The Man Booker Shortlist: A Guide for the Perplexed

When the Booker shortlist was announced a few weeks ago I proclaimed that this was the year I would read the entire selection of six novels. I make many stupid proclamations, but unfortunately I said this one out loud in front of people I like and respect.

The Man Booker Prize is a strange, unpredictable beast — now that I have read all the books on the 2016 list I cannot say for sure what it is those judges look for except that the novels are all inventive, assured and have a dark side. I have been surprised, delighted, confused, challenged, provoked and moved, but never bored.

I'm not sure if there's quite something for everyone on the list, but there are definitely some things for some people. Happy reading!

1. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

Hot Milk is a fantastically strange, sexy and blackly funny novel. It was the first one of the list I read, and probably the one I will recommend to the most people. Set in a coastal town in Spain, the story follows Sofia and her mysteriously ailing mother as they seek treatment at an unconventional clinic run by the beatific Doctor Gomez and his eccentric staff (including a pregnant cat named Jodo). At its purest, the novel is a coming-of-age story, but don’t expect a traditional narrative arc – Sofia’s journey is as bizarre as it is compelling.

You should read Hot Milk if: you see weirdness as a virtue, and have unresolved issues with your mother.

If Hot Milk comes up at a dinner party, you might like to make the following pretentious, yet enigmatic assessment: ‘I particularly responded to the visceral poeticism of the language, and let’s just say I’ll never look at jellyfish the same way.’

2. Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh

Eileen is a grim, unforgiving, claustrophobic character study of the eponymous Eileen, a young woman who lives with her sadistic alcoholic father and works at a juvenile prison. Although she presents herself as thoroughly unremarkable, the story’s claws catch on the casual, even comical way she reveals the more disturbing parts of her personality. Reading Eileen is an exercise in withstanding the grotesque; through the loose structure of a noir thriller, Otessa Moshfegh masterfully chips away at the soiled, encrusted parts of ourselves that we don’t want to acknowledge. It’s a novel about shame, desire and the unstable nature of morality.

You should read Eileen if: you hunger to explore the darkness that lives inside us all. Not for the faint of heart or unstable of stomach. 

If Eileen comes up at a dinner party, you might like to make the following innocuous comment: ‘Moshfegh has really pushed the boat out on the unlikeable protagonist front – she renders the abject like it’s nobody’s business.’

3. The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Paul Beatty’s novel is lightning in a bottle. It’s an uproarious, savage satire of the least politically correct kind. The language has an inimitable swagger and the multi-layered political, historical and pop cultural references flow so thickly and quickly you may need a literary decanter to process the message underneath. Make no mistake, this is very likely a work of genius, but it is a hugely challenging read as it gallops along, lacerating the state of American race relations until there's nothing left but shreds of indignity. This is an important novel, but I fear that on my first reading I’ve barely processed its true depths and comedic achievement.

You should read The Sellout if: you’re after a fresh take on US race politics and are ready to take on a tsunami of inter-textual allusions which culminate in an exhilarating ride through a hyper-racial world. 

If The Sellout comes up at a dinner party, you might like to make the following grandiose announcement: ‘This might be the great satirical work of our generation.’

4. All That Man Is by David Szalay

David Szalay’s novel is made up of nine discrete sections, each of which drop you into an entirely new universe with new characters’ flaws to judge. Set in locations all over Europe, each of the stories is about a man, and these men become older with each chapter beginning with a 17-year-old on a not-so-sexy European adventure and ending with a dying man in his seventies. These characters are constantly travelling away from home – in cars, on planes, on yachts. Are they chasing the unattainable? Or are they merely running to escape themselves? Their stories throw up questions about masculinity, exile, disenfranchisement and the trappings of class, with a dash of schadenfreude thrown in for good measure.

You should read All That Man Is if: you enjoy short stories, and feel the urge to invest in a series of largely unsympathetic men who secretly hate their lives.

If All That Man Is comes up at a dinner party, you might like to suggest off handedly: ‘Aren't all these stories just exploring one question – what happens when the entitled become disempowered?’

5. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing explores the trauma and silence born out of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the power of music to embody and transcend suffering. From contemporary Vancouver to the deserts of southern China, the story roams across time and place stitched together by a constant preoccupation with music and a set of hand-written manuscripts that safeguard family secrets. The book is like a tapestry, with each character's journey its own piece of folklore, gradually coming together to create a whole picture. This is historical fiction in its most understated form, with all of the pathos but none of the sentimentality.   

You should read Do Not Say We Have Nothing if: you’d like learn about the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and feel many feelings at the same time.

If Do Not Say We Have Nothing comes up at a dinner party, you might like to proffer knowingly: ‘We often think of music and creativity as a form of outward dissidence, but Thien shows it can be an inward rebellion as well.’

6. His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

It took me a while to buy into this 19th century-style novel, but once I was in I was ALL IN.

His Bloody Project rests on the premise that the book comprises found archival documents relating to a triple homicide case in 1869 in rural Scotland – the story is a collage of different perspectives on this one gruesome event. The bulk of the novel is an articulate personal memoir written by the accused, which forms the undercoat on which other opinions are painted. This is no ordinary murder mystery – we know who did it – rather it’s an unexpectedly deep meditation on the nature of truth and intention, and whether we can ever really know the mind of another (or our own).

You should read His Bloody Project if: have a penchant for psychoanalysis; want to improve your Gaelic vocabulary; or have read all of the novels actually written in the 19th century and want more please.

If His Bloody Project comes up at a dinner party, you might like to ask provocatively: ‘Considering how meticulously Macrae Burnet mimics the 19th century style, how is it that this novel feels so modern?’


While I am loathe to expose myself in this way, I might as well go ahead and write my vague predictions for the prize, which is being announced this Tuesday (October 25th) in London.

Most likely to win: Hot Milk or The Sellout 

Least likely to win: All That Man Is and Eileen

Wild cards: His Bloody Project and Do Not Say We Have Nothing

By Kate Steinweg, Potts Point bookseller, reader and opinion haver (