The Michigan Daily on The Booker Prize
Landing its 50th award ceremony next week, The Booker Prize has proven its intention to stick around in the literary sphere. It’s a prize that writers and readers alike slobber over, and it’s difficult not to. The contestant list showcases names that are both golden (Atwood, say, or Rushdie) and brand new (Ellman) that give readers a vetted reading list, one certain to take a few months to conquer. The winner of the prize takes home £50,000 and historically has seen their novel sky-rocket in sales.
This year’s field plays things somewhat safe. Controversy bubbled when Margaret Atwood’s sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale” was locked into the shortlist before it was even released. Previous winner and household name Salman Rushdie has made this finalist position, also. At the same time, though, the year’s shortlist includes three people of color and four women — perhaps its most diverse arena yet. One novel, over 1,000 pages in length, strings along as almost a single sentence. Another tackles sex work in West Asia. Though perhaps prone to mistakes familiar to literary prizes, The Booker has proven its competence and ability to ride along in the evolving environment of literature.
Last year, The Daily Book Review took on the shortlist. We were especially struck by the winner, Anna Burn’s “Milkman,” and Sally Rooney’s “Normal People.” We were less thrilled by otherchallengers. This year, we’ve broadened our scope to both the long and short lists — 10 of the 13 novels in total — in an attempt to evaluate the contenders. We’ve selected two winners: one we see as most likely to win, and one that we (given a perfect world, or perhaps a different prize) wish would win.
Full reviews for each of the books can be found on The Michigan Daily website.
PREDICTED WINNER: Salman Rushdie, ‘Quichotte’
Making the 2019 shortlist, “Quichotte” protracts the practice of bold and expansive writing that won Salman Rushdie The Booker Prize in 1981. Only this time he widens the lens of his story even further: Rushdie packs more than five stories (quite suitably) side-by-side. While the modern variation of “Don Quixote” and tales of reality television celebrities can sometimes feel jarring and a bit too unrealistic, they never lose their effusive, compelling charm. Rushdie tackles politics through an indirect frame that still feels familiar — absurd scenarios that still manifest in a recognizable world — while maintaining tales of love and action drowning in enthusiasm.
“Quichotte” is an easy pick for The Booker Prize. Its place on the shortlist is certainly well earned. Rushdie’s calculated psychosis is chaotic enough to check the experimental category, while Mr. Rushdie’s namesake and levelheaded themes ground the work enough to poise it for customary literary praise.
— John Decker, Daily Book Review Editor
Read our full review for “Quichotte” here.
OUR WINNER: Lucy Ellmann, ‘Ducks, Newburyport’
Sometime in September it seemed like everyone was suddenly aware of Lucy Ellmann. Her seventh novel, the nearly thousand-page “Ducks, Newburyport,” immediately put her on the radar of both mainstream magazine writers and my bookish friends, who were immediately curious about the enormous orange book I was reading.
Its eyebrow-raising formal experimentation and burning focus on a middle-aged woman’s internal monologue was enough to get several bemused, vaguely admiring articles published about it in advance of its release. Is it really that long? Is it really just one sentence? It has the feeling of importance surrounding it in a way that could feel a bit contrived — it’s a novel whose form seems to be well-suited for “this is everything” headlines.
The thing is, the book holds up, and a read of it makes one aware of how insufficient its press was. Ellmann nails the idiosyncratic speech cadences of a middle-aged midwesterner, and has a joyous, sensual attention to images and sound that makes the book’s infinite stream tumble and crackle like a cascading river. It’s a reading experience that is like no other — jarring and immersive all at once. If it seems sometimes like the novel as a form has stalled out or retrenched, expending itself in 150-page books with dreamy forms and no quotation marks, Ellmann makes the case for a wholly different approach to the novel, one as free-associative and playful as it is incisive, political and demanding. Although perhaps too left of center and experimental for The Booker committee’s pick, “Ducks” is the choice we see as — given no restrictions — the fitting winner of the 2019 prize.
— Emily Yang, Daily Arts Writer
Read our full review for “Ducks, Newburyport” here.
Margaret Atwood, ‘The Testaments’
“The Testaments” has a solid chance at winning this year’s Booker Prize. Atwood is a seasoned Booker nominee, winning the award nearly 20 years ago for her wonderful novel “The Blind Assassin,” and her name is easily the most recognizable and widely beloved out of all the contenders.
Should it win, though? In my eyes, no. “The Testaments,” though creatively imagined and compassionately narrated, is mediocre in nearly every other respect. Its characters are dull, its prose is unremarkable and occasionally embarrassing to read and, perhaps most notably, it is simply unnecessary. Everything it tries to say about the current political climate, the status of modern women and the unspeakable horrors of the world it constructs is more effectively and more movingly expressed in its predecessor “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is a fascinating novel because of how confined it is, because its scope allows for the existence of a fully developed, fully human narrator. “The Testaments” suffers by straying from this format, developing three voices that ultimately aren’t nearly as compelling because they aren’t given enough room to evolve. The massive scope of the novel prevents any of the elements it contains and all of the complexities that come with them from being explored in the way they deserve to be explored: with care and thoroughness. “The Testaments” lays the groundwork for three potentially Booker-worthy novels, but it itself is not one of them.
— Elise Godfryd, Daily Arts Writer
Read our full review for “The Testaments” here.
Chigozie Obioma, ‘An Orchestra of Minorities’
“An Orchestra of Minorities” is an excellent addition to the 2019 Booker Prize shortlist. The love story set in West Africa and Cyprus remixes “The Odyssey” and “Romeo and Juliet” with Nigerian Igbo cosmology and modern depictions of race and class. It’s worth the read if only for Obioma’s meticulously crafted echoes: Mundane physical descriptions ring with overarching metaphor and the satirical narration style rhymes with other critiques of the West.
Obioma’s prose is always engaging, if sometimes over the top: Readers will complete “An Orchestra” with enough descriptions of the characters’ body parts that the symbolism begins to crumble. But, the brilliant commentary on the shortcomings of empathy and love make “An Orchestra” a great read.
Whether it has the experimental chops to fit in with past Booker Prize winners is another matter. Even if the innovative point of view doesn’t push Obioma’s book far enough, the book’s Kubrick-like attention to detail at every level makes it a must-read for 2019.
— Lukas Taylor, Daily Arts Writer
Read our full review for “An Orchestra of Minorities” here.
Elif Shafak, ‘10 Minutes and 37 Seconds in this Strange World’
Shafak’s “10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World” opens with the death of Tequila Lelia. With each minute, we follow the trajectory of her life. We watch as Leila develops from a naive adolescent into a more cautious and disillusioned adult, carefully chronicling the exact events that eventually lead to her lifestyle as an Istanbul sex worker.
“Ten Minutes” goes beyond the typical coming-of-age novel. Readers are forced to ruminate deeply about the horrors that Lelia faced. It’s true that some things may have progressed since the mid-20th century, but there’s still a pervasive air of exploitation that’s evident today. It’s a call to action against the oppressive patriarchy. While Shafak is a master at flowery prose, the style somewhat distracts from the harsh life that Lelia endured. For its particular attention to the history, culture, beautiful imagery and challenging narrative, “10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World” certainly deserves to be on The Booker shortlist. Nonetheless, its execution in the portrayals of Lelia’s life could’ve been handled better. Instead of feeling Lelia’s plight, it’s easy to dwell on the romanticized aspects of the book.
— Sarah Salman, Daily Arts Writer
Read our full review for “10 Minutes and 37 Seconds” here.
John Lanchester, ‘The Wall’
What previous shortlister John Lanchester writes in “The Wall” is an effective standard-tier novel and a less effective evaluation of climate change. The post-environmental catastrophe book envisions a future United Kingdom in which an entire world of climate refugees are blocked from entering the country by way of a 10,000 kilometer-long wall. Kavanagh, the story’s central guard, lathers readers with a colloquial but refreshing command of language that depicts the wall, the society it protects and those it protects society from. When things go south, Kavanagh and his love interest are forced off the island and into the rising seas.
“The Wall” is enticing, but by the final pages leaves only the impression of a standard young adult page-turner — exciting, but without much more substance to comprehend. Perhaps most disappointing is the potential for climate commentary Lanchester envisions but never completes in more than a general sense. In the same tier of “My Sister, the Serial Killer,” the work is stirring and well-written, but not breathtaking. Despite its imperfections, “The Wall” is perhaps the fastest read on the longlist and increasingly relevant.
— John Decker, Daily Book Review Editor
Read our full review for “The Wall” here.
Oyinkan Braithwaite, ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer’
The second longlisted book to be set in Nigeria, “My Sister” holds its ground as an enticing thriller. The story circles Korede, a nurse who spends her time quite naturally: attending to family matters, falling hopelessly for a doctor at the hospital she works at and cleaning up after her sister, Ayoola, when she kills men. Things disintegrate expectedly when Ayoola begins dating the doctor Korede is interested in, and her habit of slaying men threatens everything Korede knows intimately.
Braithwaite’s debut is seeped in flashback scenes and jolting moments of dread that make it obvious why the novel has sold quite well. But its flat prose and inability to handle consistent themes hinder its ability to compete with more traditional novels. This, in part, is certainly due to the restrictions the thriller medium imposes on Briathwaite’s writing. There are merits to “My Sister” in its own right. The novel raises important questions and retains readers’ attention. But there is little surprise that it didn’t reach high enough to hurdle to the shortlist, or for that matter, win the final prize.
— John Decker, Daily Book Review Editor
Read our full review for “My Sister, the Serial Killer” here.
Kevin Barry, ‘Night Boat to Tangier’
“Night Boat to Tangier” by Kevin Barry is undeniably worthy of a recommendation to any fan of fiction. That said, The Booker Prize is designated for books that approach perfection, so a fairly enjoyable book unfortunately does not get past the longlist.
Still, the longlist is a suitable home to Barry’s new novel. Barry deserves immense praise for his surreal ability to take on the voice of career criminals. The manner in which he evokes empathy from the despicable owners of these voices is equally commendable. The novel depicts an aggressive drug smuggler, well past his prime, as he waits for his long estranged daughter in a decrepit port as she may or may not be on a boat arriving from Tangier. The scenes in the port are nearly flawless, and the rapid-fire conversations between Maurice and his longtime partner in crime, Charlie, carry an authenticity and tempo that cannot be paralleled. However, the flashbacks, which make up the majority of the novel, do not even come close to this caliber. At times they function more as commercial breaks, with the reader dying to get back to the port.
— Andrew Pluta, Daily Arts Writer
Read our full review for “Night Boat to Tangier” here.
Deborah Levy, ‘The Man Who Saw Everything’
“The Man Who Saw Everything” isn’t up for the big prize in this year’s Booker awards. It still received adequate recognition from the judging panel with its longlisting, though, so if it wanted to boast “Booker-nominated” on its cover, it could. This label carries weight and garners attention in the literary world — neither of which “The Man Who Saw Everything” has earned. And that, in and of itself, is a problem.
Levy’s book is an exercise in how long an author can withhold crucial information and clarity from the reader without sending them packing. Readers would be advised to hit the road before turning a single page. Levy’s indecision and, frankly, laziness lower the bar in terms of what readers may expect from writers, and squanders the trust more vigilant authors prioritize and strive for.
Yet this is Deborah Levy’s third Booker nomination. She made the shortlist in both 2012 and 2016, for “Swimming Home” and “Hot Milk,” respectively. I can’t speak to the quality of Levy’s other books, but I can postulate that her record is what put this lackluster work on the selection committee’s radar this year. I shake my head at establishment politics taking root in institutions meant to honor literature, despite its beautiful capacity for bucking establishments.
I’ll overlook the “Booker-nominee” sticker I’ll see on copies of Levy’s book, with the hope that more deserving books will take the place of establishment writers in future years.
— Julianna Morano, Daily Arts Writer
Read our full review for “The Man Who Saw Everything” here.
Max Porter, ‘Lanny’
When I got through the first 50 pages of “Lanny,” I cancelled my plans for the night. It’s the sort of book that possesses you — actually, it’s the sort of book you enjoy submitting yourself to being possessed by. I read it on the Saturday night of Welcome Week over a couple beers on my porch, pausing every so often to talk to the toga people milling about the street.
The lazy fragmentation of this reading experience, in retrospect, paired well with the book’s whimsical boundary-pushing. “Lanny” describes a stressful, familiar plot — the disappearance of a child — by moving playfully between subjectivity and omniscience, fact and fable, poetry and theater. And its words physically twirl out of line and into the margins, as if the text itself is intoxicated by its freedom from format.
“Lanny” has a lot of projects going on here, which probably would have bothered me if I hadn’t read the whole thing in one go. But when steeped completely in the space between its overlapping experiments, this book does something amazing to the fine lines between truth and fiction. I believe I have been permanently muddled by Max Porter. It’s amazing.
But Max Porter’s “Lanny” has no chance of taking The Booker Prize this year. It’s not anything to do with quality — in fact, “Lanny” is the most wonderfully afflicting new fiction I’ve read this year. It’s because “Lanny” didn’t make the shortlist, and I think that is because the foundation has hit their ceiling for weird. The Booker foundation has steadfastly selected long, lush prose novels year after year, and this year’s shortlist seems to be largely reaped from the pool of preexisting Booker honeys. In contrast, longlisted subversives and newbies, like Nick Drnaso’s 2018 graphic novel “Sabrina,” look like token nods of respect rather than serious considerations.
— Verity Sturm, Managing Arts Editor
Read our full review for “Lanny” here.