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.

‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ by Shehan Karunatilaka

Mordantly funny, brimming with pathos, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida looks to explore and expose the carnage of Sri Lanka’s civil wars – and identify the killers of acclaimed war photographer, Maali Almeida.

But this is no grim realism of a novel. Almeida himself is our narrator and, in finding himself, in 1990, in the afterlife bureaucratic waiting rooms awaiting his fate, discovers he has just seven moons left before his eternal fate is determined. He is dead for real and not, as Almeida first suspected, simply hallucinating from pills taken. This high-stakes gambler, gay man and atheist has been murdered by some faction or high ranking official. His dismembered body is, with so many other victims of the wars, sinking in the Beira Lake.

Those seven moons must be used wisely to identify his killers, contact the man (DD) and woman (Jaki) he loves most to help them find his body and to lead them to a hidden cache of photos that will expose the highest levels of corruption. Only there’s plenty of threatening distractions, lost souls and violent spirits getting in the way, as well as time needed to find out exactly what he can and cannot do as a dead body.

Described as part ghost story, part whodunnit, part political satire, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, set in the In Between before proceeding toward The Light seven days later when the Tigers, the Army, the Indian peacekeepers, the JVP terrorists and state death squads were all killing each other at a prolific rate. A time of curfews, bombs, assassinations, abductions and mass graves, the afterlife offices are busy: bloodied activists, politicians, intellectuals, journalists mingle with civilians and the military minus arms, legs. The waiting room is not for the faint-hearted.

Embroiled in afterlife red tape, mirroring his friends’ attempts to discover his whereabouts (not helped by the hedonistic lifestyle enjoyed by the photographer before his demise), Almeida reflects on personal memories of war, the photographs he took, his own moral and ethical dilemmas as well as an awkward relationship with his mother. Jaki was seen by many as his official girlfriend yet DD, son of a government minister, was the love of his life – even if he constantly cheated.

It’s a frenetic novel that is incisive, frustrating, funny, confusing. Karunatilaka’s prose is informal, jagged and, in content if not style, he channels George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. A refreshing sophomore novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida unexpectedly won the 2022 Booker Prize, lauded by the judges for its ambition in scope and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques.

‘Booker Prize Shortlist: 2020’

2020 was a pretty good year for the shortlist but there were howlers left off the longlist – namely Colum McCann and his stunning Apeirogon as well twice-winning Hilary Mantel and the final book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & The Light. But once the controversy of those ommisions settled down, did the Booker judges, according to my tastes, get it right in awarding the prize to Douglas Stuart and Shuggie Bain?

The 2020 shortlist:
Diane Cook: The New Wilderness
Tsitsi Dangarembga: This Mournable Body 
Avni Doshi: Burnt Sugar
Maaza Mengiste: The Shadow King
Douglas Stuart:  Shuggie Bain
Brandon Taylor: Real Life

Bottom of the pile was Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga. Tense, charged, challenging, Tambudzai’s slow breakdown of personal hope and dreams is no easy read. It’s not particulalry enjoyable either – there’s a sense of inevitable disconnect, written in a style that creates a veil, a do-not-cross barrier that results in an uninvolved distancing. (50%) 

A tad better was Avni Doshi. Burnt Sugar is a tale of memory and forgetfulness for both mother (Tara) and married daughter Antara. A caustic tale of mothers and daughters set in India, it’s a surprisingly cold, distant first novel lacking a compelling voice. (52%)

The next two are neck and neck – albeit very different.

Ethiopian/American Maaza Mengiste writes of the the invading Italian army of Benito Mussolini occupying 1935 Ethiopia (then Abyssinia). It’s an extraordinary story as Mengiste explores what it means to be at war, a primitive war that is fought with antiquated weaponry and surprise hand-to-hand combat in unwelcoming terrain in sweltering heat. Personal struggles of identity, ideas of family and parenthood with its sense of need and belonging –  Ethiopian and Italian – all come under her gaze. (60%)

A gentle, nuanced narrative of a single discomforting weekend in the life of Wallace, a lonely, gay, black biomedical graduate student, Real Life is elegant yet strangely distant. In its difficult intimacy and Wallace’s arm’s length interaction with friends and colleagues, a veil, an impassable barrier is created denying empathic access to the complexities of raw emotion and momentary candour. (60%)

It took me a while to get into it – three attempts to get beyond the first few pages – before settling into The New Wilderness. Urgent, prescient, imaginative, Diane Cook’s engrossing debut novel sees a world ravaged by climate change and overpopulation. But it’s not a didactic polemic – The New Wilderness is a humane and moving lament of our contempt for nature and, simultaneously, a moving portrayal of motherhood. (65%).

Douglas Stuart’s towering debut, Shuggie Bain, is a haunting, fictionalised reflection on his own childhood growing up gay and supporting an alcoholic mother. With an impoverished, rough and ready Glasgow setting, Shuggie Bain is raw, unflinching and uncompromising in its truths, yet in its honesty and intensity, it is also heartbreakingly emotive. At 80%, it resoundingly stands heads and shoulders above the other five books on the shortlist. My only question is would it have beaten Apeirogon?

So, yes, as far as I am concerned, the judges of the 2020 Booker Prize got it 100% right in its selection from the shortlist.

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut

A powerful, challenging family drama, the 2021 Booker Prize winning The Promise is a visceral menace of a novel as the Swarts, an Afrikaans family, is torn apart by death and an unmet promise.

On her deathbed, dying young from cancer, Rachel Swart elicits a promise from husband, Manie. The small house on their Pretorian farm was to be gifted to long-time domestic servant, Salome. He distractedly agrees. Unbeknown to either of them, youngest daughter Amor overhears the promise. In a country emerging from apartheid and minority rule, what evolves is a family saga spread over 40 years mirroring a country full of resentment, anger, fear – and hope. As the family unit disintegrates, so the promise remains unfulfilled as Manie choses to ignore/deny his wife’s wishes.

Seen as an unsentimental allegory to post-apartheid South Africa, The Promise looks to the moral question of the support for majority black rule and expected renewal. It’s slow in coming.

Disparate, the Swarts are united by funerals – but not grief – after the death of Rachel. Having refound her Jewish faith on her deathbed having previously married into a family of Dutch Reform Calvinists, her death and funeral arrangements are not easily handled by the fundamentalist Swarts. It’s an uncomfortable and challenging opening of Galgut’s novel as opposing family members clash and compromise, leaving seething anger and disappointment. It sets the scene for the disatisfaction and unfulfillment that is to pervade the underlying narrative of the novel.

The three teenage children, Anton (he arrives late to the funeral due to military service), Astrid and Amor (part-time narrator and moral compass of the novel) are disconnected even at this early stage and, by the second of four parts within The Promise, have all flown the coup.

Menace continually bubbles under the surface as the dwindling family meet approximately every decade for a family funeral. Each time it is more and more difficult for Amor to be contacted as she distances herself physically and emotionally from the farm and her siblings (at one point she has left to live in London leaving no contact details). It is she who constantly raises the issue of the promise. But her requests fall on fallow ground as a bitter Anton, once the golden boy, lives in the shadow of unfulfilled potential (and the Church built on part of the farm as bequeathed by the father) and Astrid comes to terms with loss of youth, looks and two failed marriages.

The Promise is a dramatic tale and provides an engrossing insight into a time and place of great flux. It is a ‘semi-detached’ telling, an odd hybrid as Amor is – and then isn’t – the narrator. The result is an ebb and flow of emotional involvement but which nevertheless draws the reader in.

‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stuart

My mother is in every page of this book… stated Douglas Stuart on winning the 2020 Booker Prize with his haunting debut novel, Shuggie Bain.

Based on Stuart’s own story, a lonely effete young boy tries valiantly to emotionally support his alcoholic mother. Abandoned by her second husband and two older children from a first marriage, the once beautiful and sassy Agnes Bain slowly self destructs. Only her youngest, Shuggie, has a naive, steadfast faith – frequently abused – in her. Living in a perpetual state of anxiety, this is a boy whose unconditional love for his mother is such that he leaves a bucket beside her bed should Agnes vomit as well as arranged three tea mugs: one with tap water to dry the cracks in her throat, one with milk to line her sour stomach, and the third with a mixture of the flat leftovers of Special Brew and stout that he had gathered from around the house and frothed together with a fork.

With an impoverished, rough and ready Glasgow setting, Shuggie Bain is raw, unflinching and uncompromising in its truths, yet in its honesty and intensity, it is also heartbreakingly emotive.

The 1980s Glasgow streets of overcrowded inner city tenements and concrete; distant run down public housing estates isolated on the periphery; unemployment, poverty, decrepitude along with loss of hope and self-respect loom large as Shuggie tries to find his safe place. With his preference for dolls and mammy’s company, that’s never going to be easy in the rough, tough immediacy outside the front door. Avoiding school and other kids becomes his norm.

It’s a slow demise for Agnes in Thatcherite Scotland, unceremoniously dumped by husband Shug with her three kids in a ground floor apartment on the edge of the city. The party girl, indulged as a child by her father, now finds herself in the shadows of a closed down coalmine and an insular, judgemental community. Lonely, isolated, impoverished, in her fragile reality Agnes turns more and more to drink – and predatory men.

Daughter Catherine soon gets out, marries and emigrates to South Africa. It’s left to Leek and Hughie to deal with Agnes. She is proud and full of love yet, with drink inside her, their mother is boorish, manipulative and occasionally violent until she passes out. This is a world of cashing the weekly benefits on Monday, raiding the gas and electricty metres on Thursday and going hungry on Sunday. But there’s always Special Brew or the last dregs of vodka in the house. Despite occasional periods of sobriety that give the boys hope, her addiction continues to spiral out of control. Unable to take any more, Leek moves out. At the age of 12 or 13, Shuggie is left alone to cope.

Shuggie Bain never gives up on his mother, no matter how many times she let’s him down. Promising to remain sober for the move to a new home in inner-city Glasgow, she is drunk by lunchtime. An inebriated mother and finding himself once again the butt of gay jokes at his new school, a deeply saddened Shuggie finally recognises that Agnes’ mantra we can be brand new rings hollow.

Booker Prize Shortlist: 2018

It has to be said. 2018 was not a good year. The shortlist was, in my opinion, underwhelming – as was the longlist. So did the Booker judges, according to my tastes, get it right in awarding the prize to Anna Burns and Milkman?

The 2018 shortlist:
Anna Burns: Milkman
Esi Edyugan: Washington Black
Daisy Johnson: Everything Under
Rachel Kushner: The Mars Room
Richard Powers: The Overstory
Robin Robertson: The Long Take

Bottom of the pile was the youngest shortlisted novelist in Booker history – Daisy Johnson (27) and her adapted contemporary confusion of the Oedipus myth. Gender fluid, time fluid, concentration fluid – too often I found myself lost in the miasma of its own cleverness. (40%)

My disagreement with the panel of judges is apparent as I placed the eventual winner, Anna Burns, 5th in the pretty poor selection. Basically, this stream of consciousness by a young woman living in Northern Ireland during the Troubles drove me to distraction. A performed monologue would have likely been beneficial. (48%)

One place higher with just 1% more was the environmental bore, The Overstory by Richard Powers. Too long by far, I was starting to lose the will to live at about the half way stage. A narrative of protest, a call-to-action awareness as nine disparate Americans address, in different ways, the destruction of forests and the environment. (49%)

The next two tied at 50%. Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room suffers from a surfeit of sameness as Romy finds herself serving two concurrent life sentences (plus six years) for the murder of a stalker. Canadian Esi Edyugan, the only author to have appeared before on the Booker shortlist (2011 with Half Blood Blues), knows how to tell a good, intriguing yarn but suffers from lack of engagement of the reader (or at least this one). A too matter-of-fact telling of a potential 19thcentury swashbuckling adventure story results in a laissez-faire distancing.

Only one book on the shortlist hit more than 50% – Scottish poet Robin Robertson’s verse and prose tour-de force, The Long Take. Achingly melancholic, The Long Take is a paean to lost opportunities of post-war America, a hypnotic, atmospheric narrative of broken chances, lost opportunities and, as a timely allegory, it is disturbingly profound. (64%).

So, yes, as far as I am concerned, the judges of the 2018 Booker Prize got it totally wrong – Robin Robertson’s 200 page film noir narrative was by far the best book on the shortlist.

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

Purportedly the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and set some 15 years after the events of that earlier novel, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments smacks more of the HBO TV series. The result is an engaging soap-opera of a thriller – yet feels as if it is a treatment for the closure of said series, providing answers to questions of the early years of Gilead. Atwood thus avoids some of the psychological horrors of that dystopian misogynistic theocracy: her expansion is more character-based than social commentary and claustrophobic dread. The Testaments is about women (or, more specifically, three) taking back an element of control.

We alternate between the perspectives of three women. Two are in the form of testimony whilst the third, written by Aunt Lydia, is an illicit document and provides the history of Gilead. She has been a central part of the system since its outset – and knows exactly how it works. It’s her story: it’s the story of the Aunts and the women who are entrusted with governing the other women of Gilead. They train and discipline the Handmaids, the Wives and the female children. And to help them keep the peace and the women in line, the Aunts receive special authority. To ensure records of genealogy are kept, the Aunts are allowed to read and write. It’s this that allows Lydia to write her document (in darkest secret and at great risk) and forms the core of The Testaments.

From the TV series, we are familiar with Aunt Lydia and the fact that pre-Gilead she was a divorcee and judge. Not quite the sadistic monster of the early novel, Aunt Lydia had some redeeming factors in the TV series: but she remained something of an evangelist, believing Gilead to be the answer for the sins of an earlier life. Turns out in The Testaments it’s all a bit of a front: Lydia has been compiling the dossier for Gilead’s eventual downfall.

Aunt Lydia is a canny political operator who realised what she would need to do to survive, prosper, and amass some power for herself. Better to fade into the crowd, the piously praising, unctuous, hate-mongering crowd. Better to hurl rocks than to have them hurled at you. She’s made alliances, undermined potential threats and, as head of the Aunts, is arguably one of the most powerful women in Gilead. But she’s ageing and sets in motion the final plans for its downfall.

The other two, much younger, women, Agnes and Daisy, are pawns in Lydia’s sightlines. A privileged life in Gilead for Agnes is about to come to an end as she approaches marriagable age: Daisy is the product of an across-the-border Canadian upbringing. The fate of the three are about to come to a head as the novel opens.

The Testaments is something of a page turner: it’s an aspirational, thrilling ride as Lydia plots in secret, unexpected revelations arise, characters appear who just might give the game away. But it lacks something of the honesty of The Handmaid’s Tale: the power and gravitas is no longer there. More action-driven, more hopeful, and by extension, less realistic results in the ambiguity of The Handmaid’s Tale being replaced by simple and simplistic answers. It’s Agnes and Daisy who are the problem. There’s no mystery about them, no history, no real interest. It’s Lydia who carries The Testaments.

Shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize, Margaret Atwood and The Testaments unexpectedly – and controversially – shared the award with Bernadine Evaristo and Girl, Woman, Other.

‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernardine Evaristo

Compelling polyphonic novel Girl, Woman, Other, a series of interrelated stories and events mostly narrated by black women, is a focussed narrative of epic proportions. Interwoven characters and histories, from the 1980s to the present day, build a rich tapestry of experience. It’s simultaneously laugh-out-loud and deeply moving, a life-affirming, multi-layered, multi-voiced state-of-the-nation statement that looks to issues of race, gender identity and sexuality, relationships, migration and colonialism.

First up is Amma, a bold, feminist playwright and theatre director finding unexpected fame in her 50s. Having spent decades on the fringe, a renegade lobbing hand grenades at the establishment that excluded her, the premiere at the Royal National Theatre of her The Last Amazon of Dahomey is only hours away. Now Amma finds that the mainstream began to absorb what was once radical and she found herself hopeful of joining it. Some 450 pages later, the novel ends with the invited guests spilling out on the terrace for the post-performance party of the by-now acclaimed production. In between, a whole world of experience unfolds.

We delve deep into the lives of 12 women of various ages, backgrounds and experience, traversing time as links between the 12 are formulated and explored. Amma’s longest-standing friend, Shirley, is suddenly revealed to be that boring school teacher. But she still gets her say – as does the non-binary Morgan and Dominique, the woman with whom Amma started up the Bush Women Theatre Group so many years previously. Dom disappeared to the US as she became involved with a teetotal, vegan, non-smoking, radical feminist separatist lesbian housebuilder.

But there’s also Yazz, Amma’s 19 year-old daughter, part 90s Goth, part post-hip hop, part slutty ho, part alien and who finds her mother’s historic feminism as something antique and embarrassing. With a celebratory, gregarious mainstream (gay) father, Yazz flits between the two worlds easily and with attitude. But 93 year-old Hettie, living alone on a farm in the north of England, is light years from the shared experience of the London ‘luvvies’ (but a link there is).

Evaristo, in her writings, pushes the boundaries of contemporary British writing as well as what it means to be ‘British’. But with this breathtaking symphony of black women’s voices, she is also exploring the ideas of womanhood, femininity and feminism in this cross-section of experience.

Girl, Woman, Other is a stunning achievement on so many levels. Evaristo became the first black woman to be awarded the Booker Prize, but controversially, the 2019 award was shared between her and Margaret Atwood and The Testaments.

‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns

Sometimes brilliant, more often than not infuriating, the 2018 Booker Prize-winning novel by Anna Burns is a polarising experience. It took me some eight months to read it – and, four months in, wished I had heeded the advice of a friend who suggested the audio version and for it to be treated as a staged monologue.

Essentially a stream of consciousness from an 18 year-old woman living during the sectarian ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, our narrator uses few names as she expounds and expands on daily life in a run down catholic Belfast neighbourhood. In her attempt to distance herself from the politics of the area – or at least not become attached – she (we only ever never know her as middle sister or maybe-girlfriend) finds herself isolated and misunderstood by those around her. When Milkman – a married man and leading paramilitary – introduces himself uninvited into her life, by default to the gossips she becomes his property. Even her own ma believes middle-sister as thrown herself at Milkman and thus ruined her reputation.

Milkman is a battle from the outset. As a stream of consciousness and uncertainty, the same thought can be questioned, challenged, opined, regurgitated over pages – and made even more infuriating by not naming names. An obtuse shorthand results in the right or wrong religion; renouncers and defenders of the State; our side of the road and the other side of the road; over the border and over the water. Family members become oldest sister, wee sisters (the triplets), brother-in-law number 3, non-family members are referred to as Maybe-Boyfriend, Somebody McSomebody, Longest Friend and so on. In an attempt to distance the events from the specifics of Northern Ireland and suggest the impact of other experiences, societies and environs, Anna Burns creates a distance, an emotional void to the events unfolding.

The novel is unquestionably an astute account of Northern Ireland’s social landscape of the 1970s, of a divided and untrusting community and based on the author’s own experiences. It is, at times, enigmatic, beguiling and, occasionally, funny. Yet, for all that, it’s a meandering, repetitive slog.

Booker Prize Shortlist: 2017

2017 represents only the third occasion whereby I have read all shortlisted novels for the Booker Prize. And, as with 2016 and 1996, the question remains – from my perspective, did the judges get it right with George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo?

Controversy had (as usual) reigned supreme when the longlist of 13 was whittled down to six. Where was Sebastian Barry and Days Without End? What – no Jon McGregor and Reservoir 13? What happened to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railway and Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones? Instead, according to many critics, what was a powerful long list became something of a diluted shortlist.

The books that did make the cut were
Paul Auster 4, 3, 2 1
Emily Fridlund History of Wolves
Mohsin Hamid Exit West
Fiona Mosley Elmet
George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo
Ali Smith Autumn

Sadly, to my mind, there were only two novels that stood out on the list, both extremely powerful and both deserved winners of the prize in this year – and in many other years. But the other four were generally forgettable.

Her fourth appearance on the Booker shortlist, Ali Smith and her Autumn is, to my mind, the least enjoyable of the six. Expansive and inventive it may be, capturing the zeitgeist of current British world of uncertainty and inwardness, this short novel is beautifully written and deeply profound, yet, too often, deliberately obscure and pretentious. (50%)

Emily Fridlund’s debut novel History of Wolves is also beautifully written with haunting prose and a vivid sense of place, but its meandering narrative failed to ultimately engage. (50%)

I loved his The Reluctant Fundamentalist – but Mohsin Hamid’s ruminations on refugees and Exit West, whilst salient, engrossing, at times quite magical, is also somewhat odd – a flight-of-fancy that actually needed a little more grounding. The teasingly well written first third sadly becomes a pedestrian, off-kilter place (as opposed to time) travel narrative. (58%)

Elmet is a powerful debut novel set in Yorkshire – a dark tale sublimely wrought, a British gothic simultaneously pastoral and fraught with a sense of foreboding. But it trails off into the land of melodrama in its narrative as Fiona Mosley tries a little too hard to tie up all loose ends. (64%)

The final two on the list are streets ahead of the other on the shortlist – and are neck and neck in the running. Paul Auster’s sprawling 4,3,2,1 is a magnificent thousand plus pages of four versions of the early life/lives of Archie Ferguson. It’s an engrossing celebration of liberal ideology and a reflection on a generation that sexually, politically and culturally defined the end of the twentieth century. (80%)

But it’s pipped to the post by George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo , an ethereal symphony in its intimacy of grief and familial love. Structurally experimental, Saunders’ novel is a polyphonic narrative interspersed with short quotes from newspaper articles and biographies of the day as President Abraham Lincoln is struck politically inert on the death of his 12 year-old son. (81%)

A very hard call – but to my mind, the judges of the 2017 Booker Prize got it right as far as the winning novel was concerned. Not convinced about the shortlist itself, though.