Man Booker Prize 2014 – shortlist reviews

The 2014 Man Booker Prize is awarded tonight and I’ve been working my way, slowly, through the six shortlisted books. Here are my thoughts on each, in the order I’ve read them, and which I think should win this year’s prize.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
I guessed the ‘twist’ of Fower’s novel because of my habit of flicking to the back of books to see how many pages there are, but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book. By far the quickest and easiest read on the shortlist, I thought the book had plenty of depth, and its central character, a woman struggling with guilt and the demands of family, was interesting if an unreliable narrator. Although Rosemary had a very unusual upbringing, I thought she was relatable – her issues with her family, her strange frenemy style relationship with Harlow, and her uncertainty about what to do with her life are all things we’ve lived through. She was made more interesting by the fact that her family was told purely through her eyes, meaning the reader has to take everything she says with a pinch of salt, although she’s just unreliable not dishonest. Families are at the centre of the book, and I loved the spectrum Fowler showed, from  poor Todd’s terrible, terrible father to Harlow’s sweet and unappreciated parents to Rosemary’s own misunderstood family. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is an easy yet thoughtful read, but much as I loved it, I don’t think it’s this year’s Man Booker Prize winner.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
I also don’t think To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is this year’s winner, and it’s my least favourite of the six shortlisted. I really, really struggled with this book the entire time I was reading it, and it took me far longer to read than it should have. I found the main character, Paul O’Rourke, grating, and his habit of calling a mobile phone a “me-machine” reminded me of something a four-year-old might say. Paul was implausibly awkward, and his behaviour was never fully explained – I’d have liked to have delved more into his upbringing, which clearly moulded him, but Ferris kept those visits to the past very brief. Everything about baseball and dentistry went over my head, and I found all the religion stuff really dense and difficult to understand. I found myself in a cycle with this one – I didn’t understand it so I didn’t enjoy it so I didn’t want to read it, and because I didn’t want to read it, I didn’t enjoy it and I carried on not understanding it. I did think the second half of To Rise Again… was better than the first, and the strongest part, for me, was the last third when things really started coming together and people moved (physically and metaphorically). But it’s a no from me for this one.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
This is my pick for what I think should win. I picked it up thinking it would be the story of a prisoner of war, and put it down after having read something completely different. Like Ali Smith’s How to be Both (see below), The Narrow Road to the Deep North plays with timelines, and is split into a number of sections. Its main character, Dorrigo Evans, is at once unlikeable, yet honourable and with many redeeming qualities, and I grew to eventually like him, while still deploring many of his actions. Flanagan creates a multitude of heartbreaking moments in the POW camp – during one scene I felt more than a little sick to my stomach, and I’m not at all squeamish – and contrasts these with lighter, hazier moments capturing Dorrigo and his one true love as they meet and fall for each other. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a novel about heroism in its many different forms, as well as love, and it focused on a part of Second World War history I barely know anything about (to my shame). I left this book feeling like I’d read something that would stay with me for a while, and that’s one of the many reasons I think it should win. 

J by Howard Jacobson
A former winner of the prize, I had high hopes for Jacobson’s J, which has been described as unlike any of his previous works. Unfortunately, I just didn’t click with this book. I liked the dystopian world, where an event known as What Happened, If It Happened has coloured everything from the economy to the behaviour of the populace to people’s names, but Jacobson chose to keep What Happened, If It Happened deliberately vague. Some people may like this as a device, and it was fine for a while, but I felt knowing more about it (besides the odd things I guessed later on in the book) would have helped me understand the characters and characterisation more. As it is, I found both Kevern and Ailinn, the central couple, lightly drawn, with their relationship constructed using stereotypes. I also had a hard time working out if some parts of the book were satirical, and a comment on current society (an exchange about domestic violence particularly springs to mind here). Like Ferris’s To Rise Again… I thought the second half of the book was stronger, but the ending was, to me, devoid of hope, and depressing because of that.

How to be Both by Ali Smith
Structurally, this is the most interesting of the shortlisted books, comprising as it does of two separate but linked stories of a girl in the modern day and a renaissance artist in the 1460s. How to be Both is clever, but it’s also immensely readable. My copy came with the modern day first (others come with the 1460s section first) and I loved getting into George’s head. The flickering between past and present, which Smith does without signposting, was clever and shows a writer who has faith in her readers’ ability to work out what’s happening. The second part (my second part) is a whirlwind, and the writing shouldn’t work, but it does. As a slight criticism, I’d say you can see he technique at play here, I didn’t lose myself in the book and was always aware of Smith’s narrative style, her play on words, and her structure. But it’s a slight criticism, this is a very clever book, annd the half set in the 1460s is particular readable. Smith, shortlisted twice before for the Man Booker without winning, would be a worthy winner.

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
As I write, I haven’t finished this book, so my comments here are based on the fifth that I have read. Mukherjee’s book is intricate, from its construction to its characters to its setting. It features a vast cast of characters (so much so that I’m constantly having to flick to the family tree at the beginning to remember who I’m reading about) and its subject matter, of a family at a crossroads in 1970s India and a political movement that changed the country, is also expansive. Mukherjee handles it well, and his book is clearly well researched and beautifully written. He’s the favourite to win this year’s prize, and I can see why.

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