Six Booker-shortlisted novels reviewed

Themes of pain, loss, violence and even the mundane are found in the tales of authors on the shortlist

This is the second year the £50,000 (S$108,000) Man Booker Prize is open to writers of any nationality writing in English and it seems harder than ever to pick a winner.

On Oct 13, will the laurel go to veteran American writer Anne Tyler or to Britain's Tom McCarthy, who were both in the running for earlier Man Booker awards?

Will the prize be taken by the debut novel of Nigeria's Chigozie Obioma or go to other relative newcomers such as Hanya Yanagihara (United States), Sunjeev Sahota (United Kingdom) or Marlon James (Jamaica)?

Life reviews the six novels up for the coveted literary award.


CHIGOZIE OBIOMA

The debut novel of Nigeria-born Chigozie Obioma is up for one of the richest literary awards in the world. An assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the 29-year-old completed a master of fine arts degree in creative writing at the University of Michigan and has had short fiction published in literary magazines such as the Virginia Quarterly Review and New Madrid.


CHIGOZIE OBIOMA. PHOTO: MAN BOOKER PRIZES/ THE BOOKER PRIZE FOUNDATION

  • THE FISHERMEN

    By Chigozie

    Obioma

    ONE/Paperback/ 301 pages/ $30.55/Books Kinokuniya/ 4.5 stars

Lovers, spouses, parents and children - their cares and tussles are the age-old subjects of literature. Less often depicted are the siblings, who have grown up in each other's shadows, traded blows in childhood scuffles and seen the best and worst of each other, uncoloured by parental expectations or a lover's desire.

The relationship of a band of brothers, all close in age and spirit and hovering on the verge of puberty, is mined with charged lyricism and psychological acuity by Chigozie Obioma in his debut novel The Fishermen.

Obioma's tale, set in the town of Akure in western Nigeria, begins as the boys' father is forced to move out of the family home to a distant town for work, taking with him the iron discipline and peaceable routines that have until then shaped his four older sons' lives.

As told in the searching voice of Benjamin, the youngest of this quartet, reflecting on these events as a grown man, the tale pivots on one parentally unsanctioned fishing trip by the boys.

On that trip, they run into a local madman known as much for being dissolute - after losing his mind, he had raped his mother and killed his brother - as for his powers of prophesy.

In fits and starts, the madman paints a picture of the oldest brother Ikenna suffering a gruesome death ("You shall open your mouth to speak on that day, but words will freeze in your mouth", "You will swim in a river of red, but never rise from it again").

Another brother who grasps the incoherent madman most clearly is pushed by Ikenna to reveal the identity of his killer - a fisherman.

The brooding Ikenna becomes possessed by the idea that one of his brothers will kill him, unleashing a chain of events that upends the lives of the whole family.

There is more than a suggestion here of Lord Of The Flies, William Golding's chilling 1954 classic about a group of young boys not knowing their own strength and getting drawn into paranoia and violence.

Any whiff of sensationalism in the plot is dispelled by Obioma's rich tapestry of characters, set against the claustrophobic intimacy of small-town life in a strife-torn country.

The result is a narrative that sings with heart-rending believability and speaks of a loss of innocence, not just of Benjamin and his brothers, but also of a troubled African nation during military rule in the 1990s.

Flashbacks lay out the bonds between the four brothers in a large family where both parents have their hands full with work and two much younger children.

These flashbacks also serve as quick sketches of larger socio- political forces.

One example is when the school headmaster, a Yoruba man and from a different ethnic group, mispronounces second brother Boja's multi-syllable Igbo full name, leading to much laughter from the students, some cursing from Boja and Ikenna leading the other three brothers out of school in protest against Boja's resulting punishment.

Loitering on the streets unexpectedly leads the boys to a light- hearted, life-changing encounter with popular Nigerian politician M.K.O. Abiola and his entourage.

In another blast from the past, after the military government annuls results of a presidential election apparently won by Abiola, the boys are caught up in widespread rioting and led to safety once more by Ikenna.

But in The Fishermen, memory is as much a salve to the wound as it is a siren song, shifting and unreliable, and Ikenna's selective memory contributes to the tragedy.

Obioma condenses such a vast canvas into a 301-page novel by having each chapter employ a particular symbol - an animal, myth or trope - which fleshes out an individual or state of affairs.

This gives Benjamin's ruminations the impact of a series of parables, extremely resonant in a novel where characters are guided as much by the Christian gospel as the Igbo notion of a personal spirit.

The pacing is unerring, the language vivid yet never overwrought; as the boys' mother tries to draw out the "metal-lidded secret" of their run-in with the madman, Benjamin imagines her waiting "anxiously, her feet suddenly set on the hill as if she'd seen a raptor advancing towards her fold, and she, the falconer, was ready for a confrontation".

With this first novel, Obioma adds his name to a distinguished roster of Nigerian writers that includes Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

This is about as perfect as a debut could be, from an author not yet 30.

If you like this, read: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent's Tail, 2013, $14.87, Books Kinokuniya) from last year's Booker Prize shortlist, another near-perfect novel about how a seemingly dysfunctional sibling relationship in the eyes of the world could be achingly normal from the inside.

Clarissa Oon


HANYA YANAGIHARA

American writer Hanya Yanagihara, 40, nearly won the PEN/ Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction last year with her first novel The People In The Trees, but lost to Shawn Vestal's Godforsaken Idaho.

She is now in the running for the Man Booker Prize with her second book, A Little Life. She is deputy editor at The New York Times' style periodical, T Magazine.


HANYA YANAGIHARA. PHOTO: MAN BOOKER PRIZES/ THE BOOKER PRIZE FOUNDATION

  • A LITTLE LIFE

    By Hanya

    Yanagihara

    Doubleday/ Hardcover/ 720 pages/ $32.95/ Books Kinokuniya/ 4 stars

At more than 700 pages, A Little Life is far from little. 

That those pages are not a chore to plough through is testimony to author Hanya Yanagihara's craft. So is the balancing act she achieves by taking a life at times excruciating and making it readable without exploiting its pain.

Her  sophomore novel starts off as a big-city ensemble piece of four inseparable college friends trying to make their way in New York.

Over the years, they go from being mired in post-graduate poverty to finding success at the top of their fields, while their friendships are strained by betrayal yet also unfold in richer, deeper configurations.

Willem, son of ranch hands, waits tables while waiting for the big break that will make him a star of stage and screen.  Malcolm is stifled in his job at a prominent architecture firm, which he took to impress his wealthy father whose expectations he can never meet.

J.B., a brilliant painter, wants desperately to make a name for himself in the art world, perhaps even at the cost of those close to him.

But it is the fourth of this quartet, the obscure Jude, whose life emerges as the novel's central focus.

Jude is a gifted litigator, a rising star in the world of corporate law, but his seemingly charmed life is haunted by the trauma of an unspeakable childhood trauma.

He is an orphan of undefined race and unknown origin; his friends dub him "The Postman" because they "don't know anything about him. Post-sexual, post-racial, post- identity, post-past".

His life is defined above all by what he has moved beyond. 

Yanagihara leaves a trail of breadcrumbs - Jude's walking disability, the episodes of pain that rack him without warning, his bouts of self-mutilation - that draws the reader inexorably towards the horror of his history, which is unveiled slowly in fragments across the long course of the novel.

The author stops short of sensationalising Jude's suffering, but she treads a fine line. She is unrelenting in the sheer amount of brutality heaped on him and there is something unsettling in how the mystery of his past is teased so artfully that the reader ends up craving each revelation, even as it is delivered in detail so harrowing, it turns the stomach.

The title itself takes on a sickening sheen when it comes up in one of the darkest parts of the novel, as a young Jude is exhorted by one of his abusers to "show a little life... show them you're enjoying it".

A Little Life is not an easy read. It is a novel in which things do not get better. In fact, it documents the extraordinary, endless efforts required to keep them from getting worse.

Even its tenderest, happiest moments are tinged with pre- emptive heartbreak, an instinct that tragedy waits just around the corner. This, in turn, paints each of these moments with an intense beauty.

What it also is, though, is a monument to endurance. It is a masterful navigation of the after-effects of trauma, of the relationship between the body and pain, of the what, how and why of survival.

As one of Jude's friends says: "He wants you to tell him that his life, as inconceivable as it is, is still a life."

A chronicle of pain that will leave you emotionally drained, A Little Life is probably not a novel you will return to again soon.

It is devastation of a kind, however, that you will not regret experiencing.

If you like this, read: The People In The Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

(Atlantic Books, 2013, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya). The author's debut novel is about a prize- winning scientist who discovers a lost tribe on a Micronesian island who may hold the key to longevity.

Olivia Ho


SUNJEEV SAHOTA

The Booker-shortlisted novel The Year Of The Runaways is the second published book by Briton Sunjeev Sahota, 34. His first, Ours Are The Streets, was shortlisted for book awards in Britain such as the Daily Mail Award for Original Paperback Fiction 2011 and the East Midlands Book Award 2012. In 2013, he was picked by influential literary journal Granta for its list of Best British Novelists, which includes Booker winners Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan.


SUNJEEV SAHOTA. PHOTO: MAN BOOKER PRIZES/ THE BOOKER PRIZE FOUNDATION

  • THE YEAR OF THE RUNAWAYS

    By Sunjeev Sahota

    Picador/ Paperback/ 468 pages/ $31.95/Books Kinokuniya/ 4 stars

Novelist Sunjeev Sahota, blessed with an acute eye for those marginalised in society, has a penchant for telling stories with timely yet tough themes.

His 2011 debut was about a radicalised British Pakistani youth. His follow-up, the Man Booker- shortlisted The Year Of The Runaways, centres on transient Indian migrant workers.

It is easy to speculate if this nomination was politically driven as Sahota casts a harsh spotlight on the plight of an oft-under-appreciated segment of many societies.

But The Year Of The Runaways is genuinely an evocative page-turner. Set in Sheffield, England, the story of the struggle of migrants to make ends meet will resonate with readers everywhere.

They work under exploitative conditions at building sites, fast- food restaurants or sewers.

And the price paid for that: selling body parts, getting into hefty loan shark debts, entering sham marriages or applying for fake student visas.

Further, the concept of trust is non-existent among the migrant workers in The Year Of The Runaways. They stew in jealousy and paranoia. They share groceries, but not secrets of their respective pasts. They stash their hard-earned savings behind secret panels.

It is a dog-eat-dog world most keenly felt by those who have barely anything and yet are putting everything on the line.

Three migrant workers - Avtar, Randeep and Tarlochan - take centre stage in the novel and the reader will slowly discover what they are running away from.

Tarlochan is the perennial outsider unable to shake off his lower-caste standing and whom his comrades, in a land kilometres away from home, still refer to as an "untouchable".

The reader feels keenly the injustice that is the caste war that embroils his family, making it one of the most difficult parts in the novel to get through, but also an important one.

Avtar and Randeep are two good friends whose friendship is tested when jobs run dry and the money dwindles.

The fourth "runaway" is Narinder, a religious London-born Sikh who left her traditional family as she has an innate wish to do good - although what counts as good is sometimes contentious.

Sahota's portrayal of the characters raises questions of morality. The personalities may put up a strong front, but it is precisely this sense of stoic vulnerability that I found affecting.

People are quick to pass judgment without much thought. They are also quick to assume the circumstances that prompted these workers to leave their homes must be similar.

Where Sahota succeeds is in his pointed portrayal of the difficult lives of migrant workers without being polemical or maudlin.

He does not pass judgment even as the characters make dubious decisions for their own survival.

The reader is placed in the very uncomfortable position of seeing how some of their actions might be illegal and yet realising that their quest for survival means they have no choice.

The excellent read, however, is weighed down on many occasions by the use of native Indian words as descriptors which do not mean much to non-speakers.

The main story, too, ends abruptly and the epilogue, set 10 years later, feels too jarring and seemingly redundant at first. But in hindsight, what is life if not about hoping for the perfect ending?

If you like this, read: Ours Are The Streets by Sunjeev Sahota (Pan Macmillan, 2011, $15.95, Books Kinokuniya), about a radicalised British youth who becomes a suicide bomber. The story was reportedly inspired by the July 7, 2005, London bombings.

Walter Sim


ANNE TYLER

Anne Tyler, 74, is often called the Jane Austen of America for her acute observations of human interaction. She is on the Man Booker shortlist this year for her 20th novel, A Spool Of Blue Thread, four years after she was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize but lost to Philip Roth. Her novel about a long-married couple, Breathing Lessons, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989. Her books have been shortlisted for other literary awards such as the PEN/Faulkner Award (1983, for Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant) and the Orange Prize for Women's Fiction (1996, for Ladder Of Years; 2007, for Digging To America).


ANNE TYLER. PHOTO: MAN BOOKER PRIZES/ THE BOOKER PRIZE FOUNDATION

  • A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD

    By Anne Tyler

    Chato & Windus/ Paperback/ 356 pages/ $19.98/Books Kinokuniya/ 3.5 stars

Anne Tyler, best known for her 1989 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Breathing Lessons, has spent the majority of her career excavating the lives of ordinary Americans. Her latest work, A Spool Of Blue Thread, is no different.

Once again, she focuses her efforts on the ups and downs of a white-bread, middle-class American family living in Baltimore, Maryland.

From the outside, the Whitshanks are unremarkable.

Social worker Abby and her husband Red Whitshank, a contractor who runs the family business his father started and lives in the house his father built, have four children. Like their parents, the children were born, raised and continued to live within a few kilometres of home.

They go to work, raise their children, have happy and unhappy marriages and, every summer, they spend a week in the same Delaware beach house where they have spent their annual vacation for close to 40 years. Mostly, they live comfortable, predictable lives.

There is not much of a plot to speak of and with any less capable writer, this character-driven novel would be a bore.

But with an eye for detail, Tyler manages successfully to unspool the family's story through their successes, failures, quirks and faults and reveals the love and friction between the Whitshanks, as they exist in every family.

Tyler is, no doubt, a gifted storyteller. The ease with which she writes buoys the narrative and steers the reader gently through the currents of her characters' everyday lives. She manages to maintain this flow even when suddenly changing tack and shifting narrative perspectives between generations.

Her narrative expands and contracts organically and reading her work is like being lost in a daydream.

As pleasant a read as the book is, I wonder if the Whitshanks wouldn't have been better served by focusing on one generation instead of three. None of the characters show much progression through the novel. Abby is the same optimistic soul from beginning to end, the Whitshanks' son Denny is as exasperatingly self-centred a boy as a grown man, and Red's sister Merrick forever has her nose stuck up in the air.

This would be fine if the story had more of a plot or if the friction and affection between the characters gave rise to something greater.

But as Tyler describes the many characters, she loosens rather than tightens the narrative thread necessary to elevate the everyday to epiphany levels of clarity which make such humdrum subject matter moving.

The novel reads like a part of a greater oeuvre, rather than a stellar stand-alone piece which packs the punch required of a Man Booker Prize-winning work.

If you like this, read: Lila by Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson (Little, Brown Book Group, 2014, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya) about an itinerant woman who, after years of struggle and destitution, finds stability and an unlikely love in a small Iowa town.

Lydia Vasko


MARLON JAMES

Marlon James, 45, is the first Jamaican on the Man Booker shortlist and brings his birthplace Kingston to life in A Brief History Of Seven Killings, his third novel.

His debut, John Crow's Devil, was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. His second novel, The Book Of Night Women, won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award.


MARLON JAMES. PHOTO: MAN BOOKER PRIZES/ THE BOOKER PRIZE FOUNDATION

  • A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS

    By Marlon James

    Oneworld/ Paperback/ 704 pages/ $17.82/Major bookstores/ 3 stars

Starting with the ironic "brief" in the title, nothing is what one expects in this doorstopper of a novel by Marlon James.

He takes as his inspiration the laidback soul vibe of reggae superstar Bob Marley and pays his homage in explicit gangster rap, hardcore, uncensored and pitched to shock.

Violence liberally punctuates the pages, bullets ricochet between paragraphs and expletives hack into the rhythm of sentences written in musical Jamaican patois.

A Brief History Of Seven Killings is inspired by the real-life attempt made on Marley's life in 1976 by seven unknown gunmen ahead of a major concert the singer planned to hold, and amid unprecedented gang violence before national elections.

Kingston-born James provides the gunmen, who were never caught, with identities, context to explain their actions and imagines their probable future all the way to 1991, 10 years after Marley's death from cancer.

So far, so intriguing.

But what could have been a thunderclap of a book about the history and politics of a country little examined in English-language literature instead peters out into repetitive sound and fury with its chorus of characters sounding irritatingly like one another.

This harmony is good for a rap group, but not for a 700-page novel with a cast of characters that spans three pages and takes far too long to make the reader care about any one.

In spite of helpful chapter headings with the name of each narrator, sometimes only the switch between patois and American English helps to indicate which storyline the reader is following.

Drug lords sound almost like their strung-out, angry young gunmen and two warring sisters begin to sound so much like each other that by the end of the book, one is hard-pressed to decide which one of their stories is concluding.

Just as putting together a guitarist, drummer and a lead vocalist does not guarantee good sound, James has a sense of story, poetic rhythm and history, but tries to pack in so much information that much of it is lost.

His plot begins with CIA operatives collaborating with Colombian druglords in Jamaica, in a bid to halt the worrying spread of communism after Cuba's decisive win in the "Bay of Pigs fiasco" and ends worryingly lost in New York crack houses.

With the relentless violence and almost comic interludes between hired killers and their victims, this book is for fans of splatterporn.

For those not quite sold on the genre, James offers only a little to change their mind.

Some reviewers have compared him with film-maker Quentin Tarantino, but I think they share only the latter's most annoying traits, such as long digressions right in the middle of a punchy action sequence.

Some moments do haunt. Marley's presence permeates the novel as "the Singer", a larger- than-life figure whose international reputation as a musician that sings of peace and love is overshadowed here by his cult-like following in Jamaica and dealings with shady politicians.

Marley's lyrics infuse the prose of the book, chanted alike by infuriated youth from hellish slums and middle-class women seeking escape from their dead-end lives.

His escape from the gunmen only cements his deity status and his final death in 1981 plays out as a tragic and ironic cadenza in a main symphony that fails to be epic on its own.

If you like this, read: The Memory Of Love by Aminatta Forna (Grove Press, 2011 reprint, $15.84, Amazon. com), a haunting portrait of the African country of Sierra Leone, devastated by recent civil war.

Akshita Nanda


TOM MCCARTHY

Tom McCarthy, 46, is on the Man Booker shortlist for the second time after 2010, where his novel C lost to fellow Briton Harold Jacobson's The Finkler Question. Satin Island, this year's contender, is his fourth novel.

He began making waves in 1999 as a conceptual artist, with the creation of the semi-fictitious International Necronautical Society. It revises history through "documentary footage" and "historical documents", exhibited in spaces from the Tate Britain to The Drawing Center in New York.


TOM MCCARTHY. PHOTO: MAN BOOKER PRIZES/ THE BOOKER PRIZE FOUNDATION

  • SATIN ISLAND

    By Tom McCarthy

    Jonathan Cape/ Paperback/ 173 pages/ $23.95/ Books Kinokuniya/ 2 stars

This novel could be a Kafkaesque tale.

It has a protagonist cryptically named just U, an anthropologist whose work is vaguely defined in a mysterious consultancy company which lands a huge, epoch-changing global project that is never explained. Yet the project is hailed a triumph and him a pillar of its success, not that he knows what he actually did beyond studying patterns in society today and theorising fanciful metaphors in everything he sees, including dirty windows in a hospital.

Or the book could be a tribute to Haruki Murakami's politico-sexual works such as 1Q84. It has a strange detour in which U's sex partner recounts how she was once among a group of anti-capitalism activists who were brutalised by the authorities. After being singled out, she was made to strike bewilderingly sexual poses or risk being cattle-prodded.

Then again, Satin Island could be akin to Dave Eggers' The Circle, a satire of our age which is so digitally connected that the Internet itself is a vaguely creepy, malevolent Big Brother. It is filled with U's incessant philosophising of every minutiae in today's world.

But Tom McCarthy's novel is not any of those works because he has forsaken his duties as a storyteller in favour of playing hipster pop philosopher to undergraduates and maybe high-falutin advertising or consultancy gurus. In fact, he seems to have dropped hints throughout the book of his intentions. "(E)vents! If you want those, you'd best stop reading now," U says early on.

McCarthy hangs a bunch of emperor's new clothes on a skeletal story of an anthropologist suffering a mid- career crisis, as if he were U's charismatic, Sphinx-like boss Peyman.

"His whole knack", U describes Peyman's multifarious, nefarious charms, "was for managing uncertainties, for somehow joining isolated dots into a constellation- pattern people could just... recognise, and be seduced by... Even the fact that it didn't quite make sense made sense, while he was talking".

If McCarthy's intentions had been to write a mass market-friendly philosophical tome for people who prefer quoting clever-sounding aphorisms instead of grappling with the horrendous mess the digital revolution has created, he has succeeded.

Mesmerised by the circle that turns round and round until a hung online video starts streaming again, U/McCarthy says: "It dawned on me that what I was actually watching was nothing less than the skeleton, laid bare, of time or memory itself... when occurrences and situations don't replenish themselves quickly enough for the awareness they sustain... we find ourselves jammed, stuck in limbo: we can enjoy neither experience nor consciousness of it. Everything becomes buffering, and buffering becomes everything."

Unlike in Eggers' gripping digital- age thriller The Circle, McCarthy here chooses to tell readers the import of his self-important observations, rather than have readers reach epiphanies themselves.

He tries so hard to capture our elusive age in cool metaphors that he loses sight of the things and issues he is so intent on summing up. Just like how, U explains, anthropologists lose the purity of the behaviours they seek to document the moment they get close enough to a tribe to observe it.

If you like this, read: The Circle by Dave Eggers (Penguin, 2014, $14.93, Books Kinokuniya), a thriller about the digital revolution gone mad.

Andy Chen

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 04, 2015, with the headline 'Who will win the Booker?'. Print Edition | Subscribe