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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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I’ve been hesitant about reading Richard Powers for years because some readers I know have dismissed his writing as pretentious. I know I shouldn’t have let this put me off. He’s produced such an impressive body of work with weighty highly-praised novels that have won him the National Book Award, a Pushcart Prize and made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His recent shortlisting on the Man Booker Prize finally pushed me to give his writing a try and I’m so glad I did because this novel is magnificent. What’s more it’s much more approachable and enjoyable than I thought it would be. It’s a truly epic tale primarily about ecological activism, family heritage and the surprising interconnections between people and the natural world. I was immediately enthralled by the long separate stories of nine individuals which vary so wildly in subject matter. They range from tales about a Chinese immigrant to a farmer that embarks on an ambitious photography project to a boy with a flair for writing code at the dawn of the computer age to a college girl with a hazardous bad-girl streak. He frames these stories through the lens of trees so time is altered to recount events at their pace of life. The stories initially leap through years and big events are recounted in brief. While they seem so disparate at first they gradually thread together throughout the novel to tell a much larger story. Powers structures the novel like a tree itself from the roots to the trunk to the crown to the seeds. While I don’t think every storyline or device he used worked, I was nevertheless astounded by the ambitious scope of this novel and found it continuously engaging despite its considerable length.

It’s quite a challenge to get humans to think on a timescale like that which trees experience, but Powers accomplishes this in such an inventive way. One character photographs a certain tree at a particular time for many years and its observed how “The generations of grudge, courage, forbearance, and surprise generosity: everything a human being might call the story happens outside his photos’ frame.” In this way, Powers trains the reader to think beyond the emotions which rule our daily lives and consider the way which trees bear themselves throughout time and in the world. His mission for doing this is admirable because it encourages the reader to really feel the central concern of the novel which is the rapid destruction of our natural world.

One scene vividly describes the soulless task of working in a mega website’s fulfilment centre.

One scene vividly describes the soulless task of working in a mega website’s fulfilment centre.

Powers even seems to doubt the ambition of his mission within the course of the book. Late in the novel he observes how “To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.” It’s so challenging for us to conceive of the larger struggles of the world which is why watching news about depressing world events feels important to us, but doesn’t often motivate us to instigate any actual changes. What I think Powers is attempting to do in this novel is compel us to re-view how we look at time and nature in a radically different way – while also doing that exact thing of compelling his readers with the stories about a few lost people.

I was most strongly drawn to the story of Adam who possesses unique psychological insight because he found it so difficult to connect with other people as a child. It’s so moving how Powers describes that for Adam “Every hug is a small, soft jail.” Equally, I really enjoyed the story of Neelay whose physical disability compels him to vividly conjure alternate lives. It’s also very effective how Powers shows the trajectory of student Olivia’s life and how he frames this within sections of the novel. But I was somewhat put off by the story of Ray and Dorothy’s relationship. Their sections aren’t badly told, but the progression of their story felt somewhat cliched to me and noticeably separate from the intertwining stories of the other characters. I’m not sure the way in which the characters’ stories mix together was always believable either. But they are so dramatically told and contain such fascinating insights drawn from a wide range of subjects. I was glad sink wholeheartedly into this wildly energetic and impressive novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRichard Powers