Many book award lists have been announced recently, but one I’m particularly excited about is The British Book Awards or Nibbies. I was kindly asked to be one of the judges in the Fiction category and it’s a cracking list. I’ve reviewed most of these books and you can read my thoughts about them by clicking on the title links below or watch my handy video giving short summaries of the prize and each novel listed. It’s going to be very interesting meeting with the judges soon to choose a winner as the novels are a diverse group of contenders. It’s also worth noting there are many more interesting nominations on the Bookseller's British Book Awards site in other book categories as well as in publishing categories from literary agents to booksellers to libraries. I’m particularly excited by the Debut Fiction category as I’ve extremely enjoyed three books on that list: The Girls by Emma Cline, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon and What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell. Winners will be chosen in each book category and then on May 8th, the night of the awards ceremony, an overall winner will be crowned. I’d really like your opinions so if you’ve read some of these books who do you think should win?
It was fortuitous that the book I ended up reading during my short holiday this past weekend was Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout”. Last night it won this year’s Man Booker Prize. I was also lucky enough to be invited to his publisher Oneworld’s Booker party. To see the jubilation for everyone who has worked on this novel watching Beatty being honoured was wonderful and I think it was unexpected for many people, including the publishers because they also published Marlon James’ novel which won the prize last year. It may have broken my winning streak for guessing the Booker winner, but “The Sellout” is an excellent choice for its wit, ingenuity and unfettered voice which creatively raises questions about race relations in America.
The novel opens with its black narrator only known as Me being taken before the Supreme Court for owning a slave and trying to reinstate segregation in his neighbourhood – a place called Dickens which has been erased from the map. He recounts the story of his unusual life being raised by his tyrannical behavioural scientist father, living alongside a former actor named Hominy who pronounces himself to be his slave, his ill-fated love affair with bus driver Marpessa and his work growing the sweetest fruit/best cannabis on his own LA farm. After his father's death he also continues to help facilitate the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, a black group that meet regularly within a donut shop to debate societal affairs. The story moves through a series of high-concept situations which outrageously play up stereotypes and explode the racial issues we normally tiptoe around in society.
This feels like a very personal novel by an author who has grown frustrated with the way the politics of race relations has shaped everything about how we conceive of our own identities and how we communicate with each other. At one point the narrator states “in ten years, through countless California cruelties and slights against the blacks, the poor, the people of colour, like Proposition 8 and 187, the disappearance of social welfare, David Cronenberg’s Crash, and Dave Eggers’s do-gooder condescension, I hadn’t spoken a single word.” His opinions about this cultural and social environment come flooding out. This book is an explosive act by someone who wants to offer a wholly different point of view.
Hominy is an actor who is the last surviving member of The Little Rascals or Our Gang and spent his life playing stereotypical roles for black actors like waiters or servants. He's internalized his subservient roles so much that he craves to be a slave who is beaten: “I’m a slave. That’s who I am. It’s the role I was born to play. A slave who just happens to be an actor. But being black ain’t method acting.” One of the challenging things this novel does is question how black identity develops, how much is this identity inherent to the person or is it reflecting notions that society presents.
It's compelling and horrifying watching episodes of The Little Rascals and wondering how we should read what were meant to be entertaining funny vignettes. They make me so uncomfortable, but as with many dodgy representations of race it makes you wonder if they should be erased, seen in a social/historical context or rewritten. There are references to classic American literature throughout this novel and a man who rewrites these book from a black perspective. From this we also start to question how race is represented in films, television and literature today. In what way is racial identity sometimes used as a prop in story lines – where a bad guy might be lazily designated as such simply by being a Mexican – as frequently occurs in the show Breaking Bad.
I think something Beatty is asking us to do is look more clearly at what is being shown to us. He's questioning how much we've really moved on from outdated representations and how much social progression has really occurred. At one point he writes: “That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book – that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.” It's really powerful how he presents this story which occurs in a kind of murky present that can question history because it's not strictly speaking a part of it. The real and surreal playfully blend together to create an entirely different picture of our society.
While I found all this really clever and it raised a lot of interesting ideas, I felt one of the downsides of this novel is that it's more concept than story. I could feel the author's anger, frustration and biting sense of humour. But these emotions didn't come organically from within the characters acting out a plot. The story is driven by artfully composed situations which are entertaining and fascinating to read about, but weren't enough to create a dramatic suspense to draw me into the heart of the tale. Instead I simply felt compelled by the range of references and challenging points of view the author put across. I think this is a really interesting choice to win the Booker prize, but I personally don't feel as emotionally attached to it as I did reading Levy's “Hot Milk” or Thien's “Don't Say We Have Nothing”.
It’s been a busy month for me since the longlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize was announced so I’ve only managed to read five of the novels on the list. However, since I did so badly at predicting the longlist, I hope to redeem myself by making a guess at the six books which will make the shortlist. The novel that has really stood out for me is Madeleline Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” - a majestic sprawling saga about a family’s experiences in Mao’s China and a girl’s quest to understand her lost father’s past. I really hope this makes the list!
I also loved reading both Ian McGuire and Wyl Menmuir’s novels, but I don’t think they’ll make the cut. “The North Water” was such a fantastic adventure story filled with rich descriptions. And “The Many” is an intense, eerie read which eventually turns quite emotional.
I had previously read Deborah Levy’s novel “Hot Milk” and love the oddball perspective it gives on personal drive in life and relationships/sexuality. Elizabeth Strout’s “My Name is Lucy Barton” is a brilliantly pared down description of a life and how a woman has grown to create her own identity far from her upbringing.
I still haven’t read “The Sellout”, “The Schooldays of Jesus” or “Hystopia” but I’ve heard such high praise for all of them that I think they’ll be on the list. I figure that the judges will always want to have a famous, known name on the list so J.M. Coetzee is assured a place. Although I’ve heard some strong criticism of it, I’m also really eager to still read A.L. Kennedy’s “Serious Sweet” as I’ve loved her writing so much in the past.
Here are my six guesses for the shortlist. Click on the titles for my full reviews.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleline Thien
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
Hystopia by David Means
The official Man Booker Prize 2016 shortlist will be announced next Tuesday, September 13th at 10:30AM followed by a fabulous prize event being held at the Serpentine Pavilion in London which I’ve been invited to. So I’ll be very excited to see which books make the list and which authors/judges are in attendance. The winner will be announced on October 25th so I hope to read all of whatever books make the actual list by that time.
Have you read many/any on the longlist? Who do you hope will make the shortlist?