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A Bluffer’s Guide to the 2018 Man Booker Prize: How to shine at a dinner party without reading the... er... books

PUBLISHED: 18:10 20 September 2018 | UPDATED: 10:35 21 September 2018

Judges Jacqueline Rose, Leanne Shapton, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Leo Robson and Val McDermid. Picture: MAN BOOKER PRIZE

Judges Jacqueline Rose, Leanne Shapton, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Leo Robson and Val McDermid. Picture: MAN BOOKER PRIZE

Archant

Six books on the shortlist. Here’s all the gen about who, what why, where, when and how

Now we can all talk confidently and knowledgeably about the six Man Booker Prize contenders.... Picture: MAN BOOKER PRIZENow we can all talk confidently and knowledgeably about the six Man Booker Prize contenders.... Picture: MAN BOOKER PRIZE

Book: Milkman

By: Anna Burns

What’s it about?

In an unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. “Middle sister”, the protagonist, is busy trying to stop her mother discovering her maybe-boyfriend and trying to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when “first brother-in-law” sniffs it out, and rumours start to grow, middle sister becomes “interesting”. The last thing she ever wanted to be.

To be interesting is to be noticed, and to be noticed is dangerous… Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.

Who’s Anna?

Born in Belfast, in 1962. Author of novels No Bones and Little Constructions, and novella Mostly Hero. She was shortlisted for the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction. Lives in East Sussex.

Exercise for the muscles and mind in the shortlisted six Man Booker Prize titles. Picture: MAN BOOKER PRIZEExercise for the muscles and mind in the shortlisted six Man Booker Prize titles. Picture: MAN BOOKER PRIZE

Chair of judges Kwame Anthony Appiah says

“The language of Anna Burns’ Milkman is simply marvellous: beginning with the distinctive and consistently-realised voice of the funny, resilient, astute, plain-spoken, first-person protagonist.

“The novel delineates brilliantly the power of gossip and social pressure in a tight-knit community, and shows how both rumour and political loyalties can be put in the service of a relentless campaign of individual sexual harassment.

“Burns draws on the experience of Northern Ireland during the Troubles to portray a world that allows individuals to abuse the power granted by a community to those who resist the state on their behalf.”

PLUS: Who does University of Suffolk lecturer Amanda Hodgkinson think will win?

Book: Washington Black

By: Esi Edugyan

Chair of judges Kwame Anthony Appiah. Picture: MAN BOOKER PRIZEChair of judges Kwame Anthony Appiah. Picture: MAN BOOKER PRIZE

What’s it about?

From the brutal cane plantations of Barbados to the icy wastes of the Canadian Arctic, from the mud-filled streets of London to the eerie deserts of Morocco, Washington Black is the tale (inspired by a true story) of a world destroyed and the search to make it whole again.

When two English brothers take the helm of a Barbados sugar plantation, Washington Black – an 11-year-old field slave – finds himself selected as personal servant to one of these men.

The eccentric Christopher “Titch” Wilde is a naturalist, explorer, scientist, inventor and abolitionist, whose single-minded pursuit of the perfect aerial machine mystifies all around him. Titch’s idealistic plans are soon shattered and Washington finds himself in mortal danger. They escape the island, but Titch disappears and Washington must make his way alone.

Who’s Esi?

Born in Calgary, Canada, in 1977. Novel Half Blood Blues won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was a finalist for Governor-General’s Literary Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Prize and the Orange Prize. Lives in British Columbia.

Judge Leo Robson says

“Borne to freedom on a hydrogen balloon, he (Washington) travels to Virginia, to Nova Scotia and the Arctic, to Amsterdam and London, while pursuing his newfound gift for draughtsmanship and interest in marine zoology.

“Broad in size and scope, Washington Black proceeds over almost fifty brisk-paced chapters. Edugyan’s achievement, in unfolding Wash’s story, is one full of contraries. It is a novel of ideas but also of the senses, a yarn and a lament, a chase story that doubles as an intellectual quest, a history lesson in the form of a fairy tale.”

Book: Everything Under

By: Daisy Johnson

What’s it about?

Words are important to Gretel. As a child, she lived on a canal boat with her mother, and together they invented a language that was just their own.

She hasn’t seen her mother since the age of sixteen, though – almost a lifetime ago – and those memories have faded. Now Gretel works as a lexicographer, updating dictionary entries, which suits her solitary nature.

A phone call from the hospital throws up questions from long ago. She begins to remember the private vocabulary of her childhood. She remembers other things, too: the wild years spent on the river; the strange, lonely boy who came to stay on the boat one winter; and the creature in the water – a canal thief? – swimming upstream, getting ever closer. In the end there will be nothing for Gretel to do but go back.

Who’s Daisy?

Born in Paignton, Devon, in 1990. Debut short story collection, Fen, published in 2016. She is the winner of Harper’s Bazaar Short Story Prize, the A.M. Heath Prize and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. Lives in Oxford.

Judge Val McDermid says

“The single word that sums up this beautifully-written debut novel is ‘fluidity’. It’s set in a world of waterways: nobody’s character remains fixed from start to finish; gender and memory are as fluid as the waters themselves; the flow of myth and folklore runs through it; and even words themselves slither away from attempts to pin down their meaning.

“Gretel, the young woman at the heart of the book, is a lexicographer. But the true definition she seeks is the restoration of her relationship with her mother, who abandoned her to foster care so she could make a fresh start with a new lover…”

Book: The Mars Room

By: Rachel Kushner

What’s it about?

Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences, plus six years, at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. Outside is the world from which she has been permanently severed: the San Francisco of her youth, changed almost beyond recognition. The Mars Room strip club where she once gave lap dances for a living. And her seven-year-old son, Jackson, now in the care of Romy’s estranged mother.

Inside is a new reality to adapt to: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive. The deadpan absurdities of institutional living, daily acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike, allegiances formed over liquor brewed in socks and stories shared through sewage pipes.

Romy sees the future stretch out ahead of her in a long, unwavering line – until news from outside brings a ferocious urgency to her existence, challenging her to escape her destiny.

The Mars Room presents not just a bold and unsentimental panorama of life on the margins of contemporary America but an excoriating attack on the prison-industrial complex.

Who’s Rachel?

Born in Oregon, in 1968. Debut novel Telex from Cuba was a finalist in the 2008 National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller. Follow-up novel The Flamethrowers was also a finalist for the National Book Award and received rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s and the Paris Review. Lives in Los Angeles.

Chair of judges Kwame Anthony Appiah says

“Against the background of the horrifying experiences of a women’s prison, the central character reflects on the life, as a neglected child and an adult sex worker, that has led her to the killing for which she has been sentenced for the rest of her life.

“In this seemingly hopeless world, some of the prisoners learn to manage, even accept, their circumstances, and the reader’s interest in their lives is driven by a propulsive plot that keeps you turning the pages despite your anger at the many injustices they contain.”

Book: The Overstory

By: Richard Powers

What’s it about?

Nine strangers, each in different ways, become summoned by trees, brought together in a last stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest.

The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fable, ranging from antebellum (before war) New York to the late 20th Century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, revealing a world alongside our own – vast, slow, resourceful, magnificently inventive and almost invisible to us.

This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world, and who are drawn into its unfolding catastrophe.

Who’s Richard?

Born in Illinois, in 1957. Author of 12 novels, including Orfeo (longlisted for Man Booker Prize in 2014), The Echo Maker, The Time of Our Singing, Galatea 2.2 and Plowing the Dark. Has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Lives in foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (They’re on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee.)

Judge Leanne Shapton says

“The Overstory, a novel about trees and people who understand them, is the eco-epic of the year and perhaps the decade.

“Unlike the Lorax, who spoke for the trees, Richard Powers prefers to let them do their own talking…

“Nine powerfully-written, interlinked stories play out in the understory. Along the way there are stirring, lyrical paragraphs on love, photography, the culture of ancient China, game code, science and, maybe most impressively, faith, rendered without sanctimony or reprimand.”

Book: The Long Take

By: Robin Robertson

What’s it about?

Walker is a D-Day veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. He can’t return home to rural Nova Scotia and looks instead to the city for freedom, anonymity and repair.

As he moves from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco we witness a crucial period of fracture in American history, one that also allowed film noir to flourish. The Dream had gone sour but – as those dark, classic movies made clear – the country needed outsiders to study and dramatise its new anxieties.

While Walker tries to piece his life together, America is beginning to come apart: deeply paranoid, doubting its own certainties, riven by social and racial division, spiralling corruption and the collapse of the inner cities.

The Long Take is about a good man, brutalised by war, haunted by violence and apparently doomed to return to it – yet resolved to find kindness again, in the world and in himself.

Who’s Robin?

Born in Perthshire, Scotland, in 1955. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he has published five collections of poetry and received a number of honours, including the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Lives in London.

Judge Jacqueline Rose says

“The Long Take offers a wholly unique literary voice and form. A verse novel with photographs, it manages to evoke with exceptional vividness aspects of post-World War Two history that are rarely parsed together…

“This is a genre-defying novel. Cutting from battlefield to building demolitions in San Francisco and LA, to the killing of black men on the streets of America today, it imports into the very form of the writing one of the most famous film techniques: cross-cutting. You could be in the cinema, or listening to an elegy…”

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