2015 Man Booker Prize shortlist: What to read
The winner will be announced on October 13.
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In 2013, the Man Booker Prize announced that it was opening itself up to American writers for the first time. In 2014, two American writers were included on the shortlist: Karen Joy Fowler We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves and Joshua Ferris To Rise Again At A Decent Hour.
There were, as the Guardian put it, "top-end grumblings" from literary heavyweights like Peter Carey, Graham Swift and AS Byatt, past Booker winners all. They feared that American fiction would dominate the Booker and snatch the headlines away from deserving young writers from other English-speaking regions around the world.
Well, it’s 2015 and the second year of the American invasion has gone much like the first, with two US authors finding themselves on the Booker shortlist with a third, Marilynne Robinson, being the shock omission; her novel Lila has won the National Book Critics Circle Award already.
The first of the Americans is an old hand: Anne Tyler, the 73-year-old author of Breathing Lessons, which won the Pulitzer back in 1989. Tyler has maintained a steady output of a novel every three years or so since the ’80s. Her quirky, heart-warming family dramas are peopled with gentle eccentrics, like the good-hearted but meddlesome Maggie from Breathing Lessons, who starts narrating her life’s story to any stranger who cares to listen.
Her critics have maintained that she has written the same novel about a dozen times, but her consistently high sales and her diehard fans are an adequate riposte. She’s on the shortlist for her latest novel A Spool of Blue Thread, a typical sprawling Tyler drama about three generations of an American family, the Whitshanks. Disappointments, jealousies, fragile filial bonds and the burden of a family legacy: these are Tyler’s pet themes and she extracts the maximum out of them in her 20th novel.
The other American on this list is a relative newcomer: Hanya Yanagihara, nominated for her sophomore novel A Little Life. Yanagihara’s debut novel The People in the Trees (2013) had been praised for its supreme control of voice and its impeccable historicity: it was loosely based on the case of Daniel Gajdusek, a Nobel-winning virologist later convicted for child molestation. A Little Life appears, on the surface, to be a bildungsroman about four successful New Yorkers, but gradually expands its vision to become a harrowing exploration of abuse, recovery and the struggle to reinvent one’s self. In line with the recent resurgence of weighty tomes (Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Robert Coover’s The Brunist Day of Wrath), A Little Life runs up to 700 plus pages.
And now onto the British pavilion in the shortlist: Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is, like A Little Life, a sophomore effort, following the author’s much-acclaimed debut Ours Are The Streets (2011). Sahota’s debut novel sought to explain a would-be suicide bomber’s motives through the filter of mental illness. In other words, he succeeded where John Updike failed spectacularly (remember Terrorist, that rambling mess of a novel?). The Year of the Runaways follows three Indian immigrants (Tochi, Avtar and Randeep) as they try to build new lives in England.
The only other British author on the shortlist is Tom McCarthy, the prince of the contemporary avant-garde novel and fervent critic of "gritty realism" in fiction. McCarthy’s novel Satin Island features a protagonist called "U" who’s an "in-house ethnographer" for a business consultancy firm: fans of McCarthy’s previous novels will identify the grim humour in such a calling. U is asked to provide an "ethnographic logic" for the planned construction of a series of theme parks, a task that leads him to investigate, among other things, the effect of Skype bottlenecks on facial expressions and the makings of a parachuting accident (a nod, perhaps, to his earlier protagonist Serge Carrefax from C, whose story begins with an aeronautical accident).
Rounding off the list are Jamaican author Marlon James and Nigerian debutant Chigozie Obioma. James is nominated for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, set in the violent and politically turbulent Jamaica of the 1970s and based on a botched assassination attempt on Bob Marley. Obioma’s debut novel The Fishermen is a family drama with mythological overtones, heavy on the allegorical storytelling style one associates with a Ben Okri, for example. At the beginning of the story, four brothers steal their father’s fishing kit and go out to the river on the sly. Upon their return, a neighbour prophesies that the eldest son will be killed by one of his siblings, "a fisherman".
Full disclosure: I have read just three of these six novels and will be racing to finish the other three before the winner is announced, on October 13. I suggest you do the same.