The short list has been announced and it is the usual mixture of old hands and debut writers. I find it harder this year to pick the winner.
Howard Jacobson is a writer of consummate skill and his most recent novel with its shortest of all possible title J [London: Jonathan Cape, 2014] was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He won that prize in 2010 with the extremely witty and wonderfully funny The Finkler Question. Jacobson is very much a Jewish writer with Jewish characters, often it seems doppelgänger for the author, and Jewish themes and problems as the main strands of their narratives. However, he writes from a cultural rather than a religious perspective. So; what to make of J which one could say conforms to this pattern? That is a harder than usual question.
This Man Booker Prize short-listed novel, Hot Milk by Deborah Levy [London: Hamish Hamilton, 2016] explores the ways in which its narrator, mid-twenties Sofia Irina, resolves, and also fails to resolve, several of her hang-ups. Her Greek father deserted her English mother for a Greek girl little older than Sofia and she has not seen her father for over a decade. Her abandoned mother has developed inexplicable symptoms and is unable to walk. She and Sofia have come to a swanky but possibly dubious clinic in Almería, on the southern coast of Spain. Sofia, a doctoral student in anthropology, finds her life narrowed into being solely her mother’s carer but is herself too dependent on her mother whose symptoms seem increasingly psychosomatic.
Paul Beatty’s hilariously funny, satirical novel The Sellout [London: Oneworld, 2016] has just won this year’s Man Booker Prize. The point of good satire is that it not only pokes absurd fun at its subject but by illuminating it from a completely different angle makes us review and revise our own ideas. Imagine a present-day black farmer in a district of Los Angeles who, unintended, becomes a slave owner but whose slave does little or no work. The farmer then sees the merits of reintroducing racial segregation. He creates a hoarding advertising a non-existent high quality private school on land opposite the low-achieving essentially non-white public school with the effect that that school rises to the looming challenge and becomes so good that white kids try to gain admission and are turned away! Paul Beatty has written a work of contemporary fiction that reveals greater truths and which stands comparison with Tristram Shandy and Animal Farm.