THE 2016 SHORTLIST: The Sellout, Hot Milk, His Bloody Project, Eileen, All That Man Is, Do Not Say We Have Nothing
The 2016 Man Booker Shortlist is now out – congratulations to the six authors who've made it.
Check out our reviews of the entire Longlist here (a marathon summer of reading has finally drawn to a close) – we've flagged the Shortlisted books to make it easy for you to keep track of the ones to watch.
The winner will be announced on 25 October.
Hystopia – David Means
Reviewed by Lisa Botwright • 12 September 2016
As a huge fan of dystopian fiction I was immediately drawn to the rather cool title of my last Man Booker Longlist read, and more than intrigued by its sci-fi premise. In an alternative reality, JFK has survived several assassination attempts and is now running his third term. Under his leadership, the Vietnam War is still going strong, but the number of vets returning home psychologically scarred has reached crisis point.
A treatment of sorts has been developed, known as enfolding, and an entire government agency – the Psych Corps – is now dedicated to managing this process. More ominously, they’re also in charge of dealing with those the process doesn’t help: the ‘failed enfolds’.
So far, so original.
The structure of the book is also different. A novel-within-a-novel, it’s ‘written’ by Eugene Allen, another mentally scarred Vietnam vet – and bookended with editor’s notes, and interviews with the friends and relatives of the real-but-imaginary Allen.
This means that rather than the novel being the voice of author David Means, the story is distilled through the violent and damaged Allen. Perhaps Means thought that this would bring an authentic flavour to the story – and maybe bring a bridge between our reality and the violent social reality of the book.
Confusingly though, the novel isn’t written in the first person by Allen – it’s not biographical. After learning about him in the preface, we then have to let his character go and become immersed in our new protagonists. These are two heterosexual couples: a pair of Psych Corps agents and the psychopathic ‘failed enfold’ named Rake, along with his hostage, that the agents are assigned to track.
I’m fascinated by the theory of enfolding. It seems to involve taking a large quantity of a hallucinatory drug called Tripizoid, and then bizarrely recreating the patient’s most disturbing memories. In an illogical ‘double positive’ this process reverses the memory and folds it away inside the vet’s brain. The problem is that it doesn’t work on everyone, and as one Psych Corps agent attests, ‘Tripizoid, in the case of a failed enfold, doesn’t allow for the proper state of redress. A failed enfold simply takes the Causal Events Package and amplifies it.’ This has resulted in so many doubly traumatised ex-soldiers on the loose that the huge chunk of Michigan originally set aside for their rehabilitation is now subject to Mad Max-style terror and anarchy.
Unfortunately, I’m not as interested in the characterisation and the plot. There is so much chaos and so much violence, often exacerbated by the distorted prism of drug taking, that I stopped caring about any aspect of this novel. I know that war is chaotic and violent, and that the futility of it all is one of the major themes, but the best books on the subject still reflect the human, emotional experience. It’s often this contrast that makes them so powerful.
I understand that David Means is admired for his short stories, and this is why ‘Hystopia’, his debut novel, is often described in the press as ‘long-awaited.’ In my view, though, a kernel of a great idea has been drawn out longer than the ill-fated Vietnam War. A successful short story maybe, but as a 300 page-plus novel, it left me cold.
Serious Sweet – AL Kennedy
Reviewed by Jill Glenn • 12 September 2016
The idea of concentrating a novel’s action into a single day is intriguing enough, although it’s been done before. Expertly. Think Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’; think James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’; think Ian McEwan’s ‘Saturday’. Or don’t. Actually, don’t think of these at all, because it will unrealistically elevate your expectations of this shambling marathon of a book, in which two sad individuals make their slow, stumbling way towards each other in a painfully long 24 hour story arc.
There’s no rule, of course, that says a novel’s protagonists have to be likeable – but when you’re asking your readers to live with them for around 520 pages, it might be kind to make them just a little bit more appealing than middle-aged civil servant Jon Sigurdsson, whose depression (‘I’ve mislived the whole of my life’) weighs us all down from the start, and fragile recovering alcoholic Meg Williams, a bankrupt accountant filled with painful self-loathing. I’m not unsympathetic to their situations, but the endless pages of interior monologue from both – printed in italics, just so that we know we’re meant to be inside their heads – become very tedious. The cleverness of the conceit wears off very quickly, and it erodes the precision of language that one associates with AL Kennedy’s writing.
The plot is paper-thin, although better execution would overcome that. Recovering from his divorce, and unable to properly express his affection for his daughter, Jon has sought solace in fake relationships, offering his services as a writer of letters – ‘expressions of affection and respect delivered weekly’ to discerning women. It’s as disconnected a way of getting and giving warmth as is possible to imagine, and Jon has proved to have just the right skill to make it work. Meg is one of his recipients. Before the book opens she has tracked him down, engineered a meeting and they have tentatively begun to connect in real life. On the day we spend with them, they are due to get together: it’s a ‘will they, won’t they?’ scenario as Jon constantly postpones the plan as his arrangements – and his confidence – fall apart.
One of the novel’s saving graces is its setting: London. The city itself has a rich, vivid presence that forms a solid backdrop to these meandering lives and endless interior landscapes. Kennedy draws our attention to ‘the complicated metallic cylinder rising up near Vauxhall, the vast stab of glass at London Bridge’ and to ‘priggishly well-trimmed Chiswick’.
She also does intimacy well, but incidences are few and far between in this account of disconnected, disaffected lives. Meg works for an animal charity (in the office; perish the idea that she might actually connect with creatures under their care), and finds herself ‘adopted’ by a resident elderly spaniel. It’s hard to quote from this relationship without sounding mawkish, but there are some delicate moments that hint at the brilliant writer that Kennedy can be. They offer a leaven in the lump of consciously clever over-writing that predominates.
There’s also humour and satire – a lot of dark poking fun at the constraints of modern life, at political elites, at the nouveau riche whom Jon despises so profoundly. There’s just not enough of it.
‘Serious Sweet’ is definitely serious; sadly, it’s not particularly sweet. Never have 24 hours felt so long…
The Many – Wyl Menmuir
Reviewed by Lisa Botwright • 9 September 2016
It’s rare when you finish a book to turn straight to the first page again, but that’s exactly what I did with The Many and a mark of how powerful and original I found the storyline.
The novel is set in an isolated fishing village on a contaminated coastline. First we meet local fisherman Ethan and learn that he is mourning the loss of his friend, Perran, who apparently drowned in a tragic accident in the violent, threatening sea that Ethan navigates every day. It’s through Ethan’s eyes that we learn that a newcomer – an ‘emmet’ – has moved in to Perran’s near-derelict former house and we get our first hint of the hostility and suspicion that the visitor’s arrival arouses.
Next we meet the ‘emmet’, Timothy, who has arrived from the city and who quickly gets to work to restore his new property. The novel continues to interweave Ethan and Timothy’s experiences and reflections as the story unfolds.
It’s clear that, for Timothy, the village is as far from an idyllic seaside retreat as is possible; to be honest, a holiday home in Chernobyl would probably be less toxic and more welcoming. An ominous and highly charged atmosphere is set from the very beginning, and builds steadily, becoming more powerful on each turn of the page, until we wonder why on earth Timothy would put up with such malevolence.
Only Timothy and Ethan’s characters are fully drawn. The rest of the villagers blend into one amorphous wave of hatred and resentment, alternating between shocking, and occasionally comically clichéd. “You’re not a local!” I expect them to chant, League of Gentlemen-style. Only the strange, silent woman in grey stands out in an intriguing and, later, highly portentous way.
When Timothy tries to engage with the villagers, and learn more about the mysterious Perran, you just know it’s all going to end in tears. And it does. In one part, Timothy ‘wonders what he has done to bring this down on himself.’ Poor Timothy, what indeed?
Never mind Timothy’s struggle to find out more, though, what about mine as a reader? This is a novel that poses many more questions than are answered, and although I love books like these, without neat conclusions, here the ending is so disorderly it’s positively ragged.
Who exactly is Perran? Who is the woman in grey? Who are the strange men in suits who line the beach after every fishing expedition and must buy up every single one of the strange deformed fish that are caught?
Towards the end, something shocking is revealed. And, of course, I can’t tell you what it is. But it casts the novel in an entirely different light. It’s like a buoyancy aid thrown to a swimmer struggling in strong current; I cling to it as a clue to to the true nature of the novel, although am still left perilously directionless.
I was lucky enough to be able to discuss this with Wyl Menmuir himself (read our exclusive interview with him in the next issue of the magazine). “Yes,” he said, “I’m aware that it’s not an easy read, and that answers are not always evident – I knew that from the outset, but I really believe that readers want to dig a bit to get to the narrative truths, that they want to engage with texts and have a developing relationship with them.”
Quite so. It’s thoroughly different (but just as engaging), on a second reading… And maybe this time I’ll work out who the woman in grey really is!
All That Man Is – David Szalay
Reviewed by Jill Glenn • 9 September 2016
When is a novel not a novel? Answer: when it’s David Szalay’s ‘All That Man Is’ – nine vignettes, each of a man at a different stage in life (we start with a teenager, and end with a man in old age) in the contemporary world. These are hardly short stories; although there are limited connections between them they work as a set – but they are, nevertheless, not quite a novel. They have one thing in common: each man is away from home. There are Englishmen in Europe, Europeans in England – everyone trying to understand, consciously or unconsciously, something about belonging.
They are, predominantly, men you wouldn’t wish to meet. Occasionally they have their sweet sides, but there’s an undercurrent of corruption and self-interest in more than one of these lives. They are trying to get by – indeed, they are getting by – in shady, suspicious circumstances with behaviours designed to isolate them even more from the realities and relationships that they appear to crave. They are lonely, but little that they do suggests that that could change. And yet, unpleasant as so many of them are, they are not unpleasant to read about. That’s mainly to do with Szalay’s generosity towards them: he lets them be who they are; tells their stories without judgment. The writing is thoughtful and economical, with a great sense of place.
Szalay is skilful in plunging us straight into the next life, as soon as he’s finished with the previous one: ‘It is light when he leaves the hotel’ – or, ‘Every morning he takes his daughters to school’ – or, ‘It is ten o’clock in the morning and the kitchen is full of standing smoke and the smell of stuffed cabbages.’ You have to keep your wits about you, but the effort is worth it. He wastes little time on backstories, but within a few lines you seem to know everything you need. And he rarely resorts to caricature.
If this is indeed ‘all that man is’, man is not terribly impressive. The book, though; that’s a different matter.
My Name is Lucy Barton - Elizabeth Strout
Reviewed by Jill Glenn • 6 September 2016
Elizabeth Strout’s ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ was the only one of the Man Booker Longlist that I’d already read before the judges made their selection. Its quiet story made a powerful impact on me back in the spring, but I certainly couldn’t recall it well enough to write a review now. Never mind, I thought; I’ll just be able to skim it. That’ll do fine.
This is a book that demands your time and your respect, even on a second reading. Especially on a second reading. Its premise is simple: a woman lies ill in a hospital bed in Manhattan, and is visited by her mother from whom she has been estranged for many years. They spend five days together; her mother sits by her bed, apparently unsleeping, and talks – anecdotes about people they have both known (frequently people whose marriages have failed, or whose lives have not gone according to plan) – while Lucy listens. ‘It was the sound of my mother’s voice I most wanted; what she said didn’t matter,’ Lucy recalls, from the vantage of many years later. The little vignettes of life in Amgash, Illinois, are not the point, however. The telling and the listening serve as a conduit for the transfer of affection between the two women. They speak only obliquely of this; the mother refuses to tell her daughter that she loves her (her pain at being asked the question is so delicately conveyed) but by the time she writes the story Lucy has come to terms with this, and is keen to tell the reader so. ‘I feel that people may not understand that my mother could never say the words I love you. I feel that people may not understand: It was all right.’ It’s hard to believe her.
In between the conversations with her mother, and the small medical incidents that fill these slow five days, Lucy reveals other aspects of her life, as adult and as child. It’s both a joyful and a painful read. Her childhood was deprived in every way, and she barely has the words to convey it. Practically, physically, she has escaped her past: she won a scholarship to college (‘My parents did not say much about this… It was the guidance counselor who drove me to the college on blistering hot day’), moved to New York, is married with two small daughters, and has an embryonic career as a writer. Her mother is interested in none of this.
I may have made this sound depressing. It’s not. There is melancholy, but there is also hope – and there is a quality of stillness at the heart of Strout’s writing here that confers a kind of peace on the reader. It’s a lovely, brave examination of the nature of families and what makes us who we are, and it has honesty at its core.
Read it. Don’t skim it.
The North Water - Ian McGuire
Reviewed by Lisa Botwright • 5 September 2016
Perhaps it’s because I’ve a young son similar in age to the boy who is brutally raped at the beginning of Ian McGuire’s ‘The North Water’… Perhaps it’s because my taste in the macabre is slightly more subtle than the remorseless violence, relentlessly played out on every page of the novel… Perhaps it’s because I was on holiday when I read this, and the contrast between my own blue skies and warm, welcoming sand with the grey skies and deadly cruelty of the Arctic Circle was too great.… It’s definitely because I’m an animal lover that the gung-ho butchery and unnecessary cruelty of every four-legged beast the seamen come across became seared inside my head. For all these reasons, I found this story of a nineteenth century gang of sailors on an ill-fated whaling ship wholly unpalatable.
It’s not that McGuire isn't an incredible writer – he’s almost too good; in fact, far too capable of sketching a dark, uncompromising world where every sense is assaulted. And for me, this was mostly my sense of revulsion. Not just of the violence, but also of the reek of effluence that follows you through the story, the continual reference to every kind of male evacuations you can imagine. Oh and probably some you can’t. This is a man’s world in the most squalid sense.
At one point the captain says of a crew member, ‘He’s a brute, but so are half the men on this bark. If you are seeking persons of gentleness and refinement, the Greenland Whaling trade ship is not the place to look for it.’ Quite.
Even the main character, the hero in the loosest sense, whose back story is the most well developed (inspiring a very slight degree of empathy), is still deeply objectionable. Saying he’s less unpleasant than the rest of the crew is a bit like saying that having your fingernails ripped out would be less unpleasant than having your whole arm chopped off.
For the most part, propelling through this book was like being an unwilling spectator in a Roman amphitheatre or being forced to make bets during an underground dog fight. The violence is so gloriously revelled in and vividly realised, that I could taste and smell the blood.
As you might guess, about half way through, I decided I just couldn’t go on. Loath as I am to upset my Editor, with whom I’d shared out the Longlist to review, I just couldn't read any more. So I swam and sunbathed, and mentally wrote out my resignation letter, as the characters’ plight and the darkness of the setting continued to float around my head.
And as is the case with the very best kind of writing, I found that I was hooked, and drawn to revisiting those barbaric characters fighting for their lives in the grim Arctic Circle. But for what? I wondered. Not for any kind of sympathy, but maybe for some kind of closure?
Thankfully – and to borrow one of McGuire’s many, many great lines – I found that on finishing the book, my mind was like ‘a long, grey wave that has been gathering force and finally reaches the shore’… calm at last.
Hot Milk – Deborah Levy
Reviewed by Lisa Botwright • 2 September 2016
Set in the claustrophobic heat of southern Spain, ‘Hot Milk’ explores the complicated and toxic relationship between mother and daughter, Rose and Sophie.
There’s little relief for our clever and beautiful, but lonely protagonist. As the sole carer of her hypochondriac mother, Sophie veers from anger at her situation (‘my mother is like a gangster, mugging my life’) to deep love and tenderness. The malevolent medusas (the Spanish word for jellyfish) are lying in wait for Sophie in the cool, otherwise welcoming, Mediterranean sea, and the fierce sun beats overhead; at home her mother’s unhappiness suffocates her.
No wonder Sophie tells us repeatedly she is frightened – but what is she most frightened of? Her suppressed anger and frustration? Her lack of control?
The pair have re-mortgaged their London home and travelled to a remote, private hospital in a last-ditch attempt to find the root of Rose’s mysterious ailments. The unorthodox Dr Gómez is reassuringly perceptive and has little sympathy for his patient’s demanding neediness; at the same time, he turns his attention to Sophie, setting her a series of ‘tasks’, designed to challenge her. At one point he instructs her to steal a fish from the local market, to pattern the way that Rose has ‘stolen’ her daughter’s life.
By the time that Sophie rescues an abused and chained up dog, whose wretched howls have been disturbing the whole village, we are cheering for her to shake off her own metaphorical chains.
The book is heavily influenced by Hélène Cixous’ seminal feminist text ‘The Laugh of the Medusas’, a quotation from which precedes the opening chapter. Sophie’s control begins to unravel when she is ‘stung into desire’ by the marauding jellyfish, forcing her to focus on her own physicality. As her mother rejects her own body (‘they should just cut off my toes’), Sophie conversely becomes empowered by an awakening sensuality.
Deborah Levy has said previously that she is ‘more interested in repression than depression’. The theme surfaces in her earlier Booker long listed title, Swimming Home, and recurs in a major way here.
This is also a story of seeking security in one’s identity. Sophie is as lost as the displaced medusas, as she floats without direction between her English and Greek heritage; indeed she’s called both Sophie and Sofia interchangeably. There’s a heartbreaking section in which she travels to Greece to appeal to her estranged father for support, and finds him more interested in his religion and new young family.
Ironically, the only person really taking an interest in the minutiae of Sophie’s life is a mysterious stalker, whose sometimes tender and sometimes chilling voice we hear briefly in-between chapters. The effect is sinister, and adds an even edgier depth to a story crowded with tension.
This is by far my favourite of my Man Booker reading to date. It’s not all harrowing, there’s plenty of dry wit from Sophie, which brings a welcome lightness to the novel. I found myself utterly compelled by her story of burgeoning self awareness, and devoured the book in a matter of hours.
Work Like Any Other – Virginia Reeves
Reviewed by Jill Glenn • 2 September 2016
Virginia Reeves’s first novel, ‘Work Like Any Other’, is plainly, elegantly written, and engaging from page one. It’s both a fascinating slice of social and penal history, and a moving account of a man and a marriage under enormous pressure.
We are in rural Alabama in the 1920s, where electricity is scarce and the agricultural life hard. Roscoe T Martin, an electrician by trade and passion, is forced to abandon his livelihood when his wife inherits her father’s failing farm. Bitter and miserable as a result, he sees, and seizes, a solution: he siphons power from the state, ‘stepping it down’ with transformers to run on new lines to the house and the barn, telling his wife it’s legal. The business flourishes; his marriage revives. And then a man is electrocuted (‘worst death I’ve witnessed in my life,’ the sheriff tells him) as a result of Roscoe’s handiwork, and nothing is ever the same again.
Rest assured that I’ve not spoiled the book for you: most of the above is revealed in the first paragraph, and the story then moves both backwards and forwards, explaining what happened, and when, and why. You read ‘Work Like Any Other’ not for the plot (although there’s an intriguing twist at the end) but for the quality of the writing, for its soul, and its spirit.
Chapters are penned alternately by Roscoe and the author; it’s a measure of Reeves’s success that as each voice starts its new narrative, you’re reluctant to leave the mindset you’ve just occupied… and that within a paragraph or two you’re completely absorbed again.
Roscoe’s years in Kilby Prison are painfully shared. There is brutality from staff and fellow inmates alike, rejection by his wife (not a woman who endears herself to the reader), and forced estrangement from his son. There is work, as dairy hand – ironically, given his loathing of farming – and as librarian, and as ‘dog boy’, tracking down and retrieving prison escapees. It’s a hard furrow to plough. Later we learn that what happened to his farm manager, Wilson (a black man who has worked the land all his life) after arrest and conviction makes Roscoe’s experience look like a rest cure.
Roscoe has plenty of time to examine his conscience. Of course, what he did was wrong… but he did it for all the right reasons. With its themes of intimacy and estrangement, identity and loss, guilt and penance, redemption and forgiveness, this is an exceptional first novel.
To call it ‘electrifying’ would be a cheap thrill – but an irresistible one. ‘Work Like Any Other’ is utterly electrifying. I suspect it will prove too slight to win the big prize, but it certainly deserves its place on the Longlist.
The Schooldays of Jesus – JM Coetzee
Reviewed by Lisa Botwright • 30 August 2016
Coetzee is the first author to have won the Man Booker Prize twice and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. So far, so awe-struck. With such lavish plaudits heaped high, this will surely be an incredible read.
But there’s always a danger in having high expectations, as I am to realise…
The book starts immediately where the prequel, The Childhood of Jesus, concludes. To make sure I get the best from ‘Schooldays’, I speed-read ‘Childhood’; it helps, certainly, though by the time I finish it, I already have misgivings.
‘Childhood’ tells us how Simon and David arrive as immigrants on a boat from a mysterious unnamed country. Simon is not David’s father, but his self-appointed guardian, kindly stepping in when David loses his mother in the hectic upheaval of the boat journey. Simon initially makes it his mission to find David’s birth mother, but in a mystifyingly deluded absence of tenacity, collars a complete stranger (Ines, a woman he takes a shine to when she plays tennis) and insists that she is the boy’s mother. ‘We went searching for his mother – and behold! – we found her. Now the two of them are reunited, and they are very happy together.’
Having established their unconventional family the three seek to forge a new life for themselves. ‘Schooldays’ focuses on the attempt to educate David: easier said than done, as we find out.
Simon and Ines’s little darling doesn’t like formal education and would, funnily enough, much prefer to run around semi-feral on the farm where the family are initially based. After mercilessly winding up teacher after teacher (‘You did not listen to Señor Robles. You undermined him, You made fun of him,’ Simon huffs despairingly,) the adorable child is indulgently sent to the bohemian Academy of Dance: a school dedicated to ‘guiding the souls of students, bringing them in accord with the great underlying movement of the universe.’ Pretentious? Surely non.
This is where the tempo steps up (just a touch…), when there is a surprise murder at the academy. David has developed a friendship with the killer and struggles to separate his intuitive loyalty from the amorality of his friend’s crime. Cue lots of ethical debate between David and Simon on the question of human nature and the consequences of untamed passion.
There are many such debates between different characters scattered throughout the novel, but the dialogue often seems jarring and stilted, oddly formal and definitely incohesive; it is as if Coetzee suddenly decides that it’s time to debate a particular theme and moulds the characters’ conversation accordingly, despite the context.
Initially I wonder if the novel has been translated from another language, but no – one of the criteria for the Man Booker is that submissions must have been written in English. I concede that since the the main characters are immigrants, they are speaking in a newly acquired language, and speculate, therefore, that this must be a conscious structure to convey the characters’ disconnection. Research tells me, however, that it is a recognised style of Coetzee’s writing. It doesn’t endear itself to me…
But I realised that I wasn’t doing myself any favours for being frustrated with what the book lacked (engaging plot, likeable characters etc.) and should try and understand what it is all about. Those disjointed debates that I so took against are in fact the key to the concept: the book is a vehicle for Coetzee to debate big questions in the form of an allegorical tale.
Simon (down-to-earth, pragmatic, working class; not quite a carpenter, but almost) fails to find David’s birth mother, because the story demands a virgin in the maternal role. The family run away to Estrella (little star), and there find three wise sisters to take care of them (the sisters pay David’s school fees). It’s a farm, and when they arrive, they’re directed to stay in a comfy outhouse – and amongst all those animals, I’m sure there must be a woolly lamb somewhere.
And so is David (of the House of David?) the eponymous Jesus? Well… he questions the accepted norms of the society he’s in, he loves sinners and he defends the weak. But, seriously, to the reader, he’s pretty insufferable.
The aspect of the story I found most frustrating, and where I did (almost) sympathise with David, was with Simon’s failure to recognise his adopted son’s need to find out more about his life before they immigrated. What was David’s real name (their names are allocated by officials upon arrival at the beginning of the first book)? Who are his real parents? Where did he come from? David rails against the stolid Simon’s belief that names are meaningless: ‘the boy could equally well have had sixty-six attached to him’ and his refusal to indulge in memories, ‘I have my intuitions, but intuitions are not memories,’ Simon says. It’s only natural for children to want to understand their heritage, but in the context of an allegory – of course, Jesus will be the one to insist upon the importance of understanding where we come from.
This is a novel to be deliberated over and picked apart, rather than read as a whole for entertainment. Despite studying some philosophy at undergraduate level, I still find Coetzee’s writing mostly inaccessible. If I concentrate hard enough, I can catch references to Kafka, Dostoevsky and Plato, but only as unreachable mirages glimmering tantalisingly out of reach. I’m afraid I’m simply not clever enough for Coetzee – but I have a feeling that I won’t be in the minority. Lamentably, I also have a feeling that this is why Coetzee may be heading for a Man Booker hat trick.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien
Reviewed by Jill Glenn • 30 August 2016
Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the third novel from Madeleine Thien, a Canadian writer of Malaysian-Chinese heritage, is a big, powerful, demanding read. It sprawls across the decades from the 1940s to the present day, recounting China’s revolutionary history through two families, each with music at their heart. This is a book that beguiles its reader from its opening sentences – ‘In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.’ – pulling at your heart before the first page is through. Melancholy pervades the novel, but there is humour and tenderness too.
The year in question is 1990; the narrator, Marie (aka Li-ling), is looking back to her eleventh year, when her life, already turned upside down by the loss of her father, is shortly to be further disturbed by the addition to her Vancouver home of Ai-ming, a young woman who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests.
The story that follows – uncovered with difficulty (Marie’s Chinese is basic at best) – is complex, multi-layered and multi-generational. There are narratives within narratives. Timelines shift without warning. Keep a pen and paper to hand, if necessary, to note down the relationships (and to prevent your reading being accompanied by your own muttered soundtrack along the lines of ‘So… Da Shan is Flying Bear’s brother… that must mean that Swirl is his aunt… and Wen the Dreamer, he’s…’).
Essentially, though, despite an extensive cast of characters who disappear and reappear (often sentenced to time in labour camps and then ‘resurrected’), the story revolves around Marie’s father Kai (a pianist), his friend and mentor, Sparrow (a composer) and Sparrow’s cousin, Zhuli (a young violinist), all of whom are studying at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music at the start of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The classical western music that preoccupies them is immediately forbidden; their adherence to it is – in different ways for each of them – their undoing. Thien does not shy away from the unpalatable, but their persecution – set against real events such as the ‘struggle session’ (a public meeting for the purpose of torture and humiliation) of He Luting, director of the Conservatory – is elegantly told. How they, their elders and their children navigate the political shifts and uncertainties from which no-one is safe forms the basis of this epic work. Themes of trust, loyalty, faith and truth persist throughout. Indeed, you could subtitle it Secrets and Lies.
Impressive in ambition and achievement, Do Not Say We Have Nothing achieves both intimacy and scope. Definitely one for the Shortlist.
Eileen - Ottess Moshfegh
Reviewed by Lisa Botwright • 26 August 2016
We're introduced to the young and eponymous heroine through a mature narrator – Eileen fifty years in the future. Old Eileen is disdainful of her younger self and hints that her true personality was under wraps. ‘I was not myself back then. I was someone else.’ The theme of repression is clear in the way that she dresses, ‘I was a prude. I wore heavy wool skirts that fell past my knees and always buttoned my jackets and blouses as high as they could go.’
As the extent of young Eileen's miserable existence is revealed to us, we find reassurance in the knowledge that she escapes and moves on from ‘the brutal cold town’ where she was born and raised; that she takes lovers and grows old. We root for her, but we often disapprove too, in a cycle of nauseous waves.
It's revealed early on that something dramatic happens to cause young Eileen to leave town suddenly, and the older woman relives the experience of the days that changed the course of her life. This story, we learn, is all about the chrysalis, rather than the butterfly that emerges later.
We pity the young girl who's lost her mother (we're not spared the details of the slow, painful death) and spends her time shuffling between a miserable job as a secretary in a young offender's unit (‘I didn't trust the staff. The most dangerous individuals are not the criminal but the very people who work there’) and caring for her abusive, alcoholic father. ‘He disgusted everyone, he was fearful and crazy the way old drunks get.’ In such an environment, her self-loathing is understandable: ‘I thought I was the worst. Ugly, disgusting.’
The sense of foreboding is built superbly. Every aspect of Eileen's existence is surrounded by threat; from the dagger-like icicles hanging over the doorway that she must pass under every day – ‘I imagined one plummeting through the hollow of my collarbone and stabbing me straight through the heart’ – to the noxious exhaust fumes leaking from her truck. Too frightened to draw attention to this in case her only independence is taken away from her, Eileen drives with her window down, opting to freeze in preference to succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning. ‘Several times that winter with the car windows up I'd fallen nearly asleep at the wheel. One night I veered off the road and into a snowbank.’ We sympathise with the implication that no one would miss her, with the possible exception of her father – although whether that would be because he loves her or because he would have to rouse himself to buy his own gin, both Eileen and the reader are unsure.
Her relationship with her father is complicated, quasi-sexual. ‘I felt like killing my father, but didn't want him to die,’ she says; it sums up the situation perfectly. As I read, I shake my head many, many times at his nastiness – at times, almost pantomime villain; at others, much more sinister. The only example of physical affection she recounts is when her father grabs at her breast. Little wonder she covers herself up.
She deals with her lamentable circumstances by reducing herself to nothing – denying herself nourishing food, and, indeed, denying all her appetites. ‘A grown woman is like a coyote – she can get by on very little,’ the young Eileen pretends. Her only release is when she takes laxatives, and the delight when her bowels 'explode' is described in semi-orgasmic rapture.
Although we empathise, the fact that we're often also sickened and revolted is reflected in the same way that Eileen herself is both fascinated and repelled by her own physicality. She feels that her body is both a weapon and something to tame and repress.
She initially has a crush on a security guard from the prison, Randy, but he is a two-dimensional character, merely there as a foil for Eileen's naive fantasies. It's only when Rebecca, an education professional hired by the prison's Chief Warden, appears in the story, that Eileen's drab black and white existence turns technicolour. ‘Rebecca was a dream to me, she was magic, she was powerful and everything I wanted to be.’
Miraculously, it seems to Eileen, the two embark on a tentative friendship, and, like a wildflower opening to receive the morning sun, Eileen basks in this hitherto unknown warmth and attention. But what kind of bloom will emerge from such highly damaged roots?
This is a good old-fashioned page-turner, and, while sublimely and atmospherically written, is easily one of the most accessible reads on the Longlist. A fine example of a psychological thriller, its suspense holds the reader mesmerised until the final, fateful climax.
His Bloody Project – Graham Macrae Burnet
Reviewed by Jill Glenn • 25 August 2016
From the start there’s something odd about Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project. With its subtitle (Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae) the implication is that it’s fact – and the Preface is composed in such a way as to support this interpretation. Macrae Burnet, or, as he signs himself here, GMB, describes the finding of a manuscript ‘that comprises the largest part of this volume’, discusses its authenticity, refers to his own ‘view of the case’ and suggests that the reader can consult the paperwork which remains ‘in the archives at Inverness’.
Already the reader – or this reader, at least – is confused. Surely this is the Man Booker prize for Fiction? What is this collection of found documents, however ably assembled by the author, doing on the Longlist? By the time I’ve fallen in with the idea that the whole thing is an elaborate, multi-layered hoax, I’m irritated and unsettled. Perhaps that’s what Macrae Burnet wanted – and certainly that sense of confusion persists throughout. Macrae Burnet sets himself at the heart of a manipulation of the convention of the unreliable narrator: he is both author and ‘author’. His ‘collection of papers’ allows multiple interpretations of events, and none of the versions quite add up.
The story is simple. It’s 1869. Roddy Macrae, 17, has murdered three people: one, a neighbour, an enemy of Roderick’s father, who has made his family’s life a misery for years; the other two, in modern parlance, collateral damage. ‘Their deaths were necessitated by their presence… and my wish to prevent them from raising the alarm.’ The first half of the book is largely Roddy’s own ‘account’; the second comprises medical reports, and a description of the trial.
There is, of course, no question that Roddy committed the crimes – enough witnesses have seen him covered in blood, and he admits both guilt and intention; the court process is designed to question his motive – and his sanity? Is he, as some would have it, a bright boy tipped over the edge by the almost Kafka-esque bullying he and his father experience at the hands of Lachlan Broad – or has he, as others assert, always been away with the fairies?
There’s no denying that at one level this is a good read (and as undemanding as you’d expect from something the greater part of which purports to be the words of a dysfunctional 17 year old)… but, by the time sentence is pronounced on young Roderick, I’ve largely lost interest. By pretending he was real, Macrae Burnet has made him less easy to care about. Fiction can tell some great truths, but masquerading as fact isn’t the way to go about it.
As social history, His Bloody Project is engaging; as an exposé of the brutality of the crofting system and its feudal relationships, it’s heartbreaking; as an insight into the birth of criminal anthropology, it’s fascinating. As a coherent novel, though, it’s sadly lacking: definitely less than the sum of its parts. I’m still at a loss to know why it’s on the Longlist.
The Sellout – Paul Beatty
Reviewed by Lisa Botwright • 23 August 2016
A couple of pages into Paul Beatty’s 'The Sellout' and I’m out of breath, my head is spinning – but there’s also a huge smile plastered over my face. I’d kill to come up with even one of Beatty’s devastatingly brilliant punchlines – Beatty himself litters the pages with them and keeps them coming throughout the novel with machine gun rapidity.
The (anti) hero of the novel grows up on an urban farm in the middle of Dickens, a ghetto community in southern LA – and a community so black and poor that when there is an attempt to find an international twin city it fails disastrously. “Juarez (aka the City that Never Stops Bleeding) feels that Dickens is too violent. Chernobyl, while tempted, feel that, in the end, Dickens’ proximity to the Los Angeles River and sewage treatment plants is a problem. And Kinshasa, of the Democratic Republic Republic of the Congo think Dickens is too black.”
It’s blazing quotes like these that, as I read, makes me start to turn the pages down to mark the most memorable lines: completely self-defeating, of course, since almost every single page ends up folded. This could be the cleverest satire since ‘Catch-22’ - which is, incidentally, the main character’s favourite read.
We learn about his highly dysfunctional childhood, with an absent mother, and home-schooled by a cold, academic father – an eminent social scientist who never misses the opportunity to use his only son as a Piaget-style lab rat. “I wasn’t loved, but brought up in an atmosphere of calculated intimacy and intense levels of commitment,” the hero reflects.
The novel is written in the first person throughout and we follow the protagonist’s attempt to bring segregation and slavery – yes, slavery -– back to Dickens. This lands him in the Supreme Court, which is where, circular-style, the novel begins and ends.
It’s a mark of Beatty’s perspicacity that we’re tongue-in-cheek rooting for the segregation to work. “People grouse at first, but [it] makes them humble. Makes them realise how far we’ve come, and more importantly, how far we have to go…It’s like the spectre of segregation has brought Dickens together.”
This is a novel that should be read by anyone with an interest in social and cultural affairs. There are themes of cultural identity versus ambition, nature versus nurture, race versus class. “Is integration social order or social entropy?” the hero, whose name we never learn, muses at one point, reflecting on his own isolated and most extreme example of segregated, homeschooled education.
Living in leafy Chorleywood (where my only experience of The Hood is on my raincoat), I did wonder whether I would find the novel accessible. But it’s much more far-reaching and universally relevant than the experience of a single Californian black man. (Tellingly, Dickens is ultimately twinned with the Lost City of White Male Privilege.)
This is not, of course, a relaxing bedtime read. The energy and incisiveness of the writing –obviously its strength – is also a little bit like being poked repeatedly with an electric cattle prod: I had to take a deep breath and brace myself every time I picked the book up. The pace of the jokes and the satire are sometimes also a little distracting from the very real tenderness with which he paints his key characters, and movingly describes their unpalatable experiences.
In short – reeling as the punchlines come flying towards you and marvelling at its ferocious intelligence – this is a novel to consume rapidly, with a generous side serving of oxygen.