Booker Prize Shortlist: 2022

Opinions inevitably vary when it comes to placing preferences for one item above another (the Oscars, anyone?). Certainly no difference here as, having read all the books on the 2022 Booker Prize shortlist, the personal burning question is – did the judges make the right call?

Shortlisted books first:
Glory – NoViolet Bulowayo
The Trees – Percival Everett
Treacle Walker – Alan Garner
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida – Shehan Karunatilaka
Small Things Like These – Claire Keegan
Oh William! – Elizabeth Strout

It’s a pretty consistent list although surprised that neither Young Mungo (Douglas Stuart, winner in 2020) nor To Paradise (Hanya Yanagihara) even made the longlist – and personally would have loved to see The Colony by Audrey Magee make the shortlist.

So what of the six – and did the judges make the right call in awarding the 2022 Booker Prize to Shehan Karunatilaka and The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida?

The last book on the list I read shores up the shortlist at the bottom of the pile. The final book of a trilogy, Oh William! is by far the weakest of the three as Elizabeth Strout continues to follow the narrative life story of Lucy Barton. It’s a pity as the first two made for great reading of a woman who came from nothing and Amgash, Illinois to become a successful writer.  Instead, whilst a tale eminently readable, Oh William! is not as commanding or engrossing as its predecessors. (60%)

At 87, Alan Garner became the oldest shortlisted author in the 60 years of the Booker Prize. An author from my childhood – the fantasies of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath rivalled the Narnia tales of C.S.Lewis as holiday and bedtime reading – Treacle Walker is a playful and luminous novella on the art of storytelling and a beautifully written, evocative fusion of a tale that is difficult to categorise. (62%)

Two down and four to go – and interestingly, to my mind there’s very little between them – but unlike the judges of the 2019 Booker Prize who presented a tie with Bernadine Evaristo (Girl, Woman, Other) and Margaret Atwood (The Testaments), a decision is to be made. So, being aware that the four are interchangeable according to the day read – fourth on the list is the eventual winner of the 2022 Booker Prize, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.

Mordantly funny, brimming with pathos, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida looks to explore and expose the carnage of Sri Lanka’s civil wars. Described as part ghost story, part whodunnit, part political satire, it’s a crazy ride as the story looks to identify the killers of acclaimed war photographer and narrator of the book, Maali Almeida. It’s a frenetic novel that is incisive, frustrating, funny, confusing and was lauded by the judges for its ambition in scope and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques. (70%)

Calm and reflective, Claire Keegan’s novella Small Things Like These is short in word count, morally visceral in impact. It places Ireland’s inhumane Magdalene Laundries under the microscope. Ostensibly a home for ‘fallen women’, the laundries in local Catholic convents were found throughout Ireland where the young women experienced everything from deprivation to abuse and death. Short and capacious, it is a deeply affecting debut novel. (71%)

Glory is the novel I thought would pick up the prize. A coruscating African Animal Farm, a commentary on global politics, a bitter yet, at times, incredibly and bitingly funny chorus against corrupt Zimbabwean politician Robert Mugabe, Glory is NoViolet Bulawayo’s follow up to her 2013 literary debut, We Need New Names. It’s an equally deeply political and social observation of life in Zimbabwe. But, in cloaking her world and her characters in the voices of animals, Bulawayo avoids potential tome-like overt political agitprop. Instead, she can call out and emphasise the absurdities of politics, both localised and global, and how the common people are impacted in an accessible energy of a novel. (72%)

But my preference falls on new-to-me American author, Percival Everett and The Trees. Everett has written more than 20 novels and was Pulitzer Prize shortlisted in 2020. But few of his books have made it outside the States. Comic masterpiece The Trees will change all that. A dark social satire that directly addresses racism past and present in a bold and shocking way, it also mixes in old-fashioned pulp fiction film noir storylines of murder. It’s a page-turning comic horror of a novel: it also topped the best of the 2022 Booker Prize list for me. (74%).

Yet although it was not my preferred choice, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, because of that ambition in scope and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques was arguably a good call to win the Booker in 2022. My jury is out on that one.

‘Quo Vadis, Aida’

Harrowing and brutal, the UN camp in Srebrenica with its thousands of terrified townsfolk is threatened by the invading Bosnian Serb army under the barbarous General Ratko Mladic (Boris Isakovic – Last Christmas, Circles).

As interpreter, Aida Selmanagic (Jasna Djuricic – White White World, Circles) is the go-between for the Dutch UN troops and locals. As she translates information between the peacekeepers and the Serbs, among the rising chaos and panic Aida desperately looks to keep her husband and two sons safe as the Serbian troops evacuate the camp. The Dutch can only look on, powerless to intervene.

The worst episode of mass murder within Europe since World War II, some 8,000 Muslim males were murdered in Srebrenica and 20,000 women and girls forcibly evacuated out of the area by Mladic. Director Jasmila Zbanic (Grbavica, Na putu), through the fictional Selmanagic family, personalises the telling of the tragedy, resulting in an immediacy that is shocking and deeply felt.

Nominated for best foreign language Oscar in 2021.

Rating: 79%

‘Spellbound’

A brave and challenging subject as a psychiatrist protects her patient as he tries to recover his memory, increasingly convinced he is guilty of murder.

The new head of the Green Manors clinic Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird, Cape Fear) is not all he appears to be, much to the consternation of in-house psychiatrist Dr Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman – Casablanca, Autumn Sonata). Romance between the two blossoms, but things are not quite right, forcing them to retrace his movements as nightmares and random moments of recall affect his behaviour.

Psychoanalytic exploration intertwined with suspense from Alfred Hitchcock as Peck and Bergman hit the road in order to find out exactly what happened at the ski resort. As Peck’s dreams (designed by Salvador Dali) become increasingly bizarre and symbolic so Petersen and her mentor, Dr Brulov (Michael Chekov – Rhapsody, Invitation) beging to understand the unfolding chain of events.

Plenty of twists for fans of suspense but ultimately Spellbound becomes a little too academic and theory based as dreams are deconstructed and behaviour analysed.

Nominated for 6 Oscars in 1946 including best film, director, supporting actor – won 1 for best score (Miklós Rózsa).

Rating: 62%

‘Oh William!’ by Elizabeth Strout

Part three of the trilogy – assuming author Elizabeth Strout decides to end the Lucy Barton narrative at this juncture – is, like its predecessors, deceptively simple in style and prose, and continues to explore the then and now of Lucy’s life. Only the now sees Lucy, a recent widow, spending unexpectedly more time with her first husband William – and consequently the then becomes about him and them.

An eminent storyteller, Strout weaves and wafts between time frames and characters as William discovers he has a half sister only a few years older than himself. It appears that when William’s mother walked off the Maine potato farm belonging to her first husband, she left behind a baby girl. He feels he needs to know more. With time on both their hands (William’s third, and much younger, wife has just left him), Lucy agrees to accompany her former husband to the small, rural town in Maine.

And that’s about it as far as a ‘story’ is concerned. But Strout does not need a structured beginning middle and end to her storytelling. Lucy Barton may remain as the central pivot but plot lines be darned – random moments of recall, distinctive memory of place and time, conversations partially remembered, vague recognitions all form part of Lucy’s armoury of life remembered.

But sadly, Oh William! does not reach the heights of its predecessors. There’s something laconic and uncertain as the two spend time together – either in Maine or New York, alone or in the company of their two daughters. The strengths of Lucy developed over the years, someone who came from nothing as we are frequently reminded, are somehow undermined as the relationship with the William of today appears to make Lucy appear somehow gullible – not the same character who left home in rural Amgash, Illinois to take up a place of study in Chicago. Add the level of condescension – oh William! this, oh William! that – prevalent throughout and the result is a tale eminently readable but not as commanding or engrossing as the earlier parts of the trilogy.

Nominated for the 2022 Booker Prize but lost out to Shehan Karunatilaka and The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.

‘Where the Crawdads Sing’

A somewhat shallow and overly cleansed adaptation of the best-selling novel Where the Crawdads Sing as social outcast Kaya Clark must prove she is innocent of murder.

Living in poverty in the Carolina marshes and abandoned by her family at a young age, Kaya (Daisy Edgar-Jones – TV’s Under the Banner of Heaven, Cold Feet) raised herself. Mocked for her poverty by the local townsfolk, she beomes a prime suspect in the murder of debonair Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson – Beach Rats, Triangle of Sadness), a man she believed was to be her future husband. It’s up to Kaya’s lawyer, Tom Milton (David Strathairn – Good Night and Good Luck, Nomadland), one the few locals who believe in her, to prove innocence.

Directed by Olivia Colman – First Match, TV’s Chicago Fire), a potential exploration of class and racism results in this overly santised soap opera of a narrative.

Rating: 40%

‘A Kind of Loving’

A 1960s British kitchen sink drama that launched the career of director John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, Darling), A Kind of Loving is a brooding grit of everyday life in the north of England.

Shot in Manchester in atmospheric black and white, this is Lowry country of urban industrial landscapes as Vic (Alan Bates – The Fixer, Women in Love) looks to better himself, working as an office-based draughtsman. Catching the eye of secretary Ingrid (June Ritchie – The Mouse on the Moon, This Is My Street), courtship leads to pregnancy and a quick wedding, much to the disgust of Ingrid’s mother (Thora Hird – TV’s Talking Heads, Last of the Summer Wine). With the couple forced to live in the comfortable surrounds of Mrs Rothwell’s home, the marriage is strained and when Ingrid loses the baby, Vic wants out.

Miserable but compassionate, Vic looks to save his marriage in spite of the best efforts of his mother-in-law in a grim but engaging slice-of-life narrative as Vic finds himself having to choose between Saturday night sing-a-longs with friends and family at the pub or chocolates and television quiz shows.

Rating: 62%

‘Severance’ (Season 1)

A challenging, cerebral nine-episode season, Severance is a disturbing, dystopian narrative of conspiracy and social control.

A surgical procedure (severance) that divides the memories of work and home provides opportunity for high-security jobs. But what the purpose of this work is never clarified – small teams are isolated in their workplace with minimal interaction with colleagues outside direct team members. Mark (Adam Scott) is the leader of one such team identifying on-screen data patterns and codes.

None of the team would recognise each other outside of work and none of them know who and what they are in the outside world. The arrival of a new colleague, Helly (Britt Lower), sets in motion a series of, to the team, confusing and unexplained interactions that fail to follow the routine of their normalcy. Meanwhile, Mark, on the outside, is being discretely watched by his next door neighbour (Patricia Arquette) who also happens to be the head of the unit at Lumon.

It’s a slow build of a series as tension is gradually increased as it becomes increasingly apparent not everything is what it seems. As a procedure, severance is a controversial one: there’s ongoing protests about growing corporate control and abuse, human rights infringements and more. Yet Mark, a former history professor, chose the implant following the death of his wife in a car accident. An antiseptic workplace of endless, deserted, flourescent-lit corridors with unending unopened doors, vast underground empty office spaces with a team of four huddled around their small desks in the centre of the room: the outside world is the polar opposite – claustrophobic home spaces darkly lit, early winter mornings or nighttime external shots adding to the gloom.

Given time, Severance becomes an immersive, mesmerising series as its slow beginnings give way initially to a sense of uncertainty before quietly revealing another layer as, unexpectedly, the design team, led by Burt (Christopher Walken) is introduced as a possible threat to Mark’s team’s stability. Assuming, that is, it always was stable.

Rating: 70%

‘The Babadook’

Psychological horror in the suburbs of Adelaide as a single mum confronts the fears of her son and the monster contained within their home.

Struggling with the grief of losing her husband in a car accident several years earlier, Amelia (Essie Davis – Nitram, Babyteeth) is exhausted by the demanding Samuel’s (Noah Wiseman) nighttime routines and daytime aggression. As their relationship unravels, so the Babadook increases its presence in their everyday.

A sublime study of psychosis and PTSD as Amelia subconsciously blames Samuel for her husband’s death, The Babadook, with its excellent central performances, is a provocative and scary horror movie directed by Jennifer Kent (The Nightingale) in her feature film debut.

Winner of the 2015 AACTA award for best Australian Film.

Rating: 68%

‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’

It may be 30 years old but as a biopic of Tina Turner, one of the greatest singers of all time who redefined herself having escaped an abusive marriage, What’s Love Got To Do With It still packs an emotive punch.

Abandoned by her mother as a child, Anna Mae Bullock shone in the local church choir. Moving to St Louis as a teenager, Anna Mae (Angela Bassett – Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, London Has Fallen) soon attracts the attention of band leader, Ike Turner (Laurence Fishburne – The Matrix, The Mule). Dominating everything around him, Ike controls Tina as a singer, a wife, a mother, a woman. As his drug habit spirals out of control and with it an uncontrollable rage, professional jealousy results in increasing violence towards her.

Unflinching in its depiction of domestic violence and abuse, director Brian Gibson’s film may take liberties with actual events, but it remains a potent exploration of Tina Turner the woman and years of stoicism in the name of her children and refusal to abandon them as her mother had years earlier.

Nominated for 2 Oscars in 1994 – best actress and best actor.

Rating: 70%

‘Boston Strangler’

Stifled and dour, it’s the performances that add value to a somewhat dull procedural investigation by female journalists into the identity of the Boston Strangler.

Based on the true story of lifestyle journalist Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley – Colette, The Imitation Game) at the Boston Record American who, initially, is reluctant to accept being partnered with Jean Cole (Carrie Coon – Gone Girl, The Post). Breaking through the glass ceiling away from reviewing the latest kitchen gadget, it’s McLaughlin who sees a pattern in the killings before the local police. In reporting on the serial killer loose in the city, the two women grind out a series of articles through pre-internet journalism – knocking on doors, hanging out at courtrooms, researching news clippings, calling in favours.

Sadly, there’s a lack of suspense in its telling by writer/director Matt Ruskin (Crown Heights, Booster), resulting in a worthy yet dull narrative – not helped by its limited colour palette and mostly interior-set scenes. Spotlight it’s not!

Rating: 54%