Eileen Battersby: Readers the big winners in Man Booker longlist
Tom McCarthy’s ‘Satin Island’ is the highlight of a varied and intriguing selection
Anne Enright: The Green Road (Jonathan Cape)
Bill Clegg: Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape)
Marlon James: A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications)
Laila Lalami: The Moor’s Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing)
Tom McCarthy: Satin Island (Jonathan Cape)
Chigozie Obioma: The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press)
Andrew O’Hagan: The Illuminations (Faber & Faber)
Marilynne Robinson: Lila (Virago)
Anuradha Roy: Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus)
Sunjeev Sahota: The Year of the Runaways (Picador)
Anna Smaill: The Chimes (Sceptre)
Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus)
Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life (Picador)
Faint if distinct echoes of the Boston Tea Party may gleefully come to mind on perusing this year’s Man Booker longlist.
Many traditionalists objected to the inclusion of writers from the US for fear they would dominate the prize and in this, the second year of the feared US invasion, five American contenders feature on an excitingly diverse longlist of 13 good to very good novels. Even Man Booker cynics will concede riches have indeed been gathered.
Not only is the selection, which includes one previous winner – Ireland’s Anne Enright who is nominated for her sixth novel, The Green Road – varied and intriguing, the US contingent could be pointed to as a showcase of American writing.
It ranges from the magisterial grace of Marilynne Robinson’s Lila and the astute though kindly, comforting intelligence of Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread to the coming-of-age, second novel A Little Life by Los Angeles native Hanya Yanagihara, who is of Hawaiian descent and was nominated for the 2015 International Impac Dublin Literary Award with her novel The People in the Trees. Yanagihara is a natural storyteller and A Little Life follows a group of friends through their respective little lives.
Terrific yarnAnother American challenger for the £50,000 (€71,000) prize is Laila Lalami, who is longlisted for The Moor’s Account, a historical novel about which very serious people have been speaking as if it were the Holy Grail. It may well be: it is a terrific yarn about exploration, discovery, slave trading and the brutal destruction of native people in the name of civilisation which is in fact unfettered brutality.
Book clubs all over the world will be reaching for this celebration of all the precious, much-loved values of traditional fiction. The 19th century novel is alive and well and this would be a popular winner.
Last but not least is Bill Clegg’s debut, Did You Ever Have a Family? As Clegg is a high-profile literary agent, observers may be tempted to smirk at his inclusion. After all, if he does not know how to assemble the vital ingredients for a novel, who would? Yet in fairness to Clegg, his previous books, memoirs about addiction, have been well regarded.
His novel is based on a very human tragedy: a middle- aged woman, preparing for her daughter’s wedding, endures personal catastrophe as the bride-to-be and everyone else in the family is killed in an explosion.
African writingPersonal bias and a love of African writing draw me to Nigerian Chigozie Obioma’s beautiful, quasi-biblical allegory-like debut The Fishermen, which follows four young brothers on a forbidden fishing trip to a cursed river.
A crazed prophecy come true, The Fishermen is set to be one of the novels of the year, and admirers of African writing will smile at the thought that it is unbelievably 24 years since another young Nigerian, Ben Okri, won the then Booker Prize with The Famished Road.
Anne Enright has been joined on the list by another Man Booker veteran, the Scot Andrew O’Hagan with The Illuminations. O’Hagan is interested in ideas and his stories have a questing intelligence. Yet for all his flair, O’Hagan, and indeed most English-language writers, appears very ordinary indeed when compared with Englishman Tom McCarthy. If any one writer deserves to win outright in this strong company, it must be McCarthy. Satin Island is one of the best novels written in English since McCarthy’s debut Remainder appeared to taunt the collective imaginations of readers everywhere.
SubversiveSatin Island is bold and unapologetic, a disengaged anthropologist despairing at the world about him. Imagine JG Ballard in concert with Don DeLillo. This is a novel about everything and nothing in particular that sums up our moment in time and space. It is obviously splendid, possibly bonkers and proof that fiction can do anything, if a writer is as committed and as subversive as McCarthy, who was shortlisted for C in 2013.
In common with Robinson,Indian writer Anuradha Roy shares a calm, resigned view of human behaviour. Her prose is understated and in Sleeping on Jupiter, her third novel, a young girl’s silent agony of abuse surfaces.
In a longlist featuring seven women writers, six of whom are established and joined by New Zealander Anna Smaill with her debut The Chimes, Roy could well have the edge. Robinson and Tyler are very different, yet equally loved, but Roy will impress admirers of Jhumpa Lahiri. The sense of India which she evokes in a novel of subtle force set in a temple town by the sea will win support.
Jamaican Marlon James draws on voice, setting, known fact, invention, patois and just about every aspect of life, death and anger in A Brief History of Seven Killings. Inspired by an assassination attempt on the life of doomed reggae king Bob Marley, it is an experience intended for the more graphically inclined reader.
Far more than seven murders happen and in this 700-page saga, the kind of novel Norman Mailer would have enjoyed writing; no potential act of violence is left unexplored. James likes excess and it shows. It is a bestseller and observe as it marches en masse out of bookstores everywhere.
Adroit characterisationSunjeen Sahota is the third of the UK writers on this year’s longlist. The Year of the Runaways has been overshadowed by the company in which it finds itself. Yet this second novel about young Pakistanis on the loose in Sheffield has its own secret weapon: adroit characterisation.
Tom McCarthy’s dislocated novel of ideas inhabits pole position on a considered longlist; Satin Island would be an inspired choice as would The Fishermen or Sleeping on Jupiter. The distinguished US duo of Robinson and Tyler will have a say in the surprise absence of any Australian or Canadian presence.
Still there is no denying that the most guaranteed victors will be the readers. Man Booker 2015 appears set to be a good year.