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It’s been quite a ride following the Man Booker Prize this year from the astounding quality of the novels on the long list to the heated race between the six books on the short list. When I first read “Lincoln in the Bardo” in March I was completely awestruck by this unique and powerful reading experience. So it threw me into such a quandary about whether this should win or Ali Smith’s wonderfully rambunctious and relevant “Autumn.” Of course, last year’s surprise winner “The Sellout” taught me how difficult it is to gauge what the judges might decide. So it felt equally plausible that this year’s winner could have been the accomplished novels “Exit West”, “History of Wolves” or “Elmet.” The oddball for me this year was Paul Auster’s “4321” which I’ve still not finished reading. There’s a lot to admire about it, but it seems overlong and the novel’s concept means that some of it feels quite repetitive. It must have been a really difficult decision picking a winner, but I’m glad Saunders' novel got the award. The chair of judges Lola, Baroness Young commented “The form and style of this utterly original novel, reveals a witty, intelligent, and deeply moving narrative.” 

Special presentation editions made for the shortlisted authors

Special presentation editions made for the shortlisted authors

With Ali Smith at the Guildhall

With Ali Smith at the Guildhall

I spotted Mohsin Hamid chatting with the Duchess of Cornwall

I spotted Mohsin Hamid chatting with the Duchess of Cornwall

Last night I was lucky enough to be invited to the pre-reception drinks before the award announcement at the Guildhall. There was a beautiful display of special editions of all the shortlisted novels. These unique designs really capture the spirit of the books. I decided to root for Ali Smith to win especially after the powerful reading she gave at the Booker shortlist readings on Monday night. It literally brought tears to my eyes hearing her describe the mood of the country in her narrative. There were hundreds of people in the Royal Festival Hall audience and it struck me how accurately she had captured all the complex and contradictory feelings of the country and how everyone in that room recognized and related to her words. Ali has told me before that her spirit animal is a pink armadillo so I had a special t-shirt made with an illustration of this adorable creature surrounded by Autumn leaves. She was wonderfully calm and sincerely talked about how it doesn’t matter who wins since they are all such excellent novels. That certainly chimes with why I love a prize like the Booker because the real pleasure of it is debating the different qualities of several great novels. I also went to some of the publishers’ parties and right up to the announcement I was still discussing the books on the list with people, many of whom had a different favourite. The prize is also an opportunity for me to place a cheeky little bet which I did right after this year’s longlist was announced. I went with my instinct that George Saunders would win and it’s paid off!

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I’m already looking forward to what new gems will come up on next year’s Man Booker International Prize as well as the main prize!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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The geeky act of making lists of favourite books is a pleasure I don't think we should deny ourselves. What better way to get a snap-shot of someone's reading tastes and pick up on recommendations for great books you might have missed over the year. I read 112 books this year, many of them newly published in 2016 and many of them highly enjoyable. However, these ten books all show great craft but also feel personally significant to me. Click on the titles below to read my full reviews of each book. You can also watch my BookTube video talking about these ten books: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7x_TPKvl7I&t=71s

The Man Without a Shadow by Joyce Carol Oates

Anyone who knows how Oates is my favourite author might think it is an obvious choice for me to put a new novel by her on my list, but this is truly an excellent book. The more I think about it the more layers it yields about the meaning of personality and romance. An unusual love story between a man with short term memory loss and scientist Margot that explores the elusive mechanics of the mind.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I can't ignore the significance of this novel coming out in an American election year when a campaign fuelled by racism and anti-immigration helped a politically-inexperienced misogynist enter The White House. This story about an escaped slave named Cora who travels a physical underground railroad to arrive in different states of racism America says something so significant about the times we live in.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

The state of loneliness is a curious psychological phenomenon which seems natural to the human condition, but one which is only increasing in an age of so-called online connectedness. Laing's incredibly personal and well-researched non-fiction book looks at the lives and work of many great queer artists to see how loneliness manifests in different ways. This is an incredibly touching and moving book.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

Although it may seem daunting to read a novel that is one continuous sentence it comes to seem quite a natural thing as you enter the consciousness of its Irish protagonist. It's a significant reflection of the times we live in as much as it is as a moving story of family and the working life. Reading it is an electrifying experience.

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Great survival stories are both thrilling and heartening. This is a tale of a girl who survives a brutal civil war only to discover that her natural desire to love women goes against the religious beliefs of her family and community. She faces a very different kind of challenge to survive as she's pressured to settle down into marriage with a man and gradually assert what she really wants in life. It's a brutally honest and inspiring story which suggests strategies for unifying disparate communities which are bitterly embattled.

Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin

Creating finely constructed short stories that give the impact of a full-length novel is a difficult challenge. But this is something McLaughlin accomplishes consistently and beautifully in this memorable and significant debut collection. Even though I read it at the very beginning of the year many of these stories about people across all levels of Irish society have remained clear in my mind. You can watch me discussing this and other great books of short stories from 2016 here.

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Tremain's tremendous artistry for plucking an uncommon story from history and making it come alive is unparalleled. Here she writes about two boys in Switzerland in the time immediately following WWII, but moves backwards and then forwards in time to show the repercussions of political neutrality and hidden love. This is a beautifully accomplished novel.

Autumn by Ali Smith

There's no writer more daring and inventive than Ali Smith. Not only has she bravely planned a quartet of novels based around the seasons, but she's reflecting in them what's happening in society now. This novel focuses on the country's mood in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote and an uncommon friendship between young Elisabeth and a mysterious old man Daniel. In doing so she addresses the meaning of nationality, the state of the modern world and the nature of language. She does this with great flair, humour and passion.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Music has played a large part in many great novels this year – from Rose Tremain's novel to Julian Barnes' most recent novel “The Noise of Time” - but Thien skilfully shows how the art of composition and the compositions themselves fare under fifty years of living under the Maoist government. A girl follows her family's history in this complex, absorbing story which culminates in a depiction of the infamous student protests in Tiananmen Square. It's an epic novel.

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss

It's always an immense pleasure to discover an incredibly talented author I've not read before and one of this year's great finds for me is Sarah Moss. This novel takes a potential family tragedy and expands the story to explore the messiness of ordinary life in such a tender and poignant way. It also reflects back to the past to consider the meaning of loss using such a disarming style of narration which totally gripped me.

 

Have you read any of my choices? Which are you most interested to read? Let me know some of your favourite books of the year. I'm always eager to hear about books I might have missed reading.

Ali Smith is an author whose writing embodies absolute passion, invention and positivity – this is true despite her new novel “Autumn” beginning with the line “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.” Because she is writing about the contemporary including this year’s recent significant referendum where the UK voted to leave theEuropean Union, this statement playing upon Dickens’ famous opening accurately reflects the political and social feeling for many people in this country. What Smith does in this novel is give a sense of perspective on this mood of all-encompassing gloom. She shows how while times might feel dire right now, it is simply a season in the turning of time. It’s the story of a young woman named Elisabeth Demand and her friendship with Daniel Gluck, an elderly man who lived through the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s. Together they debate ideas and create stories while witnessing the monumental changes happening in the society around them. Their exchanges are very different from the present popular mode of communication “which is a time of people saying stuff to each other and none of it actually ever becoming dialogue.” “Autumn” emphasizes the importance of art and literature as a means of communicating when dialogue between different factions of society comes to an end. In this way, this novel naturally follows on from Smith’s “Public Library”, a collection of wonderful short stories interspersed with real accounts of the personal and social importance of libraries and books for connecting people.

Another aspect of Smith’s positivity is the way in which her stories often involve charismatic and intelligent young people. Many like to moan about the coming generation by claiming they are aimless and lazy, but Smith frequently shows a real optimism and respect for her adolescent characters who are relentlessly inquisitive and creatively engage with the world. This novel moves backwards and forwards in time, recalling the occasions in Elisabeth’s youth when she first got to know her neighbour Daniel. Her mother Wendy is sceptical about this friendship, worries Daniel might have some ulterior motives and speculates that he is gay. Elisabeth astutely observes in response to this that “if he is… then he's not just gay. He's not just one thing or another. Nobody is. Not even you.” This is a continuation of an idea brilliantly realized in Smith’s last novel “How to Be Both” where characters weren’t necessarily one thing or another. In the imaginative and funny stories Elisabeth creates with Daniel they play upon this assertion showing the ever-changing and fluid nature of people, societies, language and the environment around them.

In opposition to the playfulness of this dialogue between the pair are the institutions which seek to hem in and pigeonhole people. In the present day Elisabeth tries to get a passport application put through the post office, but she’s told on multiple occasions after waiting in a long numbered queue that her photos and the head on her shoulders doesn’t meet required specifications. These scenes make a funny critique of the way our society frequently puts people through tedious regimented processes instead of giving individual attention. But it also takes a worrying look at the notion of citizenship during a time when who you are and where you came from will come under scrutiny as our government dictates who does and does not belong in our country. Furthermore, these scenes highlight how policies focused on classification and exclusion trickle down into the public consciousness causing factions and divisions within communities.

Pauline Boty

Pauline Boty

Elisabeth becomes fascinated by the little-known artist Pauline Boty who was Britain’s only female painter working in the Pop art movement of the late 1950s. As someone who studied Pop art in college and had a passionate interest in Andy Warhol, I feel ashamed not to have known about this artist before reading “Autumn”. Boty challenged conventional notions of representation and gender in both her art and life. She tragically died of cancer before she was thirty, but would no doubt have been better remembered and left a more substantial legacy had she lived and continued with her imaginative work. Through viewing her art work and studying her life, Elisabeth finds a way to engage with the creative ideas Boty set forth and applies them to how she questions and views the present time. In one memorable scene it leads her walking; she follows fields of cow parsley to land designated as private and encounters a man who tries to stop her using regimental language. This causes a disruptive crisis between the individual and the natural world.

One of the funniest parts of this frequently playful/funny novel is a section where Daniel and Elisabeth discuss a story about someone who disguises himself as a tree and becomes embroiled in a battle. Smith has written in the past about people’s connections to trees or transformation into trees. There’s a great tradition of metamorphosis in literature – everything from Homer’s “The Odyssey” to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” – both of which this novel makes sly references to throughout. As well as being an entertaining and lively exchange between the two characters this mutually-created tale says something very moving about people’s connection to nature. It also highlights the connection between language and books, the way our words are inscribed upon paper and how there isn’t a separation between our ideas and the world around us. Also, their story which at first seems humorously abstract turns very personal for Daniel in a moving way. Smith is a master at catching the reader off guard with passages that are deeply emotional.

Smith plans for “Autumn” to be the first in a quartet of novels all named after the seasons. It’ll be fascinating to see how the books play out together and how much more we’ll discover about Daniel’s troubled past. At the start of the novel he washes up on a shore in a way that is reminiscent of Shakespeare's "The Tempest". I suspect Smith has more to say about the parallels between the changes happening in society now and what Daniel witnessed growing up. He makes a beautiful statement in this novel when he tells Elisabeth “always try to welcome people into the home of your story.” This is a hopeful cry for inclusivity and diversity against the current political movement towards shutting down borders. It’s a plea to really see all the people around us and acknowledge that they are part of our lives and our communities rather than shutting them out or pretending they don’t exist. “Autumn” triumphantly shows how our stories don’t belong to us alone but are part of a larger narrative of humanity and the time we live in. 

Read an interview I conducted with Ali about "Autumn": https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/in-conversation/interviews/2016/oct/ali-smith-on-autumn/

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAli Smith
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