It’s perhaps testimony to the golden moment that the novel in English is currently enjoying that the cull from Booker longlist to shortlist has felt so painful over the past few years. Three of my favourite books of 2019 missed the cut – Max Porter’s Lanny, Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything and John Lanchester’s The Wall – but once I’d stopped my indignant spluttering, I recognised that it was still a shortlist worth celebrating. And, perhaps, also worth putting a tenner on, given that the prize is notoriously just “posh bingo”. I got last year badly wrong (my money was on Everything Under by Daisy Johnson), but I have a half-decent record otherwise, with bets on Marlon James, Richard Flanagan and George Saunders covering at least the cost of a new dinner jacket to wear to this year’s ceremony at London’s Guildhall.
Clear favourite with the bookies is Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, at 2/1. Atwood makes a stunning return to the world of her classic The Handmaid’s Tale, which was shortlisted for the 1986 prize but lost out to Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils. You’d have to have been living in Gilead to have missed the fanfare surrounding The Testaments, a subtle, moral novel that is both a clear response to the urgency of the political moment and an attempt to reach beyond the headlines. Here we’re presented with the second generation of handmaids, with the narrative split among three women, each of whom provides a different perspective on the patriarchal totalitarianism of Gilead.
Next up, at 7/2, is Chigozie Obioma’s second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities. His debut, The Fishermen, was shortlisted for the prize in 2015. His follow-up is longer, more complex and better than that first book, and is a contemporary retelling of Homer’s Odyssey narrated by the spirit of a chicken farmer. Obioma intertwines classical mythology with Nigerian folklore, but this is above all a love story, in which the genial Chinonso sets out to win the hand of the high-born Ndali, and his voyage is every bit as epic and perilous as that of his Greek predecessor. Obioma’s expansive, tragic, multilingual novel – it steps between English, Igbo and Nigerian pidgin – is a magnificent achievement.
At 5/1 is Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. Another multi-perspective novel, this one tells the story of 12 black British women (although each of those terms are radically interrogated by the book). Their narratives are interwoven, intimate, rendered in fluid sentences of lyrical prose that often feel more like poetry. I was often reminded of great documentary historians such as Tony Parker and Studs Terkel – the lives presented here leap off the page, building into a tapestry that is at once moving and funny, deceptively simple and yet a powerful commentary on the state of our divided nation, taking in issues of race, gender identity, migration and colonialism. A novel that makes you question whether it should strictly be called a novel is by default a good thing – this is a book that pushes at the limits of the genre and leaves you feeling lucky to have spent time in the presence of a writer of such warm-hearted wisdom.
Twitter has had great fun quoting my review of Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (6/1) back to me. I said that “98% of those who pick it up will think it unspeakable guff”, a comment I stand by, notwithstanding her shortlisting. The trolls don’t quote the latter parts of my review, in which I state that “the 2% who get it will really get it” and “this is a novel that rewards perseverance, is truly unique, and feels like an absence in your life when you finish it”. Most reviewers have picked up on the fact that Ellmann is the daughter of the Joyce scholar Richard Ellmann. More pertinent, I think, is the fact that her mother, Mary, was a brilliant but now almost forgotten feminist theorist, whose Thinking About Women is an unjustly overlooked classic. Ducks, Newburyport is the 1,020-page, eight-sentence memoir of an Ohio housewife, occasionally interrupted by passages from the perspective of a mountain lion. Sounds peculiar? Yup. But I loved it, and I’ve never felt quite so haunted by a book after finishing it. Her mother would be proud.
Ian McEwan famously won the Booker for his worst novel, Amsterdam. I’m not sure that 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (also at 6/1) is Elif Shafak’s worst book, but it’s not her best, or at least while reading it I kept finding myself thinking back to previous novels – The Architect’s Apprentice and Honour in particular – which would have been far more worthy winners. This is the tale of Tequila Leila, a prostitute left for dead who, in the last 10-and-a-half minutes of her life, recalls an existence of horrifying brutality and exploitation, but also of beauty and grace. Shafak is a powerful force for good in the world and a writer of extraordinary gifts, but this one left me cold.
A few weeks ago, 1981 winner Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte was an even-odds favourite. It’s now a 12/1 outsider. We’re not saying that there have been loose lips from one of the judging panel, but it seems a precipitous fall from grace for a splendid novel. Even the bad reviews of this exuberant rewriting of Cervantes (and with Rushdie there’s always a hatchet job or two) couldn’t mask the sheer fun of it, the carnival of ideas that swirl around his 14th novel. While many have focused on the metafictive cleverness of the book (and it does occasionally feel a little pleased with its postmodern flourishes), it’s the generous capaciousness that wins the reader over. A book ostensibly about Sam DuChamp and his dreams of literary stardom turns into a book about Ismail Smile’s unlikely quest to win the heart of Salma R, but the novel is really about the art of storytelling in the information age; it’s a book about the undying necessity of books.
It’s a difficult year to call a winner, given the political backdrop and its necessary impact on the judges’ decision. It would be easy to see Atwood or Ellmann winning in the age of #MeToo, or Shafak as a snub to the boorish autocrat Erdoğan. Easy, also, to make a case for the vibrantly global voices of past (Rushdie) or present (Obioma). My money, though, is on Evaristo. Her book was the last of the shortlist I read, but it not only exceeded my expectations, it felt like a novel that did what all great novels do, dropping the reader deeply into richly imagined lives, recognising that in the intimate presentation of the particular lies the universal, and making a convincing case that the best novels push the genre in exciting new directions.
• Get all six books shortlisted for the Booker prize for £75 (saving £9.44). To order go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3716 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Source: The Guardian