It was 50 years ago that the Booker Prize was first awarded to PH Newby for
Something to Answer For. It features a narrator who, as a result of a nasty blow to the head, isn’t sure whether what he’s going through is real or a dream, and it all ends with mayhem linked to the aborted Suez takeover in Egypt. Newby, who was a director at the BBC radio service, wrote over 25 books, many of them novels that were well-received at the time. Graham Greene called him “a fine writer who has never had the full recognition that he deserves”; this remains true because the poor man today is mostly recalled as the answer to a quiz question on the Booker Prize, if at all. Such is the fickleness of fate.
Much water has flown through the Suez Canal since then, and careers and book sales have been known to rise with even an inclusion on the longlist. There were 19 titles on the longlist in 2006, 17 in 2005, 22 in 2004 and a staggering 23 in 2003. In 2007, the so-called Man Booker Dozen was introduced to curb such rampant inflation.
This year’s longlist of 13 is, on the face of it, almost embarrassingly diverse. Eight women, one debutant, five titles from independent publishers, two previous winners, two novelists from Nigeria, one each from the US, Ireland and Turkey, at least one innovative, modernist title…why, there seems to be something for everyone.
This isn’t to impute that the judges had such inclusiveness in mind; it’s the merits of the work, on the jury’s terms, that’s paramount. But, putting one’s initial enthusiasm for the longlist aside for a moment, one has to ask: what does the Booker Prize stand for? It awards “any novel originally written in English and published in the UK and Ireland in the year of the prize, regardless of the nationality of their author,” say the rules. This is a vast terrain, especially with the decision to include American authors in 2014.
There are separate awards for women, for science fiction, for the best translated work, for the entire body of an author’s work, and more. The Booker, however, is more wide ranging, almost universal. That’s why this year’s varied longlist is more important than the eventual winner itself. Each title represents a facet of general fiction in English and, taken as a whole, forms a prism that displays its state today, for better or for worse.
It’s in this light that the longlist looks gratifying. Will
Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale, take the story in a rewarding new direction, or will it be more of the same? Will Quichotte, Salman Rushdie’s Cervantes-inspired novel, sink under the weight of topical references, or will it sparkle with the best of his earlier work? We’ll have to wait to find out, as both won’t be published till later this year.
The longlist recognises the excellence of recent fiction by those from Nigeria writing in English, with two titles: Oyinkan Braithwaite’s
My Sister, The Serial Killer and Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities. Earlier this year, Braithwaite’s novel also featured on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, along with two others from a Nigerian background, Diana Evans’ Ordinary People and Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater.
Other current literary leanings also feature on the list. For dystopia, pick up John Lanchester’s
The Wall; for a saucy retelling of a classic, there’s Jeanette Winterson’s fizzing Frankissstein. Of course, the Irish are above trends and only about good writing; see Kevin Barry’s Beckett-haunted Night Boat to Tangier. Deborah Levy is consistent, too, and the forthcoming The Man Who Saw Everything promises to be as spiky as her other books.
Polyphonic novels dealing with disparate individuals and the connections between them are always welcome, not least on prize lists, and this is represented here by Bernardine Evaristo’s
Girl, Woman, Other, featuring 12 characters, mainly black British women. Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World also is an account of suffering in a patriarchal society, this time set in Turkey.
The Buried Giant wasn’t a Booker pick in 2015, but this time there’s another work that draws from the wellspring of English folklore: Max Porter’s Lanny, a fey fable of spirits, trees and humans. Perhaps you’d like your novels more topical? Try Valeria Luiselli’s inventive The Lost Children Archive which, inspired by the US policy of separating children from their parents at the Mexican-American border, mixes fact and fiction in a Sebaldian manner.
The one that I’m the most drawn to at present is unlike all of the above. Lucy Ellman’s
Ducks, Newburyport is a novel of just one sentence that continues for over 1,000 pages, containing the thoughts and reflections of an Ohio housewife. Not just a stream, but a torrent of consciousness, then. (One-sentence novels keep appearing; another recent one, Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, was on the 2017 longlist.)
Announcing the longlist with a felicitous turn of phrase, Booker jury chair Peter Florence said, “If you only read one book this year, make a leap. Read all 13 of these.” If you can do that, you’ll be up-to-date on the spectrum of styles in English fiction today.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.