The 2020 Booker Prize
by Jennifer Bryce
The Booker prize for fiction goes back to 1969. The prestigious prize is awarded to the best original novel written in the English language and published in the United Kingdom. The longlist and shortlist for 2020 have aready been announced. The winner will be announced on 19th November.
Tony Thomas aims to read the entire longlist before that prize-winning date. I’m hoping for another review from him — he has already posted a review of Sophie Ward’s Love and Other Thought Experiments. I am working my way through these books too. So far my ‘favourite’ continues to be Shuggie Bain, already reviewed on this blog.
I started off reading Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road, which was longlisted but didn’t make the shortlist — I’m not surprised. I have now read three or four of Anne Tyler’s books and this is not the best. The main character, Micah, is (one assumes) on the autism spectrum. He reminded me a bit of the main character in The Accidental Tourist – Tyler seems to be interested in slightly eccentric men. Okay – so Micah lives by routine – we get sick of being told every detail of how he makes coffee – which he does quite often. Irritatingly every time someone takes a jacket on or off, they ‘shrug’ themselves into it or out of it. Good once, but only once. For me there was no drama. There isn’t even much depth to the exploration of Micah’s character. At the end, my feeling was: ho hum.
Another book that was longlisted, but not shortlisted is Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age. I took a while to get into it – possibly because I’m not a part of the ‘fun age’, which is Afro American 20 to 30 somethings who throw back cocktails and champagne and speak in a language that is almost foreign for me. Themes addressed in this novel are important: Can we connect across barriers of race, gender, wealth and privilege? The story hinges on an incident where Emira, a baby sitter for the privileged, white, Chamberlain household is called unexpectedly to take care of the 2 year-old daughter she cares for. Emira is at a party, but because the Chamberlains pay her generously, she leaves the party, turns up in her party gear and, as Mrs Chamberlain suggests, takes the little girl to the local supermarket – supposedly a safe place to hang out late at night. In her party gear, Emira certainly doesn’t look like a baby sitter. She is accused by a security guard of kidnapping the 2 year-old Briar, with whom she has a very close relationship. (I love the name Briar for this precocious little white girl!) The incident is filmed by Kelley (who is white), and much later in the story, by Mrs Chamberlain’s devious means, the footage is released on a TV news program. The Chamberlains are the kind of family that prides itself on inviting African American people to dinner. And Kelley seems to have a way of wanting to befriend African American people – all of his girlfriends since high school (and he is now well into his 30s) have been African American. By almost too much of a coincidence, in high school, he briefly dated Mrs Chamberlain – indeed it was to Kelley that she lost her virginity – so the relationship had special significance for her.
A review in The Guardian points out that: ‘One of the novel’s deep ironies is that the white people in Emira’s life are more fixated on race than she is’. The final chapter is set some years after Emira has left the Chamberlain babysitting job (which was upgraded to a nanny in the hope of keeping Emira). She is working in a ‘proper’ job as a quite well paid administrative assistant. At a local market one day she happens to see Kelley with his black girlfriend (Emira never contacted him after the film of the supermarket incident was released for TV although she did learn later that this was the work of Mrs Chamberlain, not Kelley) and she also sees (but avoids contact with) Mrs Chamberlain and now 5 year-old Briar. She wonders what she learned from her time at the Chamberlain household.
Books on the shortlist that I have read so far (as well as Shuggie Bain) include Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar. It’s her debut novel. It was not a compelling read for me. Most interesting was the setting in India – what it’s like for middle class business people. A woman whose mother in her 50s has dementia could be a fascinating topic, but with this book we had the woman’s life story, how she’s never got on well with her mother – she seems to be lacking in compassion, anyway. At times she can’t stand her new born baby. The book ends pretty much where it started. Maybe the woman will explore new fields, but maybe she’ll just return to her middle class home and have more children. The mother is not much changed from how we saw her at the beginning of the story.
More interesting, although challenging, for me, was Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body (an enticing title). I found it very difficult to get into this book. I thought it was because of my lack of knowledge of Zimbabwean culture (in spite of brief visits I’ve made to Botswana and Uganda, connected to work and when in Botswana I paid a visit to Victoria falls and looked across the foaming mass of water to Zimbabwe).
But maybe my difficulty was not having read the first two novels of the trilogy that this book completes. I also found Dangarembga’s use of the second person, while suitably distancing, a bit difficult to deal with.
Tambu, the protagonist, is a middle aged Zimbabwean woman, unmarried, with no children. Had I read the other two parts of the trilogy I would have seen her grow up during the time of the Zimbabwe War of Liberation, go to high school and university.
We first meet Tambu when she has just abandoned a prestigious job as a copywriter because she was angry that white colleagues took the credit for her achievements. She’s running through her savings, living in a hostel in Harare, getting around on crowded Kombi buses.
It looks as though this is going to be a downward spiral into poverty. She feels as though she is going to fall down a precipice. All the while she is attempting to disguise her increasingly desperate poverty and conserve the soles of her Lady Di pumps. For reasons that include her grim financial prospects and her age, she moves to a widow’s boarding house and eventually finds work as a biology teacher. A moment of optimism, but it seems inevitably to go wrong. Tambu eventually loses her job when she badly beats a meek, mild-mannered student named Elizabeth. Tambu suffers a nervous breakdown that lands her in a hospital.
It seemed to me a kind of irony when Tambu meets her former (white) boss, Tracey and is invited to join an eco-tourism business offering the so-called real ghetto and village experience. It works well for a while and she is comfortably off. But, when promoted Tambu suggests a tour to her own village. On the day of the first tour, there is a celebration performance planned. When one of the European men takes a picture of her, Tambu’s mother, the head hostess amongst the women, becomes frenzied and agitated. She strips off her top, and the tour is a disaster. Tambu resigns. The novel ends with Tambu taking a job at Christine, her aunt’s, newest business venture: a security company. This is described as an optimistic move – going back to family. But then, going to her mother’s village was a disaster. For me, the book was about the terrible loneliness of a woman who has defied her family’s African traditions only to find Western ones no less limiting.
I’m still reading some of the shortlisted entries — so there may be another post on the Booker before the winner is announced on 19th November.