Though I got myself out of the loop in the past few weeks, one literary happening did make it onto my radar: the announcement of the Man Booker 2017 shortlist! You might remember I wrote a post about the longlist and discussed which books I was interested in reading from it. In case you are new here or need to be reminded of what the shortlisted books are about, here is the full list with book descriptions.
*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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
I’ve still only managed to read one and start another (though in my defense I only picked up two others since then – one a couple of days ago – and am still waiting for two more to arrive, so it’s not totally my fault). The book I’ve read is Autumn by Ali Smith (see my full review here), which I found stylistically interesting, and enjoyed overall despite struggling a little bit with the main character and feeling that I was missing out on a lot because I lack the cultural context or intelligence to get all the subtleties.
I’m still interested to read Exit West (which I’ve read the first few pages of) and History of Wolves. Surprisingly, since writing my longlist post I’ve also become interested in trying out 4 3 2 1, which was, if you recall, the one I absolutely did not expect to want to try due to its length. Since writing the longlist post, I’ve heard more about the book and it seems to be getting positive feedback from some of the reviewers I trust. I was very interested in the premise when I first saw it, and did want to check it out until I realized it was more than 800 pages long, which put me off. But I think it’s one I would like to try and carve out the time to at least attempt – it could end up being a long but not too difficult read, in which case it could be one I enjoy.
I’m still not that interested in Lincoln In the Bardo – I’ve heard good things about this one as well, but the premise doesn’t really appeal to me and it seems like one for fans of George Saunders or who enjoy historical fiction more than I typically do. I am still on the fence about Elmet – its setting appeals to me, as do some of the underlying themes (Yorkshire in the north of England and themes of economic inequality and land ownership), but I’m not sold on it. So we’ll see if it ends up on my TBR later in the year.
I’m still planning to read a few other books from the shortlist – Swing Time by Zadie Smith, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and perhaps Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor. Interestingly one of the books I was most excited to try, Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, has fallen down my TBR several notches, because while I am still interested in the LGBTQ+ themes, I’ve heard some reviews that say the book is more about war than the characters’ personal lives, and that the battle sections are hard going if you aren’t a fan of that kind of thing. I’ve also heard that one of the characters is written with a southern dialect that can be a bit annoying to read, and that does not match with some of his poetic musings on the landscape. I will probably still give it a try, but I’m expecting it to be hard going and probably not one I make it all the way through.
Having not read the vast majority of these before the shortlist was announced, I didn’t really have any idea which would make it. I’m surprised to see Elmet and History of Wolves there, and equally surprised not to see Days Without End and The Underground Railroad – I was also somewhat expecting to see The Ministry of Utmost Happiness just based on the huge amount of praise it seemed to be receiving.
What about you guys? Were you surprised by any of the shortlist picks? Have you read any of these, and if so, do you agree with the picks? Did your favourite make the list? Which are you planning to read (from the shortlist or longlist)?