The longlist for the Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards, was announced Wednesday. For the second year, the prize was open to writers of any nationality who publish books in English in the U.K., and this year five American writers made the list of 13 contenders, chosen by five judges from a pool of 156 total works.
The U.S. is, in fact, the most well-represented country, with other entrants hailing from Great Britain, Jamaica, New Zealand, Nigeria, Ireland, and India. There are three debut novelists and one former winner on the list, and women writers outnumber men seven to six. From dystopian and political novels to a multitude of iterations on the family drama, the selections capture the ever-changing human experience in very different ways.
From here, the selections will be whittled down to a shortlist of six books, to be announced on September 15. The winner will be announced at the ceremony in London on October 13. Until then, here’s a guide to the 13 works on the longlist.
Bill Clegg, Did You Ever Have a Family
The American writer’s novel about a woman struggling with the aftermath of an explosion that killed her family inspired a new literary fiction imprint at Simon & Schuster. The tragedy, which takes multiple perspectives over many years, is Clegg’s first work of fiction, but he’s a longtime figure in the publishing world and has written two memoirs, one in 2011 about his addiction to crack cocaine (Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man) and one a year later about his experiences in rehab (Ninety Days). Kirkus Reviews called the novel “an attempt to map how the unbearable is borne, elegantly written and bravely imagined.”
Anne Enright, The Green Road
The Irish novelist and former winner’s latest book is a family drama that jumps through time, following four siblings as they grow up, leave their home in County Clare, and come back decades later to spend Christmas with their “monstrously manipulative and self-pitying” mother. James Wood at The New Yorker describes the book as a “more conventional novel than anything Enright has written,” with the author understanding adulthood “as a kind of aberration that befalls families: siblings must grow up, but their maturity is oddly irrelevant to the atavism of the family unit.”
Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings
Michiko Kakutani at The New York Times describes the Jamaican author’s novel as being “like a Tarantino remake of ‘The Harder They Come’ but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner, with maybe a little creative boost from some primo ganja.” Tackling subjects like Jamaican politics and poverty, race and class, and the complicated relationship between the U.S. and the Caribbean by using the 1976 assassination attempt on Marley as a jumping off point, the cacophonous novel is “sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex.”
Laila Lalami, The Moor’s Account
In her third novel, the Moroccan American author Lalami retells a famous account of the disaster that struck a Spanish conquistador setting sail for the New World in the 16th century from the perspective of a slave. Even though the fictional memoir is more stately and slow-moving than other fast-paced adventure tales, NPR’s Alan Cheuse finds it “richly rewarding” and “a huge step up from the writer’s first two works of fiction.” By reconstructing an erased historical perspective, Lalami’s storytelling fights “a primal struggle over power between the strong and the weak, between good and evil, and against forgetting,” writes Jeffery Renard Allen for The New York Times. “Lalami sees the story as a form of moral and spiritual instruction that can lead to transcendence.”
Tom McCarthy, Satin Island
In February, Marc Mewshaw wrote in The Atlantic, “Through an accumulation of piercing observations, idle ruminations, and a dense system of symbols, Satin Island crystallizes into a magisterial ethnographic portrait of our overstimulated, interconnected, simulacra-addicted times.” His take on the fourth novel by McCarthy, a Brit, which follows a corporate anthropologist’s failure to complete a comprehensive study of “the tribe otherwise known as mankind, circa 2015,” is that the reading experience corresponds to the protagonist’s troubled task of piecing together a complete picture of our age. “Satin Island hovers between the alien and the familiar, packaging experimental literature in a candy coating of easily digestible (and often slyly funny) narrative,” he writes. “Nevertheless, it retains, thanks to the self-referential enigma of its symbols, a certain inexhaustibility.”
Chigozie Obioma, The Fishermen
In a compelling debut novel that combines the traditional English novel form with the Nigerian oral storytelling tradition, Obioma writes about four brothers who find out that the local prophesier has predicted that the eldest brother will be killed by one of his siblings. The political history of Nigeria provides the backdrop for this mix between family narrative and Bildungsroman. As Helon Habila writes in The Guardian, “The Fishermen is an elegy to lost promise, to a golden age squandered, and yet it remains hopeful about the redemptive possibilities of a new generation.”
Andrew O’Hagan, The Illuminations
The British writer’s fifth novel explores the close connection between the platoon leader of British infantry in Afghanistan and his grandmother, an elderly woman in Britain who is losing her mind to dementia. In The New York Times, Dani Shapiro describes the novel as “both a howl against the war in Afghanistan and the societies that have blindly abetted it, and a multilayered, deeply felt tale of family, loss, memory, art, loyalty, secrecy and forgiveness.” Rather than the rhetoric-spouting characters that often occupy war novels, O’Hagan gives his reader an intimate and precise portrait of mental disintegration and the desire to forget.
Marilynne Robinson, Lila
Lila occupies the same small-town world of Robinson’s previous novels Gilead (2004) and Home (2008), and details the life of a minister’s second wife, from her neglected childhood to the love, marriage, and pregnancy that unexpectedly come her way. With the theme of loneliness at its heart, Robinson’s novel “resists the notion of love as an easy antidote to a lifetime of suffering or solitude, suggesting that intimacy can’t intrude on loneliness without some measure of pain,” writes Leslie Jamison in The Atlantic of the book. “Robinson’s determination to shed light on these complexities—the solitude that endures inside intimacy, the sorrow that persists beside joy—marks her as one of those rare writers genuinely committed to contradiction as an abiding state of consciousness.”
Anuradha Roy, Sleeping on Jupiter
The story of a young woman’s return to the temple town where she was abused and traumatized as a child, the Indian writer’s novel exposes “the endless, treacherous hypocrisies of Indian society” through viscerally evoked images and haunting atmosphere. Meen Kandasamy writes for The Guardian, “Roy has used the most potent weapon in a writer’s arsenal—the form of the novel, with its ability to simultaneously be universal and particular—to boldly unmask the hidden face of Indian spirituality and the rampant sexual abuse in its unholy confines.”
Sunjeev Sahota, The Year of the Runaways
The British writer’s second novel centers around three young Indian migrant workers whose lives are constrained by Indian society, which despite its modern aspirations, is still weighed down by bigotry. “Sahota is a writer who knows how to turn a phrase, how to light up a scene, how to make you stay up late at night to learn what happens next,” writes Kamila Shamsie in The Guardian. “This is a novel that takes on the largest questions and still shines in its smallest details,” successfully humanizing some of India’s most urgent political problems.
Anna Smaill, The Chimes
Smaill’s dystopian debut tells the story of a totalitarian regime that uses music to inflict amnesia on its subjects, with the plot crystallized through a young outlaw who has the ability to see others’ memories. The New Zealander poet manages to remain fresh and original in a genre with many distinguished precursors, but Smaill manages to poignantly convey her wider premise: “that a society must retain a diverse shared past if it is to have a cohesive future.”
Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread
The American writer takes as her subject four generations of a middle-class American family, with its upstarts, black sheep, and dysfunction, an everyman topic that could make A Spool of Blue Thread a cliché. However, as Rebecca Pepper Sinkler writes in The New York Times, “Tyler has a knack for turning sitcom situations into something far deeper and more moving. Her great gift is playing against the American dream, the dark side of which is the falsehood at its heart: that given hard work and good intentions, any family can attain the Norman Rockwell ideal of happiness—ordinary, homegrown happiness.”
Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life
Garth Greenwell in The Atlantic has called the Hawaiian American writer Yanagihara’s novel, which follows four men over three decades of friendship, “the most ambitious chronicle of the social and emotional lives of gay men to have emerged for many years.” Yanagihara avoids the familiar narratives of gay fiction, such as the coming-out story or the AIDS novel, but maintains a strict attention to her characters’ inner lives, remaining in the queer-coded aesthetic tradition of melodrama, sentimental fiction, and grand opera. In doing so, she accesses “emotional truths denied more modest means of expression.”
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