Book - The Booker Prize

The winner of this year's Booker Prize was announced last night. Tony Cross reflects on the whole shortlist ... 

So, each year I promise I’m going to read all the books on the Booker Prize Longlist. Every year I fail. Life gets in the way. I have to work for a living until either I win the lottery or persuade someone to pay me to read and review books. This year was the same. But this time I had managed to read all six books that made the shortlist, which means I have an informed opinion on the potential Booker Prize Winner for the first time ever. This is quite exciting.

Obviously art prizes are fundamentally flawed. Yes, you can judge on quality, but a chunk of that judgement is going to be based on the personal. Really what we are picking might not necessarily be the best book but the judge’s favourite book. Favourite and best are two different things. And even then, when it comes to art, it is hard to be completely objective about best.

The best crafted, the best plotted, the best characters, the best ideas or an all around best? Everyone has their favourite parts of the reading experience. A book can be driven by a plot even with two-dimensional characters. A badly plotted book can be rescued by strong and interesting characters. The whole process of judgement in the arts is flawed. Made even more flawed by the way that literary world looks down on certain genres: sf and fantasy, horror* or romance being particularly mocked as somehow lesser works.

So, you regularly get the farce of ‘literary’ writers who have written SF or Fantasy jumping through hoops to pretend that what they’ve written isn’t SF or Fantasy and reaching for whole new terms to hide that fact.

Indeed, this year's Booker Prize Shortlist has books on it that would fit into those genres. Treacle Walker by Alan Garner (here's Tony's review) and The Trees by Everett Percival (Tony's review is here) being the most obvious. I’d argue The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka (read Tony's review) and Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo (Tony's review of that is here) too are both outside the bog standard literary fiction leaning towards Magical Realism perhaps? But I’m not here to bandy genres. That would be reductive and pointless.

I found all six books on the shortlist were worth reading. I think Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (find Tony's review here), which was a short book, is one of the most effective illustrations of the difference between practical Christianity and official Church Christianity. It is a parable about treating your fellow humans as you would expect to be treated, even if you know that will come at a personal cost. I think Treacle Walker does a magnificent job of forging history and science together into a kind of quantum mythology. Elizabeth Strout’s, ‘Oh, William!’ (reviewed by Tony here) is the nearest thing to what you think a literary fiction novel is, but despite my cynicism I found the novel a fascinating and moving read even though – on the surface – its just another book about middle-class literary types and their problems.

People complain about tropes but tropes only matter if they’re done badly, when they become clichés. You can use a common trope but if you use it effectively the whole thing holds up. Originality might be over-rated, especially by critics who are probably more pleased to find something different in their pile of reviews than a non-critic.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida and The Trees both look at history through the lens of the supernatural. They’re both powerful books. The Trees, in particular, has a moment when for several pages we just get a list of names and it is one of the most powerful things I have ever read. Glory also takes an unusual approach, something like Orwell’s Animal Farm, to look at history and contemporary politics – the fall of Mugabe in Zimbabwe. These three would be my picks of a shortlist within a shortlist. For me the winner should come from one of those, despite my sentimental wish that Alan Garner get the nod.

If I was asked to pick my favourite I’d pick The Trees. I think it tells an American story – that can be applied globally – in a way that makes you question how you see the world. It refocuses the experience of non-white America in a way that reminds me of two things. The line I heard post-9/11 when someone said that this wasn’t the first terrorist attack on American soil. That black America had been under terrorist attack for centuries. The other thing is that until we confront our histories without fear or avoidance nothing will change. For American it is Slavery, Civil War and lynching. For the UK it is Empire. The ending is perfect.

That would be my choice.

But I recommend you read all six.

* I don’t have the time or space here to push my pet theory that SF, Fantasy and Horror are all one genre. I haven’t come up with a name for it yet.

** The winner of this year's Booker Prize was announced last night as The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka - read Tony's review of that book here. 

Follow Tony on Twitter @Lokster71

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