The longlist is led by Arundhati Roy's return to fiction with her second novel The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness
Man Booker Prize 2017: A look at the longlisted nominees
If there’s one author who understands the power of winning the Man Booker Prize, it’s Arundhati Roy. She recalls the maelstrom of being on the “cover of all these magazines” in 1997, celebrating her victory for The God Of Small Things.
It’s not quite fair to say such instant fame, combined with eight million book sales, crippled the writing of a follow-up. Roy was busy writing, just not fiction. But 20 years on, her second novel The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness has made the Booker Prize longlist this week – the Indian author firmly in contention again for the most prestigious prize in English literature.
Yet for all the riotous glory of her tale combining a transgender woman in India and the story of struggle in Kashmir, the 13-book longlist is so strong Roy will do well this time to make the shortlist of six in September, let alone win – even if she is the only author to have won the Man Booker previously.
A quick look at her co-nominees reveals that Colson Whitehead revelled in the Pulitzer for The Underground Railroad in April, while Sebastian Barry won the Costa Book Of The Year in January for Days Without End, and Mike McCormack the Goldsmiths Prize for Solar Bones last year. Jon McGregor, George Saunders, Zadie Smith, Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid and Ali Smith have all won significant awards for earlier work. And then, looming over everyone as heavily as one of his lengthy books, is American literary icon Paul Auster.
There are a few surprises – the usual unheralded debut written on a boring commute this year comes from 29-year-old Englishwoman Fiona Mozley. Her eerie family drama Elmet is out in late August. Also raising eyebrows is 38-year-old American writer Emily Fridlund’s coming-of-age novel, History Of Wolves, which, judging by some uneven reviews, will do well to make the cull to the final six.
But then, Whitehead and Barry might find that prize fatigue counts against them – although The Underground Railroad doesn’t really need the oxygen of any further publicity after winning awards in the past nine months, it would still be a shame if the judges thought it was time for someone else to enjoy the limelight.
When Whitehead spoke in Liverpool back in November, his novel striking at the heart of slavery and race in America still felt something of a beautiful secret. He put its conceit best himself. “It’s like Gulliver’s Travels, each state a different facet of American possibility. I could keep expanding the canvas and change reality… it’s magic realism, in a low-key kind of way.”
Barry, too, explores the idea of American possibility in Days Without End, through the lens of the Indian wars of the mid 19th century. Last October, we marvelled at the Irishman’s cinematic depictions of life on the Oregon Trail and the brutality and beauty of life in the nascent United States.
Barry has twice been shortlisted for the Booker before without winning, a state of affairs with which Ali Smith can sympathise. She has a really good chance of making it third time lucky: Autumn is a remarkable snapshot of a seemingly fearful and intolerant country struggling with its sense of self immediately after Brexit.
Talking of Brexit – and authors still waiting for a Booker nomination to cohere into a victory – McGregor said he was so in tune with the characters in his brilliant open-ended crime drama Reservoir 13, he knew how each would have voted. McGregor may well receive a majority vote himself soon: it’s a slow-burn, beautifully repetitive tale of life in one English village after a girl goes missing.
Reservoir 13 is a determinedly different kind of crime drama – there is no big reveal – and there are a few other books which, as chair of judges Baroness Lola Young put it, aim to “move the walls of fiction”. Saunders’ Lincoln In The Bardo is a quite exceptional and daring tale of Abraham Lincoln’s trip to the crypt where his son is interred, whereupon he meets a cacophonous cast of spirits yet to complete their journey to the afterlife. It’s unlike anything on the list this year – so it would be a huge surprise if this virtuosi piece of writing isn’t a major contender.
Less certain of success but still playing with form is McCormack’s Solar Bones, narrated in one single sentence. The way the lines gradually layer this intimate exploration of smalltown Irish life make it almost like a prose poem, and there’s a similar audaciousness to Auster’s 4 3 2 1, too. The writing is decidedly verbose, as is the idea – one life taking four simultaneous but parallel routes. Now that American authors can be considered for the Booker, it may be that Auster makes the shortlist for his body of work as much as this novel. But that’s a 900-page commitment that didn’t quite reward the work required to finish it.
Thankfully, Karachi-born author Kamila Shamsie’s new novel, Home Fire, looks a lot less daunting, a contemporary retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone published next month. It’s difficult to assess the chances of a book yet to hit the shelves. In the meantime, a novel which already has a firm following is fellow Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. His approach to a story of love amid globalisation and the migrant issue is to meld magical realism and gentle science fiction into his strongest novel yet.
Which just leaves Zadie Smith’s portrait of friendship, Swing Time. Some of the exuberance of her early novels, particularly White Teeth, has disappeared with the passing of the years. But she’s now a more considered, penetrative writer about the drama and beauty of human relationships and desires.
Will that be enough to follow her 2005 novel On Beauty onto the shortlist? The Booker Prize is always unpredictable. But Smith should make it, along with, hopefully, Ali Smith, McGregor, Saunders, Whitehead and Hamid.
Unless Shamsie’s book turns out to be brilliant, of course. Who’d be a judge?