Category Archives: Man Booker Prize

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

4 3 2 1

I love novels that look at what might have happened had this happened instead of that, or if a different decision had been made, and so I was instantly intrigued when Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 appeared on the long list for this year’s Man Booker Prize.

On March 3, 1947, in the maternity ward of Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the one and only child of Rose and Stanley Ferguson, is born. From that single beginning, Ferguson’s life will take four simultaneous and independent fictional paths. Four Fergusons made of the same genetic material, four boys who are the same boy, will go on to lead four parallel and entirely different lives. Family fortunes diverge. Loves and friendships and intellectual passions contrast. Chapter by chapter, the rotating narratives evolve into an elaborate dance of inner worlds enfolded within the outer forces of history as, one by one, the intimate plot of each Ferguson’s story rushes on across the tumultuous and fractured terrain of mid twentieth-century America. A boy grows up-again and again and again.

As inventive and dexterously constructed as anything Paul Auster has ever written 4 3 2 1 is an unforgettable tour de force, the crowning work of this masterful writer’s extraordinary career.

Structurally, 4 3 2 1 is surprisingly (deceptively) straightforward.  The first chapter (1.0) gives you the background on Ferguson’s family, focusing mainly on his grandparents and parents, how they met, when they married, etc.  From there, chapters 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, and 1.4 cover the four different versions of Ferguson’s childhood, before moving on in 2.1, 2.2, etc.  It’s worth knowing that the x.1 chapters always feature the same version of Ferguson, and this should have made it easier to keep track of which one was which, I still had to remind myself what had happened to each in the previous chapter.  To add to the confusion, some characters appear in multiple versions of Ferguson’s life, and in varying capacities – his girlfriend in one version might be his cousin in another, for example, and because of the similarities, it is easy to get the tales mixed up.

The first chapters in the novel (the 1.x chapters) are quite similar, and cover his life as a small child.  Those chapters all end quite differently, however, and set the tone for what comes next in his life as these four paths begin to diverge, and by the end of the novel, the four Fergusons find themselves in quite different places and / or circumstances.  I would struggle to pick out a preferred narrative of the four however – I found them all to be entertaining and engaging in their own way.  Some are happier than others, but each Ferguson goes through his own highs and lows at different times.

Going into this novel, I was expecting it to cover a longer span of Ferguson’s life.  Having finished it, I understand why it doesn’t, but I was a little surprised that it spent so much time on his late teens, and ends with Ferguson in his twenties.  A lot happens to Ferguson (all the Fergusons) in that time, and it uses the momentous (and often calamitous) events as a backdrop to his story – those moments that you’ll always remember where you were when IT happened.

The danger with this kind of novel is that it becomes repetitive, and I did feel that I was covering familiar ground at times.  There is a nice little twist at the end, however, which I didn’t see coming, and overall, I really enjoyed this novel.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

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And this year’s Man Booker Prize Winner is…

…George Saunders!

lincoln in the bardo

Congratulations! I thoroughly enjoyed Lincoln in the Bardo, and I’m thrilled that it won this year’s Booker.  You can see my review here.

Synopsis:

The extraordinary first novel by the bestselling, Folio Prize-winning, National Book Award-shortlisted George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven-year-old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War

The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.

From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling, supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself trapped in a transitional realm – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – and as ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Unfolding over a single night, Lincoln in the Bardo is written with George Saunders’ inimitable humour, pathos and grace. Here he invents an exhilarating new form, and is confirmed as one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Deploying a theatrical, kaleidoscopic panoply of voices – living and dead, historical and fictional – Lincoln in the Bardo poses a timeless question: how do we live and love when we know that everything we hold dear must end?

2017 Man Booker Prize – Winner Prediction

The winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize will be announced on Tuesday, and whilst I’ve attempted to read this year’s shortlist, I’m only four and a half books into the six, largely due to 4 3 2 1 taking a week longer to read than I’d expected.  Despite this, I’m still going to make a prediction of the winner of this year’s prize.

Here’s a reminder of the shortlist, and my thoughts on each.


4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

4 3 2 1

4 3 2 1 is a bit of a monster, and whilst I have now finished reading it, I haven’t had chance to review it yet.  Despite its size and the fact that it took me a long time to read, I did enjoy this novel in which the reader is introduced to Archibald Isaac Ferguson (Archie) not once but four times, as we see four different versions of how this character’s life might have turned out.  It’s big and complex, and keeping the different stories separate wasn’t always easy, as some characters appear multiple times – his girlfriend in one version of his life is his cousin in another, for example, and given the length, it was easy to confuse the different versions, but this is a rewarding read with a nice little twist at the end.


History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

history of wolves

The first novel from this year’s shortlist that I read (you can see my full review here), and a novel that I really enjoyed.  Fridlund’s debut novel is something of a bildungsroman featuring 14-year-old Linda, who lives with her parents in near-isolation, making the whole family outsiders in the community.  It touches on various themes, particularly that of loneliness, and looks at the effect of a tragedy on Linda, who doesn’t fully understand what’s happening at the time.  This is an incredibly strong debut novel, and whilst I don’t think that History of Wolves will win this year’s prize, I think that it marks Fridlund as one to watch.


Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

exit west

I absolutely loved the blurb of Exit West when the longlist was announced in July, and I picked up a copy straightaway.  Perhaps because of my expectations, I didn’t enjoy as much as I hoped.  Set in an unnamed country, Nadia and Saeed are two young people who meet and begin to fall in love as their country collapses around them in civil war.  As the situation becomes increasingly difficult, they look to escape through one of the doors that appears – doors that will take them to another country.  Incredibly topical, I felt that this novel dealt with the issues facing refugees and that countries that they enter a little too simplistic, but that’s is just my opinion.  Mohsin adopts a sparse narrative style throughout, however, and so this may have been deliberate.  My full review can be found here.


Elmet by Fiona Mosley

elmet

Elmet is another debut novel, and is the one that I haven’t read or started reading yet.  It’s hard to judge it without having read the novel, but I think that there are two main contenders for this year’s prize, and purely on that basis, I don’t see this winning this year’s Booker. Here’s the synopsis:

Fresh and distinctive writing from an exciting new voice in fiction, Elmet is an unforgettable novel about family, as well as a beautiful meditation on landscape.

Daniel is heading north. He is looking for someone. The simplicity of his early life with Daddy and Cathy has turned sour and fearful. They lived apart in the house that Daddy built for them with his bare hands. They foraged and hunted. When they were younger, Daniel and Cathy had gone to school. But they were not like the other children then, and they were even less like them now. Sometimes Daddy disappeared, and would return with a rage in his eyes. But when he was at home he was at peace. He told them that the little copse in Elmet was theirs alone. But that wasn’t true. Local men, greedy and watchful, began to circle like vultures. All the while, the terrible violence in Daddy grew.

Atmospheric and unsettling, Elmet is a lyrical commentary on contemporary society and one family’s precarious place in it, as well as an exploration of how deep the bond between father and child can go.


Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

lincoln in the bardo

As the American Civil War begins, Abraham Lincoln’s household is hit by tragedy – the death of his eleven-year-old son, Willie.  Told over the course of a single night, the reader is introduced to a cast of bizarre characters in the “Bardo” – a Tibetan purgatory, where those unwilling or unable to accept their death languish.

With a unique structure, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel which was a little confusing at first, but soon picks up the pace once you get used to the narration, and I think that this is a strong contender for the prize.  My full review can be found here.


Autumn by Ali Smith

autumn

At the time of writing, I’m around halfway through this novel.  I haven’t read much by Ali Smith – I attempted How to be Both, but didn’t get into it, and I abandoned it without finishing it.  I’m enjoying Autumn more, but I’m still not sure that the style – which is wholly unique – is quite to my taste.  Having been nominated for the award four times (watch out Beryl Bainbridge, there may be a contender for the title of Booker Bridesmaid), I do think that this is the other main contender this year.  Here’s the synopsis:

Fusing Keatsian mists and mellow fruitfulness with the vitality, the immediacy and the colour-hit of Pop Art (via a bit of very contemporary skulduggery and skull-diggery), Autumn is a witty excavation of the present by the past. The novel is a stripped-branches take on popular culture and a meditation, in a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, what harvest means.

Autumn is the first instalment in Ali Smith’s novel quartet Seasonal: four standalone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons are), exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative.

From the imagination of the peerless Ali Smith comes a shape-shifting series, wide-ranging in timescale and light-footed through histories, and a story about ageing and time and love and stories themselves.


booker logo 2017

So, in my opinion this year’s Booker is a toss-up between George Saunders and Ali Smith.  Saunders appears to be the bookie’s favourite, and, much like the Grand National, the favourite never wins.  For that reason alone, I’m going to say that Ali Smith will win this year, as I’ve no other way of picking one over the other.

What do you think?  Have you read any of the shortlisted titles?  Who do you think will win?

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

exit west

My third book from this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist was Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.  This was a title that I hadn’t heard of until its Booker longlisting, and one that I was instantly intrigued by.

Nadia and Saeed are two ordinary young people, attempting to do an extraordinary thing – to fall in love – in a world turned upside down. Theirs will be a love story but also a story about how we live now and how we might live tomorrow, of a world in crisis and two human beings travelling through it.

Civil war has come to the city which Nadia and Saeed call home. Before long they will need to leave their motherland behind – when the streets are no longer useable and the unknown is safer than the known. They will join the great outpouring of people fleeing a collapsing city, hoping against hope, looking for their place in the world…

Exit West opens in an unnamed country on the brink of civil war.  Things seem relatively normal at first, with our two protagonists meeting for coffee, an evening meal, and going through the initial steps of establishing a new relationship.  Things do soon take a downward turn as the war begins in earnest, however, and particularly when the internet and their mobile phones are cut off, making communication increasingly difficult, and causing a great deal of concern over the safety of each other, their families etc..

Nadia and Saeed are initially unable to leave their homeland, until they begin the hear rumours of doors appearing – doors that will take them to other countries and away from their war-torn homes.  Through this element of magical realism, Hamid portrays the issues facing migrants as well as those who, willingly or otherwise, take them in.  Whilst this is extremely relevant to today’s world, I personally felt that the treatment of the refugees and the feelings of those who live in the places that they’ve migrated to was a little over-simplified.  This is very much the style of Exit West, however, which adopts a sparse narrative style throughout.

Whilst the story focuses upon Nadia and Saeed for the most part, there were also little vignettes depicting unnamed characters completely unrelated to the main storyline.  I wasn’t convinced that these sections (there aren’t many, and they are brief) added much to the novel, other than perhaps showing that life, elsewhere, was continuing, and I found them to be a little distracting.

I loved the sound of this novel, but unfortunately found it to be not quite to my taste.  I like the premise, but I felt that this was an exercise in style over substance.  That said, the Booker does like novels that experiment with structure and style, and so this may go on to win the prize, although I’m not convinced that it should.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

lincoln in the bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo is the second novel I’ve read from this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist, and one that I was intrigued by when it was first published earlier this year.

The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.

From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling, supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself trapped in a transitional realm – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – and as ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Unfolding over a single night, Lincoln in the Bardo is written with George Saunders’ inimitable humour, pathos and grace. Here he invents an exhilarating new form, and is confirmed as one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Deploying a theatrical, kaleidoscopic panoply of voices – living and dead, historical and fictional – Lincoln in the Bardo poses a timeless question: how do we live and love when we know that everything we hold dear must end?

Lincoln in the Bardo is told from multiple perspectives, and whilst this in itself isn’t unusual, the structure Saunders has chosen is an original one, with each sentence / paragraph etc. clearly marked as to who is speaking (something akin to a play), and with characters often finishing one another’s statements.  This may sound confusing and a little disjointed, but once I was into the rhythm and the structure of the narrative, I barely noticed it, and I found that the unique style worked very well.

Additionally, for the sections not focused upon the cemetery, where much of the narrative takes place, the writing is depicted as being from various reports, articles and books about the time.  I did look up a few of these, and found them to be fictional, (as far as I could tell from Google!), although they do sound very much like official records – I can’t say whether they are all figments of Saunders’ imagination, but the ones I looked up did seem to be, and I thought them cleverly done.

Of the multitude of characters, there are some voices that are used more frequently, with more time taken over their backstories.  I found that each one had a distinct voice, and that there was little risk of confusion as to who was speaking at any given time (even without the labelling to say who was speaking).  The characters we hear from are all languishing in the Bardo, which is something like a Tibetan purgatory, these characters being unwilling or unable to accept their condition, even referring to their coffins as “sick boxes”, rather than using terminology more indicative of where they are.  These are people who can move on, yet choose not to, perhaps delaying their judgement:

We are shades, immaterial, and since that judgement pertains to what we did (or did not do) in that previous (material) realm, correction is now forever beyond our means. Our work there is finished; we only await payment.

This is a quick and rewarding read if you’re able to look past the slightly odd structure, which I imagine might grate on some readers, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this went on to win this year’s Man Booker Prize.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

history of wolves

History of Wolves, the debut novel from Emily Fridlund, has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, and is a novel that I liked the sound of as soon as the longlist was announced, and that I bought straightaway.

Fourteen-year-old Linda lives with her parents in an ex-commune beside a lake in the beautiful, austere backwoods of northern Minnesota. The other girls at school call Linda ‘Freak’, or ‘Commie’. Her parents mostly leave her to her own devices, whilst the other inhabitants have grown up and moved on.

So when the perfect family – mother, father and their little boy, Paul – move into the cabin across the lake, Linda insinuates her way into their orbit. She begins to babysit Paul and feels welcome, that she finally has a place to belong.

Yet something isn’t right. Drawn into secrets she doesn’t understand, Linda must make a choice. But how can a girl with no real knowledge of the world understand what the consequences will be?

Linda, or Madeleine, is a fascinating character who comes across as being naïve in some ways, yet wise beyond her years in others.  As you might expect from someone who is 14 years old, she is still developing, both physically but also in terms of her personality, and whilst she puts across a front of being comfortable in her own skin, it’s clear that she’s incredibly lonely, and this becomes one of the main themes of the novel.  She lives in relative isolation, her journey from school to home is both long and would be considered somewhat arduous to many, involving several miles of walking if she has to stay late at school for any reason, and she has no friends, being considered something of a freak by her classmates.

It therefore comes as no surprise that she tries to ingratiate herself in the lives of the Gardners when they move in across the lake from her own shack (to call it a house would be stretching things a little), and she soon becomes babysitter to their four-year-old son, Paul.  At the same time, she gets a new history teacher at her school, and she desires his attention as well, in all the wrong ways.

It’s clear from the beginning of the novel that there is a tragic element to the plot, and whilst the what isn’t surprising, the why is a little more shocking, although all too plausible.  Somewhat unusually, the tragedy comes at around the mid-way point of the novel, and I found that I enjoyed the novel more up to this point.  The first half focuses almost solely on Linda as a 14-year-old and her experiences with Paul and the Gardners and the build up to this event that the reader is expecting from the outset.  From the midway point, it jumps around in time more,  and includes insights into Linda’s adult life.  Whilst I can see why it was done like this, I personally didn’t enjoy the second half quite as much, and I found the first half to be much more gripping.  That said, the second half gives insight into the trial and what actually happened – events that Linda didn’t fully understand at the time, and so it is necessary if only to resolve the event for the reader.

I really enjoyed History of Wolves, although I’m not entirely convinced that it will go on to win this year’s Booker.  It won’t be to everyone’s taste, particularly because of a somewhat odd final chapter, and I did feel that some themes were raised and then not fully explored (although it’s possible that I’ve missed the bigger picture) but Fridlund’s writing is beautiful, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

2017 Man Booker Prize Shortlist

booker logo 2017

The shortlist for this year’s Booker Prize has been announced, and after bragging about doing relatively well in predicting the longlist, I only managed to guess two of the six shortlisted titles correctly.

I think that this is an intriguing list, and I will be attempting to read them all ahead of the winner being announced on 17 October.  Wish me luck!


4 3 2 1

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)

On March 3, 1947, in the maternity ward of Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the one and only child of Rose and Stanley Ferguson, is born. From that single beginning, Ferguson’s life will take four simultaneous and independent fictional paths. Four Fergusons made of the same genetic material, four boys who are the same boy, will go on to lead four parallel and entirely different lives. Family fortunes diverge. Loves and friendships and intellectual passions contrast. Chapter by chapter, the rotating narratives evolve into an elaborate dance of inner worlds enfolded within the outer forces of history as, one by one, the intimate plot of each Ferguson’s story rushes on across the tumultuous and fractured terrain of mid twentieth-century America. A boy grows up-again and again and again.

As inventive and dexterously constructed as anything Paul Auster has ever written 4 3 2 1 is an unforgettable tour de force, the crowning work of this masterful writer’s extraordinary career.


history of wolves

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Fourteen-year-old Linda lives with her parents in an ex-commune beside a lake in the beautiful, austere backwoods of northern Minnesota. The other girls at school call Linda ‘Freak’, or ‘Commie’. Her parents mostly leave her to her own devices, whilst the other inhabitants have grown up and moved on.

So when the perfect family – mother, father and their little boy, Paul – move into the cabin across the lake, Linda insinuates her way into their orbit. She begins to babysit Paul and feels welcome, that she finally has a place to belong.

Yet something isn’t right. Drawn into secrets she doesn’t understand, Linda must make a choice. But how can a girl with no real knowledge of the world understand what the consequences will be?


exit west

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) (Hamish Hamilton)

An extraordinary story of love and hope from the bestselling, Man Booker-shortlisted author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Nadia and Saeed are two ordinary young people, attempting to do an extraordinary thing – to fall in love – in a world turned upside down. Theirs will be a love story but also a story about how we live now and how we might live tomorrow, of a world in crisis and two human beings travelling through it.

Civil war has come to the city which Nadia and Saeed call home. Before long they will need to leave their motherland behind – when the streets are no longer useable and the unknown is safer than the known. They will join the great outpouring of people fleeing a collapsing city, hoping against hope, looking for their place in the world . . .


elmet

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)

Fresh and distinctive writing from an exciting new voice in fiction, Elmet is an unforgettable novel about family, as well as a beautiful meditation on landscape.

Daniel is heading north. He is looking for someone. The simplicity of his early life with Daddy and Cathy has turned sour and fearful. They lived apart in the house that Daddy built for them with his bare hands. They foraged and hunted. When they were younger, Daniel and Cathy had gone to school. But they were not like the other children then, and they were even less like them now. Sometimes Daddy disappeared, and would return with a rage in his eyes. But when he was at home he was at peace. He told them that the little copse in Elmet was theirs alone. But that wasn’t true. Local men, greedy and watchful, began to circle like vultures. All the while, the terrible violence in Daddy grew.

Atmospheric and unsettling, Elmet is a lyrical commentary on contemporary society and one family’s precarious place in it, as well as an exploration of how deep the bond between father and child can go.


lincoln in the bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury)

The extraordinary first novel by the bestselling, Folio Prize-winning, National Book Award-shortlisted George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven-year-old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War

The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.

From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling, supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself trapped in a transitional realm – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – and as ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Unfolding over a single night, Lincoln in the Bardo is written with George Saunders’ inimitable humour, pathos and grace. Here he invents an exhilarating new form, and is confirmed as one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Deploying a theatrical, kaleidoscopic panoply of voices – living and dead, historical and fictional – Lincoln in the Bardo poses a timeless question: how do we live and love when we know that everything we hold dear must end?


autumn

Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)

Fusing Keatsian mists and mellow fruitfulness with the vitality, the immediacy and the colour-hit of Pop Art (via a bit of very contemporary skulduggery and skull-diggery), Autumn is a witty excavation of the present by the past. The novel is a stripped-branches take on popular culture and a meditation, in a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, what harvest means.

Autumn is the first instalment in Ali Smith’s novel quartet Seasonal: four standalone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons are), exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative.

From the imagination of the peerless Ali Smith comes a shape-shifting series, wide-ranging in timescale and light-footed through histories, and a story about ageing and time and love and stories themselves.


What do you think?  A good shortlist?  Are there any novels that you thought might make it through that didn’t?