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Rundown of the highs and lows from the Man Booker Prize list.
Every year the Booker Prize offers readers compelling novels, some unforgettable and some quite bizarre. Whilst the most controversial novel this year is certainly Ducks Newburyport, totalling over a thousand pages with sentences that run on across multiple pages, I am going to be discussing the highs and lows of the Booker shortlist 2019 for me.
I feel guilty calling An Orchestra of Minorities a ‘low’. It has many positive qualities – too many to be delegated a ‘low’ position– but it was competing with strong contenders. It is uniquely narrated by a chi who is giving testimony to the ‘fathers’ of the Igbo religion about something terrible its host and the protagonist, Chinonso, has done. In typical Western fashion, I am probably going to summarise the idea of a chi entirely wrong, but it is the heart or inner voice of a person and I enjoyed reading from its perspective. Although, whilst the unusual narration at first appeared to be a strength, it ended up making me feel detached and I felt too distant to be fully impacted from this book full of tragedy.
However, Obioma focuses on human functions and behaviours in a blunt manner and reading it can be quite refreshing. While ethereal spirits form a large part of the story, it’s still rooted in the reality of mankind. Things like having violent diarrhoea on the side of the road or high fiving someone and getting sweat all over your palm – all the disgusting things humans naturally do – are all there. However, this can also slow down the pace to an excruciating level – the chi narrates in such unhurried detail the daily goings of Chinonso that it can become quite dull.
While reading I was often reminded of another book, Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, which appeared in the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. They are also a Nigerian writer who takes inspiration from their Igbo religion and culture but in a more well-crafted and engrossing way. Although aspects of Orchestra of Minorities were clever and compelling – including the phonetic way the dialogue was written – it falters in front of other books on the Booker shortlist, including my favourite from the list 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World.
I was cautious about reading This Strange World because its premise sounded terribly sad. It is based on a scientific paper that found a patient’s brain activity continued 10 minutes and 38 seconds after their heart stopped beating. Shafak explores what kind of memories and thoughts a person would conjure in that short space of time through her protagonist ‘Tequila’ Leila. The novel is sad, but it is also thoughtful and warm. The setting of Istanbul is crafted beautifully. Shafak describes using the senses perfectly and imaginatively, so you feel completely immersed in the memories presented about life in Turkey during the twentieth century.
It is a book concerned with memory and how our experiences shape us. Whilst in Orchestra of Minorities the sufferings of the characters had a touch of detachment and unreality, the pain described in This Strange World was palpable and moving, and every character and story introduced was portrayed in such honest, vulnerable ways it made me feel affectionate towards them all. It encourages the reader to reflect on their loved ones, and how we are formed as people through our memories with them and all our distinct experiences. Overall, while I have ranked the books on the Booker 2019 shortlist, it is truly a challenge to do so as they all bring something distinctive with them that will interest a range of readers. While This Strange World is definitely my favourite, each of the shortlisted novels is appealing in their different ways and I would recommend checking them all out!