Man Booker prize shortlist 2018: how do the final six stand up?

The thrilling diversity of the longlist is gone, and picking a winner remains a fool’s game, but this year’s last half-dozen are all worthy contenders

It’s hard not to feel that the cull from Man Booker longlist to shortlist was a calculated effort by the judges to strip this latest round of “posh bingo”, as Julian Barnes famously dubbed the prize, of its excitement. The longlist not only contained a number of extraordinary novels, it also seemed constructed to celebrate younger writers – six of the 13 longlisted authors were 40 or under, with two in their 20s. The longlist asked us to reconsider both what we think of as literary writing – one sensed the presence of judge Val McDermid in the selection of Belinda Bauer’s crime thriller Snap, while Nick Drnaso’s graphic novel Sabrina was the first of its genre to be included.

In the ...

Melmoth by Sarah Perry review – a masterly achievement

Perry addresses the toll that atrocities take on those who bear witness in this extraordinary reworking of a 19th-century gothic novel

Melmoth, Sarah Perry’s third novel and the follow-up to the wildly successful The Essex Serpent, draws both theme and structure from Charles Maturin’s 1820 gothic masterpiece Melmoth the Wanderer. The titular figure in the original book was a man, a kitsch mashup of Faust and the Wandering Jew, who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for 150 years more time on Earth. Perry is not the first to update the tale – Balzac wrote a novella called Melmoth Reconciled – but she has transformed Melmoth into a woman and charged the myth with Christian and folkloric resonances, presenting, like Maturin, a series of documents purporting to prove the existence of this ghastly, tormented figure.

The book’s central character is Helen Franklin, a woman in ...

Melissa Harrison: ‘Facism grows like a fungus’

The novelist on the political intrigue of 1930s Suffolk and how a Ladybird book rekindled her interest in the natural world

Melissa Harrison’s writing, whether in her novels, short stories or nonfiction, has always been driven by a profound sense of the importance of nature, of the turning of the seasons, of the way that an environment works upon the people who live within it. Her first novel, Clay (2013) told the story of three very different characters seeking solace in urban wildlife. Her second, At Hawthorn Time, which was shortlisted for the Costa novel award, again moved between a disparate group of characters, this time in a contemporary countryside that represents something different to each of the complex, conflicted people who live within it. Her most recent novel, All Among the Barley, continues the deep engagement with the natural world. This time, though, it’s the story of ...

Mohsin Hamid: ‘It’s important not to live one’s life gazing towards the future’

The Pakistani novelist, who has lived in the UK and US, has been well placed to write such prescient books as Exit West and The Reluctant Fundamentalist. But what he wants his next novel to do, he says, may be beyond him

ohsin Hamid appears to have a preternatural ability to summon up the spirits of his time. He finished writing his latest novel, Exit West, which was published early last year and shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, well before Trump and Brexit brought questions of borders and national identity to the forefront of the global narrative. The novel was in part a response to the migrant crisis that was unfolding in various corners of the world as Hamid was writing, but it also predicted with almost uncanny prescience the rise of nativist paranoia and racial intolerance, which have become such features of life in 2018.

The novelist Kamila ...

Alan Garner: ‘I just let the voice settle and listened’

The acclaimed children’s author on writing a memoir about his wartime upbringing in rural Cheshire

Alan Garner’s glittering career started nearly six decades ago with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, one of the great children’s books of the second half of the 20th century. Since then, he has written further fantasy novels including Elidor and the Carnegie-winning The Owl Service. His books for adults, including The Stone Book Quartet, Strandloper and Thursbitch, all centre on the Cheshire countryside in which his family has lived for more than 400 years. His latest book is Where Shall We Run To?, a moving evocation of his wartime childhood.

We visited Garner lives at the Blackden Trust in Alderley, which comprises Toad Hall, a barely modernised medieval timber-framed home, and the Old Medicine House, a 16th-century apothecary’s shop that he and his wife Griselda rescued from demolition in 1970 and transported 17 miles ...

Alan Garner: ‘I just let the voice settle and listened’

The acclaimed children’s author on writing a memoir about his wartime upbringing in rural Cheshire

Alan Garner’s glittering career started nearly six decades ago with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, one of the great children’s books of the second half of the 20th century. Since then, he has written further fantasy novels including Elidor and the Carnegie-winning The Owl Service. His books for adults, including The Stone Book Quartet, Strandloper and Thursbitch, all centre on the Cheshire countryside in which his family has lived for more than 400 years. His latest book is Where Shall We Run To?, a moving evocation of his wartime childhood.

We visited Garner lives at the Blackden Trust in Alderley, which comprises Toad Hall, a barely modernised medieval timber-framed home, and the Old Medicine House, a 16th-century apothecary’s shop that he and his wife Griselda rescued from demolition in 1970 and transported 17 miles ...

How the ‘brainy’ book became a publishing phenomenon

These uncertain times have seen a renewed interest in serious nonfiction, as people try to make sense of an unstable world

• The best ‘brainy’ books of the last 10 years

This is a story about a book that just kept selling, catching publishers, booksellers and even its author off guard. In seeking to understand the reasons for the book’s unusually protracted shelf life, we uncover important messages about our moment in history, about the still-vital place of reading in our culture, and about the changing face of publishing.

The book is Sapiens, by the Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari, published in the UK in September 2014. It’s a recondite work of evolutionary history charting the development of humankind through a scholarly examination of our ability to cooperate as a species. Sapiens sold well on publication, particularly when it came out in paperback in the summer of 2015. What’s remarkable ...

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott review – Truman Capote’s decline and fall

This accomplished debut novel tells of the great writer’s last years in the voices of the women who once loved him

Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s memorable first novel is a fictionalised reimagining of the later life of Truman Capote, an author whose work so often took factual events and applied to them the techniques of the novel. Swan Song treads that modish no man’s land between fact and fiction, finding resonance in the interplay between what we know of Capote’s life and what we don’t. If, as Capote said, life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act, then Greenberg-Jephcott has constructed a third act for her hero that does him justice, never shying away from presenting him as the preening, bitchy, rancorous alcoholic he became, but also finding ways to show why so many loved him.

Swan Song is related by a kind of occluded first person plural – ...

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje review – magic from a past master

Michael Ondaatje is at the peak of his powers with the story of a man piecing together his troubled adolescence

‘We have no memories from our childhood,” said Freud, “only memories that pertain to our childhood.” It feels like this idea – that memory is the construct of the older self looking back – has been the engine driving much of Michael Ondaatje’s extraordinary literary career. Warlight, his eighth work of prose, is narrated by Nathaniel, a 28-year-old reflecting on a strange and adventure-filled adolescence.

The novel opens in 1945. Nathaniel, who is 14, and his sister, Rachel, have been left by their parents in London, in the care of a mysterious figure called the Moth. The parents have ostensibly gone to Singapore for Nathaniel’s “smoke-like” father’s job. We soon learn, though, that it is the mother, Rose, who’s behind the flight from Britain and that she’s a ...

Book clinic: what to read on a road trip in the deep south

From William Faulkner to John Kennedy Toole, Alex Preston selects authors who evoke America’s civil rights history

Q: ​I am about to go on a road trip through Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana and would welcome some scene-setting fiction.
Ivan Cornford

A: Alex Preston, journalist and author, whose most recent book is As Kingfishers Catch Fire
You must begin with the best novel to come out of the south, perhaps the best American novel, full stop: Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner. You wanted atmosphere and this will take you right into the Spanish moss-draped heart of the deep south. Set in Mississippi during the civil war, Faulkner gives us a kaleidoscopic portrait of the life of Thomas Sutpen, an ambitious plantation owner. It’s one of those books that never leaves you: the intricately layered narrative is both formally inventive and wonderfully gripping.

Continue reading...

Rachel Kushner: ‘I’d say I stand with guilty people’

The US author on going behind bars to research her new novel, The Mars Room – and why Donald Trump is not the worst president

After the intercontinental sweep of her dazzling second novel, The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner has fixed upon a more circumscribed milieu for her third. The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape, £16.99) takes place in Stanville, a prison based upon California’s notorious Chowchilla, the biggest women’s jail in the world. The novel is largely told from the perspective of Romy, a young mother locked away for killing her stalker.

Kushner grew up in Oregon and California, the daughter of unconventional parents who had her working in a feminist bookstore from the age of five. She undertook a degree in political science at Berkeley at 16. She has twice been a finalist in the National Book awards. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, the writer ...

Michael Chabon: ‘Parent properly and you’re doing yourself out of a job’

The Pulitzer prize-winner on combining writing with raising kids, his freakozoid tendencies and the authors he returns to

Michael Chabon is one of America’s best-loved writers, the author of nine novels, including The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (which won the Pulitzer prize), Wonder Boys, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Moonglow. In 2009, he published Manhood for Amateurs, a series of reflections on his early years as a father. Now, with Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, 54-year-old Chabon has collected his essays about parenting four teenagers.

A few years ago, Chabon’s wife, the novelist Ayelet Waldman, wrote a controversial essay for the New York Times in which she claimed to love her husband more than her children (and to be the only one of her married friends still having regular sex). Chabon’s meditations on fatherhood are less likely to offend – they’re generous, very Californian ...

The Drugs That Changed Our Minds by Lauren Slater – review

Twenty years after hailing antidepressants in her memoir Prozac Diary, a now jaded, sceptical Lauren Slater revisits the psychopharmacological industry – with uneven results

In Prozac Diary (1998), Lauren Slater wrote powerfully of the way fluoxetine had transformed her previously chaotic life. While the author recorded a handful of negative side-effects – a profound loss of libido, for instance – the reader was left with the sense that Prozac had pieced back together the shards of Slater’s existence. In some ways, The Drugs That Changed Our Minds is a sequel to that book. Slater is now in her mid-50s, recently divorced, and on a cocktail of antidepressants. She’s “a consumer of polypsychopharmacy”, having taken fluoxetine, venlafaxine, olanzapine, aripiprazole, clonazepam, lisdexamfetamine “and probably one or two other tablets I’m forgetting because there are so many”.

The book weaves between Slater’s personal history and a wide-ranging narrative of the development of the psychopharmalogical ...

The Friendly Ones by Philip Hensher review – home truths and horrors abroad

Family life in Sheffield meets the brutal history of Bangladesh in Philip Hensher’s finest novel yet

Philip Hensher’s Ondaatje prize-winning Scenes from Early Life (2012) was a strange book. Ostensibly the lightly fictionalised story of his husband’s childhood, it was as much about the birth of a nation as the life of a man; or rather, perhaps, it showed how the two are often inextricable. To have been born in Bangladesh in 1970 was to be immersed in a struggle in which it was necessary to take sides. One of the themes that runs through Hensher’s latest novel, The Friendly Ones, is the staggering ignorance in Britain of the 1971 Bangladeshi genocide, and the book shows how the country’s brutal and divisive war with Pakistan left its traces down through generations, both at home and in the diasporic community.

The Friendly Ones is a novel of reflections. It ...

Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala review – coming out and coming of age

The son of devoutly religious parents realises he is gay in Iweala’s tentative follow-up to the acclaimed Beasts of No Nation

Related: The gentrification of Washington DC: how my city changed its colours

It has been 13 years since Uzodinma Iweala’s debut novel, Beasts of No Nation, was published to extraordinary reviews and a slew of prizes. The book, the moving story of a child soldier, Agu, caught up in an African war of relentless brutality, was turned into a film starring Idris Elba. The film was as forgettable as the book was memorable, highlighting the really remarkable thing about Iweala’s novel – the daring and unusual rendition of the protagonist’s perspective and linguistic register (something that Cary Fukunaga was unable to convey in his film). Agu’s voice in the book is a pidgin English that is, at first, difficult to comprehend, but increasingly forges a kind of ...

The Only Story review – Julian Barnes goes back to Metroland

The author returns to the themes of his first novel in this story, of an affair told from two vantage points, with captivating results

When asked what he thought of his son’s books, Kingsley Amis said: “Martin needs to write more sentences like ‘He put down his drink, got up and left the room.’” Amis père would approve of many of the sentences in Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Only Story, which steps through familiar Barnesian territory, giving us the English suburbs, an aged protagonist looking back over an unfulfilled life, all told in deceptively affectless prose. It would appear that the muted critical response to Barnes’s dazzling meta-fictive portrait of the life of Shostakovich, The Noise of Time, has persuaded him to return to the style and subject matter of the Man Booker prize-winning The Sense of an Ending (2011).

The Only Story opens with a ...

Consent by Leo Benedictus and Fear by Dirk Kurbjuweit – review

Two literary writers bring both thrills and psychological nuance to the subject of stalking

There is a whole sub-genre of novels about stalking, out there in the land where literary criticism fears to tread. Straddling the realms of both crime and erotica, you can see why it’s such rich territory for popular fiction. With a handful of notable exceptions, though – Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, Olivia Sudjic’s Sympathy, James Lasdun’s fascinating but morally wonky Give Me Everything You Have, Patricia Highsmith (of course) – few serious authors have taken on the subject. Now two have arrived at once, both ostensibly thrillers, but each more nuanced and interesting than you might expect.

After a surprise bequest makes him fabulously rich, the unnamed narrator of Leo Benedictus’s Consent decides to spend his time stalking women. “I do secretly follow strangers on the street,” he says in his creepily ...

A Long Way from Home review – Peter Carey’s best novel in decades

The acclaimed writer’s 14th novel is a nuanced story of racial identity set in postwar Australia

Writers are by nature chameleons, with each new character a new disguise to take on, a fresh skin to inhabit. It shouldn’t surprise, then, that racial passing has such a rich literary history. Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing, is a near-forgotten classic, telling of two mixed-race women, Clare and Irene, who identify as white and black respectively. More recently, we’ve had Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, in which the African American Coleman Silk attempts to pass for a Jewish academic. Then there’s Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, whose concluding revelation about one of the characters’ racial identities does what all good end-of-book twists ought to, shedding new light on the entire novel.

A Long Way from Home, Peter Carey’s 14th novel, uses the story of a light-skinned Indigenous Australian who has ...

Julian Barnes, Sebastian Faulks, Leïla Slimani… the best fiction for 2018

…Rupert Thomson, Aminatta Forna and a clutch of brilliant debuts – the novels to look out for this year

It feels like 2018 has more than its share of debut novels to get excited about. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock (Harvill Secker) by Imogen Hermes Gowar nails the 18th century as convincingly as Francis Spufford in Golden Hill, but with supernatural elements that bring to mind Susannah Clarke and Sarah Perry. More fantastical still is Zoe Gilbert’s Folk (Bloomsbury), out in February. Set on an uncanny island called Neverness, the interlocking stories build into a novel that is that rare thing: genuinely unique. It’s part-myth, part-allegory, wholly wonderful.

Peach (Bloomsbury Circus) by Emma Glass is a short and brutal tale of sexual assault and its resulting traumas that carries clear echoes of Eimear McBride. It’s a harrowing story but the language is scintillating, the emotional heft remarkable. Equally powerful ...