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.

‘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.

‘The Good Doctor’ by Damon Galgut

Taut, sparingly written, The Good Doctor is a melancholic parable as a young South African doctor comes to terms with his position at the almost forgotten hospital clinic in the virtually deserted capital of what was once, during apartheid times, a Bantu homeland. Now, no-one cares about what was once a so-called nation-state. Passion (for or against such travesties of black home rule) has been replaced by indifference.

Frank Eloff is a young man escaping his failed marriage after his wife left him for his best friend. But that was many years ago with a promised promotion that never materialised. His boss, Dr Ngema, has never moved on and, in spite of her constant innovation and change mantra, little has changed with the exception of the slow denudement of the clinic itself. Few patients, few medical staff, a closed-off wing of the building, it’s all something of an irrelevance. So the arrival of recent graduate Laurence Waters, keen, enthusisatic and blind to limitations, is wholly unexpected, particularly as, in spite of the emptiness of the clinic, Dr Ngema decides he is to share rooms with Frank.

The two men are essentially different sides of the same coin. Cynical and disenchanted Frank can only watch and judge as an enthusiastic Laurence looks to take the hospital to the people – schemes involving the medics travelling into the bush to remote African villages. He’s a man on a mission, oblivious to the indifference around him – so much so he alienates himself from others, particularly Frank (but Waters being Waters, he’s even oblivious to this). A visit from African-American girlfriend, Zanele, adds to the uncertainties of the new doctor – she shares his political idealism but there’s a noticeable lack of intimacy between the two.

As Frank struggles, his old habits in the local township take on new meanings – particularly with the arrival of a regiment of men from the South African army. Incursions across the nearby border means tighter security. Frank recognises the major in charge from his days as a conscript – a brutal and sadistic Afrikaner responsible for the torture of numerous black prisoners and who is now employed by the new government. The sinister old dictator, now much diminished, who once ran the homeland also reappears having assumed to be dead. He’s to be found squatting in the old ruin of the presidential palace, tending to the gardens.

Incorporate a Cuban couple working in the hospital along with the unqualified Tehogo as a male nurse (and who is likely to be responsible for the diminishing equipment in the hospital) and Galgut offers us a snapshot of South Africa past and present – or at least a country in transition from the past into the present. Cape Town, Johannesburg are distant edifices as far as The Good Doctor is concerned – bureaucracies where decisions are made that impact the clinic without any connection to place.

The past and the future are dangerous countries; I had been living in no man’s land, between their borders, for the last seven years.

Like the wreck of the homeland capital, Galgut explores the promise of the new from the ruins of the old. But with the ghosts of the past partially incorporated into the present, with a level of apathy and indifference towards progress when family and tradition are the norm, what does it all mean? As the ex-president confides to Frank – but who will cut the grass?

The Good Doctor is a thoughtful, engaging slow burn of a novel shortlisted for 2003 Booker Prize (but lost out to DBC Pierre and Vernon God Little).

‘Small Things Like These’ by Claire Keegan

Economic in word count, morally visceral in its impact, Small Things Like These places Ireland’s inhumane Magdalene Laundries under the microscope.

It’s 1985 and Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, lives with his wife, Eileen, and their five daughters in a small, typical Irish town of shopkeepers, small businesses (including Bill’s), a cafe, a pub, a church – and a Catholic state-sanctioned Magdalene Laundry.

Ostensibly a home for ‘fallen women’, the laundries were found throughout Ireland where the young women experienced everything from deprivation to abuse and death. In making a delivery as Christmas approaches, Bill encounters one of the girls hiding in the coal hole of the convent, run by the Good Shepherd nuns as a training school there for girls, providing them with a basic education. They also ran a laundry business. The abuse of their charges is the worst kept secret in the town yet the laundry services continue to be used.

Bill’s encounter changes the course of his life and that of his family, but not before his wife warns him If you want to get on in life, there’s things you have to ignore, so you can keep on. It’s not something Bill can do.

Claire Keegan’s debut novel is far from being the first exposé of the abuses endemic within the laundries, but short and capacious, it is deeply affecting.

Shortlisted for 2022 Booker Prize, Small Things Like These lost out to The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka.

‘The Trees’ by Percival Everett

Mordantly funny, brimming with pathos is the opening to my review of Booker Prize-winning The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka. It could so easily be the opening gambit of this review for a novel finding itself shortlisted in the same year.

The Trees opens with a series of brutal murders in Money, Mississippi. But what makes the situation more than a little different is the presence of a second dead body at each of the crime scenes: that of a man who resembles Emmett Till, a young black boy lynched in the same town 65 years before. Till is a non-fictional character and his death – in Money, Mississippi and where the three murderers were acquitted – is seen as a key moment in the American civil rights movement, highlighting racial injustice and violence towards Black people in America. The image of the boy [Till] in his open casket awakened the nation to the horror of lynching. At least the White nation. The horror that was lynching was called life by Black America.

The victims in The Trees are from the same red neck family and, as the opening chapters unfold, it soon becomes apparent they are connected, through family ties, to the lynching. As the murders unfold, so the secondary body disappears each time from the morgue, much to the confusion of Ed and Jim, the Special Detectives (‘And that’s not just because we’re Black,’ Jim said. ‘Though plenty true because we are.’) sent to investigate.

With the structure of pulp crime fiction, The Trees mixes mordant humour with hard-edged commentary. Looked upon with suspicion by the locals, Ed and Jim find themselves involved in a seemingly supernatural act of revenge. But, with 105 year-old Mama Z and her list of every individual lynching since her father was murdered in a racist attack knowing more than she is letting on, The Trees slips into the surreal as similarly violent crimes (and the presence of more secondary bodies) spring up around the country.

Full of glorious repartee and immensely likeable characters, The Trees is not so much a murder mystery to be solved as it is an address to the crimes of the past. The crime scene is not present day Mississippi but history itself. The murders are not random but are linked to events in history. Not that such crimes are consigned to the past – in his page-turning comic horror of a novel, Everett highlights that past with the present day.

The Trees was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker prize but lost out to The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka.

‘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.

‘Paradise’ by Abdulrazak Gurnah

A many-layered, misleadingly simple tale of a young boy growing up in east Africa on the cusp of World War I, Paradise is a compassionate, strikingly memorable novel from the Zanzibar-born Abdulrazak Gurnah as he quietly writes of people who are not normally heard.

Head-turningly beautiful, the teenage Yusuf finds himself as an unpaid servant to Aziz, a rich and powerful Arab merchant, in exchange for his father’s heavy debts. Even the arrival of the railway line to the isolated inland (fictional) town of Kawa cannot help turn the family-owned hotel into profit. Now living in an (unnamed but most likely Dar-es-Salaam) coastal port, a two day train journey from his home town, Yusuf works closely with the older, equally indentured Khalil in running the merchant’s shop and storerooms with the knowledge he will never see his family again.

From the simple life of rural Africa, Yusuf finds himself as a Muslim black African experiencing a precolonial urban East Africa on the cusp of change. The wealthy Aziz trades inland and along the coast, organising caravans into the interior for gold, ivory and animal skins, turning over considerable profits for himself and the Indian investors he partners with. But German interests encroach, upsetting the balance and freedom of movement with its increasing military presence. Yusuf finds himself on one such extended trading mission, journeying into the African interior to Lake Tanganyika and the dangerous encounters posed by humans and animals alike. But, gentle, intelligent and alert, the boy is favoured by Aziz as the expedition is confronted with ever increasing problems.

On return to the city, events transpire that lead Yusuf to the increasing awareness that for him (and Khalil) things would never change and, whilst seemingly benevolent, Aziz was the master of his enslavement. His beauty had placed him in a compromising position with both of the merchant’s wives: freedom and freedom of choice was not an option for the growing teenager. But then the German army arrives and with it, enforced conscription…

Paradise is a eminently readable melange of cross-cultural narratives reflecting the bustle of early 20th century East Africa with its centuries old Arab and Indian trading routes, and increasing European colonialism alongside the diversity of indigent black Africa. But Paradise is a coming-of-age tale – of Yusuf as he navigates his limited world to an awareness and self-realisation, of a blinkered Khalil who is grateful for the crumbs offered by his master. And with it comes that reader’s awareness (if needed) of what was to follow by Yusuf’s unexpected decision at the end of the novel.

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s fourth novel was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize but lost out to James Kelman and How late it was, how late… Gurnah himself was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021.

‘Glory’ by NoViolet Bulawayo

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 and his sinister entourage of family members and hangers-on: Glory is all this and so much more.

A revolutionary hero of the African liberation struggle who helped free Zimbabwe from British colonialism, Mugabe as prime minister and, later, president, was accused of 40 years of widescale corruption, abuse of power, economic mismanagement and crimes against humanity.

NoViolet Bulawayo follows her powerful Booker Prize-shortlisted 2013 literary debut We Need New Names with 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 accesible energy of a novel.

High Horse, once a charismatic soldier, and his elite band of Chosen Ones, driven recently by his beloved and ambitious young donkey wife, Marvellous, have held on to power since the demise of the white, human colonialists. But High Horse is ageing and, much to the concern of others, it is Marvellous who has the ear of her husband (if he hasn’t nodded off, dreaming of glory days) and the people. But corruption is endemic and other than the fear of ‘disappearing’ with an inappropriate neigh or grunt, the Chosen Ones are pretty secure with their economically rewarding sinecures.

Among the people, say it loud, say it often, appeal to the vanity and remind them of what was: the perfect ideology to keep the mutterings down to a minimum. But among the elite, the uneducated, Marvellous remains a concern – a woman and too young to have been in the wars of independence.

At the centre of the story of the people is Destiny – a young female goat who returns to Jidada, the country of her birth, a decade after disappearing. It is she who will bear witness to the revolution as she sets in motion a series of events that leads to the demise of tyranny. Rallies, religious hysteria, rigged elections all feature as the people of Jidada awaken to the reality of the world they have allowed to be created in their name.

Shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, Glory is a powerhouse of a novel, a hard-hitting satire of epic proportions that would readily be a worthy winner of the prize.

‘Treacle Walker’ by Alan Garner

Shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, Treacle Walker is a playful and luminous novella on the art of storytelling as Joseph Coppock convalesces at home, visited by the mythical Treacle Walker. Living alone in an old house, Joseph reads comics, plays marbles and tells the time by the whistle of a distant steam train. With a lazy eye, his world of vision and reality shifts according to the dominant eye of the time.

A rag-and-bone man by trade, Treacle Walker is part healer, part soothsayer, part folklore and persuades Joseph to exchange seemingly unimportant items for an empty jar of a cure-all medicine. And so a mysterious and eccentric friendship develops between the two, merging magic, folk tales, mysticism and mythology.

Spare, cryptic and quietly understated, Treacle Walker is a beautifully written, evocative fusion of a tale. Deceptively simple, it’s something of a treasure hunt (with asides and red herrings galore) that manages to meander and be on point at the same time. The result is a book that is difficult to categorise or easily summate without providing detail – and the beauty of Treacle Walker is the self discovery of Alan Garner’s writing, a man ostensibly labelled a ‘writer for children since the publication of his first book, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), a label Garner himself firmly rejects.

Shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize.

‘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.