It’s an interesting, if slightly depressing, list this year, with some particularly dark titles. Those who pay close attention to the diversity factor will be pleased to see there are a higher number of women writers on the 2016 list, and not all longlisted authors are from white backgrounds. I have no doubt in my mind, however, that the calls for further diversification in literature will continue very loudly – much will depend upon the further judgment of the prize.
It’s also nice to see the number of small and independent publishers on the list this year. Granta and Salt seem to have been having a fantastic year, and having titles recognised by the prize is icing on a very large cake.
Let’s take a closer look at the longlist*:
Paul Beatty (US) The Sellout (Oneworld)
Born in the ‘agrarian ghetto’ of Dickens on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles and raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, the narrator of The Sellout spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe his father’s pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family’s financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realises there never was a memoir. All that’s left is the bill for a drive-through funeral.
Fuelled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident – Hominy Jenkins – he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school which lands him in the Supreme Court.
What follows is a remarkable journey that challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement and the holy grail of racial equality – the black Chinese restaurant.
J.M. Coetzee (South African-Australian) The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker)
Davíd is the small boy who is always asking questions. Simón and Inés take care of him in their new town, Estrella. He is learning the language; he has begun to make friends. He has the big dog Bolívar to watch over him. But he’ll be seven soon and he should be at school. And so, with the guidance of the three sisters who own the farm where Simón and Inés work, Davíd is enrolled in the Academy of Dance. It’s here, in his new golden dancing slippers, that he learns how to call down the numbers from the sky. But it’s here, too, that he will make troubling discoveries about what grown-ups are capable of. In this mesmerizing allegorical tale, Coetzee deftly grapples with the big questions of growing up, of what it means to be a ‘parent,’ the constant battle between intellect and emotion, and how we choose to live our lives.
A.L. Kennedy (UK) Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape)
A good man in a bad world, Jon Sigurdsson is 59 and divorced: a senior civil servant in Westminster who hates many of his colleagues and loathes his work for a government engaged in unmentionable acts. A man of conscience. Meg Williams is ‘a bankrupt accountant – two words you don’t want in the same sentence, or anywhere near your CV’. She’s 45 and shakily sober, living on Telegraph Hill, where she can see London unfurl below her. Somewhere out there is safety. Somewhere out there is Jon, pinballing around the city with a mobile phone and a letter-writing habit he can’t break. He’s a man on the brink, leaking government secrets and affection as he runs for his life. Serious Sweet is about two decent, damaged people trying to make moral choices in an immoral world: ready to sacrifice what’s left of themselves for honesty, and for a chance at tenderness. As Jon and Meg navigate the sweet and serious heart of London – passing through 24 hours that will change them both for ever – they tell a very unusual, unbearably moving love story.
Deborah Levy (UK) Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)
Two strangers arrive in a small Spanish fishing village. The older woman is suffering from mysterious paralysis, driven to seek a cure beyond the bounds of conventional medicine. Her daughter Sofia has spent years playing the reluctant detective in this mystery, struggling to understand her mother’s illness.
Surrounded by the oppressive desert heat, searching for a cure to a defiant and quite possibly imagined disease, Sofia is forced to confront her difficult relationship with her mother. Examining female rage and sexuality, Deborah Levy explores the strange and monstrous nature of motherhood, testing the bonds of parent and child to breaking point.
Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) His Bloody Project (Contraband)
In 1869, the case of Roderick Macrae gripped the British public: newspapers slavishly followed his trial, and ‘penny dreadfuls’ gleefully described the gory details of the brutal slaying of three people in a remote crofting community.
In His Bloody Project, author Graeme Macrae Burnet recounts the story of the murders and the subsequent trial.
Roderick’s memoir, along with court transcripts, medical reports, police statements and newspaper articles, show that the accused readily admitted his guilt…leaving only the persuasive powers of his advocate standing between him and the gallows.
So why didn’t he defend himself more vigorously, or try to cover up the crime? Was he stupid? Insane? Or did he have another motive?
Brought together, the documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae reveal much about a merciless triple-murder that shocked the nation. But do they reveal just why a young man would commit the most atrocious acts of violence? And will he hang?
Ian McGuire (UK) The North Water (Scribner UK)
Behold the man. Stinking, drunk, brutal and bloodthirsty, Henry Drax is a harpooner on the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaling ship bound for the hunting waters of the Arctic Circle. Also aboard for the first time is Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon with a shattered reputation, no money and no better option than to embark as ship’s medic on this violent, filthy, ill-fated voyage.
In India during the Siege of Delhi, Sumner thought he had experienced the depths to which a man can stoop, but now, trapped in the wooden belly of the ship with Drax, he encounters pure evil and is forced to act. As the true purposes of the expedition become clear, the confrontation between the two men plays out in the freezing darkness of an Arctic winter.
David Means (UK) Hystopia (Faber & Faber)
The bitter end of the 1960s: JFK’s third term in office. Vietnam rages on. A new federal agency, the Psych Corps, maintains the nation’s mental health by wiping soldiers’ memories through drugs and therapy, while those beyond help roam at will, re-enacting atrocities on civilians.
This is the vision of Eugene Allen, a twenty-two-year-old Vietnam vet, writing this book-within-a-book at the heart of Hystopia. Hystopia reveals the crazy reality of trauma, both national and personal.
Wyl Menmuir (UK) The Many (Salt)
On the surface, his move to the isolated village on the coast makes perfect sense. But the experience is an increasingly unsettling one for Timothy Bucchanan. A dead man no one will discuss. Wasted fish hauled from a contaminated sea. The dream of faceless men. Questions that lead to further questions. What truth are the villagers withholding? What fuels their interest and animosity towards him? And what pushes Timothy to dig deeper?
Ottessa Moshfegh (US) Eileen (Jonathan Cape)
The Christmas season offers little cheer for Eileen Dunlop, an unassuming yet disturbed young woman trapped between her role as her alcoholic father’s carer in his squalid home and her day job as a secretary at the boys’ prison, filled with its own quotidian horrors. Consumed by resentment and self-loathing, Eileen tempers her dreary days with perverse fantasies and dreams of escaping to the big city. In the meantime, she fills her nights and weekends with shoplifting, stalking a handsome prison guard named Randy, and cleaning up her increasingly deranged father’s messes. When the beautiful, charismatic Rebecca Saint John arrives on the scene as the new counsellor at the prison, Eileen is enchanted and unable to resist what appears to be a miraculously budding friendship. In a Hitchcockian twist, her affection for Rebecca pulls her into complicity in a crime that surpasses her wildest imaginings.
Virginia Reeves (US) Work Like Any Other (Scribner UK)
Alabama, 1920s: Rosco T. Martin is an electrician by trade. It’s what he loves, where his talents lie. But when his wife, Marie, inherits her father’s failing farm, he must give up his livelihood, at great cost to his sense of self, his marriage and his family.
Realising he might lose them all, he starts siphoning electricity from the state power lines, ushering in a brief period of bounty and happiness. Then a young man is electrocuted on Roscoe’s illegal lines and everything changes: Roscoe is arrested, the farm falls back into decay and Marie abandons him to face his twenty-year prison sentence alone.
Elizabeth Strout (US) My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking)
Lucy Barton is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for many years, comes to see her. Her unexpected visit forces Lucy to confront the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of her life: her impoverished childhood in Amgash, Illinois, her escape to New York and her desire to become a writer, her faltering marriage, her love for her two daughters.
In My Name Is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout shows how a simple hospital visit illuminates the most tender relationship of all-the one between mother and daughter.
David Szalay (Canada-UK) All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)
Nine men. Each of them at a different stage of life, each of them away from home, and each of them striving – in the suburbs of Prague, beside a Belgian motorway, in a crap Cypriot hotel – to understand just what it means to be alive, here and now.
Tracing an arc from the spring of youth to the winter of old age, All That Man Is brings these separate lives together to show us men as they are – ludicrous and inarticulate, shocking and despicable; vital, pitiable, hilarious, and full of heartfelt longing.
As the weather gets colder, and the men get older, the stakes become bewilderingly high.
Madeleine Thien (Canada) Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)
In Canada in 1991, ten-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: a young woman called Ai-Ming, who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests.
Ai-Ming tells Marie the story of her family in Revolutionary China – from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao’s ascent to the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s and the events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989. It is a story of revolutionary idealism, music, and silence, in which three musicians – the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai – struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to. Forced to re-imagine their artistic and private selves, their fates reverberate through the years, with deep and lasting consequences for Ai-Ming – and for Marie.
Who do you think is set for the shortlist? Have you read any of the titles, or is there one you really want to read – or none at all?
*All descriptions and book covers are taken from the Man Booker Prize website.