It’s that time of year again – Man Booker season! The longlist has been announced – and there are (surprisingly, given my current residence under a literary rock) some titles on the list I recognize, including my current read!
Because I’ve been MIA in the book world for much of the past year and a half, I have a lot of catching up to do. I’ve been checking my friends’ Goodreads updates, watching my favourite BookTubers’ archives of videos to see what they’ve been enjoying, looking at bestsellers and other “best of” lists and perusing my favourite online booksellers. I’ve found a lot of books from the last year that I want to catch up on, but this year’s awards lists have extra interest for me, since they’re a great way to see which books have the most literary buzz (even if they’re not ones I necessarily want to read).
I often find the Man Booker selections to be a mixture of books I am excited to try out and books I am completely intimidated by. So I’m sure I won’t be ready to tackle all of these (*ahem* 4 3 2 1 *ahem*), but I am ready to spend some time finding out what they’re all about and see if any of the ones I haven’t heard of are up my alley!
In case you are similarly ill-informed, I’ve decided to include the Goodreads descriptions of the books in the list below to make a convenient roundup you can use to get an overview of the books on show. (Click on the book cover to visit the Goodreads page for more info.)
*Apologies that this isn’t formatted better – I originally had it laid out in a nice table, but for some reason that caused issues with the formatting that I couldn’t figure out how to fix, so we’re making do!
On March 3, 1947, in the maternity ward of Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the one and only child of Rose and Stanley Ferguson, is born. From that single beginning, Ferguson’s life will take four simultaneous and independent fictional paths. Four Fergusons made of the same genetic material, four boys who are the same boy, will go on to lead four parallel and entirely different lives. Family fortunes diverge. Loves and friendships and intellectual passions contrast. Chapter by chapter, the rotating narratives evolve into an elaborate dance of inner worlds enfolded within the outer forces of history as, one by one, the intimate plot of each Ferguson’s story rushes on across the tumultuous and fractured terrain of mid twentieth-century America. A boy grows up-again and again and again.
Having fled terrible hardships they find these days to be vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. Their lives are further enriched and imperilled when a young Indian girl crosses their path, and the possibility of lasting happiness emerges, if only they can survive.
Moving from the plains of the West to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. Both an intensely poignant story of two men and the lives they are dealt, and a fresh look at some of the most fateful years in America’s past, Days Without End is a novel never to be forgotten.
Fourteen-year-old Madeline lives with her parents in the beautiful, austere woods of northern Minnesota, where their nearly abandoned commune stands as a last vestige of a lost counter-culture world. Isolated at home and an outlander at school, Madeline is drawn to the enigmatic, attractive Lily and new history teacher Mr. Grierson. When Mr. Grierson is charged with possessing child pornography, the implications of his arrest deeply affect Madeline as she wrestles with her own fledgling desires and craving to belong.
And then the young Gardner family moves in across the lake and Madeline finds herself welcomed into their home as a babysitter for their little boy, Paul. It seems that her life finally has purpose but with this new sense of belonging she is also drawn into secrets she doesn’t understand. Over the course of a few days, Madeline makes a set of choices that reverberate throughout her life. As she struggles to find a way out of the sequestered world into which she was born, Madeline confronts the life-and-death consequences of the things people do—and fail to do—for the people they love.
In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, Saeed and Nadia share a cup of coffee, and their story begins. It will be a love story but also a story about war and a world in crisis, about how we live now and how we might live tomorrow. Before too long, the time will come for Nadia and Saeed to leave their homeland. When the streets are no longer useable and all options are exhausted, this young couple will join the great outpouring of those fleeing a collapsing city, hoping against hope, looking for their place in the world. . .
On All Souls Day, the late Marcus Conway returns home. Solar Bones captures in a single relentless sentence the life and death of this rural Irish engineer, and his place in the globally interconnected 21st century. The book takes in local municipal failures and global financial collapse, the quotidian pleasures of family, ancient history and the latest headlines, the living and the dead. A vital, tender, acerbic, warm, and death-haunted work one of Ireland’s most important contemporary novelists, Solar Bones builds its own style and language one broken line at a time. The result is visionary accounting of the now.
Midwinter in an English village. A teenage girl has gone missing. Everyone is called upon to join the search. The villagers fan out across the moors as the police set up roadblocks and a crowd of news reporters descends on what is usually a place of peace. Meanwhile, there is work that must still be done: cows milked, fences repaired, stone cut, pints poured, beds made, sermons written, a pantomime rehearsed. As the seasons unfold and the search for the missing girl goes on, there are those who leave the village and those who are pulled back; those who come together and those who break apart. There are births and deaths; secrets kept and exposed; livelihoods made and lost; small kindnesses and unanticipated betrayals. An extraordinary novel of cumulative power and grace, RESERVOIR 13 explores the rhythms of the natural world and the repeated human gift for violence, unfolding over thirteen years as the aftershocks of a tragedy refuse to subside.
Daniel is heading north. He is looking for someone. The simplicity of his early life with Daddy and Cathy has turned sour and fearful. They lived apart in the house that Daddy built for them with his bare hands. They foraged and hunted. When they were younger, Daniel and Cathy had gone to school. But they were not like the other children then, and they were even less like them now. Sometimes Daddy disappeared, and would return with a rage in his eyes. But when he was at home he was at peace. He told them that the little copse in Elmet was theirs alone. But that wasn’t true. Local men, greedy and watchful, began to circle like vultures. All the while, the terrible violence in Daddy grew.
Atmospheric and unsettling, Elmet is a lyrical commentary on contemporary society and one family’s precarious place in it, as well as an exploration of how deep the bond between father and child can go.
The engine of Roy’s story is a hijra (India’s third gender) named Anjum, and the story begins with her unrolling a threadbare Persian carpet in a city graveyard she calls home. Anjum’s charisma draws a vibrant assemblage of outcasts to join her–other hijras, Kashmiri freedom fighters, activists, orphans, low-caste Hindus and Muslims, and a host of animals. Anjum’s home is a place where the formerly unwanted embrace each other’s true selves.
We encounter the odd, unforgettable Tilo and the men who loved her, including Musa, sweetheart and ex-sweetheart, lover and ex-lover. Their fates are as entwined as their arms used to be and always will be. We meet Tilo’s landlord, a former suitor, now an intelligence officer posted to Kabul, and then we meet the two Miss Jebeens. The first is a child born in Srinagar and buried in its overcrowded Martyrs’ Graveyard. The second is found at midnight, abandoned on a concrete sidewalk in the heart of New Delhi.
On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body.
Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel – in its form and voice – completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.
Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she is finally studying in America, resuming a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London – or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream: to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.
Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Handsome and privileged, he inhabits a London worlds away from theirs. As the son of a powerful British Muslim politician, Eamonn has his own birthright to live up to – or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Two families’ fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this searing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love?
A contemporary reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone, Home Fire is an urgent, fiercely compelling story of loyalties torn apart when love and politics collide – confirming Kamila Shamsie as a master storyteller of our times.
Fusing Keatsian mists and mellow fruitfulness with the vitality, the immediacy and the colour-hit of Pop Art (via a bit of very contemporary skulduggery and skull-diggery), Autumn is a witty excavation of the present by the past. The novel is a stripped-branches take on popular culture and a meditation, in a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, what harvest means.
Autumn is the first installment in Ali Smith’s novel quartet Seasonal: four standalone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons are), exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative.
From the imagination of the peerless Ali Smith comes a shape-shifting series, wide-ranging in timescale and light-footed through histories, and a story about ageing and time and love and stories themselves.
Two brown girls dream of being dancers–but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, about what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.
Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them. Moving from northwest London to West Africa, it is an exuberant dance to the music of time.
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood – where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor – engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven – but the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.
As I mentioned, I’m currently reading one of these – Autumn by Ali Smith – so you can expect my full thoughts on that soon, but so far I’m finding it to be beautifully written and thought provoking.
I also already have The Underground Railway and Exit West on my TBR, and I’m quite excited to get to them. The first sounds like a unique exploration of the history of slavery and its impact on today’s racial tensions in the US. Exit West is a love story about two people who meet during a time of unrest and burgeoning conflict. What I find fascinating about both is that each has a fictional story that in itself sounds like it will draw the reader in and be an entertaining read. But they’re also both set against a backdrop that brings up timely societal, cultural and historical issues and pushes them from being pure entertainment to having a much deeper impact and giving extra opportunities for thought and a broadening of perspective. My favourite kind of book.
After researching the other titles I also want to ready Swing Time (I haven’t read any Zadie Smith but I’ve been thinking about trying some recently, so why not this one?), Resevoir 13 (English village!), Solar Bones (I’m not really sure what to expect from this one, but it sounds like there’s an introspection and quietness that appeals to me) and History of Wolves (I’m not normally one for stories about cults, but I like how it isn’t the focus of this book, and that the “normal” family seems to be the source of intrigue and menace).
I don’t think I’ll read Lincoln In the Bardo because I’m rarely a fan of historical fiction and I’ve heard it’s experimental and not the best inroad to George Saunders’ work. And though I like the sound of the plot of 4 3 2 1, I doubt I’ll get to it since it’s 866 (!!) pages long. The rest I’m unsure about, but could be convinced if I hear enough good things about them.
One thing I am impressed by is the diversity of this year’s selections, along with all the current issues and events that are referred to. I feel like many of these are books that are “important” reads, which is, of course, probably why they’re on the list. I’m looking forward to hearing what the online bookish community has to say about the nominees, and if their feedback will convince me that I need to read any of the others. I suspect the first I’ll give in on will be The Ministry of Utmost Happiness because of its focus on hijras (my hesitance is based on the fact that I had Roy’s first book on my shelves for over a decade without ever finishing it), and Days Without End because I believe it has an LGBTQ+ relationship (though I’m not really a fan of reading about war, so I’m waiting to see what people say and if that aspect will be too much for me).
I’d love to know if you’ve read any of these, which sound interesting to you, and if you think I should re-consider any of my responses!