Dark and depressing is the tone this year—we assess the likely winner from a mix of famous and unknown authors.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing
By Madeleine Thien (Granta, £12.99)
After 50 pages, I was ready to throw this novel at the wall. I was in dreadful confusion with indeterminate characters having three names each, settings from Shanghai, China’s villages and Vancouver, and action from Mao’s triumph in the revolution through the Cultural Revolution to the present. Add to this scattered ideograms, bars of music and mathematical problems. It does get better, with strong passages about real life in the villages during famine and the Great Leap Forward, but this is hardly a new theme. It shouldn’t win, but in a list of books by (mostly) unknown authors about obscure/alien events, who knows?
Leslie Geddes Brown
By Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99)
The underlying message from this depressing tale of a 35-year-old woman, Sofia, who has spent her life in thrall to her mother’s bogus illnesses, but still loves her deeply, is that blood is thicker than water. They travel to the Spanish clinic of the equally fake-sounding Dr Gómez in a last-ditch attempt to find something seriously wrong. As Rose undergoes tests—which show there’s nothing wrong with her legs—the restless Sofia causes turmoil in the Andalusian village and falls in love. There is a punch-line—and it’s devastating—but it takes determination to get there as the characters are unlovable and the plot is short on pace and long on streams of consciousness. Deborah Levy is the best known of a curious shortlist—she was shortlisted for Swimming Home in 2012. This book, which swings from funny brilliance to annoying pretension, will probably not only divide readers, but the judges, too.
All That Man Is
By David Szalay (Jonathan Cape, £14.99
With nine different stories about nine different men of various nationalities this novel has prompted critics to ask whether it is exactly that: a novel. To which an appropriate answer is who cares? It’s remarkable. From an intelligent, frustrated 17-year-old Inter-railing across Europe, to an egotistical, insensitive academic, to a suicidal billionaire on the cusp of ruin, each section offers a brief yet striking insight into these lives, all essentially wrapped up with the same concerns: money, sex, status, love and loneliness. Like David Szalay’s other novels, the banality of everyday life is acutely and honestly observed here—it’s sometimes humourous, sometimes dismal, but never insignificant. As one character repeatedly ponders: ‘Life is not a joke.’ Having already nabbed the Gordon Burn award this year, this has already proved itself a winner—a bold and deserving frontrunner for the Booker.
By Ottessa Moshfegh (Vintage, £8.99)
This, the first novel from Ottessa Moshfegh—an American author with award-winning short stories and a novella already under her belt—is billed as a psychological thriller, a black comedy, but I had to wait for my first laugh. There’s nothing likeable about our protagonist, Eileen Dunlop, who works in a New England boys’ prison and cares for an alcoholic father. Her care extends to providing gin, but she freely admits that she doesn’t care for him—and nor do we for her. This is a girl who likes to stew in her own filth, who hides behind a ‘death mask’, who fantasises about finding her broken-necked father at the bottom of the stairs and of icicles falling and cleaving her in two. She dreams, mostly of escape. We learn at the outset that she will leave the dreary town of X-ville— we’re merely waiting to find out how. Yet there’s no mere about it. I was pulled uncomfortably along in the current of Eileen’s murky waters—Miss Moshfegh is a clever writer and her book is a contender.
His Bloody Project
By Graeme Macrae Burnet (Contraband, £8.99)
The unsettling thing about this psychological thriller is that, even after you’ve read Roddy Macrae’s own account of murdering three of his neighbours, you still sympathise with him as the victim. The 17-year-old crofter has been drip-fed a diet of torment and injustice; he’s also feckless and, as we learn, not entirely reliable. Is he responsible for his actions? That’s the central question posed by this book, which is not so much a crime novel as a ‘novel about crime’. Structured around a memoir supposedly ‘found’ by the author, it charts the chain of events leading to the killings and then, through the voices of various professionals, witnesses and the press, explores Victorian attitudes to criminality, insanity and the Highlands. The grinding drudgery of an oppressed Wester Ross crofting community is brilliantly portrayed, the build-up of tension before the brutal climax gripping. Dour and dark, could this inventive work from an unknown author with an obscure publisher win? It certainly deserves to.
By Paul Beatty (Oneworld, £12.99)
Losing your father and your hometown in the same month would be pretty tough for anyone, but for the unnamed narrator of The Sellout, it’s an opportunity—an opportunity to bring back slavery and segregate the local school. The result is possibly one of the most astute pieces of satire to have discussed the heightened racial tension in the USA in recent years. The setting is abstract yet familiar and allows Paul Beatty, through his protagonist, to wrestle with issues that no social commentator would dare go near and invent one of the most compelling and funny pieces of politically relevant fiction seen for some time. Satire and dark comedy have pedigree on this track, with D. B. C. Pierre’s Vernon God Little showing that the dark horse can occasionally streak clear. The Sellout isn’t a favourite, but it has the dark edge that’s been a trademark of past winners.