Booker Prize 2016: Shortlist

Madeleine_Thien_interviewed_by_Dietmar_Kanthak_in_Bonn,_January_2015Back in 2014, the Man Booker Prize made the decision to extend eligibility to include American authors (as long as they were writing in English). Such a decision was not unanimously welcomed. But it was to be 2016 before the Booker judges presented the award for the first time to an American: Paul Beatty and his satirical The Sellout.

Having read all six novels shortlisted for the 2016 award, the question remains – was it the right call? Controversy surrounded the list with the exclusion of J.M.Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus and Elizabeth Strout and My Name is Lucy Barton from the 13-novel longlist.

The shortlist:

Paul Beatty: The Sellout
Deborah Levy: Hot Milk
Graeme Macrae Burnet: His Bloody Project
Ottessa Moshfegh: Eileen
David Szalay: All That Man Is
Madeleine Thien: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

 Only Deborah Levy had appeared on a Booker shortlist before (in 2012 for Swimming Home) and was regarded as one of the favourites to win. Speaking personally, of all the six novels on the list, her Hot Milk was the one I liked least. Using mother-daughter relationships to explore the nature of the feminine (along with hypochondria), it is a strangely inert narrative. Like the daughter, Sofia Papastergiadis, the story is as listless as the temperatures of the southern Spanish setting.

Less pretentious is Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. But like Hot Milk, it is populated with unlikeable characters. At times drab and slow moving, it’s something of a psychological character study with little of any import taking place until the final few pages.

Whilst shortlisted for the Booker as a novel, All That Man Is, to my mind, is a collection of nine short but interrelated stories. Some enjoyable, some minor.

Three down and three to go – and next on my list is the eventual winner, Paul Beatty with The Sellout. As I wrote in my personal review: Technically brilliant, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, savage and outrageous, undoubtedly challenging, yet… Its profane satire is unrelenting, the reading exhausting, the narrative one-dimensional.

It’s just the sort of literary gymnastics that appeals to literary judges – but not necessarily to everyday readers to quite the same extent.

Up until reading my final book on the list, I’d assumed that Graeme Macrae Burnet and his compelling His Bloody Project would have comfortably topped the list.

Set in a remote northern Scottish farming community in 1869, it is a multilayered psychological thriller exploring events leading up to the violent and bloody murder of three members of one family by a 17 year-old neighbour. Absorbing, intricate, His Bloody Project comfortably became the bestseller of the six shortlisted novels.

But Burnet’s magnificent achievement was pipped at the post by Madeleine Thien’s superb Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Magisterial, tragic, profound, enchanting – seven decades of contemporary Chinese history from Mao’s cultural revolution through to the student’s uprising and events at Tiananmen Square.

Booker Prize history was made in 2016 by presenting the award to an American writer – but personally I would have presented it to the Chinese-Canadian author.

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‘Hot Milk’ by Deborah Levy

Booker_Levy-xlarge_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqrnykcIhNBTQGIhNzmTaT-bRxN3k0gyKMaHVGwcklXbAIn spite of a (mostly) semi-desolate, southern Spanish location, Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk is a story of interiors and the claustrophobic confines of home and family. As Sofia looks to discover the cause of her mother’s multitude of illnesses at the clinic beside the Mediterranean, so she herself discovers more about herself and the ties that bind her to Rose and her absent, Greek father.

It’s an enigmatic novel. The relatively straightforward narrative of Sofia and Rose arriving at the Spanish seaside village (almost deserted of tourists due to a plague of jellyfish) looking for a diagnosis at Gomez’s controversial clinic for Rose’s inability to walk is interspersed with streams of symbolic fancy and daydreams.

A PhD exploring memory following a first class honours degree in anthropology lies abandoned as Sofia drifts through life. Meeting local student Juan followed by German seamstress Ingrid unleashes a new sexual longing in Sofia, a longing repressed by the chains of her mother’s incessant demands and needs.

A barista at a local café in London, Sofia’s home is the storeroom. Visiting her estranged father and new family in Athens, she sleeps in the spare room, a windowless stockroom. Leaving the door of the rented Spanish villa unlocked may create an illusion of freedom, but her options are closed. Gomez may or may not be a quack but can he release Sofia from Rose?

Hot Milk was the bookies favourite to win the 2016 Booker Prize, variously described as ‘hypnotic’, ‘mesmerising’ and ‘gorgeous’. I do not agree.

Levy’s poetic writing is at times obscure and pretentious, the novel’s equivalent of an art house film’s imbroglio of impenetrable (or just plain annoying) symbolism (did we really need the clinic to be built from marble so that it resembles “a spectral, solitary breast”?). Rose is one of the most unlikeable of all characters – a litany of dismissive complaints about the weather, the food, the people in the early stages of the narrative is a stereotype of the British abroad. And whilst there is, initially, a level of downtrodden sympathy for Sofia and her guilt, she does little to help herself in the course of the, thankfully, short novel.

Levy’s novel lost out to the first American to win the Booker Prize, Paul Beatty and The Sellout.