I’m going to save my thoughts on the 2019 Booker longlist as a whole until closer to the end of the year, because I know there are at least two more titles I’ll be reading for sure in the coming days/weeks, and some maybes as well. But in light of today’s utterly surprising winner announcement, I wanted to share some initial thoughts!
First off, in case you haven’t heard the news, congrats to 2019’s TWO Booker Prize winners: Bernardine Evaristo with Girl, Woman, Other, and Margaret Atwood with The Testaments!
I didn’t post a winner prediction, as I’ve only read two and a half of the shortlisted titles so far and didn’t feel I could pass any sort of fair judgment on titles I haven’t read yet. (All reading and judging is of course subjective anyway, which is important to keep in mind especially around the time of book prize announcements) But, from what I’d read, and what I’d heard from other readers, I was HOPING for Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport to win, and EXPECTING that Girl, Woman, Other might actually take the title. So, I’m thrilled that Evaristo did indeed take the win! She’s the first black woman in the history of the Booker Prize ever to win, which is a fantastic development for 2019 and absolutely worth celebrating. Additionally, the content of her book sounds fantastic, but I’ll save descriptions for the end.
Now, let’s talk about Atwood’s joint win.
For anyone who saw my review of The Testaments, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m rather disappointed about this title taking half of the prize winnings. Though Atwood is one of my favorite writers and I don’t in any way begrudge The Testaments its wide popularity, I just don’t think this book is prize winning material. I don’t want to spend this post bashing a winner, so please follow the link at the end of this post to my review for more specific thoughts if you’re curious.
Historically, this is the third time the prize has been divided between two winners, and Atwood is the fourth author to receive the prize twice. I don’t mind an author receiving a literary prize twice. It goes a little ways toward proving that the judges really do consider each book individually rather than taking logistics/statistics too heavily into account. But I don’t like the idea of this prize being divided at all. Joint winners feels like a cop-out. This seems like one of those “you had one job!” situations where the judges just… didn’t do their job. And of course, my frustration at the situation isn’t helping my opinion of the book I didn’t want to win in the first place. If any author deserved to win twice, I would be the first to say it’s Atwood. And yet, The Testaments is my least favorite Atwood novel (so far), and frankly, it’s just not as good from a literary standpoint as The Handmaid’s Tale. No, literariness isn’t everything, but for a LITERARY PRIZE, I do expect that to carry some weight. For The Testaments to win where The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t does not sit well with me, and it leaves me wondering whether this prize in 2019 is in some way meant to reflect the judges’ appreciation for BOTH of the books in this duology- an “I’m sorry the better book didn’t win, let us make it up to you by giving this less accomplished sequel an accolade instead.” Just a theory.
If I sound harsh, it’s mainly due to my frustration at the lack of a definitive winner, and furthermore that the first black woman to win the Booker has to share the prize. These are my biggest hangups. The fact that I didn’t think The Testaments merited a win at all is a lesser concern- I know that opinions vary, mine isn’t any more valid than anyone else’s, and again, reading is subjective, so.
Moving on to the greatest slight, let’s talk aout Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport. Though there are plenty of readers who simply aren’t on board with this 1,020 page stream-of-consciousness story that’s told mainly in one looong sentence, the crowd that gets it really gets it, and this is the title I saw the most votes for among my own social media feeds. Personal opinions on the content aside (I’m currently reading this one and don’t have any final thoughts to share yet), it’s undeniably impressive in structure and style, and certainly the most unique book on the list. (Yes, I feel confident in making that assertion after reading only half the book and not having read three of the other shortlisted titles.) I thought this one had a great shot at winning, and I have a feeling we’ll be seeing this one again when the 2020 Women’s Prize nominees are announced. I’ll have a full review coming soon, but I want to voice another theory in the meantime:
I wonder if Ducks simply seemed a bit too similar to 2018’s Booker winner, Milkman, to succeed here this year. Both are structurally inventive and challenging reads, in stream-of-consciousness style, with political commentary, from a female perspective, written by a white woman. They’re totally different, of course, but similarities can certainly be drawn. I actually think Ducks is going to fare best with the Milkman-loving crowd. I suspect this might have played a role in its missing a 2019 win.
Additionally, I think the joint win seems especially harsh for all four of the shortlisted writers who didn’t win this year. To have your shot at winning increase from 1/6 to 1/3, and STILL not be chosen, would be tough. To know that the judges had such a hard time making a choice that they DIDN’T in the end make the choice, and yet were confident enough to exclude those other four writers, must have been unimaginably difficult. Of course, Everyone on the shortlist (and even the longlist) is likely just happy to have been nominated at all and knows not to expect a win, but to be passed up in such a wishy-washy situation just sounds unusually painful.
And so, I highly recommend picking up more than just the winning books, if you have the chance! I’ll share full recommendations from the longlist in another month or two, but for now, a quick recap of my progress and general overview:
- An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma. This is an Odyssey retelling about a Nigerian man, a poultry farmer, who just wants his lover’s family to accept him. While trying to prove himself, he is taken advantage of in tragic ways. Moral and social themes are explored.
- The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. The sequel to Atwood’s wildly popular Handmaid’s Tale, this one’s a dystopian thriller set in Gilead. Three new perspectives each have their own feminist insight to impart, and the book offers a hopeful and powerful response to unjust government.
- Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann. Here we have a deep dive into the perspective of an Ohio housewife: the everywoman in Trump’s America. As the unnamed narrator bakes pies and takes care of four children, she’s also extremely preoccupied by the current state of the world.
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. This is a novel comprised of twelve connected short stories that examine the lives of black women in Brexit Britain.
- Quichotte by Salman Rushdie. This is a Don Quixote retelling with fantasy elements set in modern America. This is a love story and a wild romp of political commentary.
- 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak. Here we take a trip through a dying woman’s brain in the moments immediately following her death, followed by the trials of the friends who fight to give her a decent burial afterward.
I’ve linked the two titles I’ve read to my reviews, and the rest to Goodreads. I’ll post a personal ranking of the longlisted titles and more conclusive thoughts on the shortlist once I’ve finished reading the titles I’m interested in checking out. I’ll continue to post reviews as I read, as well. And if any of these titles catch your interest, please give them a further look! Though the Booker Prize aims to single out the best novel(s) published each year, don’t forget that there are plenty of other great new books that are also worth reading as well! Though I’m very much looking forward to Girl, Woman, Other myself, literary prizes are above all a call to celebrate READING, and that’s one cause I’m sure we can all unite over!
But if you have specific thoughts about this year’s Booker Prize, whether you agree or disagree with my stance, I’d love to chat in the comments. 🙂
The Literary Elephant