I come to the Man Booker Prize this year much like I come to the Presidential election in November: is this the best there is from which I must choose? While neither candidate of either party satisfies the criteria I am looking for in a leader, neither is there a book in the long list which satisfies the criteria I hold for an outstanding novel. (Only one comes even close.)
What makes an outstanding novel? That’s like describing what makes a truly delicious meal; you can hardly pinpoint the separate elements, but they all combine to make a memorable, unique experience.
For me, a prizeworthy novel has story. It has story which not only wraps me up in its intrigue, it brushes the facets of my own life. It causes me to say, “Oh! I know what that is, or at least I’ve felt that before.”
It has characters that breathe. Characters that feel so real it’s as though they’ve joined me in my living room. We could sit and have a chat together over a cup of tea, and even if we disagree, we have spoken to one other. (If only you were there for the tête-à-tête’s Anna Karenina and I have had.)
It has writing so beautiful I could weep. It has passages that make me pause in my reading to record them in my reading journal; it has quotes that I want to remember long after the novel is finished.
When I consider Man Booker winners in the past, I marvel at their permanence in my life. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of The Day (1989), Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997), Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (2013), Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to The Deep North (2014) and my personal favorite of all time, a book so meaningful to me that I’ve never written about it, A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990), are all novels I keep on my shelves. I will take them with me if ever I should move.
What would I take with me from this year’s Man Booker short list? My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is the only one. And as the (Wo)Man Shadow Jury decided to come up with our personal top six for today, and then our top six as a panel tomorrow, I would add the following: The Many by Wyl Menmuir, Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, The North Water by Ian McGuire, His Bloody Project by Graeme Burnet.
Yes, I can count. That’s only five. But, there isn’t another book I would add. As for what I believe will be on the official short list? Most certainly it will include Paul Beatty’s The Sellout; his accusations disguised as humor are well received in today’s political climate.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s verdict from the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Jury, for not everyone agrees with the point of view I have expressed just now. Until then, I leave you with an apt quote from Madeleine Thien’s book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing:
Though, in general, anything universally praised is usually preposterous rubbish.