A Cheat Sheet to the 2019 Booker Prize Longlist Nominations
One of the most coveted literary prizes in the game, the Booker Prize for Fiction comes with a hefty purse of £50,000. Even better, it’s known to boost book sales so dramatically that author Deborah Moggagh, for one, has complained that it “capsizes the literary world” every year. The soaring parabola every winner sees on their sales figures is known as the Booker bump.
The 2019 Booker Prize longlist — or "Booker dozen" — includes a group of wildly original and gorgeously executed novels. The committee has already winnowed the original thirteen candidates down to six, but making the longlist is still a huge achievement, and all thirteen titles deserve a careful look (and read!). So let's go through them all, while I wait with bated breath to see who ends up with the crown.
1. '10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World' by Elif Shafak
Turkish novelist Elif Shafak made headlines this May, thanks to a criminal suit filed by the Turkish government. She came under fire for depicting sexual violence in her novels, prompting free speech advocates from around the world to rally around her. Shafak’s Booker-nominated novel came out not long after news of the complaint first broke — an astonishing bit of situational irony, since 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World centers around the experiences of a woman who endures repeated sexual trauma.
The entire novel takes place in the titular 10 minutes and 38 seconds immediately before the death of the narrator, a sex worker known as Tequila Leila. As her organs begin to shut down, Leila looks back over her life: a chaotic shimmer of memories, equal parts trauma and resilience. Her subtly layered, moving stream of consciousness reflection makes us love her — even as we know our time with her is drawing to an end.
2. 'Ducks, Newburyport' by Lucy Ellman
Millennial wunderkind Eleanor Catton made waves in 2013, when she became the youngest-ever Booker Prize winner at 28. Her wildly inventive historical fiction novel, The Luminaries, broke records of its own: at 832 pages, it was the longest-ever winning title. Catton remains unprecedentedly precocious among Booker winners, but her book stands to yield its record to Lucy Ellman’s 998-page blockbuster. And if Ducks, Newburyport ends up taking the crown, it’ll be remarkable for more than just its prodigious length: the whole novel is split up into only 8 sentences, one dwarfing the other seven.
A nearly thousand-page tome, most of it written in a single, endlessly unspooling sentence? It doesn’t exactly sound like an easy read (or a particularly easy one for proofreaders and editorial assistants). But Ellman’s dense, dizzyingly associative prose makes the challenge of digesting it more than worthwhile: think of her work as the 21st century’s answer to Ulysses. The plot, as such, centers on a middle-aged mother of four as she tries to make it through her round of daily chores in small-town Ohio.
3. 'Frankisstein' by Jeannette Winterson
Acclaimed lesbian author Jeanette Winterson published her first book in 1985. So while she herself might be clearing the 60-year-mark, her writing career is solidly a millennial. Maybe that’s why her whip-smart, hilarious reworking of Frankenstein is so unabashedly zeitgeisty — incorporating themes that feel very 2019 into Mary Shelley’s sci-fi classic.
Gender fluidity and AI are both cornerstones of Frankisstein. The novel includes historical passages, narrated by none other than Mary Shelley, and futuristic sections, which are narrated by Ry Shelley, a trans cryogenicist whose parents named him Mary at birth. Ry meets and falls in love with Victor Stein, a genius AI specialist with some... morally questionable projects in his pipeline. What follows feels both old-school gothic and utterly new.
4. 'Girl, Woman, Other' by Bernardine Evaristo
Author Bernardine Evaristo is a legend of the London literary scene: a card-carrying — or rather, medal-wearing — member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Her extensive oeuvre is known for exploring the experiences of Britain’s African diasporic community, often in gorgeous prose that stretches the form to its limits, shading into poetry. This year’s Girl, Woman, Other is no exception. It lets us peer into the interlocking lives of twelve black British characters, all of them women or nonbinary.
Evaristo’s characters come from all walks of life: they’re bankers and teachers, digital natives and Barbadian immigrants, nonagenarian matriarchs and teenage mothers. Their lives touch at greater or lesser points of contact, as they fall in love with one another, or merely attend the same shows. Remarkably, every single character feels real, each animated with remarkable interiority and a unique voice.
5. 'Lanny' by Max Porter
English bookseller-turned-bestseller Max Porter is best known for Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, his powerful, tightly written novel of loss that plays off Emily Dickinson’s most famous poem. In this year’s longlist entry, Porter returns to his wheelhouse: nuanced explorations of complicated relationships, illuminated with touches of magical realism.
Lanny’s titular character is a precocious, playful boy just settling into life in a tiny village, where his no-nonsense financier of a father has recently moved his family. Among their more “otherworldly" neighbors is a mysterious spirit who calls himself Dead Papa Toothwort and watches over the village less like a guardian angel than a spy, voyeuristically soaking up bits of conversation. Toothwort is charmed by Lanny, who wanders around singing to himself. But their village is no utopia: it’s full of judgmental gazes and razor-sharp tongues.
6. 'Lost Children Archive' by Valeria Luiselli
Mexican-American author Valeria Luiselli has written it all: ballet libretti, a PhD thesis at Columbia, and a memoir chronicling her work as a volunteer interpreter for undocumented immigrants. Lost Children Archive revisits the understandably harrowing experiences that informed her memoir — some of Luiselli’s clients were no older than 6. But this time, she addresses their stories in the form of fiction.
This unconventionally structured novel turns a road-trip into a multi-stranded narrative experience. A family of four embark on a journey from the East Coast to the West — listening, en route, to radio newscasters dissecting an “immigration crisis” at the border. As the miles tick upward and the landscape shades from city to desert, fault lines in the parents’ relationship seem to widen even as they listen to the nation coming apart in real time.
7. 'The Man Who Saw Everything' by Deborah Levy
This is Deborah Levy’s third go-around on the Booker longlist. Her two most recent nominations have both been slim, intelligent novels that delve into recent history with a keen psychoanalytic eye. This year’s pick, The Man Who Saw Everything, takes a look at East Berlin just before the Wall goes down, looking through the eyes of a deeply flawed, young historian.
Saul Adler has been allowed behind the wall, something he desperately needs to complete his research. Naturally, this Eastern Bloc hospitality comes at a price: he’s expected to turn out an article in favor of what he sees in East Berlin. Levy’s dreamy, meandering storyline perfectly captures the eerie texture of those late-Cold War years. Saul’s story, for instance, is book-ended by two separate car accidents on London’s Abbey Road, and his pillow talk with lovers from both sides of the conflict turn on discussions of politics and visual theory.
8. 'My Sister, the Serial Killer' by Oyinkan Braithwaite
A millennial writer from Nigeria, Oyinkan Braithwaite stunned the literary world with her wickedly funny, genre-bending debut. Of all the novels not to make the shortlist, this one is my personal favorite. My Sister, the Serial Killer isn’t the sort of book you generally see catching the Booker Prize committee’s eye — it was, after all, excerpted by BuzzFeed. But make no mistake: despite its un-Booker-ish, Insta-friendly vibes, this a literary achievement pulled off with dazzling finesse.
My Sister, the Serial Killer delivers all the pitch-black humor its title promises. Sensible Korede and her pampered younger sister — the beautiful, charismatic Ayoola — are as close as they are different. But even sisterhood has its limits: Ayoola’s third boyfriend in a row has turned up dead, and now she’s set her sights on her ever-supportive sister’s long-time crush. Can Korede still be Ayoola’s ride-or-die now that she’s a bona fide serial killer?
9. 'Night Boat to Tangier' by Kevin Barry
Irish author Kevin Barry is the pride of Limerick City. His novelistic debut scored him an International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award — one of the world’s most lucrative literary prizes at €100,000. His third novel might not have made the Booker shortlist this year, but it’s a testament to his lyrical wit and flair for characterization.
Night Boat to Tangier is a crime novel unlike any other. Its protagonists might be hardened drug smugglers, but at 50, they’re well past their prime: their ill-gotten money is all but gone and their families are in shambles. Together, Charlie Redmond and Maurice Hearne search for Charlie’s missing daughter, Dilly, a 23-year-old hippie theoretically making her way around the Mediterranean with a group of kindred spirits. Clutching a sheaf of missing person fliers, Charlie and Maurice are nevertheless far from sentimental, remorseful father-figures. These are men with haunted pasts that push them deep into anti-hero territory.
10. 'An Orchestra of Minorities' by Chigozie Obioma
This moving, psychologically incisive reworking of The Odyssey — sans sea monsters — is Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma’s sophomore novel. It picks up a lot of the hallmarks that made his debut, The Fishermen, such a resounding success: grand, classical themes distilled down to minute emotional detail, great opening lines, and western literary classics reimagined in light of Igbo myth.
An Orchestra of Minorities looks, on the surface, like a story of star-crossed love. But it uses this framework to delve into issues of class — and race. Chicken farmer Chinonso Solomon Olisa meets pharmacy student Ndali Obialor when he stops her from jumping off a bridge, sacrificing two of his chickens in the process. They fall for each other, but Ndali’s parents won’t accept a chicken farmer as their son-in-law. Determined to wed his beloved, Chinonso heads to Cyprus for an education to make him worthy in her family’s eyes. In his journey to Europe and back again, he encounters a perilous, emotionally draining odyssey.
11. 'Quichotte' by Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie already has a Booker under his belt, thanks to 1981’s Midnight’s Children. This year’s horse in the race couldn’t be more different. In contrast to last time’s somber send-up of British colonialism, Quichotte is an outrageously funny satire of contemporary America, filtered through a reality-TV-heavy rewrite of Don Quixote.
Struggling thriller writer Sam DuChamp, an Indian immigrant, feels like he’s in a literary rut. So he comes up with a character unlike any of the 007-types he’s invented before: a traveling salesman and reality TV mega-fan named Ismail Smile. Smile, obsessed with a former Bollywood icon, starts writing her fan-mail as “Quichotte,” and goes on a road trip to to seek her out (dragging his imaginary son Sancho along for the ride). As DuChamp writes out his story, his own life, and that of his character, start to intersect.
12. 'The Testaments' by Margaret Atwood
Dystopian fiction fans have been salivating over this one for decades — since before the book deal was officially inked. This long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale picks up 15 years after the feminist classic’s final scene. So for TV fans, there’s still quite a gap between the beginning of The Testaments and the cliffhanger we got when the Hulu adaptation’s third season ended.
For those who haven’t been keeping count, Atwood made us sweat it out for 34 years between books. Of course, the Booker Prize committee got to wait a little less — though getting their hands on the manuscript meant NDAs all around. But for those of us without Booker access, delving into The Testaments had to wait till September, when we finally got a front-row view of the beginning of the end for Gilead — narrated by Offred’s daughters and Aunt Lydia.
13. 'The Wall' by John Lanchester
Like Atwood’s Booker contender, John Lanchester’s novel is a dystopian tale with a hell of a news peg. In The Wall, the aftermath of a climate event — ominously tagged the Change — sees the closing of all borders. Britain, in particular, has been sealed by a Wall, and all young Brits are forced to spend two years guarding it against “Others” who might appear from beyond the sea, like so many post-Brexit Jon Snows.
The Wall’s narrator, a young man named Kavanagh, tries to make life as a Defender as fun as he can. His bracingly funny narration makes the bleak story easier to handle, even as the inevitable dread chills your bones. Lanchester, a veteran journalist used to covering tech anxiety and financial collapse, excels at evoking the atmosphere of an all-too-plausible dystopia to come.
What do you think? How many of the nominees have you read? Who are you rooting for?
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