On Wednesday morning the Man Booker Prize for Fiction announced its 2016 “dozen,” a longlist of 13 authors vying for the prestigious literary award. The £50,000 prize is open to authors of any nationality writing originally in English, whose works have been published in the U.K.
This year’s list features five American writers, three debut novelists, and a two-time Man Booker winner. While British authors lead the list with six nods, the selections are noticeably less diverse than in 2015, which had authors from Ireland, Nigeria, India, and Jamaica—whose honoree Marlon James went on to become the country’s first writer to win the prize.
The shortlist will be released on September 13, with the official winner announced at a ceremony in London on October 25. Until then, here’s your guide to the books that made it this far.
J.M. Coetzee, The Schooldays of Jesus
Having won the Nobel Prize and the Man Booker (twice) already, South African novelist J.M. Coetzee is clearly the decorated veteran of this year’s longlist. The Schooldays of Jesus, the South African’s first novel in three years following 2013’s The Childhood of Jesus, is slated to be released in the UK in September. The story follows little Davíd, an inquisitive boy who immigrates to the town Estrella, where he lives on a farm, learns a new language, and hopes to make friends. He enrolls in an unusual dance academy where he’s faced with the necessities of growing up. Little has been said about Coetzee’s latest work, which seeks to combine allegory, memory, and history to question “how we choose to live our lives.”
Deborah Levy, Hot Milk
The British playwright and author returns to the Man Booker list four years after her novel Swimming Home made the 2012 shortlist. Her latest work explores the tumultuous relationship between a young woman, Sofia, and her mysteriously ill mother. With seemingly no options left, Sofia and her mother travel to Southern Spain to meet with the unconventional physician Dr. Gomez, in hopes of finding answers. “The sun-bleached, Mediterranean setting,” The Guardian wrote, allows for “explorations of troubled familial bonds, of the nature of sexuality, an examination of exile—and repeated motifs of incantatory language.”
Ian McGuire, The North Water
The North Water is the second novel from McGuire, the English co-founder and co-director of the University of Manchester’s Center for New Writing. It’s a dark novel that drops readers into the heart—or hull— of The Volunteer, a 19th-century whaling ship carrying a mysterious killer aboard. From the freezing, rough waters of the Arctic to the 1857 British siege of Delhi, the novel takes a Melvillian journey and reimagines it as a nightmarish blend of historical fiction and thriller. The New York Times describes the book as “the result of an encounter between Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy in some run-down port as they offer each other a long, sour nod of recognition.”
Wyl Menmuir, The Many
The English author’s debut novel is a surprising entry on the list, published by an independent imprint so small it doesn’t have permanent offices. Its protagonist, Timothy, looks to settle in an isolated coastal village, where strange fish and empty boats inhabit its polluted waters. But as he attempts to renovate an old house, he begins to ask unwelcome questions about its previous owner, raising the villagers’ suspicions. “Its portrayal of a community left behind by technology and bureaucracy, suspicious of the threat represented by ‘outsiders,’ is recognizable and timely,” wrote one review. “Perhaps even more so now than the author may have intended.”
Virginia Reeves, Work Like Any Other
The Montana native’s first novel is a pastoral story set in 1920s Alabama, where Roscoe T. Martin, an electrician, is forced to leave his life in the city and move with his son and wife to work on her family’s farm. There, he begins to steal electricity, until an official from the utility company who discovers the wires is electrocuted, and Roscoe is sent to jail for manslaughter. The novel follows Roscoe as he tries to survive in prison, disowned by his family, and consumed by guilt. The New York Journal of Books found Reeves’ debut to be “a deeply gripping portrayal of Americana in the Deep South, replete with racism, violence, and heartbreak.”
Paul Beatty, The Sellout
The American writer’s fourth novel, The Sellout, is a wild satire whose narrator, nicknamed “Bonbon,” tries to save his south L.A. hometown by bringing back slavery and segregation. Beatty mocks the absurdities of believing in a “post-racial America,” taking his characters to narrative extremes (when readers first meet the protagonist, he’s sitting in front of the Supreme Court). Despite its heavy subject matter—police killings, father-son relationships, servitude—The Sellout is alive with humor. NPR said the novel “isn’t just one of the most hilarious American novels in years, it also might be the first truly great satirical novel of the century.”
David Szalay, All That Man Is
Szalay’s fourth novel pulls together nine distinct narratives of men at different stages of their lives to ask a single question: What does it mean to be a man in the 21st century? Weaving a tale rife with boyish desire, psychological angst, and literary references, the Canadian-born author closes the gap between short fiction and the novel with this series of vignettes. “Szalay is in pursuit of the feel of a specific moment, whether that feel is lyrical or mundane,” wrote The Telegraph. “It is one of the many ironies of his work that it brings a sensory richness to the bleak and the drab.”
A.L. Kennedy, Serious Sweet
The British writer’s eighth novel tells the story of two troubled protagonists—one a middle-aged civil servant, the other a bankrupt accountant—who have been penpals, and are preparing to meet in person for the first time. Set over the course of a single day in London, Serious Sweet is an offbeat romance. “Serious Sweet portrays intense lives of quiet desperation,” said a review in The Guardian. “It is a novel about hope and muted courage and, at the end of the day, a very tentatively experienced optimism.”
Graeme Macrae Burnet, His Bloody Project
The Scottish novelist’s second book is another unexpected entry on the list—a crime thriller that’s only been sparsely covered. His Bloody Project focuses on a triple murder, the arrest of a young man for the crimes, and the question of whether or not he was insane when he committed them. The book is presented as the found memoir of Roderick Macrae, the man accused of committing the murders. “The sense of place, the characterisation and the evocation of a remote nineteenth-century rural community are as brilliant and assured as the suspenseful storyline is gripping,” said one review.
David Means, Hystopia
Means has written four critically acclaimed short-story collections, but this is the American writer’s debut novel—one that considers the ever-important question of the emotional costs of war. Hystopia is a book-within-a-book written by a 22-year-old Vietnam veteran before he commits suicide. The work in question takes place in a reimagined version of the 1960s and ’70s: an alternate history where President Kennedy has lived through multiple assassination attempts and has taken drastic means to eradicating mental illness in returning soldiers. The Atlantic’s Amy Weiss-Meyer writes that the structure of the novel “is a testament to Means’s belief in the power of stories that demand to be told.”
Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen
Set in Boston in the 1960s, the American author’s second novel revolves around an unhappy young woman who has to care for her alcoholic father while working a day job as a secretary at a prison for delinquent boys. But she longs for freedom, and when a new co-worker arrives, Eileen is intrigued, and things begin to change. NPR praised the “sweetly sinister humor in Moshfegh’s prose,” declaring that “Eileen is a coming-of age novel about a formidable, yet flawed young woman.”
Elizabeth Strout, My Name Is Lucy Barton
Published eight years after Strout’s Pulitzer-winning work Olive Kitteridge, the American author’s fifth novel tells the story of Lucy, a woman in the hospital recovering from an infection, and her mother’s efforts to reconnect with her. Over the course of the visit, old wounds are reopened—and the narrator’s painful childhood memories and family frustrations come to the surface. The New York Times writes, “There is not a scintilla of sentimentality in this exquisite novel,” determining that “My Name Is Lucy Barton offers us a rare wealth of emotion, from darkest suffering to simple joy.”
Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing
The latest work from the Canadian short-story writer and novelist follows the members of a single family in China, both before and after the country’s Cultural Revolution in 1966. The sprawling work stretches across decades and geographical regions as it delves into the lives of countless fascinating characters. The Globe and Mail has called the book “an intergenerational saga” that “will cement [Thien] as one of Canada’s most talented novelists.”
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