144 novels were submitted, the longlist of 13 was whittled down to the shortlist of six, and the winner was announced October 17. First awarded in 1969, the Man Booker is one of the leading prizes for literary fiction written in English. For most of its history, the prize was limited to the UK and Commonwealth, but the rules were changed in 2014 to expand to all English language novels published in the UK during the year. American Paul Beatty was the winner last year for his satiric novel The Sellout. This year American writer George Saunders won for his first full length novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.
The judges insist that nationality does not come into it, and the fact that the last two winners are from the U.S. seems to confirm it. Opening the prize to writers beyond the Commonwealth borders was a bit controversial in literary circles. The judges do tend to favor unique experimental writing that pushes against conventional prose. Baroness Lola Young, chair of the judging panel, describes the shortlist novels as “playful, sincere, unsettling, fierce: a group of novels grown from tradition but also radical and contemporary.”
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US)
This was my pick for the winner because it is so unconventional and unique, and George Saunders is something of a cult classic short story/novella author. This, his first novel, is the story of Abraham Lincoln’s eleven year old deceased son Willie and other ghosts in the Georgetown cemetery where he was laid to rest. It is composed largely of brief quotations from letters, diaries, newspaper articles, personal testimonies and scholars. In addition to these bits and pieces from historical characters and contemporary scholars, Saunders also includes the voices of fictional characters, mostly the ghosts in the cemetery. I did not enjoy reading it, but many praise it for its brilliance, humor, and mind-blowing awesomeness. The audio book ended up with 166 different character voices, some read by professional actors such as Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally, and is definitely a unique and unconventional experience.
4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US)
This is an unconventional family saga about a Jewish boy growing up in post WWII American. The twist is that every chapter of his life is told with four completely different stories; the same boy but leading four parallel lives. It reminds me a little of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, but on a much grander scale in this 880 page novel. I admit I wasn’t able to finish it, but I read enough to admire the art.
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US)
A chilling tale about an isolated girl growing up alone with her parents in a defunct hippie commune in northern Minnesota; this is the first novel for Emily Fridlund. This sad story is very moving, and is my favorite among the shortlist novels.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (UK-Pakistan)
Saeed and Nadia live in a city full of war refugees, fall in love, and later escape through a magical secret door to another city, where the process is repeated again and again. They are looking for the Promised Land, but does it exist? The story is really more about the young couple’s relationship in a world at war, how they are changed by it, and the quest we all have to find our place in the world.
Autumn by Ali Smith (UK)
Autumn is the first in a planned seasonal quartet of cyclical novels “exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative.” I was not able to get very far with this one, but many praise it as a deeply moving, poignant story. Ali Smith is a highly respected British author, and Autumn is enjoying increased sales since its appearance on the shortlist. It is another example of the experimental and unique writing style that wins literary prizes.
I especially enjoyed two longlist picks that didn’t make the cut.
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland)
This is a beautifully written historical fiction novel about a young Thomas McNulty, who flees the potato famine of Ireland as a young boy and ends up in America first as a dancer in a mining town saloon (this is quite a story in itself!) and later fighting in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Fellow orphan John Cole becomes his friend and lifelong companion. There is a great deal of violence and brutality in this short but sweeping saga, and it is definitely not a typical western novel.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK)
Swing Time is the story of two girls growing up in neighboring housing estates in London who meet in a dance class and become best friends. It’s a classic coming-of-age tale, beautifully written. As in her novel White Teeth, Zadie Smith has a lot to say about race, gender, and class, and she tells it brilliantly!