With all 13 longlisted books now read, here is KfC’s Booker shortlist in order (with links from the title of each to the original review):
A touching and very well written story of a South African trekker (named Damon) who “spends most of his time on the move in acute anxiety”. The novel involves three journeys, none of which could be called a success. Galgut switches voice from the third person to the first person, often in the same sentence — as the novel moves on, that first person voice becomes more common. As well, with each adventure, the central character becomes more and more fully developed. An excellent book.
A book that I first read in March, my impression has grown consistently better with each passing month. July, the narrator (who also writes in both the first and third person), is a freed Jamaican slave whose publisher son has encouraged her to write down her story. She is not totally reliable but what she does choose to remember offsets any problems. The novel has a tremendous humanity — July understands the conflicts that slavery poses for her masters as much as she understands the repression that it forced on her. The book is not perfect, but I can report that its weaknesses shrink in time, while it strengths grow in stature.
The most unconventional novel on the longlist, for me it was one of the most successful. The central character, Serge Carrefax, is introduced at birth. The son of an eccentric inventor, who also runs a school for the deaf (echoes of Alexander Graham Bell), Serge matures, develops an interest and expertise in the new field of wireless transmission, heads off to the Great War as an airborne observer, returns to the drug culture in post-war London and then ends up in Egypt. A novel that raises more questions than it answers — and all of the elements don’t entirely succeed — it leaves a lasting impression.
Anthony Verey is an aging London antique dealer whose most successful days are now past. He heads to France where his sister (and her female partner) is compiling a book on gardening in arid conditions as her last work — and Anthony explores the idea of relocating there with his “beloveds”, the pieces in his extensive collection that he cannot do without. The three English characters are joined by a French brother-sister pair of the same age, who are also trying to come to terms with there own conflicted and troubling past. For this reader, an intriguing story of aging and what it means to face what may be the last major conscious decision in life.
While this book somewhat disappointed me, that is only because I like David Mitchell’s work so much. The title character has been sent as a clerk to the Dutch trading island of Dejima, next door to Nagasaki — imperial Japan’s only window on the rest of the world. Part of his job is to uncover the corrupt practices of the past. But he becomes entranced with a Japanese medical student who has been allowed to study with the Dutch doctor on the island — Mitchell uses that to open an exploration of some of the abuses that take place in the Japanese system. Probably the most ambitious book on the longlist, even if it is not totallly successful.
The book with the most humor on the longlist, author Murray creates a cast of weird but completely believable Irish students, offset by an equally weird cast of school staff. The plot may be thin, but it is enough to carry some exceptional character development — and Murray exploits that in some hilarious set pieces. An entertaining and enjoyable read, I suspect it does not have the weight to win the prize.
And while my record of predicting what official Man Booker juries do is hapless, I can’t resist the temptation of offering a prediction of the real list (alphabetically by author):
Room, by Emma Donoghue
The Betrayal, by Helen Dunmore
In A Strange Room, by Damon Galgut
The Long Song, by Andrea Levy
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell
C, by Tom McCarthy