By the ORB team
In anticipation of the 2019 Booker Prize announcement this evening, our ORB writers survey a selection of favourites from the lists. The shortlisted authors’ readings at the Southbank Centre last night offered astonishing insights from several of our greatest novelists. At the event, it was Margaret Atwood who best summarised the ambition of the shortlisted books and the demands that they make of their readers: ‘if it isn’t daunting, why would you try it?’
Anna Covell on The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale is overwhelmingly bleak: Atwood’s picture of Gilead implies that the systematic abuse recounted by her first-person narrator is unindividual, Offred herself unexceptional, and her acts of rebellion insignificant. The women of Trump’s America – the new context for The Testaments – in whose name thousands of activists have donned the red cape of the Handmaid, do not fit this description. We need only think of congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, recent paradigms of the new American woman who is individually powerful, independently exceptional. It is this that justifies the glimpses of hope and light scattered throughout The Testaments, which does not simply offer the miserable origin story of Gilead, but also an ode to the power of the modern woman.
The great slip-up in this novel comes with its attempt to force such a woman into a mould cast almost four decades ago. Atwood’s dystopia was first built via the imagination of those that read about it; The Testaments sees it crumble under the weight of a strict chronology and a constant need to explain. Ultimately, we are left caring less about the Gilead that we see on our second visit as we are denied the opportunity to discover it for ourselves. We know more about the three protagonists of this novel than we did about Offred, but we feel less for them. This story that spins on an axis of empowerment strips its readers of their power to question ‘how?’
Protesters will continue to don the red cape and wings of Atwood’s original novel even as memory of its first publication becomes ancient history. The same is unlikely to be true of the grey robe or spring-green dress worn by the women that guide us through Gilead in Atwood’s sequel.
Rebekah Cohen on Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport is a book not simply to be read – it is a book that you must allow
to envelope you in a cocoon (or a quilt, as Ellmann said at the readings). As you read it, the fact that you will find its characteristic phrase ‘the fact that’, together with a new interest in baking pies and cinnamon rolls, rattling around inside your brain, along with the all-important question of what a mountain lion really thinks about human beings, or – perhaps an even more pressing point – what humans think about human beings, makes this thousand-page novel of eight sentences a uniquely strange and all-encompassing experience. This latter question flows, with a sense of urgency, through the incessant ramblings of the narrator – a busy housewife trying to raise her family and supply the citizens of Tuscarawas County, Ohio with home-baked pies.
The novel offers a witty, deeply unsettling portrait of contemporary America: climate change, gun control and the Trump presidency loom large behind everyday experiences of cooking, cleaning and feeding the chickens. Despite its daunting size, the book’s pacing remains wonderfully fresh as we follow the up- and downward spirals of her thought through the same recurring worries. Ellmann captures in spectacular detail the inconsistencies and variations of the human mind, how we live in the past and the present simultaneously. The Ducks, Newburyport cocoon is not a comforting space, but it is an invigorating one. Ellmann’s book helps one’s own wandering thoughts feel a little less lonely.
ORB favourite: An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma
Obioma’s second Booker-shortlisted novel, an Odyssean tale of love, tragic scams and chickens, set in modern Nigeria but steeped in history and folklore, could see him take the prize. The novel’s unusual narrator – a ‘chi’, the guardian spirit who ensouls every individual in Igbo mythology – allows him to combine the first, second and third person into one compelling voice that makes this novel resonate both on a deeply personal and an ambitiously conceptual level.
Cora MacGregor on Quichotte by Salman Rushdie
It is not the idealism of Rushdie’s doubly fictional Don Quixotte counterpart that sustains the touching quality of this novel. Quichotte, né Smiles (a probable bastardisation of Ismail), assumed the pseudonym, not in honour of Cervantes’ anti-hero, but as an homage to his father’s favourite opera, Don Quichotte by Jules Massenet. This opera, only ‘loosely based on the great masterpiece’, evidently failed to communicate the satirical quality of the original. The pathetic nobility of this protagonist proves infuriatingly one-dimensional, quickly draining one’s sympathetic reserves. He emerges finally as an illustration of the farcical lunacy that characterised the all too recognisable ‘Age of Anything-Can-Happen’.
It is instead the fallibility and flaws of the characters who create and are created by the idealistic protagonist that saves this novel from being engulfed by the cynicism that looms threateningly at all times behind Quichotte’s idealism. From the wish-upon-a-start son whose adolescent petulance produces a remarkably poignant portrait of first-generation angst and the brutal reality of American racism, to the object of Quichotte’s affections, TV icon Salma R and the author of Quichotte’s story, these figures form a shrewd study in artistic vanity, self-loathing and tortured relationships with family and homeland. The careful tempering of the absurdist narrative with this compelling characterisation acts as a lifeline amid the hopeless fantasy of this many-layered structure of a book.
Alex Beukers on Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry
Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier, his third book after City of Bohane and the Goldsmith Prize-winning Beatlebone, beguiles us with a picture of a suspended voyage. Two jaded drug smugglers, Charlie Redmond and Maurice Hearne, sit and wait for a ferry from Spain to Monaco which they believe carries Maurice’s long-lost daughter, Dilly. Yet the story brims with energy. Alternating between the present day and a series of carefully controlled flashbacks, Barry gives tragic and complex histories to his two protagonists, transcending the noir formula that inspired him.
Ireland is evidently central to the novel; Barry’s fantastical images of Irish lore to the craic between the self-deprecating Charlie and Maurice recall Beckett in particular. It is with such dialogue that Barry most delights the reader. In (more than) slightly off-colour banter, his characters deal with philosophical problems of language, love and loss. His reigning concern, however, is with marginality. As timelines elide and genres blur, other margins too are fragile and slippery: sex and death, love and hatred, noise and silence are increasingly only a whisper apart. Still, he explores these themes with a twinkle in his eye, and with episodes of sudden, lyrical prose that together more than justify his position on the longlist. With real humour alongside moments of tender, and sometimes painful, insight, Barry’s journey is unexpected, and not to be missed.
Franklin Nelson on Frankisstein by Jeanette Winterson
Winterson fans will find in this novel hallmarks of her style – her pithy, philosophical questions (‘What is identity but what we name it?’, ‘what is the body when it is no use at all?’), her humour, and her impressive knowledge of literary forebears – together with concerns at once age-old and urgently contemporary: robotics and how such technology will change the way we live, research into extending life or bringing medically dead bodies back to life, and the place of women in this daunting new world.
It is clear that the author has done extensive research, sharing scientific interests with shortlisted author Elif Shafak (10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, an account of the period for which the mind remains active after the death of the body). Who knew, for instance, that ‘[i]t is possible that our brain knows we are dead before it dies’, because it takes longer than the rest of the body to be deprived of oxygen? The reader might be unsettled by Winterson’s direct approach to death, but the information is oddly compelling, and the novel refreshingly unflinching on the subject of society’s last taboo.
ANNA COVELL, REBEKAH COHEN, ALEX BEUKERS, CORA MACGREGOR and FRANKLIN NELSON are members of the ORB team.
Art by Abigail Hodges