From it’s conception in 1969, the Prize was awarded to books written in English and published in the United Kingdom & Ireland. But… only writers who were citizens of the British Commonwealth, Ireland, South Africa (and Zimbabwe was later added) were eligible to receive the Prize. This last fact was what drew me to the Booker, having been born and brought up in India and West Africa. Sadly, the original flavour of a Booker list changed in 2014 when they widened eligibility to any novel written in England, thereby including those written by US citizens (and others).
The aim of my Readathon has been to read all the longlisted books, completing them by the time the eventual winner is announced. In previous years, if I’d not read a book at the time the shortlist was announced and it wasn’t included, it didn’t get read. Last year, I managed to get to the shortlist’s announcement with only two being unread. As one was by an author I knew I would read regardless (and went on to become my personal winner), there was only one more book to read, which made it easy to achieve the clear sweep. Fortunately, it was a good read too 😉
I wasn’t sure until the last minute whether I was going to give it another go this year, as there’s a number of aspects involved in making the final decision:
- how much else is going on in my life?
- how much time can I find for reading?
- how many of the books are available at the time the longlist is announced?
- how many lengthy tomes are on the list?
- how reasonably priced are they on Amazon (I’m a Kindle reader)?
- The answer is lots… and yet, here I am, drawn inexorably to Bookers 😉
- I’m squeezing it in – in bits & pieces, here & there – and am surprising myself at my progress.
- All the books were available for download at the time of writing (early August).
- None over 500 pages long, one only 133 pages, another even shorter at 73 pages 🙂
- All have been generously discounted 😀
On then to my reviews…
Oh William – Elizabeth Strout
I’m one of the few people who preferred Lucy Barton to Olive Kitteridge, so this was getting read regardless of it’s appearance on the list. Lucy’s voice is strong throughout this tale of her post-divorce relationship with her first husband. Despite Lucy grieving the death of her second husband, everyone – including her – seem to feel a need to take care and/or and feel pity for William when he uncovers an old family secret and loses his second wife at the same time. Beautifully written and a sharply observed depiction of relationship dynamics.
My view: unlikely to be the winner, nor even make it to the shortlist, although – as ever – that’s dependant on the strength of the other candidates. But I liked it!
Trust – Hernan Diaz
An interesting read. The second section nearly lost me and, were it not on the longlist, I’d possibly have stopped reading. That said, I’m glad I ploughed on, as subsequent sections made completing the book entirely worthwhile. In essence, the tale of a successful & wealthy man who hires someone to write his memoirs in order to correct a salacious tale which everyone knows is based on him and his wife. He fusses about the incorrect depiction of his wife’s death – said to be following treatment for a mental illness, when it was in fact cancer. Except it turns out he’s hiding something else entirely.
My view: it’s clever, and the format could well appeal to the judges. It’s not getting five stars from me as that second section was unnecessarily turgid, and took from the overall book. Nevertheless, it has shortlist written all over it.
The Trees – Percival Everett
This was shaping up to be my first 5 star read, until it got all wish-fulfilment about an uprising in the Donald Trump era. A fascinating story of murder in a small town Mississippi, where an unpleasant racist is found brutally murdered with a body of a dead black man alongside him – a black man who bears a striking resemblance to Emmett Till. When the black man’s body disappears and then re-appears at the site of a second racist’s murder, the case is pushed on up the chain of command. A couple of special agents are despatched to investigate – and they, plus the FBI agent who’s later sent to investigate the rash of copy-cat murders which then follow – are all black. Oh & did I mention the humour… yes, despite the subject.
My view: This is a fascinating idea and the judges may not care as much I did about the closing chapters – I hope so. I’d be surprised not to see it on the shortlist.
Case Study – Graeme Macrae Burnet
Burnet has written a similar is-it-real-or-is-it-fiction book to his previous Booker contender. Collins Braithwaite – a trendy therapist with a highly inflated sense of self and a long-running feud with the well-known psychiatrist R D Laing, is at the centre of the tale of Veronica, who believes her sister (although not much loved by her) committed suicide after a number of sessions with the great man. Burnet weaves Veronica’s ‘found notebooks’ with his own notes on the great man’s back story – childhood, Oxford university, London, and final return to his childhood home in Darlington.
My view: As with Burnet’s previous work, this was intriguing and gripping in many ways and yet… for me, remained unsatisfactory. Will it make it onto the next stage? I’m unconvinced – much depends on the quality of the remaining candidates.
Booth – Karen Joy Fowler
I’ll be honest, I really didn’t like Fowler’s previously shortlisted work We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, so I approached this with trepidation. Without cause I have to admit, as I very much enjoyed this tale about the family of Abraham Lincoln’s killer. The family’s story is told via rotating POVs – John has 5 siblings who reach adulthood (and several who do not). His father is a famed Shakespearean actor, who deserted his first wife and son to run away to America with the beauty who became mother to John and the rest of the Booth clan. The family is filled with characters, quoting Shakespeare to one another in everyday speech. John is the family favourite and the only one who involves himself in politics, becoming an avid supporter of the South, despite not joining the fighting forces. He drops the name Booth in an attempt to be his own man in a career on the stage, his elder brother having followed his father there successfully – unfortunately those selling the tickets preferred to include it, which is how he came to be known as John Wilkes Booth – with his fame outstripping them all.
My view: I’m conflicted. This is a really good read, but I’m uncertain of its prize winning potential. It’s certainly a great story and a most entertaining piece of historical writing to boot. I’d like to think it would – at the very least – make the shortlist.
After Sappho – Selby Wynn Schwartz
How to describe this? Snippets of tales, some from well-known women such as Virginia Wolfe, Vita Sackville-West, Isadora Duncan and Sarah Bernhardt – others from people I’d never previously encountered such as Lina Poletti and Natalie Barney. The tales they tell are that of woman’s struggle to be more than a possession passed from father to husband, the struggle for freedom to think and express their thoughts and desires as men do, the fight for the right to their independence in law. At first confusing and fragmented, bit by bit this builds into something powerful and disturbing, reminding us just how much there is to be lost in the current backlash against women’s rights.
My view: I struggled with this at first, wondering when the coherent narrative would appear. That never happened, but it mattered not – for I came to appreciate the value of its form. A shortlist shoe-in, with strong winning potential – in my opinion.
Do join me on October 2nd, 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 2022.
Have you read any of the candidates? Do you think any of them is a potential winner?
© Debra Carey, 2022