Every year around this time, the Man Booker prize committee selects the shortlist for the prestigious award, considered to be THE prize for high quality literary fiction published in the English language. The prize itself will be awarded on October 16, so watch this space for the winner. In the meantime, if you’d like to sample what the committee believes to be the best of the best, you’re in luck, because all of the shortlist nominees that are available in the United States are here at The Field Library (some of the books on the shortlist haven’t yet been published here).
The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner, is about Romy Hall, a woman starting the first of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California, as a result of her killing a man who had been stalking her with increasing dangerousness. Her lawyer was incompetent and she basically didn’t stand a chance of acquittal or even of a lesser sentence, so here she is, cut off from her former life and from her 7 year old child whom she probably will never see again. In the place of the world of San Francisco, her life of strip clubs and drugs, she’s now faced with a new society in prison, with the society and rules created and enforced by her fellow prisoners and her guards, and she has to do whatever she can to survive. The book is narrated by many different voices (including that of the unabomber, and that of Romy’s stalker), which, together with its subject matter, makes is anything but an easy read, but Romy’s bitter reality is a terrific perspective for examining our whole justice system, our sense of crime and punishment.
In some ways, The Overstory, by Richard Powers, is the opposite of The Mars Room. This book focuses on the outdoor world, specifically the world of trees and the people who interact with trees, but in the breadth of its characters and scenes and the vastness of its interconnectedness, it’s a good match for the vividness of The Mars Room. I’ve already written about this book here, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, this would be a good time to do so.
The newest book to reach the shortlist is Washington Black, by the Canadian author Esi Edugyan. It just came out in September (last week, in fact), and it is an audacious historical novel about a boy born in slavery in Barbados in 1820’s Barbados, who becomes the assistant to an eccentric naturalist and explorer, and, as a result, manages to escape his background and discover his own unique artistic talents. It’s partly an adventure story (Wash, as he’s known, flies in a hot air balloon, a thing nearly unimaginable to him, and finds his way across the United States and even to the Arctic), but it’s also partly and more seriously a look at slavery and racism, a coming of age for a young man with extraordinary abilities and talents who will always be restricted from getting credit for his achievements because of his race. If you steer away from literary fiction or Man Booker Prize winners because you’re reluctant to deal with the narrative tricks and techniques many of them display (like Lincoln in the Bardo, with its confusing multiple voices), you should definitely read Washington Black.
It’s possible that none of these three will be the winner; there are three other books on the shortlist which aren’t available anywhere in the U.S. yet (though if a book wins the prize, odds are it will be published here in the near future), and one of them might win the prize. Even so, you can have the pleasure of checking out some of the books the Man Booker committee feels are the best ones written in English this year.