On 17 October, Shehan Karunatilaka was crowned winner of this year’s Booker Prize for his novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. Set in Sri Lanka in the 1990s, it takes inspiration from A Christmas Carol, as the titular character Maali wanders through the afterlife, trying to work out how he died. Once a war photographer, he finds it disorientating to meet the dying people he used to capture images of, now completely unsure of the meaning of life. Written in the second person, it truly embraces an out-of-body experience, right down to the skeleton of its sentence structure.
This year, I read all of the Booker Prize shortlisted books, and the majority of the longlist. Reading from any book prize is going to be a mixed bag, given you’re reading the favourite books of several different people. But if you are looking to dive into some of the titles, here are my thoughts on the other shortlisted books, and my favourites from the overall longlist.
My top two from this year’s shortlist were The Trees by Percival Everett and Oh, William! by Elizabeth Strout. To sum up The Trees, imagine Jordan Peele writing a spin-off of Fargo. Irish novelist Rónán Hession describes Everett as “either the funniest serious writer I’ve ever read, or the most serious funny writer,” which is about right. A pair of detectives are investigating the murders of several white men in Mississippi – men who are descended from those who murdered Emmett Till. At their murder scenes there’s also a stranger, a dead Black man who seems to appear and then disappear, haunting these racist households. The narrative moves swiftly, and even though it unravels a little towards the end, I loved so much about it.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan is a book that’s perfect for the winter, so if you haven’t picked it up yet, the coming months would be a good time to do so. Set over Christmas 1985 in a small Irish town, we follow Bill Furlong, who is delivering coal to his neighbours. Keegan’s prose is always precise; every word earns its place. It has an unsettling hum throughout, the reader knowing more than the characters, with the dedication referencing the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. Ultimately, it wasn’t a novel that stuck with me, but I appreciated it very much as I read it.
There were two books on the shortlist that weren’t to my particular taste. Treacle Walker by Alan Garner is going to be a winner for his fans, and I’m thrilled for them, but I felt the novel relied very heavily on knowledge of his previous fictional universes, and as a standalone it was just a bit too murky. Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo is inspired by the fall of Robert Mugabe and personifies a host of animals for political commentary in the vein of Animal Farm. However, unlike Animal Farm, Glory seemed to miss a trick in that the characters felt very separate from their animal bodies; it was a device that could have been removed without impacting the story, and that was a shame.
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout was a book I approached with some wariness. It’s the third book in a series, and it’s always a little strange when a sequel or part of a series is shortlisted for a prize, given any nomination needs to stand on its own two feet. I didn’t read the first two books before reading Oh, William! so that I could appreciate the book in isolation, and I was so happy to discover that it is indeed its own little world. I’m not denying that if you’re familiar with the series you’re perhaps more likely to have an emotional attachment, but because the main character Lucy Barton is a novelist, and claims to have written the previous two books in the series herself, it feels as though those earlier titles exist solely within her fictional world. They end up feeling like stories I couldn’t have read, even if I’d wanted to. The meta nature of the text covers any cracks, and I was able to relax into the narrative. It’s a warm, funny book about family secrets — almost like watching a play, where the characters pause and Lucy Barton monologues under a spotlight. I enjoyed it very much.
However, my favourite two titles from this year’s Booker Prize did not make the shortlist, so I’d like to highlight them briefly here, too. Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley is an astonishing debut that made me cry (and not a delicate cry — a cry that hurt my ribcage). It’s about desperation, found family and police corruption. Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer could have the subheading ‘prequel to Grief is the Thing with Feathers’, which is something I say with love. It follows one family as cancer invades a mother’s body, with cancer narrating Crow-like throughout. If Virginia Woolf were writing today, I believe this is what she would be producing. It is wonderful.
If you would like to share your thoughts on books from this year’s Booker Prize shortlist in a comment below, we’d love to hear them.
Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and disability advocate. She has written ten books for children and adults, the latest of which is The Sister Who Ate Her Brothers. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.