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.

‘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.

‘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.

‘This Mournable Body’ by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Tense, charged, challenging, the third novel by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga is the story of Tambudzai’s slow breakdown of personal hope and dreams of betterment, mirroring the (not so slow) breakdown of her country and its empty promises of corrupt self-interest.

Having left her advertising job in the city, tired of the credit for her good ideas being taken by white colleagues, Tambudzai (Tambu) Sigauke finds herself living in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare. A regular income she no longer has, reliant on the stolen vegetables growing in Mai Manyanga’s garden. Her landlady may not notice but the arrival of a niece changes all that. In her mid/late 30s, Tambu, having struggled as a child to gain a convent education and associated aspirations, now finds her descent into poverty spiralling: the world around her seemingly caring not one jot.

Her prospects are poor, struggling with the poverty of blackness on one side, and the weight of womanhood on the other. She wants to be a success yet Tambu lives in a society of dysfunction, a post-colonial fledgling Zimbabwe at the turn of the century still finding its way. The tale is often grim, yet written poetically, even obliquely, demanding rereading of paragraphs to understand the full impact of what is being said. Like her country, a complex Tambu is unquestionably heading for a breakdown of some description. Disconnected from her immediate family, the inner demons threaten a self-destruct as she struggles to cope with severe mental health problems brought about by trauma. The eventual support provided by her European-educated cousin, Nyasha, and white German husband, Leo, is underscored by suspicion. An air of forebearance pervades her new job in eco-safari tourism in which she initially excels. But it all becomes too much. The recent history of struggle and fight (literally) for independence bears its scars on all.

This Mournable Body is no easy read. It’s not particulalry enjoyable either – there’s a sense of inevitable disconnect. But Dangarembga does little to help break this disconnect. Told in the second person, it’s a technique that normally forces the reader into identification with a character. But not on this occasion. There’s a veil, a do-not-cross barrier that results in an uninvolved distancing.

It is only after reading This Mournable Body that I discovered it was the third novel in a trilogy.

‘We Need New Names’ by NoViolet Bulawayo

68.Noviolet-Bulawayo-We-Need-New-NamesWe Need New Names is the powerful literary debut from NoViolet Bulawayo, a Zimbabwean now living in the US. Shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, she is (surprisingly) the first black African female writer to achieve this distinction. (Why Aminatta Forna was not shortlisted in 2010 for The Memory of Love is a mystery – but that’s another story).

A novel of two distinct halves, We Need New Names is something of a grower. We’re first introduced to the voice of ten year-old Darling in the shantytown of Paradise. This is her story, seen from her perspective and in her (fresh, evocative, ‘this is how it is’) language. There is a sense of acceptance, knowing no different as Darling and friends Bastard, Godknows, Sbho, Stina and Chipo are forced to entertain themselves with no school and little food, living, as they do, in extreme poverty.

Whether it’s stealing guavas from the wealthy neighbourhood of Budapest, playing games of their own making, dreaming of a better life in America or watching, usually from a distance, adult life, these savvy, street smart kids are funny yet unsettling. Darling herself lives in part with her grandmother (Mother of Bones); her absent father is in South Africa but who sends no money or word. Bastard is the leader of the group, influenced as he is by the strutting paramilitaries who are running amok in the country. Eleven year-old Chipo is pregnant.

But Darling has an escape clause – Aunt Fostalina, living in Detroit (or Destroyed, Michygen). The second half of the novel finds Darling dealing with the very different world of the much-dreamed about better life. The fact she is an illegal (as are Fostalina and her Ghanaian husband, Kojo) means Darling can never return (although it’s many years before she realises her situation).

The American element to the story is much more overtly politicised. It is Darling dealing with immigration and assimilation whilst trying to remain connected to the world she has left behind (Chipo has named her daughter Darling). Through her own observations over time, Darling slowly strips away her American dream. But it’s also a time of reflection and some understanding of the socioeconomic collapse of her childhood Zimbabwe.

We Need New Names is a profoundly poignant and moving book, written as a series of interrelated vignettes – a stream of consciousness and experiences of Darling growing up in Paradise and, later, Detroit. On the one hand it is a coming-of-age story: on the other, it is a deeply political observation of otherness and the outsider, of cultural differences and cultural expectations.

When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky… Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps. Leaving their mothers and fathers and children behind, leaving their umbilical chords underneath the soil, leaving the bones of their ancestors in the earth, leaving everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay…

Look at them leaving in droves despite knowing they will be welcomed with restraint, knowing they will have to sit on one buttock because they must not sit comfortably lest they be asked to rise and leave, knowing they will speak in dampened whispers because they must not let their voices drown those of the owners of the land, knowing they will have to walk on their toes because they must not leave footprints on the new earth… Look at them leaving in droves, arm in arm with loss and lost….