As I’d completed all but two of the longlist, I decided to jot down my own shortlist on the morning before the formal shortlist was announced.
I believed No One is Talking About This and The Promise were two shoe-ins, alongside the yet to be widely available offering from Richard Powers (Bewilderment) which I’d yet to read. I suspected the remaining three would come from Second Place, An Island, A Passage North and Great Circle. While being right on the last two, I completely missed The Fortune Men in my reckoning, and now wonder if it will go on to be another of those winners I’ve managed to underestimate. Before I talk further about it, back to my review in order of reading…
The Promise – Damon Galgut
Galgut is never an easy read. Even though his writing is beautiful, it is always sharply knowing, and the subject matter can be decidedly uncomfortable. The opening pages of this book will ever sit with me, and they perfectly set the scene for what was to come. The Swarts are a white South African family – the father Afrikaans, the mother Jewish – with their three children. The father makes a promise to his dying wife – but does so lightly and without any intention of keeping it – except his youngest daughter is witness to it and is determined to make it happen. But it takes decades and the death of every family member before she is able to fulfil that promise – her dying mother’s wish. Each family member is well-drawn – their weakness depicted in sparse but sharply witty detail, even the youngest and most moral of them. The tale is also placed against major events in South Africa, and reinforces that there is simply no getting away from the unresolved complexities of the country.
The prize-winning potential in this one is evident – the first of the shortlist to receive the full 5/5 from me.
The Fortune Men – Nadifa Mohamed
I didn’t realise this was based on a true story until I read the Epilogue. Mahmood (Moody) Mattan was only 24 years of age when he was falsely convicted of the murder of a Jewish lady in Tiger Bay, and at a time when the sentence was still death by hanging. Those bare facts are weaved into the beautifully imagined tale of a youngest son in British Somaliland (now Somalia), leaving home to make his own way. He goes to sea, works hard and travels the world, until he ends up in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay. There he meets her – the woman who will go on to fight to provide his innocence. Mattan is dapper and charming, but a gambler. A small time crook to make ends meet, he won’t go back to sea because he’d be unable to see his boys and his estranged wife. But he’s made enemies along the way – one of whom is a police detective. Powell decides that Mattan fits the bill for the murder and goes about making sure that the jury see it too. Believing in the British justice system, Mattan is shocked when the jury are less inclined to believe him than the contradictory stories of the witnesses Powell has rounded up, even despite the only two genuine witnesses – the sister and niece of the murdered woman – insisting he isn’t the man they saw. Underlying this tragic story is the parallel tales of outsiders – the Somali community and the Jewish community in Tiger Bay – one distrusted, hated even, the other accepted and – to an extent – assimilated.
As I failed to see it’s appeal to the judges in moving from long to shortlist, I’m not the best person to judge on its winning potential, but – for me – Galgut still has it.
Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro
This has that same feel as Never Let Me Go – that of a dystopian future in which much seems the same as now. But something about Klara, the Artificial Friend, got to me more than I expected, and I found myself feeling genuine sadness at the end. In truth, it was easy to relate more to the AF than the other characters in the book, as they were not ones to warm too – with perhaps the sole exception of Rick. Where now we have wealthy parents in the US paying to ensure their privileged children gain entry into the college of their choice, in Klara’s world, those same parents are paying to get their children ‘uplifted’ – despite there being a danger that those children may become sick and even die as a result. Those uplifted children do not attend a normal school, but instead receive 1-2-1 tuition virtually, meaning they require “socialising” events to learn how to behave and mix with their peers before they go to college. This somewhat solitary life creates a gap in the market which is filled by Artificial Friends, who will be their companions during this potentially lonely time. But once they go to college, the AFs are of no use…
The Sweetness of Water – Nathan Harris
Set in Georgia after the South was defeated in the Civil War, this is a tale of George and Isabelle – a couple of independent, strong-willed, social misfits, who part love/part tolerate one other in marriage. Believing their son dead in the war, George invites brothers – slaves freed from their neighbour’s estate – to live and work their land, for fair pay. When their son unexpectedly does come home, he returns to a fateful friendship with the indulged son of the area’s most rich and powerful family. When the underlying social and sexual tensions finally explode into first a brutal murder, then a wrongful arrest, George and Isabelle’s son and the surviving brother go on the run. While George is away helping them, that powerful family incites some of the townsfolk to burn down his crops, and George is also fatally wounded by an old style slave tracker turned sheriff. But Isabelle decides to continue the work George started, offering freed men a chance of a better life on their land, aided and abetted by her fellow widow and good friend, Mildred.
Despite being a most assured debut and a good read, this didn’t feel Booker-ish to me, so I’d have been surprised to find it on the shortlist.
Bewilderment – Richard Powers
This is another Powers tales of humanity and its wrongs, wrapped up in the personal tale of Theo and his son Robin. Struggling to cope with parenting a special child following the death of his wife, Theo is determined not to drug his child in order to make him a more compliant student. Robin is a smart, loving and kind child, but with a deep rage within him. His mother campaigned passionately for the natural world and while it is something which Theo also cares about, Robin’s passion for the subject is making life very difficult for them both. A newly pioneered treatment allows Robin to share his dead mother’s feelings (obtained via fMRI before her death). This helps to calm him, allowing him to attend school and cope with difficult social events. But his passion for the natural world builds into obsession and he attracts attention while campaigning, leading to his participation in the new treatment becoming a virtual phenomenon. The politicians decide to withdraw funding from the treatment project as they don’t like Robin’s campaign, and he descends once more into a world of overwrought emotion.
If I’ve not just read the Booker winner for 2021, I’d be very surprised – especially as this is a more accessible read than Powers’ previous offering Overstory, and the judges are on record as seeking more accessible reads this year. We’ll find out on Wednesday evening….
© Debra Carey, 2021