Short Takes on the Booker Prize Shortlist

By Jennifer Levasseur & Kevin Rabalais

Over the past few weeks, feeling that reader’s itch to devour everything we can, we turned our attention to this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist. Some of the six novels on the list baffled us. In others, we encountered rigorous, deep meditations on the human condition. A few others were simply pure pleasures. In this installment of Sacred Trespasses, we offer short reviews of all six novels on the 2016 shortlist. The winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize will be announced on October 25th.


The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Explosive, caustic, hilarious, mind-boggling and unrelenting from its first sentence (“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.”), this National Book Critics Circle Award winner bulges with references to pop culture, literature, film, Civil Rights history, music, psychology—all in service to understanding and possibly upending everything we think we know about race relations and identity in America.

The narrator is the son of a single black father, the controversial (and failed) sociologist/urban farmer who used him as the subject of sadistic experiments from birth. After police kill his father, he goes on an unintended crusade to take back this city, which has dropped out of officialdom. He cultivates rice, fruit and pot on the outskirts of Los Angeles and uses a horse to traverse his neighborhood. The real trouble starts when his neighbor, the last surviving member of The Little Rascals (a Buckwheat-style piccaninny with the catchphrase Yowza! who fields the most blatant racist jokes) decides to become his slave. That decision spurns many others that surprise residents of all colors and ethnicities.

Now our narrator is before the Supreme Court, defending himself against charges of violating the Thirteenth Amendment. Not only that: he’s vandalized buses, streets, highways and re-instituted segregation across his town.

The narrator has no time for easy answers, the tried and trite ideas that never work. When members of his father’s donut shop think tank suggest that black children born pre-1860 had more of chance to live in a two-parent household than they do now, he quips, “As a modern-day slave owner, I was insulted that the venerated institution of slavery was not given the viciousness and cruelty which it was due.”

The Sellout is the funniest serious book about race I’ve ever read. I put it alongside T. Geronimo Johnson’s Welcome to Braggsville in its ability to entertain while it provokes. For instance, while waiting for the court to discuss his case, the narrator makes peace with the fact that he feels no guilt. “I understand now that the only time black people don’t feel guilty is when we’ve actually done something wrong, because that relieves us of the cognitive dissonance of being black and innocent, and in a way the prospect of going to jail becomes a relief. In the way that cooning is a relief, voting Republican is a relief, marrying white is a relief—albeit a temporary one.”


Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
Sofia Papastergiadis doesn’t speak Greek. She hasn’t finished her thesis on cultural memory. She hasn’t seen her father in eleven years (and she hasn’t met his young wife or her half-sister). She can’t afford a place to stay, so she sleeps in the storeroom of the coffee shop where she labels the cakes with signs that suggest the baristas also bake the pastries. She cannot pour her mother the right kind of water (whatever that might be), and she does not know why Rose has suffered from sporadic paralysis since Sofia was five years old. Stalled, broke, adrift but full of desire, Sofia decamps from London along with five boxes of Yorkshire teabags, her medication-obsessed mother and all the money they have scrounged from mortgaging Rose’s home—all to try a last-ditch cure with a Spanish-American guru in Almería.

Intense and page-turning, Hot Milk deftly treads the disconnect between the mind and body, between who we think we are and how we present our selves to others, who we are supposed to be and how we end up, what identity our families bequeath us.

When Sofia experiences the first of many jellyfish attacks while Rose is at the clinic, she is asked to fill out a form in the injury hut: “It is a sore point, more painful than my sting and more of a problem than my surname which no one can say or spell. I told him I have a degree in anthropology but for the time being I work in a café in West London—it’s called the Coffee House and it’s got free Wi-Fi and renovated church pews. We roast our own beans and make three types of artisan espresso … so I don’t know what to put under ‘Occupation.’”

Hot Milk explores women’s bodies and minds with an unexpected freshness and urgency. Deborah Levy’s language jolts and soothes with its unanticipated juxtapositions: “On Monday, my mother will display her various symptoms to the consultant like an assortment of mysterious canapés. I will be holding the tray.”

It’s clear how this novel has become a people’s favorite for the Booker: Hot Milk reads breathlessly, questions what we think we know, makes use of—as we often do—an exotic setting to shed staid ideas of the self, and looks deep inside ordinary people who are trying to do right, be good and productive but have lost the map.


Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
The seventy-year old main character in Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel—“a fabulous shoplifter,” “the skinny girl with no mother and little hope for a husband”—looks back on her life, focusing on events that changed her nearly half a century earlier, when she worked at a New England juvenal detention center. Without real friends, Eileen keeps imaginary ones and wastes her days in the town we know as X-ville. “Imagine an old man walking a golden retriever, a woman lifting a bag of groceries from her car,” Moshfegh writes. “There was really nothing so very wrong with the place. If you were passing through, you’d think that everything was fine there.”

Eileen thrives on deceptive placidity. An eeriness bubbles beneath the surface, but unlike Moshfegh’s novella, McGlue, the book never catches fire. Instead, an ominous tone presides over these pages, producing a slow narrative ascent. It reveals Moshfegh as a writer less invested in what happens in her story than in how it unfolds. Its slow arc heralds a turbulence that fails to attain the thriller or mystery that it promises.


Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
An immediate, intimate saga of two connected musical families, Do Not Say We Have Nothing unfolds and retells lives as they press against the changing face of power in China, from the Cultural Revolution to the student protests in Tiananmen Square and what remains from those years of brutality, starvation and forced reeducation. The novel begins in 1990 Vancouver, where young Marie mourns her father who has died unexpectedly in Hong Kong. Shortly afterward, Ai-ming, the daughter of her father’s music teacher comes to stay—having fled China without passport or visa, in fear for her life. The two girls’ families are entwined though neither has ever heard of the existence of the other. As they reach toward one another to reconnect their fathers and make sense of their legacies, they meet parents they’ve never known, whole aspects of their most intimate relations that seem to belong to strangers.

Alongside Marie, the narrator, we discover three young musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s, each talented and driven, each forced to choose between self-interest and loyalty, safety and brutality, denunciation or destruction.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing brims with love stories, artistic passion, terror, resignation and steely resolve. It gives a rich overview of the recent history of China through memorable characters. While it’s rich and fluid, it can lean toward overly long scenes, but it feels like a true, important record of how the individual—how humanity—can be lost and saved.

As Marie tries to understand the hidden, perhaps shameful history of her family, she battles guilt versus opportunity and considers her mother’s words: “She wanted to give me a different example of how to live my life and how to let hers go. And so, at the end, her words were contradictory. Look forward or look back? How could I find Ai-ming and also turn away from my father? Or did she think both acts were the same thing? It’s taken me years to begin searching, to realize that the days are not linear, that time does not simply move forward but spirals closer and closer to a shifting centre.”


All That Man Is by David Szalay
What Dwight Garner of The New York Times deems David Szalay’s “voluptuous authority,” I see as overwriting. (Indeed, I will go one step farther and say that the abundance of adverbs and to-be verbs on every one of Szalay’s pages demonstrates a lack of assurance.) It only takes a few pages of All That Man Is to understand that this novel-in-stories about travel and the search for identity should have been cut by a third.

Szalay’s characters—specifically his broad cast of male characters who share concerns and whom Szalay examines as types that, therefore, never come alive on the page—move across the globe, trying to come to terms with themselves, others and, that central conundrum at this overinflated book’s core, the meaning(s) of masculinity. Szalay tracks nine men, each varying in age. We follow them through vacation, work, lust and love in Prague, Cyprus, France and Russia as they seek and fail to understand the meaning of life.


His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
The greatest trick of this Scottish historical thriller subtitled  “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae”? That it feels utterly devoid of tricks and tropes, even as it bulges with them. Described as a postmodern conglomeration of styles and devices, it reads like the truest of accounts of a young man goaded by hopelessness and helplessness into a brutal multiple murder. From Roderick’s eloquent and idiosyncratic first-person account, which makes up nearly half of the novel, to psychiatric evaluations, an account of his advocate’s visit to the crime scene, court transcripts and descriptions by the press, His Bloody Project unfolds organically, with every new (or conflicting) bit of information arriving at the precise moment the reader desires it.

Thrilling, insightful (yes, and stressful), the novel is a literary thriller that cares more about the human heart than its basest crimes. Burnet renders Roderick’s impotence to improve his family’s lot or to shield his family from unjust prosecution so that we burn with his shame and wonder how long we could sustain daily inescapable humiliation and the despair before enacting the unimaginable. Understated but evocative, His Bloody Project refracts its truth as through a prism, distorting and creating a definitive opposite of each fact we believe to be true.



The 2016 Booker Prize winner will be announced on October 25.



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