One of my long-held goals has been to read the Booker candidates along with the judges so, when the winner is announced, I’ve an opinion regardless which book is announced as the winner. I’ve made only two serious attempts to date – in 2015 & 2016 – and had absolutely no intention of giving it another try, until I noticed Amazon had discounted their Kindle prices for a fair few of the long-listed candidates. So without any forward planning, here I am, doing my third Booker Readathon.
I considered employing a number of possible methods in an attempt to maximise the success of its outcome but, in the end, I simply read whatever title appealed in the moment (as before). Let’s hope this isn’t an ill portent.
As to my credentials for spotting a Booker winner, I must make an admission – I’ve yet to make an accurate forecast. In past years, I’ve been convinced I’d read the winner, only for another book to gain the gong. Some of those winners I’d read and judged not as good (or not liked as much if I’m being entirely honest), others I’d not read till afterwards and had to admit to their obvious winning credentials. On then to my reviews, in the order I’ve read them.
No One Is Talking About This – Patricia Lockwood
This is very much a book of two halves. The first is made up of snippets – intentionally so – as we’re getting to know a person who’s life is lived fully via social media. It takes some getting used to, but it is worth persevering for, when the change comes, it is all the more powerful for being placed against this background of shallowness. In the second, it’s a family tragedy which takes centre stage. The tragedy? That the central character’s sister is pregnant and suffering from Proteus syndrome – a rare disorder resulting in disproportionate growth. The strength of this second part is that at no point did it feel at all voyeuristic – instead it felt urgent, genuine, painful, uplifting and yet distressing all at the same time.
Its unusual style makes it a potential winning candidate.
Light Perpetual – Francis Spufford
Spufford’s tale is one of alternative history. It opens with an powerful description of the build up to a V-bomb hitting London’s east end, giving us little glimpses of five young children – all of whom are killed along with everyone else in the vicinity. But in subsequent chapters, she imagines the lives they might have led. Not a tale of cuteness, but one of real lives – some positive, some negative, some somewhere in the middle. A really enjoyable read.
As to winning potential, it rather depends what the judges are looking for this year – a good read, something more out of the ordinary, or a very literary piece of work. My personal suspicion is this won’t make it through to the shortlist.
Second Place – Rachel Cusk
I was uncertain if Jeffers was a therapist, friend, or simply an imaginary person to whom M is recounting her tale, and in the end it didn’t really matter. The only other person who is unnamed is L – the artist who M invites to visit, ostensibly because she wants him to paint her-but, of course, he decides to paint everyone but her. Despite this (or maybe because of it), she continues to seek out his company, finding their few exchanges emotional and deep, when they are actually distressing and disturbing. M is open throughout about her history of emotional self-flagellation, of almost needing criticism to exist. We never know what the oft referred to dark passage of her life consisted of, but rather like knowing who Jeffers was, it didn’t really matter in the end. An interesting examination of power, and of male and female roles.
Although I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it, the quality of the writing makes this a potential winning candidate, especially if the judges are after a literary piece of work.
Great Circle – Maggie Shipstead
At 600 pages, this felt even longer in places. A fascinating story of a pioneering female aviator who is lost on a grand round-the-world journey across both poles, weaved into a tale of the modern day actress chosen to play her. The latter aspect is useful, but a lot less interesting. Marion’s story – and those of the people in her life – is what’s truly fascinating. This is a story rich in detail, most of it set at a time when world events were life changing. Despite a wonderful and interesting supporting cast, Marion is a magnificent central character – independent and proud, driven and stubborn – and one who lives a truly full life.
I expect to see this on the shortlist, but as to its winning potential… I’m unsure.
An Island – Karen Jennings
This is a tale of lighthouse keeper Samuel, whose solitary life is disturbed when a body washes up on his beach. This is not the first body, but the problem is this body is still alive… and seeks refuge. Although unnamed, Samuel’s lighthouse is clearly on an island off an African country – one with the all too familiar tale of despots and dictators. Samuel is a decent man, but not a brave one, and he is also emotionally broken following his release from prison. On the island he finds sanctuary, and his fragile emotional equilibrium is disturbed by the man seeking refuge. With the trauma of Samuel’s past, his fear of having become elderly and vulnerable, even potentially of being near death, and without a shared language to prevent misunderstandings – the tension builds. A disturbing read, and an excellent depiction of paranoia.
I’d be surprised not to find this on the shortlist, and would say it has decidedly the right credentials to be a winner.
A Town called Solace – Mary Lawson
Ostensibly the tale of a young girl whose teenage sister runs away from home, her parents distraught with worry, no-one is paying much attention to Clara who becomes convinced she has to fulfil certain repetitive behaviours in order to ensure her sister returns safely. Before the disappearance, Clara’s elderly neighbour goes into hospital. Clara is a regular visitor next door and takes on the responsibility for caring for her cat. Her neighbour has a sad secret past which comes full circle when, after her death, a stranger pulls into her drive and unloads some boxes. This tale is about small town life, about people’s frailties, about wrong decisions made with the best of intentions, about unintended consequences.
A quietly enjoyable story, but a surprising appearance on this year’s Booker long-list and I’d not expect it to progress to the shortlist.
A Passage North – Anuk Arudpragasam
Despite being a long-time Indophile, my knowledge of Sri Lanka is shamefully lacking. In this tale, told as a stream of consciousness of the protagonist, Krishnan, I learned a great deal, especially about the Tamil fight for independence. Containing some of the longest sentences I’ve encountered since reading Peter Carey’s Booker winning True History of the Kelly Gang, it made for beautiful reading. Indeed, I found many of them interesting enough to mark (on my Kindle) for later reference.
Although I’m yet to hand out my first fifth star, I suspect this could appear on the shortlist.
China Room – Sunjeev Sahota
An unabashed Indophile, I galloped through this one. Two tales weaved together – one of Mehar, the other of her great-grandson. Although key to the book’s title, the earlier tale of Mehar was less interesting to me – three wives, three husbands, the husbands all knowing how the wives were allocated, the wives left to guess – its outcome seeming inevitable and so unsurprising. The tale of Mehar’s grandson – visiting his uncle’s family in India in order to detox – is far more interesting, but less well developed. I’ve read subsequently that there are significant parallels between the author’s family history, which may explain why he has chosen to only offer small insights – little snippets if you like – into this portion of the tale.
I loved this and while I’d hope to see it on the shortlist, I don’t have high expectations.
With a little over 2 weeks remaining till the announcement of the shortlist and 5 books still to read, I’m well on track. As I’ve not read a book which I felt deemed five stars, there’s no obvious winner for me – so far. Do join me on October 31st when I wrap up my #SecondThoughts on attempting the Booker Prize Readathon, with my reviews on the remaining candidates and who I think will be a winner in 2021.
Have you read any of the candidates? Do you think any of them is a potential winner?
© Debra Carey, 2021