of the US pub dates missing in my list above please let me know so I can add them in, there were a few I failed to locate, if they exist!)

Overall thoughts: There are a few titles I’m familiar with that I’m particularly happy to see (namely, Real Life, though I’m also happy for the extra nudge with Shuggie Bain, How Much of These Hills is Gold, and The Mirror and the Light), a couple of new titles I’m now particularly interested in (Love and Other Thought Experiments, This Mournable Body, The New Wilderness, and The Shadow King), and a few that likely wouldn’t have made the list if I were in charge (Redhead by the Side of the Road, Burnt Sugar, Who They Was, Apeirogon– no shade to them, they just don’t excite me at the moment). Of course, having only read one title so far and basing the rest off of hasty first impressions, my opinions are entirely subject to change.

On the whole though, while I’m happy with some of these, this is not my favorite Booker longlist. I’m fairly certain I won’t like all of these (if I were to read them all), and there aren’t a lot of themes and premises here that really hook me and call to my particular reading taste. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad list or that someone else won’t enjoy it more than I do. Time has been so unaccountable this year that I barely have any grasp on which books were even eligible this year, so I suppose it’s a plus that I didn’t have a list of predictions I was attached to that didn’t make the cut. There were a few Women’s Prize books I wouldn’t have minded seeing here that have been omitted (Hamnet, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line) but to be honest I’m not too surprised not to see them, and aside from the fact that I’ve yet to read The Mirror and the Light I’m content to be putting the 2020 Women’s Prize behind me, with the exception of the winner announcement still coming up.

Anyway, I’m confident I won’t be able to read all of these before the shortlist announcement on the 15th of September; depending on availability and my excitement level I might try harder to read the shortlist at least. In the meantime, I’m happy with the diversity here and pleased to see quite a few debuts! Not too many already-big authors, and more than half of the list was written by women, always a plus in my book. I’ll read what I can, but at this point the only guarantee I can make (barring whatever curveball 2020 throws at us next) is The Mirror and the Light, which is already in my possession.

What do you think of the list? Which titles have you read or do you plan to read?

 

The Literary Elephant

Wrap-Up: Booker Prize 2019

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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