Man Booker 2018 shortlist: Irish Times reviews and judges’ views
Find out more about the six candidates to win the £50,000 prize
“Anna Burns is the teacher and we are the students.” Photograph: Eleni Stefanou
Milkman, Anna Burns (Faber & Faber)
Synopsis: In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous… Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.
The Irish Times: “Burns is the teacher and we are the students. Milkman is a novel set in the Belfast of the uneasy 1990s but the city, like the lead protagonist, is never named. And Burns’s agenda is not to unpack the dreary tribal squabbles that so characterised Troubles-era Northern Ireland; rather she is working in an altogether more interesting milieu, seeking answers to the big questions about identity, love, enlightenment and the meaning of life for a young woman on the verge of adulthood.”
Judges’ comment: “At turns frightening and inspirational, Milkman is stylistically utterly distinctive. At t the intersection of class, race, gender and sexual violence, it deals with oppression and power with a Beckettian sense of humour, offering a wholly original take on Ireland in the time of the Troubles through the mind of a young girl. Genuinely experimental, its ability to move from the scene of public life into the intimate landscape of the mind, sometimes in a single sentence, is stunning.”
Anna Burns was born in Belfast in 1962. She is the author of two novels, No Bones and Little Constructions, and of the novella, Mostly Hero. In 2001 she won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in East Sussex.
Washington Black, Esi Edugyan (Profile Books, Serpent’s Tail)
The Irish Times: “For Washington Black, which after this opening section ranges over settings from Virginia to the Arctic Circle to Nova Scotia, from London to Amsterdam to Morocco, following Wash and his fortunes all the while, certainly sketches the shape of the epic, but with so much ground to cover, and so many twists of fate to navigate – and within a period of less than a decade – much of the emotional and indeed cultural weight and substance of the narrative ends up jettisoned.
“This, in itself, is the stuff of a marvellous story; surprising, layered, edged with tension and limned with beauty. It can only be thought a pity, then, that Edugyan topples it off its own peak into a whirlwind of secondary and succeeding storylines which strain not just credibility but the author’s own prose.”
Synopsis: Escape is only the beginning. From the brutal cane plantations of Barbados to the icy wastes of the Canadian Arctic, from the mud-filled streets of London to the eerie deserts of Morocco, Washington Black is the tale – inspired by a true story – of a world destroyed and the search to make it whole again.
When two English brothers take the helm of a Barbados sugar plantation, Washington Black – an eleven year-old field slave – finds himself selected as personal servant to one of these men. The eccentric Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde is a naturalist, explorer, scientist, inventor and abolitionist, whose single-minded pursuit of the perfect aerial machine mystifies all around him.
Titch’s idealistic plans are soon shattered and Washington finds himself in mortal danger. They escape the island together, but then Titch disappears and Washington must make his way alone, following the promise of freedom further than he ever dreamed possible.
Judges’ comment: “A dazzling exploration of race in the Atlantic world, which also manages to be a yarn and a chase story. A book of extraordinary political and racial scope, Washington Black is wonderfully written, extremely imaginative, profoundly engaging and filled with an empathetic understanding of characters who are uprooted from places they knew and required to make adjustments in worlds they could barely have dreamt of. It manages to keep you on the edge of your seat, while making you, as a reader, want to savour every moment.”
Esi Edugyan was born in Calgary, Canada, in 1977. Her novel Half Blood Blues won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was a finalist for the Governor-General’s Literary Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Prize and the Orange Prize. She lives in Victoria, British Columbia.
Everything Under, Daisy Johnson (Vintage, Jonathan Cape)
The Irish Times: Everything Under is a transgender retelling of the Oedipus myth, but it is also a convergence for myth: a meeting place. There are elements of various fairytales and legends, combined in an entirely novel way. And this imaginative and innovative use of myth leads to the creation of a new myth. As well as the pleasures of allusion and innovation, there is a spellbinding tension. As the threads move towards a common end, you’re a child who wants to know the magic; all the more if, like a young listener to a fairytale, you sense what’s coming.
Synopsis: Words are important to Gretel, always have been. As a child, she lived on a canal boat with her mother, and together they invented a language that was just their own. She hasn’t seen her mother since the age of sixteen, though – almost a lifetime ago – and those memories have faded.
Now Gretel works as a lexicographer, updating dictionary entries, which suits her solitary nature. A phone call from the hospital interrupts Gretel’s isolation and throws up questions from long ago. She begins to remember the private vocabulary of her childhood. She remembers other things, too: the wild years spent on the river; the strange, lonely boy who came to stay on the boat one winter; and the creature in the water – a canal thief? – swimming upstream, getting ever closer. In the end there will be nothing for Gretel to do but go back.
Judges’ comment: “A hypnotic, mythic, unexpected story from a beguiling new voice. Everything Under is an exploration of family, gender, the ways we understand each other and the hands we hold out to each other – a story that’s like the waterways at its heart: you have to take the trip to understand what’s underneath.”
Daisy Johnson was born in Paignton, England, in 1990. Her debut short story collection, Fen, was published in 2016. She is the winner of the Harper’s Bazaar Short Story Prize, the A.M. Heath prize and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. She currently lives in Oxford by the river.
The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner (Vintage, Jonathan Cape)
Synsopsis: Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences, plus six years, at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. Outside is the world from which she has been permanently severed: the San Francisco of her youth, changed almost beyond recognition. The Mars Room strip club where she once gave lap dances for a living. And her seven-year-old son, Jackson, now in the care of Romy’s estranged mother.
Inside is a new reality to adapt to: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive. The deadpan absurdities of institutional living, daily acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike, allegiances formed over liquor brewed in socks and stories shared through sewage pipes.
Romy sees the future stretch out ahead of her in a long, unwavering line – until news from outside brings a ferocious urgency to her existence, challenging her to escape her own destiny. The Mars Room presents not just a bold and unsentimental panorama of life on the margins of contemporary America, but an excoriating attack on the prison-industrial complex.
The Irish Times: Though it traffics in the grim realities of life sentences and death row, The Mars Room is curiously uplifting, even celebratory, supporting Martin Amis’s maxim that achieved art is incapable of lowering the spirits. Ultimately, this very great and very American novel is a paean to amor fati, to embracing one’s fate no matter how strange or terrible.
Judges’ comment: “A novel about gender, class and the absolute corruption of the American dream, The Mars Room explores the meaning of incarceration in our moment. Breezy, hardened, bleakly comic, it contains wonderfully rich dramatis personae and an extraordinary sensory vividness. It feels terrifyingly authentic.”
Rachel Kushner was born in Oregon in 1968. Her debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller. Her follow-up novel, The Flamethrowers, was also a finalist for the National Book Award and received rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. Her fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s and the Paris Review. She lives in Los Angeles.
The Overstory, Richard Powers (Penguin Random House, William Heinemann)
Synopsis: Nine strangers, each in different ways, become summoned by trees, brought together in a last stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fable, ranging from antebellum New York to the late-twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, revealing a world alongside our own – vast, slow, resourceful, magnificently inventive and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world, and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.
The Irish Times: “There’s a leaning towards the benign in the work, and this is given full rein when it comes to trees. Powers can take a marriage apart in prose, strip it mercilessly down to its bare parts, but a forest always gets the full kindly light. You want to tell him that it’s a tree, not a kitten in a basket, and it can look after its own meaning even if it can’t stop the teeth of a chainsaw and the greed of the timber mill.
“This high-octane earnestness is self-defeating. The authors lyricism thrown away in the pursuit of another assertion of the essential nature of trees, the tree lore, tree science, tree philosophy, tree wonder, and their elaborate vocabularies. You want it to work but have your doubts.”
Judges’ comment: “An ecological epic, a novel of ideas, The Overstory begins with five apparently distinct narratives and then binds them into a compelling network of connections. In this book about how we are destroying and saving our trees, the form reflects the subject, as disparate strands come together to form a canopy. Powers has managed to write a novel in which human responsibility is embedded in the most intimate, private, details of a lived life.”
Richard Powers was born in Illinois, USA, in 1957. He is the author of twelve novels, including Orfeo (which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014), The Echo Maker, The Time of Our Singing, Galatea 2.2 and Plowing the Dark. He is the recipient of a MacArthur grant and the National Book Award, and has been a Pulitzer Prize and four-time National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. He lives in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.
The Long Take, Robin Robertson (Pan Macmillan, Picador)
Synopsis: Walker is a D-Day veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder; he can’t return home to rural Nova Scotia, and looks instead to the city for freedom, anonymity and repair. As he moves from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco we witness a crucial period of fracture in American history, one that also allowed film noir to flourish. The Dream had gone sour but – as those dark, classic movies made clear – the country needed outsiders to study and dramatise its new anxieties.
While Walker tries to piece his life together, America is beginning to come apart: deeply paranoid, doubting its own certainties, riven by social and racial division, spiralling corruption and the collapse of the inner cities. The Long Take is about a good man, brutalised by war, haunted by violence and apparently doomed to return to it – yet resolved to find kindness again, in the world and in himself.
Judges’ comment: “The Long Take is like a film noir on the page. A book about a man and a city in shock, it’s an extraordinary evocation of the debris and the ongoing destruction of war even in times of peace. In taking a scenario we think we know from the movies but offering a completely different perspective, Robin Robertson shows the flexibility a poet can bring to form and style.”
Robin Robertson was born in Perthshire, Scotland, in 1955. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he has published five collections of poetry and has received a number of honours, including the Petrarca-Preis, the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and all three Forward Prizes. His selected poems, Sailing the Forest, was published in 2014 and The Long Take was published in February 2018. Robin Robertson lives in London.