I’ve been greatly anticipating what might be longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize – Anna and I had such fun speculating in our annual video. It’s great to see a diverse and varied group of novels listed! Not only are there some great books I was hoping to see such as “The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker, “Swan Song” by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, “Circe” by Madeline Miller, “Ghost Wall” by Sarah Moss and “Normal People” by Sally Rooney – but there are also some novels I’ve been wanting to read and others I know nothing about. So the list is the perfect balance of books I’m thrilled to see celebrated and others I’m now eager to explore.

More than anything I feel like many of the novels on this list will generate such interesting discussions. Although both “Ghost Wall” and “Normal People” have been so popular they have their critics as well. I feel like “The Pisces” and “Freshwater” will receive really mixed responses as well. I myself had a mixed reaction to “Milkman” as I’m one of its readers that found it a difficult book – not in being able to understand it, but it sometimes felt like a slog to read despite there being some stunningly insightful passages. After it won the Booker Prize it felt like some readers who loved it were annoyed by it being labelled as a “difficult” or “challenging” novel as if readers who felt this way were being lazy or failed to comprehend the narrative. I don’t think these descriptive terms are equivalent. There are many novels like those written by Marlon James I’d describe as “difficult” and “challenging” as well but I also think they’re brilliant. I simply felt that, while “Milkman” honestly has so many strengths and has powerful things to say, it wasn’t as enjoyable a reading experience for me. Nevertheless, I’d highly recommend everyone read “Milkman” and I’ll be eager to discuss it with you once you do. While I’m sure many people will have divergent opinions on the books longlisted I hope we can maintain a civilized discussion and respect other readers’ personal reactions to what they read even if we disagree.

Of the sixteen books listed, I’ve read seven and a half (I’m currently reading Luiselli’s novel.) After finishing this I’ll probably start by reading “An American Marriage” or “Ordinary People”. Which are you most intrigued to read first? Here’s the list with links to my reviews of the ones I’ve read so far:

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

Milkman by Anna Burns

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden

Circe by Madeline Miller

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Normal People by Sally Rooney

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The shortlist will be announced on April 29th and the winner on June 5th. What do you think of the list? Will you try to read them all or are there select ones you want to focus on?

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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When discussing the shortlist for this year’s prize I described how difficult it was to call who might win and I was surprised to see “Milkman” triumph last night. But I think this is a fantastic result for a number of reasons despite my heart’s wish to see “Washington Black” win and my finding Anna Burns’ novel a bit of a slog to read overall.

Many people will now buy “Milkman”, but I think the reality is that not many people will finish reading it. This goes to the centre of a longstanding tension between what you could term readability vs literary quality. Often we’re made to feel that challenging books are something we should force ourselves to read because they are “good” for us. Not many people would describe “Ulysses” or “Moby Dick” as delightful reading, but they’ve had an undeniable cultural influence and, of course, you can still find great pleasure in reading them. Many times challenging yourself to better understand a complex text can yield a lot of joy. My point is that I don’t think readability and literary quality are mutually exclusive. Also, we’re often made to feel if we don’t “get” a book we’re somehow less of a reader. If you’re not enjoying something don’t force yourself to read it. It simply might not be a book for you. Our relationships with individual books is complex. Sometimes it might be a question of timing or the circumstances in which you’re reading it. In this case, despite my reservations while reading “Milkman” I kept reading it not because I felt I had to, but because there were such insightful gems and moments of brilliance I wanted to see how the novel played out. I’m certainly glad I stuck with it because I really connected with the dilemma and justified indignation of its narrator, but if you gave up on it or start reading it now and decide to give up on it that’s a totally valid decision. And maybe you’ll want to try it again some day.

Here’s a special edition of the novel which the prize designed just for the author.

Here’s a special edition of the novel which the prize designed just for the author.

It also feels like “Milkman” being selected as the winner was something of a political choice. As has been often noted, a female author hasn’t won the prize since Eleanor Catton took the trophy in 2013. That Anna Burns is also from Northern Ireland feels significant as well – especially in the midst of Brexit. It’s great that the novel winning this award will bring more of a focus to female voices from this part of the world. If you’re interested in discovering more writers from Northern Ireland I’d highly suggest reading the anthology “The Glass Shore” which includes a wide range of short stories from many talented female writers from the North of Ireland. The fact that Burns’ gender or country of origin might have played a factor in the judges’ decision shouldn’t detract from the individual literary quality of “Milkman”. It’s a singular achievement (as all the novels on the shortlist are) so it just adds another dimension to the joy of this book winning.

I was lucky enough to be invited along to some of the parties last night so I also made a video discussing the shortlist a bit more and filming a vlog of my experiences on the night which you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5X1vVokxfo&t=200s

Let me know what you think of “Milkman” winning the prize this year? Have you read it or are you tempted to read it now?

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It’s been such an interesting year for the Booker Prize, not only in its Man Booker 50 celebrations but also in the dynamic and controversial longlist that this year’s judges created. I’ve enjoyed reading so many of the nominated books and discussing the prize with other readers. While I’d have loved to see novels like Jessie Greengrass’ “Sight” or Sophie Mackintosh’s “The Water Cure” in the final running, this is an absolutely fascinating and impressive shortlist. In past years, I’ve been able to make fairly confident predictions about winners such as Marlon James’ “A Brief History of Seven Killings” or George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo”. But I think it’s really too difficult to call this year! So I’ll try to weigh all the options that I’d consider if I were a judge.

“The Overstory” is so impressive for the way Powers’ language and style of writing changes the way the reader conceives of time by shifting focus to nature and the pace of trees. It’s also filled with such compelling characters and, while I didn’t think all the storylines worked, I was drawn into their complex emotional journey and the urgent message of their struggles. But I can already imagine the enormous outcry if another weighty American novel wins the prize since Yanks have snatched the trophy for two years running. It’s the novel most people are predicting will win, but I think we may be surprised.

There’s also the fact that a female author hasn’t won the prize since Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries” in 2013. While I don’t think gender should be a determining factor in picking a prize that simply seeks to honour “the best novel in the opinion of the judges” you have to hope that men won’t come out on top year after year. Thankfully, since there are four women on this year’s shortlist, the odds are in favour of one of them taking the prize. Certainly, “Milkman” is an equally impressive feat for the vivid way it immerses the reader into a culture of fear and distrust in a country so violently divided by politics and religion. It’s certainly a challenging read, but if it wins I feel like the judges would be declaring “Trust us. Stick with it. It’s worth it!” And they’d be right to make that statement because Anna Burns’ writing is incredibly moving and powerful in certain sections of the book.

“Everything Under” is also a uniquely challenging reading experience for the way Daisy Johnson presents a fragmented portrait of broken families and outside individuals. But her prose are so invigorating, lyrical and give such a unique perspective on identity and language that I found this novel so moving. And, given that Johnson is the youngest ever shortlisted author for this prize, it’d be very encouraging to see a new writer of such talent and who represents such a refreshing perspective win the Booker.

I have to say for me it feels like “The Mars Room” is the weakest novel on the list but (like with Anna Burns’ novel) I felt there were sections of it which shone very powerfully. I really admire the way Rachel Kushner chose to highlight the complex lives of incarcerated individuals, but I felt the novel wasn’t structured in the best way. I think rereading Kushner’s novel (as the Booker judges are meant to read all the novels on the shortlist multiple times) would probably emphasize the problems in this novel’s unnecessary subplots.

I’m guessing the opposite would be true for Robin Robertson’s “The Long Take” which is a book I would really like to reread at one point. It’s so clever how he pairs the narrator’s tortured journey meeting the beleaguered and forgotten people of America with flashbacks to his traumatic experiences in the military and his pre-war life with his family. All this is told with such poetic power that I’m sure revisiting this narrative (especially by reading it aloud) would emphasize what a beautiful piece of storytelling it is.

However, the novel I keep thinking back on and which really captured my heart is Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black”. It’s a book that takes the reader on such an immersive and imaginative journey that I was totally captivated throughout. Some readers may be sceptical about the borderline fantastical elements of the plot. But I think it’s making such a positive message amidst so much suffering that individuals who have little opportunity to realise their full potential can discover ways to traverse the narrowmindedness and oppression of their times. Leaving aside any politics or other considerations, I think it’s the most accomplished novel on the list. I hope it wins.

The winner will be announced on the evening of Tuesday, October 16th. What book do you hope will win the Booker Prize this year?

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Here are the six books shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I’m so thrilled to see “Washington Black” and “Everything Under” on the list, but quite disappointed that “The Water Cure” and “Normal People” didn’t make it. Like I explained in my post about “Milkman” there are parts of it which are so brilliant and mesmerising, but other sections were a slog to get through so I have mixed feelings about it. I also felt conflicted about “The Mars Room” for different reasons. But I am glad to see them both on the list because it means more people will be discussing them and giving their opinions. I’m currently reading “The Overstory”. And “The Long Take” is a novel I’m so intrigued by so I’m glad I have an excuse to go buy a copy now. It’s tough to say, but initially I feel like the winning book will be a race between Esi Edugyan & Richard Powers

How do you feel about the shortlist? If you want to watch more of my thoughts comparing nominated books and discussing the prize I made a video you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luSnqLHUkwQ&t=289s

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The narrator of “Milkman” has the geekishly endearing habit of reading while walking wherever she goes. This 18 year-old wills herself to be completely removed from her time and the unnamed city in Northern Ireland she inhabits by concentrating on novels from the 19th century. Her desire to be elsewhere and invisible is understandable given that the atmosphere around her is extremely tense. She lives amidst The Troubles where there are car bombs, executions, surveillance and stringent (spoken and unspoken) rules in place where everyone must carefully navigate the “religious geography”. But she’s not able to fully extricate herself from her surroundings. One day at the beginning of the novel she becomes very conspicuous when she’s accosted by a shady character known as Milkman. Thereafter she’s the subject of vicious assumptions and suspicion. The way this novel rigorously catalogues and artistically renders the frustration and injustice of being raised within a divided war-torn country is admirable. Unfortunately I often found the actual experience of reading it to be frustrating and tedious at times, but I was carried through by sparks of genius that periodically shined throughout the story.

It’s difficult trying to describe my feelings about this book because its dense style is the thing that makes it a great as well as a challenging read. Both the author’s use of language and the text on the page is so tightly packed in it’s as if all the narrator’s irresolvable thoughts and emotions have exploded out. One publicity blurb I read described her writing as like that of Eimear McBride meets Edna O’Brien which is totally apt. Her writing isn’t as fragmented as McBride, but it does give the feeling of wading through a very thick body of water. I get how this reflects the narrator’s dilemma of being trapped in this community and the personal injustice she suffers being dragged into politics she wants no part of. It’s effective while conveying moments of fierce anger and wry comedy. However, there are also long periods of the narrative where I felt so bogged down with descriptions of the conduct and rules for existing in such strained circumstances that I was put off from reading any more.

The readability of the novel isn’t helped by the fact that almost everyone’s proper name is withheld as if naming them might dangerously implicate them in some way. Again, this is an effective technique for conveying the milieu of the narrator’s city and it does serve as an important part of the plot but it makes it quite difficult to fully envision the characters as rounded human beings. Where this element did feel effective for me was in the comic portrayal of the narrator’s younger sisters who are a single chorus of voices seeking to control the narrator by repeating edicts dictated by their “mammy” and sporadically showing a distinct sophistication beyond their young years. It also comes as a relief later on in the novel when central characters who feel so emotionally muted demonstrate hidden depths and concealed desires rather than just being unnamed beings.

There were certain sections which seized my attention and I spent a lot of time rereading them to try to fully take in their rich complexity. For instance, there’s a passage about the danger and difficulty of standing out as an individual in this combative landscape: “part of normality here was this constant, acknowledged struggle to see. I knew even as a child – maybe because I was a child – that this wasn’t really physical; knew the impression of a pall, of some distorted quality to the light had to do with the political problems, with the hurts that had come, the troubles that had built, with the loss of hope and absence of trust and with a mental incapacitation over which nobody seemed willing or able to prevail. The very physical environment then, in collusion with, or as a result of, the human darkness discharging within it, didn’t itself encourage light. Instead the place was sunk in one long, melancholic story to the extent that the truly shining person coming into this darkness ran the risk of not outliving it, of having their own shininess subsumed into it and, in some cases – if the person was viewed as intolerably extra-bright and extra-shiny – it might even reach the point of that individual having to lose his or her physical life.” This is a beautiful and heady way of describing the nature of growing up in this violent environment and coming to understand that the standard code of practice which no one dares oppose is the thing which is strangling the humanity out of this community.

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Another exquisite section lays out the duality of existing in this conflicted city: “There was no getting away from views and of course, the problem was these views between the areas, between one side and the other, were not just the same. It was that each was intolerant of the other to the extent that highly volatile, built-up contentions periodically would result from them; the reason why too, if you didn’t want to get into that explosive upsurge despite your view which you couldn’t help having, you had to have manners and exercise politeness to overcome, or at any rate balance out, the violence, the hatred and the blaming – for how to live otherwise?  This was not schizophrenia. This was living otherwise. This was underneath the trauma and the darkness a normality trying to happen.” This is such a complex way of conveying the inner struggle people feel in this environment, but following the author’s circuitous logic can be too laborious at times.

Mostly what pulled me through “Milkman” was the deep sense of empathy I felt for the narrator. She must suffer the indignity of being characterized as a certain type of person by her family, friends and community just because a disreputable thug sidles up to her without an invitation. I really felt her turmoil as once the public opinion had been decided there was no way for her to escape it. All she wants is to remove herself from it, but there’s no way for her to escape this toxic environment. The trauma that results from being forcibly pulled into such a self-conscious drama is poignantly reflected in her viscous narrative. I just wish it was able to maintain its effectiveness while also being more readable.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnna Burns
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