Another year, another Man Booker Prize longlist in the offing, except this year its reverted to the Booker Prize, thanks to a change of sponsorship with Crankstart stepping into the funding breach as of June 1st this year. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2018 and 30th September 2019, and have been written in English. Regular readers will know that any similarity between my wish list and the judges’ longlist is likely to be entirely coincidental. The judges usually allow themselves twelve, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen and this year I have, too. Their list will be revealed on Wednesday, 24th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions – in no particular order, with links to my reviews.
It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here before September 3rd when the shortlist is announced but I’m sticking to the tried and tested. And if I had to choose one? That’s a tough decision this year. It’s a toss-up between A Stranger City, The Dutch House and Land of the Living, although there are several others I’d be loath to relinquish.
What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?
I remember being very impressed by Tash Aw’s debut, The Harmony Silk Factory, which was surrounded by a great deal of hype when it was published back in 2005 but for some reason I’d not got around to reading anything else by him until We,The Survivors turned up. Set in rural Malaysia, it tells the story of a man born into poverty, a decent man whose attempts to better himself end in tragedy.
When Ah Hock was four, his father left for Singapore, promising to send money home but never returned. After the land she’d scrimped and scraped to buy was ruined by floods, his mother moved in with another man, a wastrel outcast from the village. Ah Hock becomes friends with Keong when he’s twelve, despite the four-year gap in their ages. Keong fancies himself a gangster, taking off to Kuala Lumpur where Ah Hock briefly joins him, returning home when he sees there’s no future for a boy like him in the city. For ten years, Ah Hock works on Mr Lai’s fish farm, making himself indispensable, marrying and hoping to start a family, his eyes fixed on a smart new house but the endlessly promised pay rise never arrives. Keong returns to the village, full of his new job finding migrant labour for employers looking for cheap workers and none too fussy about the veracity of their papers. When Ah Hock’s staff begin to sicken with cholera he turns to Keong in desperation, knowing that he’ll lose his job unless he finds more workers quickly. On the night Keong has arranged to meet his Bangaldeshi contact, Ah Hock is horrified to find that he’s armed with a knife but it’s Ah Hock who springs to Keong’s defence and finds himself convicted of murder.
Aw’s novel takes the form of Ah Hock’s testimony given to a young woman who first tells him she’s an academic, then confesses she’s writing a book about him. He’s a thoughtful, intelligent man, compassionate and empathetic towards the migrant workers he manages on the fish farm. The last man, one might think, to launch a frenzied attack on the Bangladeshi gang master for whose murder he spends three years in prison. Aw reveals Ah Hock’s character through memories, anecdotes and reflections while exploring themes of racism, corruption and the exploitation of migrant workers rife throughout Malaysian society. Allusions to changes in fickle Western demands and their effects on migrant workers’ jobs provoke thought and attitudes to refugees are sometimes uncomfortably close to those found in some quarters of the West. Aw’s writing is contemplative and perceptive, his characters well drawn and convincing. It’s a quietly powerful piece of fiction, both compelling and sobering.
Fewer titles than usual to whet my appetite in April, enough for just one longish post kicking off with Jill Dawson’s The Language of Birds. Dawson frequently uses historical figures in her fiction and this time it’s the turn of the notorious Lord Lucan. In 1974, Mandy River arrives at her new job as a nanny to find a household in the midst of a bitter domestic feud. Mandy is warned by her employer that her estranged husband has a violent streak but can she be trusted? ‘Drawing on the infamous Lord Lucan affair, this compelling novel explores the roots of a shocking murder from a fresh perspective and brings to vivid life an era when women’s voices all too often went unheard’ say the publishers. I’ve enjoyed several of Dawson’s novels, particularly The Crime Writer, so I have hopes for this one.
I loved Nickolas Butler’s debut, Shotgun Lovesongs; The Hearts of Men, its follow-up, not so much. I’m a wee bit cautious, then, about Little Faith which tells the story of the family of a young woman and her involvement with a fundamentalist preacher who is convinced her five-year-old son has the power to heal the sick. ‘Set over the course of one year and beautifully evoking the change of seasons, Little Faith is a powerful and deeply affecting novel about family and community, the ways in which belief is both formed and shaken, and the lengths we go to protect our own’ say the publishers, setting us up for more gorgeous descriptions of Butler’s beloved Wisconsin
Altogether more urban, Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is set in 1993 and sounds like it might be a take on Orlando. The eponymous Paul is a bartender in a university town gay bar, studying queer theory by day, but he has a secret. ‘Oscillating wildly from Riot Grrrl to leather cub, Women’s Studies major to trade, Paul transforms his body at will in a series of adventures that take him from Iowa City to Boystown to Provincetown and finally to San Francisco – a journey through the deep queer archives of struggle and pleasure’ promise the publishers which sounds wildly ambitious but well worth investigating.
I first came across Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Loveon Kate’s Books Are My Favourite and Best blog. She described it as ‘easily one of the most original stories I’ve read. Ever’ so I’m delighted to find it’s to be published here in the UK. Film composer Arky has promised his dying wife not to visit her in hospital. She wants to spare him the burden of her suffering but it’s destroying him. ‘One day he finds his way to MOMA and sees Mariana Abramovic in The Artist is Present. The performance continues for seventy-five days and, as it unfolds, so does Arky. As he watches and meets other people drawn to the exhibit, he slowly starts to understand what might be missing in his life and what he must do’ say the publishers.
The husband in Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands is also seeking succour by the sound of it, this time from a cheating wife although only in his dreams. He takes himself off to Tokyo where he decides to follow in the footsteps of Basho meeting a young student seemingly bent on suicide along the way. ‘Gilbert travels with Yosa across Basho’s disappearing Japan, one in search of his perfect ending and the other the new beginning that will give his life meaning’ according to the publishers. I like the sound of travels in a ‘disappearing Japan’.
Unusually for me, I’ve got ahead of myself with Tash Aw’s We, the Survivors and have already read it. Set in rural Malaysia, it tells the story of a man born into poverty, a decent man whose attempts to better himself end in tragedy. Ah Hock tells his story to a young woman who is writing about him, revealing what led up to the uncharacteristic act of violence that resulted in a man’s death and his own incarceration. It’s a quietly powerful, compelling piece of fiction, beautifully expressed. Review to follow next month.
Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian is a doorstopper, the kind I’d usually avoid, but Zadie Smith has called it ‘a sublime reading experience: delicate, restrained, surpassingly intelligent, uncommonly poised and truly beautiful’ so I think I might have to give it a try. It follows a young Palestinian from the Middle East to Paris during the First World War. ‘Hammad delicately unpicks the tangled politics and personal tragedies of a turbulent era – the Palestinian struggle for independence, the strife of the early twentieth century and the looming shadow of the Second World War’ say the publishers. Apparently, Smith has never spoken of a student in such glowing terms in the fifteen years she’s taught.
I’m ending with Season Butler’s Cygnet which has been in the offing for six months. It sees a young girl, stranded on an island seemingly abandoned by her parents. Swan Island is home to an ageing separatist community who have turned their back on the mainland to create their own haven and have no wish to have their carefully constructed idyll shattered by an incomer, let alone a young one. ‘Cygnet is the story of a young woman battling against the thrashing waves of loneliness and depression, and how she learns to find hope, laughter and her own voice in a world that’s crumbling around her’ according to the publishers. This one could go either way but it’s an interesting premise.
That’s it for April’s new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Paperbacks soon…