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Books

Who Will Win the Booker?

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With three men and three women on the list, and with ages ranging from 35 (Ottessa Moshfegh) to 57 (Deborah Levy) the Man Booker shortlist appears to be unusually balanced.


More importantly, it has recognised merit rather than status. Big names such as JM Coetzee have been elbowed out by younger talent. The loneliness of the human condition and the messiness of our politics are the two big themes, irrespective of the location of the novels. The winner will be announced on 25 October in London

PAUL BEATTY
The Sellout l Pan Macmillan | Rs 399 I Pages 289
‘FOUNDED IN 1868, Dickens, like most California towns except for Irvine, which was established as a breeding ground for stupid, fat, ugly, white Republicans and the Chihuahuas and East Asian refugees who love them, started out as an agrarian community.’
Paul Beatty
The plot of The Sellout is propelled by the mysterious disappearance of Dickens from the map. The narrator speaks in a voice that is as LOL as an Ogden Nash verse, and as dark as the Grim Reaper’s scythe. Readers will find themselves taken on a roller coaster ride that is as twisted as it is exhilarating. It is little surprise that Beatty started out as poet as the meter of his lines would easily lend themselves to the performance of poetry. Hailed as not just ‘one of the most hilarious American novels in years’, and perhaps ‘the first truly great satirical novel of the century’, The Sellout is a searing exposition of race in America. But while the issue is serious, the tone is rip-roaringly caustic. When the narrator’s father, a controversial sociologist, is killed in a police shoot-out, the narrator half expects his father to rise from the dead and say, ‘See, nigger, if this could happen to the world’s smartest black man, just imagine what could happen to your dumb ass. Just because racism is dead don’t mean they still don’t shoot niggers on sight.’ In Beatty’s expert hands, the history of injustice hisses into the present.

OTTESSA MOSHFEGH
Eileen l Jonathan Cape | Rs 399 | Pages 272
Ottessa Moshfegh

THE HEYDAY of the anti-heroine is upon us. And it is a joy to behold. On BBC, a television show like Fleabag is rewriting the ‘female’ script, by putting front and centre women who are not just complicated, but deeply alone. In Eileen, American author Ottessa Moshfegh does something similar. She tells the story of the titular character who is not ‘normal’ (normal is boring). Readers will find themselves cheering for her, even though she makes no effort to be ‘likeable’ (likeable is so passé). The book opens in 1964, with the line, ‘I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus.’ Except 24-year- old Eileen is not, she makes clear. ‘I hated almost everything. I was very unhappy and angry all the time. I tried to control myself, and that only made me more awkward, unhappier, and angrier. I was like Joan of Arc, or Hamlet, but born into the wrong life—the life of a nobody, a waif, invisible.’ This nobody comes to life with her wild imaginings. When she sees icicles hanging from the rafter she imagines them slicing through her breasts and cleaving her brain. In the glove box of her car she keeps a dead field mouse as a ‘good luck charm’. While Eileen seems stuck in a dead-end job in a down-and-out town, with a no-good father, this book is not about being stuck. Rather it is about finding freedom.

MADELEINE THIEN
Do Not Say We Have Nothing l Granta |Rs 699 I Pages 480
 Madeleine Thien

HOW DOES revolution play out in everyday lives? Which relationships survive and which ones come apart under the force of external events? Canadian author Madeleine Thien grapples with these questions in her sweeping tale Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which deals with the far-reaching effects of China’s revolutions from the 1960s to the present. The thread that binds the families in these stories is music. It is what holds them together as the centre comes apart. The book opens in Canada of the 90s in the home of 10-year-old Marie and her mother. We hear of the father’s suicide through the child’s eyes. She slowly pieces together his life and learns he had been a renowned concert pianist in China. It goes on to tell of the ideals and ideologies, music and silences of three musicians, the composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli and the enigma Kai during the Cultural Revolution. Guardian noted, ‘This is a moving and extraordinary evocation of the 20th-century tragedy of China, and deserves to cement Thien’s reputation as an important and compelling writer.’

DAVID SZALAY
All That Man is l Jonathan Cape | Rs 717 I Pages 448
David Szalay

DAVID SZALAY is the author of three previous novels. In 2013 Granta put him on its Best of Young British Novelists list. Raised in London, and having lived in Canada and Belgium, Szalay is now based in Budapest. With All That Man Is, Szalay moves from the English canvas of his previous novels to a European one. The book, described as a ‘linked collection of short stories’ deals with the many ways to be a man. Szalay is concerned with the doings and undoings of men when it comes to matters of money, love, friendship, travel and communication.

Through the nine profiles of men in various stages of youth and disrepair, Szalay creates a picture of 21st-century manhood. The novel moves from a 17-year-old backpacker to a 73-year-old retired civil servant and the action occurs in more than a dozen countries. The question that seems to pester each of his characters is: What am I doing here? The first story tells of weary travelling teenagers who have landed in Berlin. While travel is supposed to renew and exhilarate, the young man instead is oppressed by a feeling of loneliness that is ‘immense as a storm front’.

The male ambitions and emotions that Szalay paints aren’t particularly uplifting. As the review in the Telegraph highlights, ‘Modern masculinity, scrabbling after sex and status, does not come out of All that Man Is looking particularly hale and hearty.’

GRAEME MACRAE BURNET
His Bloody Project l Contraband | Rs 900 I Pages 288
 Graeme Macrae Burnet

WHEN IT comes to a crime, the most important question is not always, ‘Did he?’ or ‘Didn’t he?’ but rather ‘Why did he’? Scottish author Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project seeks to answer this question. The novel is set in the remote Scottish Highlands in 1869. An 18-year-old farmhand Roderick Macrae is accused of three brutal murders in his native village. At the insistence of his advocate, Macrae agrees to write what happened. In the preface, Burnet writes, ‘It was the existence of the memoir, rather than the murders themselves, which turned the case into something of a cause célèbre.’ But veracity is never a given. The statements gathered from the residents of the town paint a contradictory image of Roderick Macrae. Was he a ‘courteous young man’ or someone ‘wrong in the head’? Can poverty drive one to commit the unthinkable? And does power always work in arbitrary ways?

DEBORAH LEVY
Hot Milk l Penguin Random House | Rs 669 I Pages 224
 Deborah Levy

DEBORAH LEVY is the only author on this year’s Booker shortlist who has figured previously. Her last novel Swimming Home was shortlisted in 2012. Hot Milk opens in Almeria, southern Spain, in August 2015. Sofia’s mother Rose is suffering from a mysterious paralysis of the legs (a search for the cure has brought them to Spain). Her father is long missing, the economy is down and this 20-something with a degree in Anthropology makes ends meet by working as a barista back home in West London. While the ambivalence of the mother-daughter relationship makes up the body of the story, the sinew is formed by Sofia’s search for self. The landmarks along her journey include Ingrid and Juan who she takes as lovers. Critics have compared Levy with Virginia Woolf for holding up a mirror to the interior life of her characters. Will she be second-time lucky? We will know only on 25 October.

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