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.

‘TransAtlantic’ by Colum McCann

Three stories separated by time but connected by geographical events. TransAtlantic is a soaring [sic] novel from Colum McCann as the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic is connected to the earlier slave abolitionist movement and Senator George Mitchell’s pivotal role in the negotiations bringing peace to the sectarianism of Northern Ireland and a fragile and uncertain conclusion.

Crossing the Atlantic on an almost weekly basis, leaving behind his second wife and newborn child, Mitchell’s part in the peace negotiations is well documented – the son of an Irish-American father and a Lebanese mother, he was respected by all sides as intractability become moveable, absolute became maybe, even no became yes. But TransAtlantic humanises those journeys, paints the man behind the headlines as he interacts not only with his team and the various members of the different ‘sides’ but also with the everyday men and women of Northern Ireland who place their faith in the man who will bring an end to the pointless blood shedding.

Frederick Douglass, like Mitchell, was in his time a very public figure. A former slave, Douglass was invited to Ireland for an extensive lecture tour of the country. Finding the Irish sympathetic to the abolitionist cause, he recognises parallels between his own experiences and that of the colonial enslavement by absentee English and their laws.

Newfoundland, Canada, 1919. Two aviators – Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown – set course for Ireland as they attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic.

All very public men – but McCann choses to connect their individual stories with fictional women who, as the novel unfolds over many generations, turn out to be members of the same family. Crossing paths with Douglass in Dublin as a housemaid to his host, Lily Duggan is inspired to cross the ocean to find her own destiny. She may lose all the men in her life, but its through her daughter Emily and granddaughter Lottie that McCann instills his narrative development as the two are present at Alcock and Brown’s departure from Canada on their historic flight.

It’s an ambitious novel splendidly realised. As he weaves his narratives between differing time frames, McCann looks to the shaping of history with his seemingly disparate stories that come together to form a vivid and engrossing novel of place and time.


‘The Colony’ by Audrey Magee

Arrogant and pompous, London-based artist John Lloyd has booked the summer on the isolated island off the coast of Ireland. Expecting solitary wanderings and studio time with little interrupt, he has yet to discover the equally arrogant Frenchman, Masson, is returning to the island to continue his study of the fast disappearing language. Just three miles long and half-a-mile wide, few people live on the rock.

A colonialist allegory, The Colony is a vivid tale of truths and untruths, of the new accommodating tradition, of change as Masson and Lloyd clash in their expectation of what the island and its few inhabitants should be. Set in 1979, its population is now down to double figures.

Both men object to each other’s presence. Lloyd has come to paint the cliffs and revive his flagging, no longer in demand London career. Masson has been based on the island for the past five summers charting and recording this surviving outpost of spoken Irish with Bean Uí Fhloinn, the 92-year-old matriarch, speaking not a word of English. It is she in particular who Masson spends time with, concerned as he is with the dilution of the language by the generations who follow her. Great grandson James (who Masson insists on calling Seamus) is of particular concern, a teenager who refuses to fish (the main source of income) following the drowning of his father, uncle and grandfather at sea, and who wants to leave to settle on the mainland. It is he, speaking English, who acts as guide and support to Lloyd.

Cultures clash as the Gauguin-like Lloyd discovers his Tahiti is not the paradise he expected. Change is slow in the making yet James, it turns out, is a dab painter himself, with Lloyd impressed enough to support this dormant talent. Suspicious at first, James’ mother, Mairéad eventually succumbs to her curiosity of the painter and, like so many nineteenth century Tahitians of Gauguin, finds herself the subject of canvas or study. Her mother, Bean Uí Neill, is less than impressed.

There are no men who live permanently on the island. Micheál, who rows the currach between the mainland and the island, has rented Lloyd one of the cottages he manages for his brother, who now lives in America. Those with good English have left he tells the artist. Micheál makes a better living supplying the residents and occasional tourists with their needs than he ever could living permanently on the island – and the same can be said of Francis Gillan, who is trying to persuade his widowed sister-in-law, Mairéad, to become his wife.

Beautifully and engagingly written with a lightness of touch, fully rounded characters and truthful dialogue, Magee chooses to intersperse humorous banter between James and Lloyd or angry exchanges between the two interlopers with stark, single-page reports of 1979 atrocities in Ireland. Cold and objective, the name of the individual (catholic or protestant) is stated along with their family status and short, matter-of-fact details of their death.

It’s effective in its message as a father of five or a recently married man is gunned down whilst those on the island merely pass comment (if at all). Masson uses such reports to comment on British colonialism in Ireland, for which Lloyd responds of French colonialism in the likes of Algeria and Cameroon – highlighting the globalism Magee is exploring in this haunting, powerful novel.

‘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.

‘Snow’ by John Banville

Featuring a young Irish detective – earnest, somewhat troubled – by the name of St. John (pronounced Sinjun) Strafford, Snow is a 1950s-set murder mystery – a surprisingly accessible story by one of Ireland’s most literary of authors, John Banville.

Initially playing on the game of Cluedo or an Agatha Christie whodunnit, the victim (a Roman Catholic priest) is found dead in the library of a large, rambling manor house in County Wexford, south of Dublin. A candlestick lies close to a pool of blood. Blanketed by deep, pre-Christmas snow, the aristocratic (protestant) Strafford is dispatched to keep a lid on events: the murder of a priest in 1950s Ireland in the home of the landed gentry (albeit impoverished) is not one for public consumption. As the Church moves to publicly suppress the story, so Strafford finds himself the likely lamb to the slaughter, expected to act quickly and keep quiet in what is a ‘closed house’ of suspects.

But like all good murder mysteries, there’s plenty of secrets to be uncovered – even if, by contemporary reading, with a priest and ex-remand home stable boy in the mix, a motive is plainly obvious. Banville, however, remains true to its timeframe when the country was unquestioning of the Church and priests were revered or feared. It’s through careful detective work that Strafford uncovers motives: a second murder both complicates but ultimately explains the course of events on the fateful night.

Rich in characterisation, Snow is a narrative to be savoured, a tremor in the air, like the hum that lingers when a bell stops tolling. It’s Banville’s prose that draws you in as Strafford interviews the household at Ballyross House or talks to the locals at the inn. The novel is as much a (genteel yet barbed) commentary on the divisions between class and religion as it is a murder investigation.

Authentic in its setting, Snow may be slight as a detective novel, but its a rich, thoughtful tale of Ireland in the 1950s and a time of Banville’s own County Wexford childhood.

‘Let the Great World Spin’ by Colum McCann

A grand opus, a (predominantly) 1974 New York-set novel as Frenchman Philippe Petit undertakes his tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. As the city holds its collective breath (or at least those who witnessed it), so McCann spins several fictional tales taking place at ground level along with Petit’s preparations for his illegal act.

Non-linear, Let the Great World Spin is narrated by several characters, each with their own story to tell. As the novel unfolds, so connections are revealed, some obvious, some less expected. Their lives may be woven together or determined by the actions of others, but in many instances they never know or even meet each other.

First up is the arrival of Ciaran from Dublin, arriving to see his younger brother, Corrigan, a devout Jesuit monk who has moved to the projects of the Bronx. Surrounded by poverty, prostitution and addiction, Corrigan has overcome deep suspicion and, whilst living in virtual destitution within his apartment, has befriended the prostitutes working the streets in the immediate vicinity. Recounting their childhood in Dublin (the only significant time the novel leaves New York), Ciaran is disturbed but not surprised by the conditions his brother has chosen to live.

Claire is a wealthy Park Avenue resident grieving the loss of her son in Vietnam. With husband, Solomon, as a judge tied up with work, Claire is lonely and dealing with grief in her own way. Atypically, she has responded to a newspaper advert for mothers who have lost sons in Vietnam. A small group, they meet for coffee and doughnuts or bagels at each other’s homes. Having met previously at Gloria’s high-rise in the Bronx, it’s Claire’s first time to host.

Ciaran’s and Claire’s tales provide the context to the majority of those told by the other characters. Tillie and her daughter Jazzlyn are both prostitutes who work the Bronx and have befriended Corrigan. The Jesuit himself, having met Guatamalan refugee Adelita and her two children, is undergoing a crisis of faith. Solomon is the judge who presides over the arraignment of Petit and negotiates the deal that has such an unforeseen impact on the lives of all the Bronx residents featured in Let the Great World Spin (no spoilers). Gloria and Claire become great friends and it is this friendship that provides the finale two decades later.

McCann weaves these stories together as time and the separate narratives unfold over a period of several days. It’s a slow build. In creating layers from which to grow, Let the Great World Spin occasionally loses focus with the Corrigan tale arguably too long, a little indulgent. But, whilst using Petit’s dangerous and potentially lethal act as the framework, McCann is also looking to highlight the tensions of the everyday

an invisible tight-rope wire that we all walk, with equally high stakes, only it is hidden to most, and only 1 inch off the ground.

It’s all a balancing act. Petit’s mantra by which he lived, NOBODY FALLS HALFWAY, is apt and appropriate for McCann’s big and ambitious novel. Characters come, characters go, the symbolism of the solidity of the two towers (and the irony of knowing their terrible future fate) with the insignificance of one man precariously balanced between them perfectly rendered. That slow start builds beautifully to its redemptive conclusion.

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.

‘Apeirogon’ by Colum McCann

apeirogonColum McCann’s latest novel is an experience, an immersion, an education. This is no grandiose fictional narrative of his earlier works. Instead, we are presented with two perspectives, one place; two men, one experience; two deaths, many answers.

Apeirogon: a generalised polygon with a countably infinite number of sides. 

Bassam Aramin. Palestinian and whose daughter, Abir, was killed at the age of 10 by a rubber bullet fired by a member of the Israeli Defence Force. She was walking to school and practising answers to a maths test with her younger sister.

Rami Elhanan. Israeli and whose daughter, Smadar, was killed at the age of 13 by a suicide bomber in the busy Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. She was with two girl friends (also killed) buying school books.

A decade separates the two events but, unexpectedly for both men, they become friends. Aramin was imprisoned for seven years at the age of 17 for plotting against the State of Israel. Yet, twenty years later, through the cross-border Combatants For Peace and Parents Circle organisations, he spends his time travelling in Israel and throughout the world. He no longer wanted to fight … The greatest jihad, he said, was the ability to talk… Language was the sharpest weapon. It was a mighty thing. He wanted to wield it. He needed to be careful. My name is Bassam Aramin. I am the father of Abir. Everything else rose out of that.

Elhanan is a veteran of the Yom Kippur War and was relatively apolitical – in spite of being married to Nurit Peled, a human rights professor at Hebrew University and daughter of Matti Peled, a high profile politician and radical peace activist (and who died a few months before the death of Smadar).

The two men live just a few kilometres apart – yet they exist worlds apart. Rami’s license plate is yellow. Bassam’s license plate is green. It takes Rami fifteen minutes to drive to the West Bank. The same journey for Bassam takes an hour and a half.

Apeirogon is their story, part fact, part fiction (or at least liberties are taken). An Israeli, against the occupation. A Palestinian, studying the Holocaust. It is, according to McCann himself, a hybrid novel, a telling of moments, an inspiration of words and actions as the two men, singularly or together, look to the future, a future. But, told in a series of vignettes or points (a total of 1,001 as per The Arabian Nights but with some a single sentence, others several pages long), McCann intersperses snippets of personal histories with interlinked facts: the migration of birds, the last meal of French President Francois Mitterand, the make-up of a rubber bullet, the invention of gun powder.

But, in spite of the tangential commentaries, McCann never loses sight of his central narrative. My name is Bassam Aramin. I am the father of Abir is never forgotten, nor is Smadar. We return again and again to the moment, the ‘what if’ for both men that would have placed their daughters elsewhere on those two fateful days.

It’s poetic, it’s moving: it’s complex, it’s timely: it’s masterful, it’s radiant. Apeirogon: an object with a countably infinite number of sides. Welcome to the situation in the Middle East. Too, too often, it is reduced to simple, opposed positions. Apeirogon presents the voice – united – of two men and two organisations. But they’re not the only voices, they do not provide the only answers.

A sort of haze drifted over his listeners. He knew that his answer disappointed them. They wanted something else – one state, two states, three states, eight. They wanted him to dissect Oslo, to talk about the right to return, to debate the end of Zionism, the new settlements, colonialism, imperialism, hudna, the United Nations. They wanted to know how he felt about the armed resistance. About the settlers themselves. They had heard so much, they said, and yet they knew so little. What about the shopping malls, the stolen lands, the fanatics? He demurred. For him everything still came back to the Occupation. It was a common enemy. It was destroying both sides. He didn’t hate Jews, he said, he didn’t hate Israel. What he hated was being occupied, the humiliation of it, the strangulation, the daily degradation, the abasement. Nothing would be secure until it ended. Try a checkpoint for just one day. Try a wall down the middle of your schoolyard. Try your olive trees ripped up by a bulldozer. Try your food rotting at a checkpoint. Try the occupation of your imagination. Go ahead. Try it.

‘Days Without End’ by Sebastian Barry

A magnificent, heartfelt left-of-centre novel by one of Ireland’s best, Days Without End is a compassionate narrative set in mid-19th century US where two best friends, signing up for the army, find themselves in the midst of the Indian Wars and, just a few years later, the Civil War.

Impoverished teenage drifter Thomas McNulty, survivor of the Irish Famine, the horrors of the Atlantic crossing to Canada and the aimless wanderings of survival (from Quebec to Missouri) meets an equally destitute John Cole, three years his senior. They join forces, two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world – and from an early age, become lovers.

A slight and pretty young thing, McNulty secures the two work as prairie fairies, adolescent boys dressed as girls to dance with clients in the rough, men-only mining town of Daggsville. For three years, the two survive surprisingly unmolested – there was never a moment of unwelcome movementsBut nature will have his way and bit by bit the bloom wore off us, and we was more like boys than girls, more like men than women, and soon we were going to be just memories of diamonds in Daggsville.

And so to the US Army the two enlist and a horseback journey from Missouri to California. It’s an exhausting journey of deprivation, hunger, fever and death as well as fear. This is Indian country. And it soon becomes clear they are being sent west to protect the new European settlers of northern California.

Both epic and intimate, Days Without End is as grand and harrowing as the landscapes they cross. Left awestruck by the natural beauty of their surrounds, the unit is also laid low by the violence and conflicts that leave men making the noises of ill-butchered cattle as both indigenous Oglala Sioux and European settlers look to retain/stake a claim on the land. Hunger drives both ‘sides’ to extremes as the natural environmental balance is upset by migrants flocking from the east. It’s a brutal period – mirrored only a few years later by the horrors of the civil war.

Yet, Days Without End is not purely western or a civil war tale. Its lyrical beauty and poetic prose is a narrative of truth and understanding in amongst the brutality and deprivation of war. McNulty and Cole’s love for each other blooms – in the northern Californian plains, the notorious Confederate prison, Andersonville, or treading the boards in Grand Rapids ‘between wars’. Where there’s life, there’s hope seems to be Barry’s message. It’s a captivating, remarkable novel that any attempt to describe in detail is bound in failure. Inexplicably, having been long listed for the 2017 Booker Prize, Days Without End failed to make the shortlist of six and which saw George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo win the award.

‘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.