Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Madeleine Thien Will Win The Booker: My Hot Take of Today's Shortlist

So the Man Booker Prize has released its shortlist and there are many surprises, particularly the exclusion of My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. Instead, the jury provided the following books as finalists:

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton)

The list is impressive. The Sellout was a huge critical hit in the United States last year, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Tournament of Books. Hot Milk's author is probably the best known in the UK, as Deborah Levy has been shortlisted in the past. Eileen had prominent attention last year, including being shortlisted for the NBCC award. I hadn't heard of All That Man Is but there are some suggesting it is one of the favourites, although the claim made that "the time might just be right for David Szalay’s thoughtful portrait of masculinity" is absurd, as if what art is really missing are "thoughtful portraits of masculinity."

My pick, however, is Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien. Thien is a Canadian author of several books who has a strong reputation in this country but this is her first large international exposure.  This shortlisting will certainly give her a bump in sales and expose her to new readers (including myself, who recently bought the book and it is next on my TBR).

So my reasons are as follows, that touch upon both the specific quality of the books and the politics of the award as a whole:

1. Thien's seems to be the most meaty and ambitious of the books on the list. It's a multi-generational story of the consequences of the Cultural Revolution and the Tienanmen Square Massacre and the lasting psychological impact of those events extends beyond the direct victims. Looking at recent winners such as The Luminaries, A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Narrow Road of the Deep North, Wolf Hall/Bringing Up The Bodies etc, the Booker likes to award big books that offer unique narratives of historical experiences. 

2. Two of the books shortlisted are thrillers of a type. Eileen is a psychological thriller about a young woman dealing with an emotionally abusive invalid father and His Bloody Project appears to be a bit of a historical murder mystery. I appreciate when awards offer openings for genre fiction, but I doubt that it will elevate one to winner. Although The Luminaries also had thriller elements to it, it was also really ambitious structurally and had a literary quality that made it more palatable to the selection committee.

3. Paul Beatty's book was amazing and I don't want to sell it short. It's an example of how stinging and hilarious satire can be and will continue to find readers laughing out loud for years to come. That said, the themes are really American, dealing with very particular issues and experiences that are unique to the historical problems of "post-racial" United States (fyi it's not post-racial, that's the whole point of the book). Although the Booker opened itself to American authors a few years ago, I don't think the first winner will be a book that feels so American. Eileen would be a more likely choice than The Sellout for this reason.

4. David Szalay's book is a collection of short stories, although interlinked. The Booker very rarely goes to short story and that will hinder it. Also, a book about takes on masculinity? The last two Booker winners have been men (although one gay man) so not sure it's in the cards for a third straight man let alone a book that deals with over explored issues of maleness. 

5. I think there is a good chance for a woman winner this year. I'd say Thien and Levy are the front runners. They each have their own things to overcome. Thien's book has kind of snuck up on the competition, not having been reviewed in many British newspapers or the NY Times. That said, it will now so maybe a buzz around it as something fresh and discovered will motivate the judges. Levy is a more known quantity, but Hot Milk has received good but not gushing reviews and its Goodreads rating is pretty low for a book expected to win this prize.

Last year I predicted correctly Marlon Jame's amazing A Brief History of Seven Killings would walk away with the award. It was so ambitious and fun and dark and the writing challenging but fun. I haven't read Thien's book yet (next couple of weeks, promise), so I can't comment on the writing, but it feels like a proper Booker book and I think it'll pull it off. 

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