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Man Booker Shortlist 2015: The Year of the Grim

The shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced on Tuesday. The six titles that made the cut are:

Satin Island (Tom McCarthy)
A Spool of Blue Thread (Anne Tyler)
The Fishermen (Chigozie Obioma)
The Year of the Runaways (Sunjeev Sahota)
A Brief History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)
A Little Life (Hana Yanagihara)

That’s two books by US Americans, one apiece by a Jamaican and a Nigerian, and two by British authors (one of Indian extraction, writing about Indian people), which does tend to suggest, in year two of the amended prize rules, that opening the door to USian writers has not the effect of completely reducing the potential diversity of writers or works. (This conclusion is open to question, though, as there is a prior consideration of what other titles fail to make the first cut because they are competing against the dominant pool of US-authored works). Gender-wise, it’s a shortlist of four men and two women, identical proportions to last year’s shortlist, which is somewhat interesting as the longlist this year was much better balanced (seven women and six men, compared with 2014’s three women and 10 men).

The shortlist is, with one exception, composed of books that could fairly be described as really damn depressing. Speaking to the Guardian, judge Michael Wood said, “Frankly, they are pretty grim,” and I think that might be the understatement of the year. The level of violence, abuse, horror, and viscera – literal, not metaphorical – in these books reaches heights (or depths) I can’t remember in any other shortlist of the past decade. Oh, the Booker always has one or two disturbing, even horrifying, titles, but this bunch is remarkable for the lack of leaven in the mix. With one welcome exception, these are not books to read on a sunny afternoon with a gin and tonic in hand. Or at night when you can’t sleep. Or if you are feeling fragile.

I have read three of the shortlisted titles in full – A Spool of Blue Thread, The Fishermen, and The Year of the Runaways – and am almost finished McCarthy’s Satin Island. I started A Brief History of Seven Killings, then put it aside when chapter two landed in the middle of a violent and confusing gang war.

Hana Yanagihara’s book, A Little Life, is the one I have yet to attempt, despite its attracting glowing reviews from all over – indeed, it’s the betting agencies’ favourite for the win by quite some margin, and if it’s half as good as the literary reviewers would have it, I can see why. I’ve been avoiding it somewhat cravenly because of its apparently graphic depictions of child abuse, which is one of the themes that I find most difficult to bear in any form of fiction.

Whether or not any connections can be made between the six novels is an interesting question. My impression is that Anne Tyler’s book, A Spool of Blue Thread, is the outlier here – the one of these kids that’s not like the others – given that it is neither grim nor distressing to read. Indeed, it’s my guess that the judges probably clumped the three “reasonably untraumatic stories about families” from the longlist – A Spool of Blue Thread, Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, and Anne Enright’s The Green Road – and just picked their favourite of the three. (I think they chose wrongly; Lila is the better book, although Blue Thread is certainly an enjoyable read).

Other than Tyler’s book, though, the other titles share a few features despite their very different plots, settings, ostensible themes, and objectives. Bearing in mind that I am going on reviewer’s notes only for A Little Life, I feel it is safe to describe the five novels as emotionally difficult reads, with moral ambiguity being not so much resolved as extinguished in various kinds of violence.

Of the five, one, The Year of the Runaways, is a story about Indian workers in the UK, and the country they left behind. A Brief History of Seven Killings is the story of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley and the vicious gang warfare that surrounded it. The Fishermen is the tale of four Nigerian brothers, laid waste by an evil prophecy. A Little Life is (apparently) a story about four people whose lives are wrecked and scarred by childhood trauma. My current novel in progress, Satin Island, is a cynical, over-smart postmodern ethnology by a writer who seems to be aiming for a mixture of Levi-Strauss, Guy Debord and William Gibson. (When I get up to reviewing it, I’ll explain why I think it doesn’t get there).

The judges, as they always do, have been careful to play up the diversity of writers, storytelling and themes on the shortlist, but, as is also always the case, the list they’ve chosen is less diverse than they acknowledge on certain axes. Excluding Blue Thread, these are books that take a remarkably dour, or perhaps sour, view of human nature and capacity, the world in which we live or can live, and our future.

It’s not that all the characters are awful people – Ben, the narrator of The Fishermen, is written as achingly sweet-natured, which amplifies the tragedy that befalls him, while Tochi, the Untouchable young man in The Year of the Runaways, is one of the saddest yet most resilient characters I’ve ever read. It’s more than none of these five writers seems to have any optimism at all about the human condition. Whether writing politics via individual circumstances (Sahota, in Runaways), historiography via brutality (James, in Seven Killings), or national and familial catastrophe (Obioma, in The Fishermen), these authors seem bent on not allowing the reader any illusion of hope or lightness. The world, they all say in their different ways, is, seriously, shit. Best to accept that now and move on.

Given how far out in front A Little Life is in the betting (and reviewing) at the moment, I’d probably say that even unread, it’s my prediction for taking home the prize (which will be history-making, as Hana Yanagihara will then become the first American winner of the Man Booker). This mightn’t be a bad thing, and nor is this a bad shortlist – but it certainly is a sad and saddening one, and not for the comfort reader.

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