Revisiting Man Booker finalists this year before prize is given on Oct 17

Who will win the £50,000 ($91,000) Man Booker Prize? Will Scottish author Ali Smith, shortlisted for the fourth time, finally triumph? Or will it go to newcomers Fiona Mozley or Emily Fridlund, who pipped literary giants to the shortlist last month? The Straits Times takes a look at the six books up for the prestigious prize, which will be announced on Oct 17

Questioning the source of true evil

When the news came in July that American author Emily Fridlund had been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, she did not even notice because she had gone into labour.

Exhausted from the birth of her first son Eliot, she checked her e-mail only the day after and realised she had made the Booker dozen.

"I thought I must have misread the e-mail," says the 38-year-old over the telephone from her home in New York.

"I have long admired some of the authors on the list - Ali Smith, Paul Auster, George Saunders - and it's incredibly exciting and humbling just to have my name anywhere near theirs."

Fridlund, a former teacher, shocked many when her slender debut, History Of Wolves, beat contenders such as previous Booker winner Arundhati Roy and Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead.

She and fellow first-timer Fiona Mozley, 29, are the dark horses in this race, and their novels appropriately foreground a highly underestimated figure in literature: the teenage girl.

"Historically, girlhood is not considered as truly serious a literary subject as boys becoming men," says Fridlund. "Books that take on a teenage girl's coming of age are mostly read as young adult (YA) fiction. I love YA, but I don't think that's what I'm writing."

History Of Wolves grew out of a short story she wrote when she was living in warm California and missing the snowy winters of Minnesota, where she grew up.

She also wanted to do her own take on the literary trope of male teachers attracted to younger students, which she found "boring".

"I was interested in pushing back against that societal narrative, in looking at how girls in particular might have some kind of power that is not as acknowledged as it should be - not just sexual, but also a power to see through that narrative and use it for their own ends."

History Of Wolves is about 14-year-old Madeline, also known as Linda, a social outcast who was raised in the woods of northern Minnesota by the remnants of a failed commune.

She befriends her neighbour Patra, whose four-year-old son Paul she babysits. But when Patra's husband Leo arrives, it slowly becomes clear that something is not right with this family.

Years later, an adult Linda reflects back on the night of Paul's death and the ways she and Patra could have stopped it, but did not.

"I feel the book is asking the reader, how would you judge yourself if you were in Linda's position?" says Fridlund.

"Maybe Linda should be judged for failing to act. But I do want the reader to think hard about what we consider to be true evil and how it often doesn't come out of some terrible, vicious corruption, but of well-intentioned belief."

She drew on her childhood memories of camping in the Northwoods, to which she returned when researching the book to capture the wintry landscape in writing.

She was also inspired by her parents' time living in a commune, although she hastens to add that her father, a carpenter, and mother, a physical therapist, are nothing like Linda's parents, who are distant and more like "step-siblings".

They may not even be Linda's biological parents, but rather just the people who stayed behind when the commune broke up. Fridlund wanted to explore "the way it feels to grow up in the aftermath of failed good intentions - how lonely that can be".

The author wrote the book before she became a mother. Had she finished it now, she says, she might have been tempted to make it less dark. She often finds herself having to warn mothers of young children that they may find the book traumatic. "It comes from the impulse of a mother to give your children the most beautiful part of the world as you see it."

For her right now, that involves taking nine-week-old Eliot to London for the Booker ceremony.

"I honestly don't expect to win - I'm not even thinking in those terms right now," she laughs. "It's going to be a big adventure for us. I'll certainly have some stories to tell him when he's older."


History Of Wolves by Emily Fridlund


PHOTO: WEIDENFELD & NICOLSON

 

Mention "wolves" and you might think of the carnivorous pack animal. But there is also the "lone wolf", or outsider who finds himself shunned by the pack.

Wolves are clearly the spirit animal for Madeline, the protagonist of the poetic Man Booker-shortlisted History Of Wolves by debut author Emily Fridlund.

Madeline's family are the last survivors of a failed cult and they live in an abandoned rural commune deep in the woods in the American Midwest. Her childhood friend moved away, her parents prefer laissez-faire supervision and in school, she is ostracised for looking different.

This confluence of factors contributes to her almost feral craving for company as she struggles with her identity and growing pains. It makes her almost an unreliable narrator as her monologue is clouded by her preconceptions - and misconceptions - of the world around her.

Pervasive throughout the wintry coming-of-age novel is a chilling, haunting sense of foreboding that the reader can never quite shake off. Metaphorical wolves lurk throughout the novel as Fridlund explores relationships between the predator and unsuspecting prey from Madeline's point of view.

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Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Who: At 29, Fiona Mozley is the youngest author in the running for this year's Booker. Should the part-time British bookseller win, she would be the second youngest to do so after New Zealander Eleanor Catton, who won in 2013 aged 28. Elmet, her debut novel set in the rugged Yorkshire landscape of her childhood, was not even published at the time it was longlisted.

Every Man Booker prize has its wild cards and this year's is Fiona Mozley's Elmet - which is fitting, given that her debut novel is about the wild card, both the exhilarating promise of its unlikely success and the odds stacked against it.

The novel is set in the grim, beautiful landscape of Yorkshire, where she grew up.

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Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders

Who: American writer George Saunders, 58, has made a long career out of short fiction, with six short story collections and novellas to his name. He spent 20 years contemplating Lincoln In The Bardo, his first full-length novel, which has since been turned into an audiobook with a cast of 166, as well as a short virtual-reality film.

Death is probably confusing at first. Not that we would know, of course. But it is with the muddled senses with which one presumably enters the afterlife that the reader tumbles into the bardo of George Saunders' first novel. His highly experimental undertaking is an acquired taste, a book that challenges our notions of what a novel should be.

We might try to define it as historical fiction, a ghost story, a choral play or a scrapbook of quotes - but what it achieves is far more than the sum of its very many parts.

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4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster


Faber & Faber/ Hardback/ 866 pages/ $27.82/Books Kinokuniya/4/5 stars

Who: American Paul Auster, 70, is considered one of the biggest stars of post-modern fiction today. The author of 17 novels rose to prominence in the 1980s with the metafictional The New York Trilogy. 4 3 2 1 is, at 866 pages, literally his greatest novel.

In 1947, a baby named Archibald Isaac Ferguson is born in a New Jersey hospital and, from that single beginning, goes on to lead four different lives.

Four Fergusons grow up in four independent, parallel universes, with lives that are at different points both strikingly disparate and eerily similar.

Paul Auster's latest work takes the what-ifs of life and cobbles them into a fascinating whole, exploring the impact that both chance and fate have on an individual's life.

Unlike the sparse elegance of his famous The New York Trilogy, this novel delves deep into the minutiae of its main character's life.

The reader is told of each Ferguson's likes and dislikes, hobbies and dreams, all of which vary in his four lives. One Ferguson loves baseball, another cannot stand the sport. One hopes to be a hard-hitting newspaper journalist; another, a film critic.

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Autumn by Ali Smith

Who: This is Scottish writer Ali Smith's fourth time on the Booker shortlist, following Hotel World (2001), The Accidental (2005) and How To Be Both (2014). The 55-year-old has won a string of other prizes, including the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, the Goldsmiths Prize and the Novel award at the Costa Book Awards.

An old man describes a series of paintings so vividly and brilliantly to a young girl that, years later, when she sees them with her own eyes, she recognises them at once.

Such ekphrasis permeates the novel Autumn, which seeks to capture in words the fading, abstract beauty of that "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness", as Romantic poet John Keats wrote in his ode To Autumn.

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Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Who: Pakistani Mohsin Hamid, 46, came close to winning the Booker in 2007 with his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Exit West, his fourth novel, draws in part on his own experience as a migrant who has shuttled between Pakistan, the United States and Britain for much of his life.

In an unnamed country on the brink of civil war, an odd relationship slowly blossoms between sweet-natured Saeed, an advertising agency employee living with his doting parents, and Nadia, who lives alone, rides a motorcycle and, despite swathing herself in long black robes, does not pray.

Their love story plays out against a bleak backdrop of mounting violence between government and rebel forces, as bombings and shootings grow more rampant and society dissolves into chaos and paranoia.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2017, with the headline 'Prize reads'. Print Edition | Subscribe