The Man Booker Prize longlist is out! But who is missing?
Firstly, I’m thrilled to see that George Saunders’ extraordinary debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) has made the cut. As I wrote in my March New Titles preview (which appeared in the 2nd December issue last year): “I know it is only March, so dangerously early to call, but this will surely be my book of the year.” Strong as 2017 has been I’ve had no reason to change my mind. Saunders has taken a single event - a grief-stricken President Lincoln holding his son - and reinvented the very form of the novel whilst telling a heartbreaking tale of love and loss that spins off into the realms of the supernatural.
Zadie Smith’s place is, as ever, well-deserved. Swing Time (Hamish Hamilton) is a wide-ranging, ambitious novel about class, race, politics, poverty and culture-clash but she is also terrific on the complexities and nuances of childhood friendship. She has been shortlisted for the Man Booker before, for On Beauty.
Sebastian Barry has also graced the Man Booker shortlist before with The Secret Scripture. Days Without End (Faber), has already won the Costa but the intensely involving and tender story of Thomas McNulty, looking back on his life as desperately poor Irish orphan signed up to the US army to fight in the Civil War, must surely be in with shot at the Man Booker too.
I’m very pleased to see Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 (4th Estate) on the list. His fifth novel begins in the immediate aftermath of girl’s disappearance, and then details village life over the next 13 years - births, deaths, affairs, arguments, secrets, betrayals - all the ordinary life that must continue in shadow of the tragedy.
Colson Whitehead’s powerful tale of slavery The Underground Railroad (Fleet) has lots of fans who will be thrilled with its inclusion. A gut-wrenching read at times, due to the subject matter, but an important one as is Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West about the present-day refugee crisis.
Personally I didn’t like the Arundhati Roy. I loved The God of Small Things (I treasure my signed proof, procured for me at Hatchards by my then-boyfriend who worked there) so was primed to love her new one. I realise I am in the minority of critical opinion but I found The Ministry of Utmost Happiness impenetrable. Pockets of startling beauty yes, but overall I found it hard, unrewarding work.
So, who is missing? The most glaring omission for me is Roddy Doyle’s Smile (Cape) which is out in September. It’s a short, pared-back, dialogue-heavy tale of man coming to terms with his past, and the way he has lived his life - and it packs an extraordinary emotional punch right at the end. I was still thinking about it days after I finished it.
I was also expecting to see White Tears by Hari Kunzru, which manages to be both a thrillingly written ghost story and an unflinching exploration of racial conflict in America.
Colm Toibin’s superb House of Names (Viking) the retelling of a bloody revenge tragedy would have been a strong contender and I’m quite surprised that Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom (Chatto), about hard lives in contemporary India, didn’t make the cut either.
It’s pretty unusual for a debut to find a spot on the long list. But if it had been up to me I would have tried to find a home for a couple of exceptional debuts. From the US Yaa Gyasi’s devastating Homegoing, which reveals the painful legacy of slavery in 18th Ghana through the centuries to present day America, and Gabriel Tallent’s visceral, disturbing coming-of-age tale My Absolute Darling (4th Estate).
What do you think? Comments below, or I’m on Twitter @aliceokbooks.
Alice O'Keeffe is The Bookseller's books editor.