For those of you who haven’t heard of the Man Booker Prize, it’s an annual prize of £50,000 given to “the best novel in the opinion of the judges” which has been running since 1969. This makes 2016 the 47th year of the competition. The Man Booker Prize aims to promote the reading of quality fiction, (this can be in culturally insightful ways, political reflections and other literary subject matters) and attract new literary talent- ranging from previously undiscovered authors and independent publishers to famous writers such as Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and JM Coetzee. The prize was originally created for novels written in English and published in the UK, promoting British, Irish and Commonwealth novels; however, a few years ago the competition opened up to all English-speaking nations, and a Man Booker International Prize was also introduced in 2005 for translations. The publishing of longlists and shortlists every year was introduced by the Man Booker Prize, and is now used in many book competitions to attract media attention, a larger readership, and boost book sales.
Six of our writers at Razz review each of the shortlisted novels in detail, ahead of the winner being announced tomorrow (25 Oct).
Paul Beatty- The Sellout
Fast paced. Witty. Outrageous. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout leaves you stunned as if you’ve run into a wall, the question “What did I just read?” ringing in your head. It is a novel bursting with ideas, where every page turns seemingly harmless cultural assumptions on their heads, delivering a dazzling satire on post-segregation America.
The narrator is Bonbon, a young man from LA suburb Dickens. His childhood is spent functioning as guinea pig in his father’s, psychological experiments. After his father’s death in a police shoot-out, Bonbon is left facing the fate of most lower middle class Californians: “I’d die in the same bedroom I’d grown up in, looking in the same cracks in the stucco ceiling that’ve been there since ‘68 earth quake.” So when Dickens is removed off the map of California, Bonbon, aided by former child actor Hominy Jenkins and ex-girlfriend Marpessa, tries to save her by reintroducing segregation to the community – an act that lands him in a trial in the Supreme Court.
It’s hard to talk about The Sellout in terms of plot, as the story doesn’t follow a linear narrative. Rather, it is told through a sequence of anecdotes focused on singular moments in Bonbon’s life; from his dad’s experiments to character portraits of Hominy and Marpessa, and the culture and neighbourhood of Dickens. Framing the novel is the trial, the face of the state, which Bonbon critiques through his sardonic observations. Rather than the narrative itself, it is the satire, ranging from puns to reflections, which constitute the plot of the novel. Bonbon states that Dickens hasn’t “even had a single Day of Enlightenment”, Huckleberry Finn becomes The Pejorative Free Adventures… of African-American Jim in his renaming of literary classics, and he identifies The Celebrity as “America’s newest race.”
Without prior knowledge of the social and cultural references, following Beatty’s novel can be a challenge. If, however, you want a quick, eye-opening read where every page will make you smarter, Beatty’s novel is the way to go.
Reviewed by Josephine Greenland, third year English Literature student.
Deborah Levy, Hot Milk
Deborah Levy hands over the opening of Hot Milk to Helen Cixous’ haunting quote; “Its upto you to break the old circuits” (‘The Laugh of The Medusa’).
Instantly, Levy wishes us to regard this narrative as an attempt to “break” old memories and cyclical “circuits”, in which the narrator, Sofia, and her mother, Rose, are psychologically and physically trapped within. Mother and Daughter arrive on the Southern Spanish Coast in search of a diagnostic for Rose’s mysterious paralysis. Sofia’s hope for her mother’s recovery, despite her 25-year-old body chained to a paralysis that is not her own (“my legs are her legs”), is suffocated by Rose’s unsettled bitterness towards her daughter; a deep rooted cut that continues to open its flesh like wounds, as familial ties slowly disintegrate. The trip to Spain promises a diagnosis for Rosa, and freedom for Sofia from a vicarious paralysis, all of which is hinged on the famous Dr Gomez and his mysterious clinic. Despite the final chapter’s title of ‘Diagnosis’, a medical cure for Rose is anticlimactically unresolved. Yet, the true ‘Diagnosis’ is not biological. Gomez may well have been a “quack”, his clinic a hoax, yet, he uncovers and peels away the layers of resentment Rosa holds and a ‘diagnosis’ and cure of familial ties is reached. As the final image of the Medusa jellyfish are “cut loose”, there is promise for Sofia; she has become bolder and like the jellyfish she has “cut loose” from her mother’s dependency on her.
Levy’s style feels slightly absurd when you begin the novel; images and memories are scattered across the page in a perplexing overtly and self-conscious poetic style. The reader is left to tie Sofia’s threads of thought together. In the vain of Sofia’s studies as an Anthropologist, we are left fumbling through deep cut memories in an attempt to understand Sofia’s present psychology. Levy’s style echoes that of Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves’, as the language cinematically zooms into Sofia’s psychology and fragments of memories, often leaving us disoriented in our sense of place and time, as past and present become blurred. Psychological images and poetic symbols thread through Hot Milk in quick succession, to an extent where plot becomes a secondary focus. Yet, this merely adds to Sofia’s own lack of control, the usurpation of her own narrative; she is living out her mother’s trapped experience; her Anthropological Master’s thesis is a disjointed idea on her shattered laptop; she is dislocated from her father’s new family in Greece; and indeed, Sofia’s life is a series of fragments, her only forward trajectory is that of her mother’s illness.
Hot Milk is illusive in that there is the constant feeling you are trying to ‘catch’ its meaning, which slips through our hands like the ghostly jellyfish in the tide. Whilst familial bonds propel the novel, Levy also explores the nature of sexuality, as Sofia becomes entangled with the German seamstress Ingrid. Sofia becomes bolder as she becomes something separate from her mother’s paralysis; a lover and a desire.
The title of Hot Milk has maternal connotations, overtly constructing itself as a novel about the biological and emotional ties that connect women. On the one hand, the end of the novel is underwhelming; Rose’s biological cure is not achieved and there is an underlying sense of tension between mother and daughter. Yet, Sofia has become “freer than [she] ha[s] ever been”. The opening chapter of her “shattered laptop screen” cyclically returns to the “jellyfish in limbo”, yet under the Mediterranean sun, Sofia’s individuality begins to emerge. She has become “severed from (her) place of origin”, broken “old circuits” (Cixous) and repetitive acts of her mother’s demands from her. Indeed, it would be a thrill to see Hot Milk awarded with the Man Booker Prize 2016.
Review by Molly Gilroy, second year English Literature student.
Graeme Macrae Burnet, His Bloody Project
His Bloody Project is Roderick Macrae Burnet’s gritty account of a triple homicide which shook the nation in 1869. From the beginning of the novel, the narrator is established as an enigma within his own community; he is perceived to be disturbed, crafty, and violent and those who know him all offer differing viewpoints of him. Whichever perceptions we are offered of Roderick, the central one that the book demands is that of the reader, and so we set off on a journey of attempting to understand who he really is.
Roderick’s home is an isolated community in the Scottish Isles: a stagnant, dreary, and mundane reality. The lives of the very few residents are deeply rooted in their pastoral environment and entangled in one another. The sleepy village is shaken by the horrific crimes recounted in the book; a triple murder which captivates the whole country and places the unknown hamlet on the map.
Burnet does not attempt to illude the reader that the plot is fictional; you are made conscious that this is a historical piece of writing through the use of transcripts, offering commentary from various professionals and people from Roderick’s community. The memoir is all the more powerful for these legitimate documents, putting you in the position of a juror assessing an authentic account of the crimes. It is then in our hands to make our judgement: should he hang?
Interestingly, we are never given the opportunity to answer the familiar, almost comfortable question; guilty or not guilty? Instead we must attempt to unpick the more challenging question: why did he do it? Furthermore, the reader must face the more difficult question: why is he so quick to admit his crimes?
The misunderstood, but undoubtedly troubled accused, recounts his story and although we hear directly from him, there isn’t a definitive sense of who he really is. Perhaps the beauty of such a complex narrator is that we don’t have to figure him out, but the process of trying will take you on a wonderfully moving and shocking journey in the psyche of a criminal
Reviewed by Ella Connolly, second year English Literature and Drama student.
Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen
Eileen is a dark and troubling narrative whose unlikable narrator draws the reader in with her deeply peculiar life. With its subtle humour and wandering narrative, the book is most successful in its role as a character study: just as Eileen develops an obsession with the attractive new female counsellor in the prison she works at, we become obsessed with her outlandish thoughts and monotonous, but intriguing life.
Based in the 1960’s in a small North American town, Eileen explores the infatuations and daily routines of the eponymous narrator, a plain and subdued young woman. Through her disturbed and unusual perspective, we experience the moments leading up to her escape from her domestic trap, her narrative continually foreshadowing the moment she finally leaves. It is Rebecca, her new co-worker, who pushes her out of her moody and unfulfilling life to find something new, through a series of events which are at once surprising and bizarre, all in fitting with the tone of this detailed and gruesome story.
Moshfegh’s eponymous narrator predictably forms the substance and essence of this story. Eileen is a deeply unlikable character, yet the reader is also entranced by her, anticipating how she will escape her abnormal life. The unreliability of the narrator builds tension and makes the book so extraordinary: combining the reader’s lack of knowledge with a sense of inevitability. From the beginning of the novel, the older voice of Eileen narrates the story retrospectively; keeping the reader in the dark (regarding her departure of the town) until the last few pages. This uncertainty keeps you turning the pages right until the end: with Eileen as the narrative voice we know that anything is on the cards.
Eileen is an unusually dark and gripping read, driven on by the catalytic moody energy of the bitter and peculiar narrator. The whirlwind of Eileen’s mind keeps you on your toes until the very last moment, as you wait for her next flurry of ideas to drive the narrative to somewhere completely unexpected.
Reviewed by Lauren Geall, second year English Literature student.
David Szalay, All That Man Is
David Szalay paints the mundane world in imaginative colour in All That Man Is. The novel tells the story of nine men, and the bleak normality of what they encounter. From French Bérnard gallivanting with two fat English women in Cyprus, to a Russian oligarch seeking “the solution” by drowning himself, Szalay provides an insight into a variety of- specifically male- experiences. Overarching themes of sex, masculinity and instability dominate the book, but each character has their own set of challenges to face.
The novel, if you can call it a novel, is much like its hardback cover: a collision of 9 colourful stories, to create a well-styled but disjointed whole. Really, the book is far more of a collection or sequence. In each story the protagonist is older than the previous, adding a sense of development and age, but this only really becomes noticeable part way through. Szalay has a distinct voice throughout, vivid with imagery, but each section reads as the opening of a new story, and each is left feeling incomplete. While this is inherently linked to the bleakness of life that is presented in the novel, it makes the text hard to settle into, and it is a struggle to stick with the book to the end.
However, Szalay’s microscopic view, impressive specificity and distinct language are appealing, and push the reader through what could be quite a challenging read. Most of the stories are tackled well with an acute awareness of detail, and though at times the scenario seems forced, the plot comes with ease.
Szalay’s characters, pulled from across Europe, represent a range of perspectives and views of human life, and each is easy to relate to. Though the reader encounters each for a brief amount of time, their behaviour and mannerisms are well portrayed, adding to the tone of reality that emanates from the book.
All That Man Is may not be an ideal read for the student hoping for an escape from essays to the world of cheesy romance tales and mythical creatures. The novel is, however, an intriguing examination of the normality of life, and is worth the read, whether you manage one segment or finish the whole orange.
Review by Leigh Spence, second year English Literature student
Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a novel with epic ambitions. Thien achieves these with remarkable emotional depth, a solid and well-structured narrative, and amazing control over the tone of the story; while the characters do go through some highly unpleasant experiences, nothing feels jarring or unbelievable.
The novel begins from the perspective of Marie, a young Canadian-born Chinese girl living with her cousin Ai-Ming, a refugee, and alternates with another narrative about three musicians (Sparrow, Zhu-Li, and Kai), set in mainland China decades before the present day. The Chinese Cultural Revolution is a major source of conflict in the novel as well as the main catalyst for the plot; Political Winds tear Zhu-Li’s family apart, the fallout from the revolution leads to the disappearance of Marie’s father, and Ai-Ming fears her own country.
One of the novel’s strongest aspects is how it shows the thoughts and emotions of its characters. Thien blends musical and physical imagery with well-placed adjectives to betray enough about the character’s thoughts to make an impact without explicitly telling the reader. Because of this, the potentially disturbing subject matter is less detached from reality than it might be otherwise. However, this descriptive style also lengthens moments considerably, creating a comprehensive understanding of the characters on one hand, but also necessitating a break every dozen pages to think about and appreciate the events described.
Part of what kept me going was how close the narrative struck home. Much of what occurs in the novel still resonates today with the youth of China; from the values continuously upheld by the musicians even in times of distress, to Marie’s struggle to understand the pasts of both her family and her nation. Thien offers a way for readers to have a better understanding of the Chinese people, as well as a reminder of the travesties that occurred during the Cultural Revolution.
Review by Jing Lau, first year English Literature student.
The winner of the prize will be announced tomorrow evening on BBC news at 9:30: http://bbc.in/2eAegvf as well as over social media networks @ManBookerPrize.
Special thanks to publishers: Oneworld, Hamish Hamilton, Jonathan Cape and Granta Books for providing review copies for Razz, a student magazine and blog at the University of Exeter.