What makes a good book? That’s the impossible question put to the judging panel of the Man Booker Prize, a prestigious event that whittles down the year’s most impressive UK-published novels to a single, must-read winner.
The shortlisted authors receive £2,500, alongside a specially-bound edition of their book – though even this seems like small potatoes next to the winner’s £50,000 prize and the international fanfare that follows. (Last year’s winner, Paul Beatty, has since sold 360,000 copies worldwide).
But, what’s more important is the purpose of these novels: astonishing works that cross borders, generations, and lives, hoping to expand our minds and enrich our understanding of the world. One will be crowned victorious on October 17; until then, here are the literary gladiators laying their claim to greatness.
4 3 2 1, Paul Auster
The longest novel on offer, 4 3 2 1 is a staggering 866 pages that took the American author over three years, working six and a half days a week, to complete. (We assume it’s quicker to read). It follows four branching versions of one man’s life through the turbulent political upheaval of mid-20th century America. You’d be hard pressed to find a novel that delves deeper into the human psyche or the way it interacts with the world.
History of Wolves, Emily Fridlund
One of three debut novels on the shortlist, taking a quiet look at the oft-neglected terrain of America’s Midwest, the power plays of an isolated family, and the intense personal struggles of a teenager struggling to belong. No doubt one for quiet reflection.
Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
A prolific journalist and New York Times writer, Hamid last appeared on the shortlist back in 2007 with the international bestseller The Reluctant Fundamentalist. This time it’s a subtle, emotional take on the refugee crisis, straining to present a human story at the center of today’s catastrophic geopolitical conflicts.
Elmet, Fiona Mozley
A lyrical tale of one family clinging to their small fragment of rural England, told with a devastating innocence from the eyes of a young child. Another debut work – from a PhD student and medieval historian, no less – with the power and confidence of a author far beyond her years.
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders
Lincoln in the Bardo is what happens when a highly-accomplished short-story writer takes on one of America’s most momentous historical figures. It charts a single night as Abraham Lincoln grieves over the passing of his 11-year-old son in a graveyard full of lingering spirits. With odds of 2/1 it’s the bookies’ favourite to win, but who can tell in matters of art?
Autumn, Ali Smith
Smith proved herself a deft wordsmith with 2014’s How to be Both (also shortlisted), and here applies her fluid prose to Britain’s generational divides, infused with a nostalgia for lost times and the melancholy of Keats. As the first part in a planned quartet of novels (no clues for guessing the titles), now may be the time to jump on the wagon.