Submitted by Man Booker Prize on Fri, 2018-09-28 10:22
Anna Burns (UK) Milkman (Faber & Faber)
Esi Edugyan (Canada) Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail)
Daisy Johnson (UK) Everything Under (Jonathan Cape)
Rachel Kushner (USA) The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape)
Richard Powers (USA) The Overstory (William Heinemann)
Robin Robertson (UK) The Long Take (Picador)
So the judges who came up with one of the most eye-catching Man Booker longlists in memory have stayed true to form and have now whittled down the 13 novels in contention to make an equally surprising shortlist. Out go the two front runners, Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight and Sally Rooney’s Normal People, and in stays a collection of the less fancied writers. Who, six months ago, could have predicted this eclectic list? In fact, who could have predicted it even a month ago?
The judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Val McDermid, Leo Robson, Jacqueline Rose and Leanne Shapton, are clearly no respecters of reputation nor do they pay much heed to the court of public opinion which had Nick Drnaso’s comic book Sabrina as a slightly left-field pick. Instead, two debutants (Daisy Johnson and Robin Robertson) make the list; four women outnumber the two men; the UK pips the US with three entries to its two and Canada’s one; and the established publishers are rubbing their hands with Serpent’s Tail as the lone indie. There is a wide spread of ages among the authors too – Johnson is 28 while Robertson is 63 – so freshness is vying with experience (even though Robertson’s experience has mostly been gained as a poet).
If readers are familiar with the names of Esi Edugyan, Rachel Kushner and Richard Powers courtesy of their earlier books such as Half Blood Blues, The Flamethrowers and The Echo Maker they will be less aware of Anna Burns (despite her two previous novels), Johnson and Robertson. This sort of play-off always adds spice to the prize as readers can compare writers they have long known about with those they are coming to without prior experience or the chatter of critical consensus.
It is a moot point as to who will benefit most from their shortlisting. Powers and Kushner, for example, are both finalists of the National Book Award in America (Powers is a former winner) while Edugyan has been Man Booker shortlisted before and is a recipient of Canada’s premier literary gong, the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Daisy Johnson, on the other hand, has won prizes too, but all of them for short stories as a result of her collection Fen; Robertson has won any number of prizes for his poetry, including three Forward Prizes; Burns meanwhile has been recognised too, indeed was a shortlistee for the then Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction back in 2002. The Man Booker though is of a different order and a shortlisting means that regardless of what has gone before, each author is now officially in the literary big league.
None of this though will be in the judges’ minds; their thoughts will be dominated by the novels themselves, which they will now start reading for the third time, and how to solve the conundrum they have set themselves: which of the six novels is the best? Their shortlist, after all, appears to have no guiding theme other than the quality of the writing. It is not going to be a straightforward task. Burns’s Milkman concerns a young girl trying to keep her anonymity when she is linked by gossip to the enigmatic Milkman of her title; Edugyan’s Washington Black tells the story of a freed slave who joins his former master on his picaresque travels; Johnson’s Everything Under discusses deep language when a lexicographer recalls the lost mother with whom she shared a private vocabulary; Kushner’s The Mars Room treats a former lap dancer’s struggles to come to terms with prison life; Powers’s The Overstory crosses centuries to chart the relationship between nine strangers and trees; while Robertson’s The Long Take is the cinematic story of a postwar loner in urban America, told partly in poetry.
There may be links between the books that have become apparent to the judges as they have read and reread with unusual care and attention but to the outsider the novels are fully separate, unlinked by theme, period, style or genre. Choosing between them will be a matter of small writerly margins, recognising and agreeing on those little grace notes that elevate a book above its peers. In such rarefied company that will not be easy. The judges may only have to read six books this time rather than the initial 171 but they are in for a fraught month none the less.