Lead book review

Another haphazard Booker shortlist lacks literary competence

Philip Hensher finds this year’s Booker shortlist more concerned with serious world issues than vivid characterisation

16 October 2021

9:00 AM

16 October 2021

9:00 AM

The Booker used to be more enthusiastic about the historical novel than it now is. Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle (Doubleday, £16.99) is about an imagined woman pilot who makes her way in the first years of aviation and is thought to have died in a daring feat of navigation from Pole to Pole in 1950. It’s an enjoy-able example of a genre that was popular in the 1990s: the historical novel interspersed with a present-day story — this one about a film star who has made a PR mess, loses her role in a series of teen movies and tries for redemption through a film about the aviator.

The best of those novels tended to show events of the past reaching out and shaping present lives. Great Circleis crisply written, with a gift for the striking phrase and an ability to depict characters memorably. Shipstead’s take on the form, how-ever, does tend to reverse things and stress how current concerns such as LGBT, global warming and vegetarianism were also prominent in the past. As a result, it lacks the momentum of discovery of consequences, and the present-day strand, which begins promisingly, runs out of steam. Still, it’s a professional piece of work.

Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This (Bloomsbury Circus, £14.99) concerns the interaction of virtual engagement and real life. In the first half, a person much like Lockwood, famous for a single utterance on Twitter, makes various short, irreverent observations in the style of Twitter while on a publicity tour. In the second half, her sister has a baby, who dies — something which the characters’ usual affectless ironic mode of behaviour proves inadequate for. I quite liked some of it, but it only works if you’re convinced that all this happened in real life without adornment, which is not much of a claim for aesthetic worth.

Like other novelists here, Lockwood has no interest in characterisation: the narrator’s husband and sister aren’t evoked in any way. I read the novel six months ago, and after rereading it recently realised I’d forgotten every single thing about it. On the plus side, it is the only one on the shortlist not frightened of comedy. I suspect this was allowed to pass because it is a conscious discussion of comedy — as well as a book that apparently renounces the will to laughter.

Richard Powers has been Booker shortlisted before, for The Overstory, which I found almost unreadable. Its success may have been due to people who wanted to advertise on Tinder how much they cared. Bewilderment (Hutchinson, £20) is shorter at least, but not much better.

After a woman is killed in a car accident, her husband looks after their young son who has ADHD and is deeply worried about the planet. The father explains it to him. A neuro-scientist carries out an experiment on the child and enables him to access the mind of his dead mother. Celebrity follows, and confrontation with the usual villains — politicians, police, Big Academy. In the meantime, the father invents planets to soothe the boy. These differ from the old-school planets of science fiction by being very boring (‘Intelligent bear-people built villages’.)

Powers has no gift for dialogue, nor any real interest in observation, limiting his characters’ gestures to shrugging, frowning or nodding. I thought I was capable of reading anything — novels by Edwina Currie, Soviet stories about romance in concrete factories, tales narrated by coins or shopping trolleys — but this total stinker came close to defeating me with its air of grindingly uninventive sanctimoniousness.

The Sri Lankan novel in English has produced some fine writers in recent decades and Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North (Granta, £14.99) is a book of striking, fluid elegance. A Colombo family’s servant is found dead in a well, and the central figure, Krishan, travels north into contested territory to pay his respects.

The style is leisurely and reflective, taking in memory and absorbed speculation about Krishan’s emotional life, his love, Anjum, and the Sri Lankan struggle. It has a texture more reminiscent of Spanish novelists such as Javier Marías than English-language ones, and a beautiful flow of surface. The approach to the conflict might have focused more on how it shaped individual lives than on explaining the issues from the sort of loftily authoritative viewpoint of NGOs or eager followers of current affairs. But Arudpragasam’s technique (apart from feeble character-drawing) is the strongest and most considered on the shortlist, and one day he will write a very good novel indeed.

Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men (Viking, £14.99) is about a real crime and a heart-rending miscarriage of justice: the conviction in 1952 of a Somali former merchant seaman, Mahmood Mattan, for a murder, in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay, he certainly did not commit. The case against him rested on a single witness statement; he was described by his own barrister as a ‘semi-civilised savage’, and was hanged after being refused leave to appeal. The conviction was finally quashed in 1998.

The novel is a sturdy piece of work, but fails to come to life. One problem is Mohamed’s difficulty with generating incident and leading the reader onwards: there are too many scenes in which characters just talk to each other about what has happened. The story’s rights and wrongs are so clear-cut that somehow there is no entering into it — it would be like arguing with a bust of Tacitus. And the author has been badly let down by her editors, who should have helped her with period accuracy. Nobody in Cardiff at the time would have talked of ‘shrapnel’ for small change; been so careless about cooking vast dinners when rationing was still in force; said ‘Go for it’ as an imprecation; taken Paracetamol in a routine way, or estimated a space in millimetres (unless a scientist). And I doubt whether a Welsh prison officer would have addressed an inmate as ‘Buddy’. All these are damaging to the plausible surface of things on which the denunciation of injustice must surely rest.

Injustice arising from racial prejudice is also the subject of The Promise(Chatto, £16.99). Damon Galgut is a keen follower of E.M. Forster, and this is a knowing variation on a plot junction in Howards End. A South African woman, returning to Judaism on her deathbed, tries to leave her farm to her black servant, Salome. It is the 1980s, and her husband and three children are restricted, with varying degrees of acceptance, by the property laws of the time. Years pass, and with further deaths reasons are found not to honour the original wish. It’s an affecting novel in many ways, dealing with the long march of history as it impacts on individual lives. It’s also the only one on the shortlist to produce effective characterisation and depict the same person at different ages, plausibly growing older and changing.

Galgut has gone for an experimental approach, in which we enter the minds of different characters within each scene. But when he ventures into his minor characters’ inner lives he sometimes fails to convince: racist Afrikaaners, a priest or a murderer merely express their superficial functions. I wondered about the apparent decision not to explore the thoughts of the black characters, apart (I think) from two — the killer and a farm worker; and Salome doesn’t have a strong physical presence either. The pivot of the novel remains not mysterious, but obscure and uncompelling. Perhaps Galgut decided, respectfully, it was beyond what a white author is now permitted to do, but it weakens the whole. However, it’s the novel with the strongest ambition to surprise and please its readers.

Overall, I would say that the novels the Booker judges consider worthy of our admiration share a few qualities: serious, real-world issues are preferred, particularly if they involve injustice to women and racial minorities; humour is entirely dispensable, and the art of drawing a vivid character seems quite optional. There is a lack of investment in forward momentum — many episodes across these novels end without any incident having intruded or consequence arising. A series of unpredictable events is what often drives a well-written novel forward, rather than a complicated plot, and lack of momentum makes for quite heavy going.

There are plenty of writers who have good technical command. This year, Colson Whitehead and Kazuo Ishiguro have written novels much more professionally competent than most of these shortlisted books; and without that competence a novel can’t really carry out its author’s intentions. Readers will not be moved by the death of a character if they haven’t felt that character’s substance through technique. Judges of literary prizes should recognise and reward that ability. But by apparently using other criteria than literary ones they’ve once again produced a very haphazard shortlist.

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