The Booker Prize: Here’s a quick guide to the shortlist

The year’s best works of literary fiction will be celebrated tonight as the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2017 is announced.

The prize is evenly balanced this year between male and female writers, with three of each on the shortlist, including two first-time women writers, Emily Fridlund and Fiona Mozley, who were also the youngest on the longlist.

The UK’s Ali Smith makes her fourth appearance on the shortlist, while three of the writers vying for the £50,000 prize – Fridlund, Paul Auster and George Saunders – are from the US.

Here are our thoughts on the shortlisted novels…

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber)

Following the age-old fascination of parallel lives, summed up by Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, Paul Auster takes on the ambitious challenge of his main character, Archie Ferguson, travelling not just two roads, but four. Four separate storylines follow four incarnations of the same boy, born of the same parents – but each, because of an incident in his childhood, living out increasingly divergent lives as their different circumstances take effect. Unfortunately, the execution of the novel isn’t as satisfying as its concept. It’s not just a question of length – which at over 800 pages is rather daunting – but the exhaustiveness and repetitiveness of the focus, particularly on the corporeal realities of Ferguson’s first quarter-century, for that is as far as the novel takes us before the experiment abruptly ends.

(Jade Craddock)

History Of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (W&N)

Linda, 15, lives with her mum and dad in the rundown cabins of an abandoned commune, out in the icy, forested, lakeside wilds of northern Minnesota. She’s left to her own devices most of the time and lives a semi-feral existence of solitary mooching and tramping. Relief from this bleak existence appears in the form of the Gardners, who take up residence in a cabin across the lake. Linda gets to know mum Patra and son Paul, becoming their long-term babysitter. In her desperation to be wanted, she becomes a sort of benign stalker of the family – and she also overlooks their increasingly odd behaviour when Paul falls ill. The chilling plot is only part of the mesmerising power of this assured and striking debut. Fridlund deftly builds atmosphere and evokes a sense of place, generates a terrible sense of foreboding, and creates a cast of characters of utterly credible complexity.

(Dan Brotzel)

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton)

Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel – one of his previous novel’s, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize – opens promisingly with the meeting of Nadia and Saeed, two slightly oddball 20-somethings in a nameless city that is sliding toward civil war. At first, I was wholly convinced by Mohsin’s delicate depiction of their passion, acted out in a bizarre Millennial world which encompasses both emotional reliance on social media and sectarian throat-slitting. The country’s descent into barbarism is all the more horrifying for being glimpsed through the narrow prism of two self-absorbed lovers. Would that he had left the story there. But the lovers’ escape from the conflict is achieved via a lurch into magical realism that robs the novel of a key detail of the migrant experience – the physical brutalities of the passage to Europe.

(Liz Ryan)

Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders (Bloomsbury)

 

This is starting to get under my skin. #georgesaunders #lincolninthebardo #bloomsbury #manbookershortlist

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Short-story maestro George Saunders combines the real with the surreal in his long-form debut to bring us a joyous, comically macabre exploration of love, death and loss. When Willie Lincoln, the 11-year-old son of US president Abraham Lincoln, died of a fever in 1862 Washington DC, his distraught statesman father visited his entombed body several times the night after his funeral. Into this historical fact, Saunders weaves a masterful fictional tale of young Willie’s arrival in the bardo, the Buddhist transitional realm between the living and the dead – and his meeting with its eclectic inhabitants. The death of a child and the battle for his immortal soul is not the most obvious theme for a comic novel. But Buddhist Saunders delivers a pacey, unconventional work – with an unorthodox layout that takes a little getting used to – that is bursting with life. He handles the characters with such a light and loving touch that he has created an utterly absorbing tale, as much about those other people inhabiting the limbo as it is about Willie and his father’s knife-sharp grief.

(David Wilcock)

Autumn by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

Brexit has landed and there is a nastiness in the air. Incendiary remarks by politicians about immigrants go unremarked and people talk without really communicating. Elisabeth is an art lecturer on a casual contract. As a child, and much against the wishes of her narrow-minded mum, she had befriended their neighbour Mr Gluck. He is the ‘Other’ in many ways – old, perhaps gay, artistic, male, foreign – but he taught her to see the world anew. He’s now about 100 years old and Elisabeth keeps vigil by his bedside as he sleeps the long sleep of the slowly dying. Smith takes us inside his unfurling mind too. It is tempting to see Gluck as continental Europe and mum as suspicious Little England, but then this ever-shifting narrative shifts shape once again. Mum takes a gay lover and Elisabeth discovers a forgotten (and real) female Pop Artist, Pauline Boty. Composed of individual elements that flow delightfully by, often in deft comic dialogue, it’s the sort of book you could read several times and notice new things every time.

(Dan Brotzel)

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (JM Originals)

 

Came for the cover, stayed for the top quality writing ?? #elmet #manbookerprize #whatimreading #literaryfiction

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Today known as the West Riding of Yorkshire, Elmet was the last independent Celtic kingdom in England and, as Ted Hughes writes in the epigraph to Fiona Mozley’s spellbinding debut, ‘a sanctuary for refugees from the law’. Daniel, our willowy narrator, his cigarette-rolling sister Cathy, and their father, referred to only as ‘Daddy’, are survivalists of sorts, living off-grid in a self-built house in a wood. They manage the trees around them and eat handouts from kindly locals, who Daddy does odd jobs for. But the wax-jacketed landowner Mr Price wants his pound of flesh and the family will have to fight to keep their house, with devastating consequences for all of them. As powerfully evocative as prose poetry, Mozley’s descriptions of the minutiae of daily life, the duck plucking and the eggs sizzling, are a pure joy to read, but it’s the relentless dark undercurrent and gradual revelations that will keep you gobbling this hauntingly beautiful book down in as few sittings as possible.

(Kate Whiting)

 

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