Man Booker 2016: Part One

Monday 5 September 2016 by

As I do every year, I try to read the whole Man Booker Prize longlist before the shortlist is announced. That means 13 books in a very short space of time, but rather than overwhelm you with plots, I have quickly rounded them up in to two posts. Meet the first six contenders for the 2016 Man Booker Prize…

The Many, Wyl Menmuir, Book, Reading, SaltThe Many by Wyl Menmuir

Eerie and claustrophobic, The Many tells the story of a seaside village, cut off from everywhere and sagging under the weight of its secrets. It has a delightful gothic thriller taste to it – all at once dark and creepy, with high notes of stark beauty – and is an unforgiving exploration of grief and the forces of nature. The Many leaves you with more questions than answers, although there are enough clues throughout to leave you feeling like an amateur sleuth. The blurring of the lines between reality and dream, however, means that nothing is ever quite as it seems. This book plumbs the depths of human emotion and yet never quite reaches the bottom. It’s perfect reading for cold autumnal evenings in front of the fire (not sunning yourself in the back garden, which felt a bit disingenuous when I did it).

Hot Milk, Deborah Levy, Hamish Hamilton, Book, ReadingHot Milk by Deborah Levy

The overwhelming feeling I get from Hot Milk is heat. We follow our characters during a summer in Spain as Sofia tries to help her mother, Rose, with a mysterious illness. But really this is an exploration of sexuality, identity and obsession. With these grand notions, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a novel of scope, but instead it is insular – almost claustrophobic – in its tale. You are never far from Sofia’s side, and the words rise up to lick your imagination. Sofia is the perfect character in all respects – troubled and alarmed, still coming to terms with her own identity, yet powerful and prosaic. My first foray in to Levy’s writing and I was left sunburnt and dazed.

My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout, Viking, Book, ReadingMy Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

I have been meaning to read My Name is Lucy Barton for a while. It tells the story of Lucy, all the while stuck in a hospital bed, for a few nights in the 1980s. It is ultimately the story of a mother and a daughter – deeply affecting and irreparably complicated. The story peals back layers of emotion, memory, and loneliness, until you are left with nothing but the relationship between Lucy and her mother. Using some of the simplest language, Strout manages to portray a spectrum of emotion you are only able to recognise on a cellular level.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien, Book, Reading, GrantaDo Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

A story within a story, Do Not Say We Have Nothing evokes the beauty, the horror and the displacement of the communist revolution in China, with the coming-of-age revolution in Canada by our narrator – the child of a Chinese immigrant. The novel deals with grand notions, but scales them down to single-character positions, so that you feel intimately connected with each one – across time and geography. Thien’s use of language – of multiple languages – and intonations to demark different meanings, adds an extra layer of beauty to this tragic story. The writing feels like Chinese folklore, weaving poetry and music with it until you feel like it is less a book and more an orchestral performance.

Serious Sweet, A.L. Kennedy, Jonathan Cape, Book, ReadingSerious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy

Constrained in a single-day narrative, Serious Sweet takes us through the troubling and harsh lives of Jon and Meg as they convene on a blind date. The flashback scenes (so necessary in single-day narratives) jar against the urgency of the current story. Deeply evocative and often emotionally draining, this is a vast novel compressed in to twenty-four hours. The battle of urgency and broad scope leaves you feeling punished and exhilarated, whilst Jon and Meg are both profound and beautiful characters around which the story whirls. Emotionally daring, this is a masterpiece of narrative structure.

Hystopia, David Means, Faber & Faber, Book, ReadingHystopia by David Means

As a short story writer, no one can deny that Means is a master. So Hystopia is often described as long-awaited. It tells the story of an alternate universe – where JFK lives and the Vietnam War grinds on and the veterans are partitioned in to a bizarre repatriation program called “enfolding”. The novel itself feels like short stories wrapped in literary padding – momentarily beautiful and then frantic grabbing at the Big Ideas to form the novel. However, I do love alternate-reality fiction and so it was easy to settle in to this, complete with its Apocalypse Now-scented moments and undisguised prods at current conflicts.

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