The 2022 Booker Prize

by Jennifer Bryce

2022 Booker winner, Shehan Karunatilaka

The winner of the 2022 Booker Prize was announced last Monday. And this year, I hadn’t read it. It is by Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. His second novel, it has been described as ‘a searing, mordantly funny satire set amidst the murderous mahem of … civil war.’ As well as his one other novel, Shehan Karunatilaka has written songs, scripts and stories that have been published in Rolling Stone, GQ and National Geographic.

I read one book that was longlisted and didn’t make it to the shortlist: Leila Mottley: Nightcrawling. What I particularly appreciated was being brought into the life of Kiara Johnson, a 17 year-old black girl living in a poor community – her father now dead (after having spent time in prison) and her mother detained in a rehab facility. The first sentence of the novel is: ‘The swimming pool is filled with dog shit and Dee’s laughter mocks us at dawn.’ There is often no money, no food, yet there is love. Kiara sees it as her responsibility to find money for the rent (which is for ever going up) – her older brother is too involved in non-paying music projects. Even in what we might describe as abject poverty, Kiara takes on the care of 9 year-old Trevor who has been abandoned by a neighbour, who also can’t meet the rent payments. Her love for Trevor is central to the book. It seems that the only way Kiara can raise enough money is by sex work. She is, of course, mercilessly exploited – particularly by the police, who invite her to sex parties then get out of paying her. Should Kiara expose the police or keep her mouth shut? She is a loser in all things legal or concerning money, but her love for people shines through and in the end she finds love with her old girlfriend from school days. As I read, all of my senses were alert to Kiara’s grotty home and her generous love.

The 2022 Booker shortlist was announced in September:

NoViolet Bulawayo (Zimbabwean) Glory (Chatto & Windus, Vintage, Penguin Random House)

Percival Everett (US) The Trees (Influx Press)

Alan Garner (British) Treacle Walker (4th Estate, HarperCollins)

Shehan Karunatilaka (Sri Lankan) The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (Sort of Books)

Claire Keegan (Irish) Small Things Like These (Faber)

Elizabeth Strout (US) Oh William! (Viking, Penguin General, Penguin Random House)

Neil MacGregor, Chair of the 2022 judges, says: ‘These six books we believe speak powerfully about important things. Set in different places at different times, they are all about events that in some measure happen everywhere, and concern us all. Each written in English, they demonstrate what an abundance of Englishes there are, how many distinct worlds, real and imaginary, exist in that simple-seeming space, the Anglosphere. ‘Two — Oh, William! and Treacle Walker — are about the inner life, as a young boy and a middleaged woman, in their particular ways, come to a new understanding of who they are and what they might become. The other four books address long national histories of cruelty and injustice, in Sri Lanka and Ireland, Zimbabwe and the United States, and in each case the enduring historical tensions provide the dilemmas in which the characters, like their societies, are put on the rack. ‘Why did we choose these six? ‘In every one, the author uses language not only to tell us what happens, but to create a world which we, outsiders, can enter and inhabit — and not merely by using words from local languages or dialects. NoViolet Bulawayo’s incantatory repetitions induct us all into a Zimbabwean community of memory and expectation, just as Alan Garner’s shamanic obliquities conjure a realm that reason alone could never access. Percival Everett and Shehan Karunatilaka spin fantastical verbal webs of Gothic horror — and humour — that could not be further removed from the hypnotic, hallucinatory clarity of Claire Keegan’s and Elizabeth Strout’s pared-down prose. Most important, all affirm the importance and the power of finding and sharing the truth.’

I didn’t get around to reading Glory or (as mentioned) the book that won.

Of the books I read, my winner would have been a toss up between Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These and Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker. Keegan’s book is short — a novella.

Until 1996, the Catholic Church and the Irish government financed Magdalene Laundries,  where young women were sent if they were destitute, particularly if they became pregnant out of wedlock. They were hidden from the rest of the community. Records of these institutions have been, conveniently, lost, but according to Keegan as many as 30,000 young women may have been locked away in these places – never to have the hope of living a fulfilling life – always made to feel ashamed of their existence. Furlong, the central character in the book, who is now almost 50, had been born out of wedlock when his mother was sixteen – had his mother not been taken in by a wealthy protestant woman, she would most likely have been consigned to one of these laundries and Furlong might not even have survived.

Furlong is leading what seems a good and worthy life. There is enough money to get by – from his coal business – he doesn’t drink excessively, he has a good capable wife and five daughters who are all doing well. What will go wrong? I wondered. Will he take to drink, or fall for a younger woman? No – although those possibilities are present. One day, near Christmas, when delivering coal to the local convent, Furlong comes across a young girl locked in the coal house. When he hands her to the nun in charge, there is pretense at treating her well – poor girl, she needs breakfast, etc… She said to Furlong that she wanted to see her baby and perhaps feed him one more time (he is 14 weeks old). Furlong lingers, but there is nothing much he can do but leave her there. This plays on his conscience and just before Christmas he returns quietly on foot to the convent, checks the coal house and finds the girl locked there, once again. This time he rescues her. It is as though he is rescuing his mother.

I haven’t read Alan Garner before, although he has written a huge number of books. In the front of the book is a short quote by Carlo Revelli: Time is ignorance. How would we experience the world if we could escape time? Teenage Joe, the hero, has extraordinary vision. He wears a patch over his good eye to try to correct the bad one. He’s a bit of a loner (no parents in evidence) and he measures out the days by watching the passing of Noony, the train, through the valley below. With his lazy eye, Joe can see time collapsed: the eternal is now. Sometimes I was reminded of Alice in Wonderland when with his friends, the naked Thin Amren and Treacle Walker, whose face is both old and young, and comic book characters, Joe tackles a world of shatterless mirrors that he can walk through. The book is most beautifully written – so much is said in about 150 pages and the structure is superb: the first sentence is also the last.

Alan Garner

I also enjoyed Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William!, although I didn’t see it as a winner. It is part of a series I haven’t read.

Lucy Barton is a successful novelist in her sixties. The book is about Lucy reconnecting with her first husband William – they are both at a crossroads: Lucy’s second husband has just died and William’s third wife has left him. They travel together to Maine in search of a half-sister that William has just learned about. William and Lucy share two grown daughters and the sort of deep friendship that ex-partners are sometimes able to achieve. The style of writing is conversational – what a Guardian review describes as a ‘confiding intimacy’. The novel is also about class in America. Lucy grew up in severe poverty – didn’t even have a TV. And with her marriage to William she is thrust into an upper class way of life with extravagant holidays, where Lucy feels very out of place. The book reflects on the many things in life we do not know until it is too late and indeed the many things we do not really know. The final words are: ‘We are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysterious, is what I mean. This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true.’

I enjoyed Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Case Study and was amused that apparently the main research he did for this book was to read lots of women’s magazines of the 1960s — I remember them well!

‘GMB’, a writer, has become interested in Collins Braithwaite, enfant terrible of the 1960s anti-psychiatry movement. Braithwaite is presented as a very real, if outlandish psychiatrist – a foil to the well-known psychiatrist of the post war years, R.D. Laing, who indeed is a character in this book and an enemy to the fictitious Braithwaite. Among other things, Braithwaite wrote a book titled, Untherapy. GMB is contacted by a Mr Martin Grey, who offers to send him materials relating to his cousin, who was a patient of Braithwaite and who believes that her older sister committed suicide as a result of being a patient of Braithwaite. Under the name Rebecca Smyth, the cousin books herself a consultation with Braithwaite, determined to discover the truth. So the reader considers this ‘case study’ material of six notebooks, just as GMB would – it is presented as though it were authentic source material. The novel is the notebooks. As the notebooks progress, their unnamed narrator becomes ever more confused about her own identity. She wishes she were more like her invented alter ego, and begins to see Rebecca almost literally as a separate person. Collins Braithwaite deteriorates to a point where he can barely function at all and ultimately ends his life. This is far more than a detective story – although there is plenty of ‘investigation’ to consider. I thought it brilliant to put the reader in the place of a writer/ psychologist analysing case study notes.

The book I enjoyed least was Percival Everett’s Trees. He is another author who is new to me. This book has been described as ‘page-turning comic horror’ – a satire about the African American middle class. The small amount I know about the treatment of this American social group draws me away from anything that smacks of ‘comic’. So I probably didn’t fully appreciate what this book is getting at.

We start out in the home of a dysfunctional white family, in the town of Money, Mississippi. We later learn that the somewhat mysterious Granny C instigated a lynching in this town back in 1955, and now her son, Wheat Bryant, is found dead and mutilated with the body of a black man next to him. Another rather clandestine extraordinarily elderly woman, Mamma Z has chronicled lynchings that have taken place since 1913. She outlines these to an academic who visits Money after the situation has escalated to an extraordinary degree – always white men, always mutilated (their genitals cut off), always a dead black or Asian man placed with them. Eerily, murders like these are happening all over the country.  And Mamma Z tells him  that only a fraction of those involved in the lynchings ever served a sentence: ‘no one cared’. And that seems to be the message of this book. The trees (of the title) are the trees used for execution.

Maybe next year I’ll manage to read the complete shortlist.

And now — about a month after the winner was announced, I have read the winner….

Reading Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida proved to be quite a slog for me. I forced myself to finish it because it won this year’s Booker prize. A photographer in the afterlife sets out to expose the carnage of Sri Lanka’s civil wars. My problem was that I didn’t know enough about the Sri Lankan civil wars to appreciate or fully understand this exposure and also, I felt that my lack of appropriate religious background meant that I missed some subtleties in Karunatilaka’s often witty writing about the after life.

Maali is an itinerant photographer who loves his trusted Nikon camera. He’s a gambler in high-stakes poker, a closet gay man and an atheist. At the start of the novel, he wakes up dead. To start with, he doesn’t believe he is dead. And a main driver in the novel is his quest to find out how he died, because he can’t remember dying. There are many jokes – early on (in his ‘first moon’) he has to line up public service style to fill in forms. Maali is a witness to the brutality of the insurrections in Sri Lanka. His ambition is to take photographs that will bring down governments. For example, he has photographed ‘the government minister who looked on while the savages of ’83 torched Tamil homes and slaughtered the occupants’. Another challenge is to find out what has now happened to those photographs – or the negatives. Stuck in the underworld, he has only seven moons – one week – to get in contact with his girlfriend Jaki and her cousin, DD, Maali’s secret boyfriend, persuade them to retrieve the stash of photos, and share them throughout Colombo, in order to expose the horrifically violent nature of the conflict. Maali doesn’t want his contribution as a witness to be consigned to oblivion, which will happen if he doesn’t solve the mystery of the location of his photos before his seven moons have run out. Because after that, he will have no memory. At the end of Maali’s seventh moon, in the company of a Leopard, he will be reborn by jumping into a river. The final words of the novel are: ‘And when you jump you will know three things. That the brightness of the light will force you to open your eyes wider. That you will choose the same drink and it will take you somewhere knew. And that, when you get there, you will have forgotten all of the above.’