Here's your guide to the 6 titles shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize


  • Books
  • Sunday, 13 Oct 2019

The RM260,000 Booker Prize winner will be chosen tomorrow (Oct 14) from among these six novels. It has been called an "experimental" shortlist this year – it is, for instance, the first time in decades that there are no works by white male authors.

Instead there are writers born in Britain, Canada, India, Nigeria, Turkey and the US. The six titles are also topical, addressing everything from The Donald and transgender issues to the immigrant experience.

Authors and editors Sharon Bakar and Jason Erik Lundberg offer their thoughts on the six books here. Share yours at lifestyle@thestar.com.my and tell us which book you would choose if you were one of the Booker judges, and why.


The Testaments

Author: Margaret Atwood

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart, dystopian future

Novel Narratives Make Up The 2019 Booker Prize Shortlist

Margaret Atwood’s latest novel was launched to great fanfare in London in September, more than 30 years after the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale. The Tale is famously set in a dystopian future America where fertile women are ritually raped in order to provide powerful men and their wives with offspring.

The issues that the novel address have become increasingly relevant to readers in the intervening decades. Atwood was resistant to writing a sequel for over three decades but, as she explained in an interview, she capitulated when she realised that 21st century society is moving towards the world of The Handmaid’s Tale rather than away from it. She also said she wanted to explore how totalitarian regimes ultimately fail.

The Testaments opens some 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale. It is narrated in three voices. Two are transcribed oral testimonies (369A and 369B) of young women; the first has grown up in Gilead and absorbed its values while the second grows up in free Canada. Both come to learn the truth of their origins and heritage and soon their fates are intertwined as they embark on a difficult quest that will help to destroy the Gilead regime.

In the sections entitled “The Holograph of Ardua Hall” we hear the third voice, that of the formidable Aunt Lydia, the most powerful woman in Gilead and head of the Aunts who keep the Handmaids in line. In a secret journal she chronicles how she managed to survive the terrors of the early days when all women were crammed into sports stadiums and executions were daily occurrence.

A former family court justice, she has to learn how to play the game to stay alive and use her wits to consolidate her position. Atwood gives us a fascinating insight into the workings of Gilead, something that was missing from The Handmaid’s Tale, since its protagonist, Offred, had only a limited perspective of what was going on.

But The Testaments lacks the sense of claustrophobia and terror of the first novel, and even ends on an optimistic note. It is a real page-turner, a well-paced adventure story, and it will no doubt make yet another excellent TV series. But sadly, this isn’t one of Atwood’s better novels. – Sharon Bakar


Girl, Woman, Other

Author: Bernardine Evaristo

Publisher: Penguin UK, contemporary immigrant experience

Novel Narratives Make Up The 2019 Booker Prize Shortlist

In a series of interlinked narratives, Bernardine Evaristo explores questions of black identity and feminism. She follows the lives of 12 characters (most of them women) of different social backgrounds, sexual orientations and ethnicities. While each is the protagonist of his/her own story, we also see them through the eyes of other characters, which often leads to surprising insights.

There are no lazy stereotypes here, and Evaristo gives each character a distinctive voice, switching easily between the different varieties of English, including West Indian patois, and Nigerian Pidgin.

We meet Amma, a theatre director who has been making art on her own terms since 1980s, but has now gone mainstream and her play is about to open at the National Theatre. Her close friend and theatre collaborator, Dominique, finds herself drawn into an abusive relationship in a woman’s commune in the US.

Yazz, Amma’s defiant and precocious daughter is, at 19, the youngest character in the book, while the eldest is nonagenarian Hattie, a mixed-race matriarch still living on her farm in Northumberland. Hattie accepts her granddaughter’s shift of gender identity, even as she does not fully understand it.

Carole is a high-flying banker, an Oxford graduate, whose resolve to excel and move beyond her working class background is a reaction to a sexual assault when she was a teenager. Her mother, Bummi’s story is perhaps the most heartbreaking; she has a degree in Mathematics from a Nigerian university but is unable to find anything other than manual work in Britain until she starts her own cleaning agency.

LaTisha comes from a similar background to Carole, but makes different choices, and ends up with three children with different fathers before she resolves to turn her life around.

The symmetry of the stories is very satisfying, while the quirky punctuation (no capital letters or full stops or speech marks) makes the text appear more like a poem and makes it breathless and seamless. This is a very ambitious novel that works beautifully, and leaves you wanting more. – Sharon Bakar


Quichotte

Author: Salman Rushdie

Publisher: Jonathan Cape, magical realism

Novel Narratives Make Up The 2019 Booker Prize Shortlist

“There once lived, at a series of temporary addresses across the United States of America, a travelling man of Indian origin, advancing years, and retreating mental powers, who, on account of his love for mindless television, had spent far too much of his life in the yellow light of tawdry motel rooms watching an excess of it, and had suffered a peculiar form of brain damage as a result.”

So begins Salman Rushdie’s 14th novel, and his fifth to be a finalist for the Booker Prize (most recently, The Moor’s Last Sigh in 1995; he won in 1981 for Midnight’s Children). In the Age of Anything-Can-Happen (ie, right now), this former travelling salesman falls in love with TV star Miss Salma R (note the similarity with the author’s name) and, in true quixotic fashion, sets himself the quest of winning the hand of his Dulcinea via a road trip to New York City.

Assuming the moniker of Quichotte and even generating a son named Sancho using willpower alone are only the beginning of this vivacious and kinetic reimagining of Cervantes’ pre-postmodern classic. Coupled with this chivalric tale is the metafictional intrusion of Quichotte’s author, a thriller writer pseudonymously known as Sam DuChamp but whom Rushdie refers to as Brother, whose relationship with his estranged Sister and Son echo and inform the events of the main narrative.

As the novel progresses, boundaries between these stories, and between the real and unreal, become porous and permeable in line with Rushdie’s examination of the current derangement of the American psyche. Always more interesting when he allows the fantastical to reign uninhibited, Rushdie has managed that rare feat of capturing this exact moment in time through which we are all moving.

The lightness and unbridled joy of his prose is perhaps the best counterpoint to discussion of the current apocalypse. After all, Don Quixote is read as both delight and tragedy (sometimes both at once), and so it is no surprise to encounter juxtapositions such as a town whose residents transform into mastodons and a Central Park incident in which white supremacists beat Sancho nearly to death. Light and dark are twinned throughout, and one is never far from the other. – Jason Erik Lundberg


10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World

Author: Elif Shafak

Publisher: Viking, contemporary feminist fiction

Novel Narratives Make Up The 2019 Booker Prize Shortlist

Tequila Leila lies in a dumpster on the outskirts of Istanbul, dead. We are told this on the very first page, which introduces a unique challenge: how is the reader to stay interested in this protagonist for the first 60% of the book knowing that she will meet an untimely end at the hands of a particularly violent john?

But engrossed we remain, since Leila’s consciousness is still active for 10 minutes and 38 seconds after her heart has stopped, leading to extended remembrances of her entire troubled life, thanks to the time differential caused by the lightning speed of her final firing neurons.

Elif Shafak’s 11th novel, and her first to make the Booker shortlist, is both an indictment of conservative family culture and a celebration of the created family of misfits with whom Leila surrounds herself once she arrives in Istanbul.

Shafak herself is an outspoken critic of the worldwide brutalisation of women and LGBT people, and of the rampant anti-intellectualism which has led to the rise of authoritarianism in many formerly progressive nations. So it is no surprise that she deals so unflinchingly with subjects such as sexual assault and marginalisation in the novel.

Molested and then raped by a trusted uncle, shamed into fleeing her home for a chaotic city, sold into prostitution, married to a political activist named D/Ali who is killed shortly thereafter, Leila suffers through an especially Job-like existence, one made bearable only by her five closest friends: Sabotage Sinan, Nostalgia Nalan, Jameelah, Zaynab122 and Hollywood Humeyra.

And it is these five who take over the narrative in the novel’s second section, committing themselves to recovering Leila’s body from the Cemetery of the Companionless in order to give their beloved compatriot a proper send-off into the hereafter.

Reading about such unending and intense deprivation can seem like sadistic punishment, but Shafak never lets us forget that bearing witness to such atrocity is one of the most important things human beings can do for one another. As well as to remember that, no matter how bad the outside world gets, there is always the possibility of love and friendship, as long we do not close our hearts to it. – Jason Erik Lundberg


Ducks, Newburyport

Author: Lucy Ellman

Publisher: Biblioasis, political fiction

Novel Narratives Make Up The 2019 Booker Prize Shortlist

Reading Ducks, Newburyport might seem a daunting task. First there’s the length: 1,034 pages. Then there’s the fact that for the most part the novel is written in a single, breathless sentence and there are no chapters, no sections, no natural places to take a break from reading. Furthermore, there is no plot in a conventional sense.

The good news, though, is that Ducks is far from a slog once you have tuned into the voice and the rhythm of the prose. In lieu of sentences the text uses the framing device “the fact that” to introduce new threads of thought.

With the stream-of-consciousness first-person account we are right inside the head of the unnamed protagonist, as her mind hurtles from thought to thought. A second story – that of a mountain lion – runs parallel to this internal monologue and offers an interesting counterpoint.

The woman is an Ohio housewife, a mother of four. The eldest is a difficult teenager and looks on her mother with disdain, while the youngest is just four. The woman stands in her kitchen, baking pies and cinnamon buns all day because she needs the income after her medical bills for cancer treatment have left the family financially strapped. She is carrying pretty much everything in the household and she is weary of the endless chaos.

At times, her thoughts veer towards more personal issues. She tries to keep sadness at bay by deliberately trying to push away painful memories, but she obsessively returns to certain parts of her life and we gradually build up a picture of her past.

She is also worried about the state of the world. “I’m sure people haven’t always lived in such a constant state of alarm,” she says as she contemplates war, environmental breakdown, Trump and the healthcare crisis, and school shootings.

Mixed in with all this there are playful runs of word association, recipes, dreams, snatches of songs, tabloid headlines, thoughts about books she has read, lines from films (presumably she is watching old movies as she bakes), jingles and tabloid headlines. This is the age of distraction and information overload.

The novel is innovative and hypnotic. We are drawn into an intimacy with this woman, are engaged and entertained and moved by her ... which is just as well given how much time we get to spend in her head! – Sharon Bakar


An Orchestra Of Minorities

Author: Chigozie Obioma

Publisher: Little, Brown and Co, cultural heritage

Novel Narratives Make Up The 2019 Booker Prize Shortlist

Chigozie Obioma’s excellent debut, The Fishermen, was Booker Prize shortlisted in 2015 and his second novel follows suit. An Orchestra Of Minorities tells the story of Chinonso, a simple chicken farmer whose life changes one day when he saves the life a young woman, Ndali, who is about to jump from a bridge. When the pair meet again by accident some time later, they fall in love. However Ndali is from a wealthy and influential family, while Chinonso is poor and uneducated, which leads her parents to initially reject him.

After he is humiliated by her brother at a family party, he decides to take the drastic step of selling his farm and house to secure a university place in Cyprus on the advice of an old school friend. But when he arrives there he discovers that he has been utterly duped. This part of the book is based on a true story (which you can find on the Guardian website), and Obioma has some interesting things to say about how Africans are treated when they go overseas.

Chinonso’s story becomes increasingly tragic as he gets ever further from his home and all that he loves. Obioma draws on Igbo cosmology throughout, and the story is narrated by Chinonso’s Chi – his spiritual guardian – who is pleading the case of his “host” (as he calls him) in front of a heavenly tribunal.

This unusual point of view enables Obioma to explore his character’s thoughts and emotions while being able to slip outside of his body at convenient moments to gain a broader perspective. He can even see the goings on in the bizarre spirit world that runs parallel to ours.

This is a story full of humour and pathos, and is most enjoyable when it gets going. But the pacing is at times much too slow and the novel could have done with a stronger editorial hand to trim excess description and some of the Chi’s longer invocations.

There is a distinctly Nigerian flavour to the book in terms of the language. The prose is a delight, with fresh metaphors on every page and sprinklings of Igbo proverbs, sayings and beliefs (which may remind the reader of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart). The author is also unapologetic in his use of Nigerian Pidgin English and words and phrases in Igbo. – Sharon Bakar


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