Reading list: Assessing the Booker's best

ODT books editor Rob Kidd. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
ODT books editor Rob Kidd. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
The Booker Prize has been turned on its head this year with all but one of the finalists being debut novelists. The ODT’s fiction fiends Rob Kidd, Jessie Neilson and Trudie Bateman get their teeth into a list of ups and downs.

LONGLISTED

APEIROGON
Colum McCann
Bloomsbury

Apeirogon: A shape with a countably infinite number of sides. For those unversed in advanced geometry it sounds like an oxymoron — a perfect reflection of the situation Colum McCann explores. The novel centres around the infinitely complex Israel-Palestine conflict and focuses on an extraordinary friendship between two men. Rami Elhanan (Jewish Israeli) meets Bassam Aramin (Muslim Palestinian) in 2005 at a meeting of activist group Combatants for Peace.

At that point, Rami’s daughter Smadar has been dead for eight years — killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. Two years later, when Bassam’s daughter Abir is killed by a rubber bullet to the head, fired by Israeli forces, the bereaved fathers’ bond intensifies and they embark on speaking tours together to tell their tragic stories. Apeirogon, however, is so much more. Written over 1001 chapters — some several pages, some as short as a single sentence, some simply a black-and-white photo — McCann blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction. Not only does he explore the grief of the two men and their unceasing efforts to change the status quo, he gives readers a glimpse into other lives affected by the occupation, into the history, culture, science and art that forms a kaleidoscopic background. McCann may be criticised for writing about a history and an issue that is not his but sometimes it takes a non-partisan outsider to reveal the truth.

He has used his journalist’s objective eye and a masterful creative touch to create a novel both beautiful and hopeful.

 — ROB KIDD 9/10

HOW MUCH OF THESE HILLS IS GOLD
C. Pam Zhang
Virago

It is gold-rush times in the United States. Sam and Lucy are 11 and 12-year-old Chinese Americans, recently orphaned. It is the height of the dry season and through the arid lands they guide their horse, upon whose back is held the maggoty remains of their father's corpse. Lucy loathed him for the alcoholic brute into whom he turned after their mother's passing. Yet they want to carry out suitable Chinese burial rites by sourcing two silver coins to cover what is left of his eyes and send him on his way to a final endless sleep. Life is grim and prejudice rife. Their family had spent years moving from goldmine to goldmine, and finally to coal. Ba promised their ma a comfortable life yet the most they were offered for housing was a disused chicken coop. Hunger constantly attacks them. C. Pam Zhang's debut novel is mesmerising and exhausting on account of its characters' endless seeking. The dry, golden, parched landscape blankets the characters as they tread on and on. Across the way they meet a variety of honourable and disreputable individuals, who may opt to abuse, buy, sell or otherwise appropriate them. Lucy cultivates a strong femininity while Sam hankers after her father and her androgynous mode of survival. How Much of these Hills is Gold switches back and forth in time as it slowly releases more character history and motivation. Buffalo, tigers and ghosts from Chinese and American pasts haunt the restless land.

 — JESSIE NEILSON 8/10

LOVE AND OTHER THOUGHT EXPERIMENTS
Sophie Ward
Corsair

Ever since they started talking about having a baby, Rachel has been monitoring the temperature of Eliza's love. Rachel, more carefree, is prone to wild flights of imagination, while Eliza, a scientist, likes to ground concepts in the real world. One night Rachel wakes up, alarmed, scratching at her now-damaged eye, sure that an ant has crawled into it and from there, onwards into her head. Streams of ants have been infiltrating their home, and for Rachel, thoughts of larger-than-life vermin have been blooming in her mind. Eliza is dismissive, yet this event becomes a defining point in their relationship. While raising young son Arthur, Rachel continuously feels the presence of a living insect, and even counselling is unable to resolve for the women disagreement over whether the ant is real or just a metaphorical flourish. Various other characters enter this story, especially Rachel's parents, living out a bohemian, middle-aged, middle-class fantasy with other British expatriates on a lush coast of Brazil. Paranoia grows, and each woman is taken up with philosophical musings. Young Arthur looks set to continue questioning the world and reality with his preoccupations with space. What reality may be becomes ever dicier as the novel embraces a dominant artificial intelligence thread, much like in Jeanette Winterson's Frankissstein. From Europe to Cyprus to Brazil, Love and Other Thought Experiments lifts off into outer space while it simultaneously drills down into issues of intimate personal relationships and what possible versions of ourselves may even exist.

 — JESSIE NEILSON 7/10

REDHEAD BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD
Anne Tyler
Chatto & Windus

Anne Tyler is a much beloved and Pulitzer prize-winning author but this slim character study did not set me off on the right foot with her work. Essentially, this is a mildly diverting short-story that somehow puffed itself up into a novel. I do not often find novels boring but unfortunately even while I attempted to adjust my expectations to a minor, more reflective key, it was a struggle to engage with this story. There is no doubt that Micah Mortimer, a 40-ish, lonesome computer technician who jogs and does a good job on recycling is supposed to be a little dull but I had hoped for something deeper on loneliness and the complexities of human connection. Instead, I got rather hung up on why Micah jogs in denim cut-offs and why I find the description of hair as "wheat-coloured" so annoying. Obviously, there are characters other than Micah to discuss (notably no redheads) but it is telling that I have forgotten almost all of them. The most memorable scene in this, aside from the truly atrocious ending, was the "rambunctious family dinner", something that reminded me of August: Osage County for some reason, but with less drama. No complaints on the writing, it is very thoughtful and mannered and I imagine Tyler fans will find little fault with this offering. Still, many readers might question how this one made the cut for the Booker. At best it is a stocking filler.

 — TRUDIE BATEMAN 6/10

SUCH A FUN AGE
Kiley Reid
Bloomsbury

In a time of Black Lives Matter protests and a president unwilling to condemn white supremacists, racism is the hottest of topics. But it is nothing as overt as police officers killing suspects or the Ku Klax Klan on which Kiley Reid has chosen to focus. The plot is set in motion when Emira — an African-American babysitter to an affluent white couple — is called in late at night to look after a child while the parents resolve a domestic issue. While at a supermarket, a busy-body shopper and store detective all but detain Emira, suspicious of why she is there at that hour with a white child. Alix, Emira’s employer, spends the remainder of the novel attempting to befriend the babysitter, desperate to convince herself and others of her anti-racist stance. Reid’s examination of a "post-racial" US succeeds in showing how racism is not simply name-calling or discrimination; it can manifest in far subtler ways. But the real triumph is the dialogue, through which the author really flexes her muscles. Reid is equally adept penning a conversation between 20-somethings out drinking as she is inventing the comical, random musings of a 3-year-old. However, for all the questions the book asks, it rarely goes near answering them. The narrative turns on an almighty coincidence and the resolution, which should have been the pinnacle of Such a Fun Age, fell a little flat for me. It is, dare I say it, more chick-lit with a soul than great literature.

 — ROB KIDD 6/10

THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT
Hilary Mantel
4th Estate

The last of this mammoth trilogy opens the way it intends to carry on: with the severing of troublesome heads; in this case, a regal one. Anyone in slight dissent of Henry VIII finds themselves locked away in garrets in the Tower, awaiting execution by beheading, or slower deaths, to become "worm-food". With the supposedly adulterous Anne Boleyn out of the way, Henry seeks a new wife, whereupon Jane, "white as Staffordshire alabaster" fills the role, at least for a moment. London and the rest of the land is in an increasingly dire state as the king takes on more and more power, and the ever-present Thomas Cromwell is charged with public and private matters far and wide. Turncoats lurk menacingly in the wings, as does Henry's estranged daughter Mary, for whom the future looks uncertain. Young women are lined up to be married off to noblemen as political allegiances complicate. As now 50-year-old Cromwell begins to realise, "we live in an age of coercion, where the king's will is an instrument reshaped every morning, as if by a master-forger: sharp-pointed, biting, it spirals deep into our crooked age". All around, young women are dying in childbirth, and their babies lasting little longer. The king and his cronies, meanwhile, continue to dine on such offerings as ravioli parcels stuffed with minced pork or sprinkled with sugar. Yet Henry cannot deny that his health is now troublesome: obese, and with a bothersome gammy leg. Regardless of whether or not lengthy historical dramas are to a reader's taste, there is no denying the unbeatable accomplishment here. With a huge ensemble cast of characters and events precisely plotted, and dramas raging behind any number of stage curtains, Mantel's latest work is superb.

 — JESSIE NEILSON 9/10

WHO THEY WAS
Gabriel Krauze
4th Estate

If you want authenticity, there is nothing realer. This unflinching, semi-autobiographical novel describes life on London streets, where status and money are king. Our narrator Gabriel — or "Snoopz" as he is known — is the son of Polish immigrants. While his brother practises the violin all day, Snoopz cements himself firmly as the black sheep of the family, stashing his firearm and cash under his bed and rolling in late at night only when he is out of other options. But he is no typical gangster. Snoopz is studying literature at university and the most revealing parts of Who They Was come when he applies his knowledge of Nietzsche and Shakespeare to the lifestyle in which he is immersed. Morality, he muses, is a luxury only for those who can afford it. It is an incredibly bleak picture. Areas gain reference points not from who lives there but who was murdered there. Those entrenched in the outlaw lifestyle have no way out and inevitably become drenched by paranoia as they wonder when those they attacked or ripped off will have their revenge. What is perhaps not addressed is that Snoopz has a choice. His family is not as absent or fractured as those of his peers but he abandons them anyway, seduced by the adrenaline and glamour. The narrative is dominated by London slang, derived from a Jamaican patois, but Krauze is able to summon up gorgeous images amidst the violence. While robbing a woman he notices the plush interior of her home, featuring "the kind of carpet that holds the heat of a resting sunbeam". It is an uncomfortable read and it is supposed to be.

 — ROB KIDD 8/10

SHORTLISTED

BURNT SUGAR
Avni Doshi
Penguin Random House

Burnt Sugar is Avni Doshi’s debut novel, first published in India as The Girl in White Cotton (2014). This is an intense and thoughtful portrait of a complicated mother-daughter relationship. Tara is potentially suffering from early-onset dementia and her daughter Antara reflects on their life together. I cannot say if it was the evil-looking succulent on the lilac cover that did it but there was not that magic reader-writer chemistry. It might also be the intense reliance on olfactory descriptions for everything (67 uses of the word "smell", my search tells me) which is fine when that makes some kind of sense but often it was something frustratingly vapid like: The room smells warmer, like my finger when I rub it in my navel." My lack of enjoyment might also be blamed upon my dyslexia for badly signposted timeline shifts. It does impact reading zen when you spend the first sentence of almost every paragraph determining if characters are now 5 or 35. This is a book ambitious in its scope. The topics covered include; mental health; caregiving; ashram living; boarding school violence; visual art; political riots; postnatal depression; an artist’s view of the Krebs cycle and doodles of amyloid plaques. Occasionally this reads like someone who has gone down the rabbit hole on some pseudoscience about sugar and Alzheimer's. There is a good book in here and as a debut novel, it shows some real skill but also a lack of focus. Paring back some of the malodorous wadding, and further developing the mother-daughter story could have made all the difference here. As it stands, this was an unnecessarily exhausting reading experience.

 — TRUDIE BATEMAN 5/10

REAL LIFE
Brandon Taylor
Riverhead Books

Real Life opens with a quote from Job 7:3: "I am allotted months of emptiness, and nights of misery are apportioned to me". This proves more than apt to cover this entire story, where not much happens, and the young, black, gay protagonist, Alabama-born Wallace wallows in unhappiness. Neither his friends nor postgraduate studies in biochemistry bring him joy, or even interest; in fact, everything about his life is dreary. The novel’s setting is promising, where much description is given to the lakeside tranquility of this, albeit very white, university town in the Midwest. Birds also feature prominently, perhaps envied in their ability to fly away and escape particular locales on a whim. Wallace’s study too sounds colourful, for his subject is nematodes, tiny soil-dwelling, microscopic worms. He is trying to breed new strains and tweak behaviour, yet each time his agar plates come back mouldy, and he fears departmental sabotage. Wallace gets by with a group of "friends", some of whom he does not really like. He begins an aggressive sexual relationship with a somewhat closeted acquaintance. While this is a campus novel and so due its angst, these endless segments are tedious. The author does do observation whimsically well: eyes are filled with "refulgent, desperate optimism", some friends are like a "trio of pale, upright deer". Wallace feels his race surrounded everywhere by "clumps" of white people. Wallace is saddled with childhood trauma and identity woes — he is unable to move forward. While Real Life has great moments of humour, mostly in its descriptive passages, overall its stagnation is rather indulgent and exasperating.

 — JESSIE NEILSON 4/10

SHUGGIE BAIN
Douglas Stuart
Picador

Although the setting of this novel is 1980s Glasgow, I was often reminded of Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1944), a film that depicts alcoholism as an ugly, calamitous, soul-destroying descent into oblivion. So too with this book, a stunning debut by Scottish born author Douglas Stuart. You take a journey with these characters that you suspect will not end well and, yet, the possibility for redemption and an escape from this addiction is always there. It might be tempting to turn away from a novel that, on the face of it, sounds so dour, but I assure you this is a journey worth making. The relationship between Agnes and her young son Shuggie Bain is so beautifully handled — so complicated and real — that it is guaranteed to break your heart. A significant part of what makes this novel sing is Glasgow itself, not just the delightful sing-song of Glaswegian patter, but the beautifully rendered environment. Grey hopelessness penetrates the landscape, brutalist tenement buildings too easy to jump from. This is contrasted with the town of Pithead where coal dust blows around and unemployed miners gather like penguins. This is a tale sculpted from the lives of the Scottish working class in the ’80s, a grim social reality made tangible, warm, and real by Shuggie and Agnes Bain. In the end, I read this book as a love story. A love story between mother and son and perhaps a love story between the author and his home city of Glasgow. I think this is as close to a perfect novel that I have read this year and it deserves all the accolades coming its way.

 — TRUDIE BATEMAN 10/10

THE NEW WILDERNESS
Diane Cook
Oneworld Publications

It is hard to know if it was the casual mention of Miranda July in the book blurb or the blackly comical early demise of the group’s river-crossing expert in a river-crossing incident (R.I.P. Caroline), that led me to believe that this was going to be some sort of send-up of dystopias. Exchanges like this seemed to be the punch line to a Monty Python skit:

"You've got to head Lower. And you know where I mean, right? Even though it's Lower, it's not just lower." Carl growled, "Lower Middle? Why all the way down there?" "Not Lower Middle. Lower." "But it's right in the middle here" — Carl pointed "and it's lower."

This turned out to be one of several increasingly clunky exchanges that eroded my faith in the writing. And I did start out quite enthused by it. For one thing, it is funny (even if unintentionally) and the premise was engaging. The idea of sending hapless city slickers into a vast designated wilderness area in order to watch them slowly morph from moderately equipped overnight hikers to a nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe seemed like a reality show set up. Community members learn to hunt by trial and error, sew with sinews and debate the need for group consensus. At one point someone ponders the domestication of deer and one character appears to regress to quadrupedal movement. Is this a novel about the perils and joys of de-evolution? The main problem here is a lack of real purpose both for the characters and readers alike. Alas, this is 400 pages of an increasingly meandering and vague pseudo-dystopia and another puzzling inclusion on the Booker longlist.

 — TRUDIE BATEMAN 3/10

THE SHADOW KING
Maaza Mengiste
Canongate

It is 1935 and Ethiopia is on the brink of invasion by the Mussolini-led Italians after their humiliating defeat decades earlier. Emperor Haile Selassie, or Ras Tafari Mekonnen, seeks support abroad in the League of Nations yet is met with complicity through silence. Abandoned by their leader, the Ethiopians organise themselves in the mountains, while the Italians, along with the loyal ascari troops from Eritrea, cross the Gash River. Young Hirut works for and is owned by the wealthy Kidane who, together with wife Aster, herself hardly more than a child, are preparing for war. Kidane is to lead a strong campaign and to this end is summoning bodies and weapons. However, the women, already used to violence and subjugation at the hands of men, plan their own attacks. As ambushes increase and the better-equipped enemy counters with poisoning, mustard gas, and widespread massacres of civilians, the protagonists begin to experience the sense of their own disappearances. Witness to atrocities and unable to help, they are up against the "Butcher of Benghazi" himself, sadist Carlo Fucelli. In tow is war photographer and Jew Ettore Navarra, who is haunted by his family history. His task is to capture dramatic moments as bashed and brutalised prisoners are sent soaring into deep pits. It is into this atmosphere that the Shadow King rises, a duplicate and present emperor. Guarded by women soldiers dressed as the Kebur Zabagnar, the Ethiopian Imperial Guard, he makes for an intimidating spectacle. Performance and subterfuge, ambition, terror and strategy play out in the landscape. This work broaches not only the broader historical events but also a myriad of personal stories of women who have been largely erased from historical accounts. Complex and dense in historical knowledge and detail, The Shadow King addresses whole shades of moral quandaries and degrees of compassion.

 — JESSIE NEILSON 8/10

THIS MOURNABLE BODY
Tsitsi Dangarembga
Faber&Faber

More than 30 years after Tsitsi Dangarembga’s celebrated Nervous Conditions, the trilogy is brought to an end here. Our protagonist Tambu is now middle-aged and bereft. When we catch up with her, she is out of work and soon to be homeless, deemed too old for the hostel in which she is living. Her desperation is palpable and she finds a room with a benevolent but ageing woman, stealing vegetables from her garden and deciding which of her landlady’s sons she may seduce ito secure a brighter future. The wallowing in self-pity and second-person narrative grates somewhat but the pace quickens as Tambu gets a job as a teacher. Like all of her endeavours, however, it ends in catastrophe and she is admitted to a psychiatric ward. As she is nursed back to health by her family, the novel discovers a more nuanced edge as the new and old clash violently. Tambu meets an old school friend — a white Zimbabwean — who gives her a job at her eco-tourism company. Dangarembga creates a vivid portrayal of 1990s Harare — a place where women are simultaneously empowered and subjugated. The novel’s greatest triumph is exploring that plight. Tambu is expected to be everything — bold but vulnerable, independent yet family-focused, modern with an appreciation of her culture’s traditions. No wonder she struggles. The climax is a culmination of all Tambu’s insecurities and desires, when she stakes everything on trying to impress both her boss and her family. Despite a satisfying conclusion there was an emotional numbness to This Mournable Body that was hard to surmount.

 — ROB KIDD 5/10

 

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