When the winner of the Booker Prize was announced last week (it proved to be The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, about which more shortly), I found myself in an unusual position of equanimity. In most years, I have a fairly strong view as to who should win – it’s even sometimes shared by the judges. But this year, the shortlist was of such unusual quality that I really couldn’t – didn’t want to – call it. When I attended, for the first time in a few years now, the Booker shortlist event at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on the Saturday before the ceremony, I was left feeling similarly: this really was a group of books, and a group of authors, which stood shoulder-to-shoulder.
So I decided to leave writing about the 2022 Booker Prize until after the winner emerged. Much of the joy in posh bingo, of course, is in guessing – or second-guessing – the winner. I’ve robbed myself of that this time, although I confess to a feeling of freedom from having done so: instead, I simply enjoyed each of these books. On the night, more or less any one of these titles might have been intoned by Neil MacGregor to a similar sense of satisfaction as the one I experienced when Karunatilaka took the microphone to speak for so long that the Radio 4 pips were forced to wait. It’s not often I feel this way; I aimed to savour it.
One of the questions I’ve asked myself since then, however, is why Karunatilaka was the name selected by the judges. Because in some ways, other than its consistency – perhaps as a function of its consistency – these books share rather little in common. MacGregor suggested, somewhat perfunctorily, that the six books “were all really about one question, and that is ‘what’s the importance of an individual life?’” I’m not sure what novel isn’t, ultimately, about that – the art-form’s fundamental aim, or at least trick, being to create the illusion of another’s consciousness on the page. For every book that takes a more political approach to self-hood – Percival Everett’s The Trees and NoViolet Bulawayo’s Glory chief amongst them – there are others – Alan Garner’s strange Treacle Walker and Elizabeth Strout’s charming Oh William! – that are, if asking this question in any explicit way at all, doing so very much sotto voce.
Instead, it feels to me as if the judges have simply sought books that achieve their own aims well – and perhaps smartly. Each of these books might be said to do something familiar, but in so creative a way as to spin the yarn anew. This often involved generic play. Arguably, however, it is only Karunatilaka that twines several yarns together – that is, his book does something new or notably characterful with a number of threads, and it may be this plate-spinning creative facility which let his book take a half-step further that the other five. It does the same thing as the other five books with the same level of success – but moreso.
Let me show my working.
I began my reading of this year’s shortlist with Treacle Walker, and this was entirely by accident: Waterstone’s much-publicised issues with inventory meant this slim novel was the only book available in the branch I visited in the days following the shortlist’s unveiling. It was a strange coincidence, however, since Garner’s novel was the last book to be written about my late colleague and friend, Maureen Kincaid Speller, who died around the time I was reading the shortlist and would I think have been tickled by Garner’s shortlisting at the venerable age of 87. I’m happy to report that her wonderful essay on the book is listed second only to the Prize’s own pages about the novel when one searches for ‘the meaning of Treacle Walker‘, and this is fitting: in this last long-form written piece of hers, Maureen came closer than any critic I have read so far to understanding this difficult novel in the round. Having edited the piece, I knew it well – and, as I read the book, I realised I had little more to say: “Treacle Walker is not a bad novel,” Maureen ultimately concluded, “but neither is it a work of towering genius.”
It is wonderfu to see Garner deservedly honoured by the Booker. Maureen’s ambivalence, though, captures something of the novel’s avowed inertness: it is remarkable for what it tries to do, and is impressive more in the terms of its formal play than the ends to which that is put. At Cheltenham, Garner was at pains to reject the idea he writes fantasy; “I write metaphor,” he insisted down the Zoom line from Cheshire, with such strength that he may as well have been in the room. We might be justified, then, to ask what the metaphor here is; and yet later in the same event Garner declared with equal confidence that, once the book leaves the writer’s hand, it is for the reader alone to interpret it. This might make for shaky metaphors, which tend to require concrete and agreed referents if they are to make sense. Perhaps in the place of such certainty, then, Treacle Walker scatters not metaphors but motifs: the word “daft” recurs continually, as if to draw attention to the ways in which we dismiss the ineffable of the everyday; Treacle Walker’s own rounds as a rag and bone man seem circular and repetitive (“Any rags! Pots for rags! Donkey stone!”); the plot is anchored to the cycles of the natural world, personified by the bog-person whom the protagonist, Joseph Coppock, must pinion again in place at the novel’s climax.
These recursive patterns gesture at the concept of eternity, and Treacle Walker, in its simultaneous timelessness and fixedness, seems to ask where we all sit in deep time, what that scale of existence might mean and how it might affect us. It achieves this by what is a quite captivating harnessing of the fable form, and a repurposing of language that makes a quite demotic voice feel mysterious and difficult:
“You do not have the Words.”
“The Wiords that give you leave.”
“To command,” said Treacle Walker.
“What are they?”
“Who knows?”(Treacle Walker, p. 105)
If this suggests the novel can be frustrating, then so it can be. Much plainer in its approach – yet rather similar in its atmosphere – is Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, itself a bold title for a novella which is almost a short story. Set in the 1980s in rural Ireland, the novella nonetheless feels as curiously out-of-time as Coppock’s stone house in Treacle Walker: with its nuns and villages, rural poverty and dark winter nights, the story is as much one of the eighteenth century as the twentieth. This, perhaps, is part of Keegan’s point: hers is a story about the Magdalen laundries, the last of which was closed in 1996 and yet the morality of which feels as medieval as a bog-person. Keegan’s protagonist, Bill Furlong, is an average man in an average village, scraping together enough money this Christmas for a small gift for both of his two daughters, and enjoying a companionable marriage with his wife, Eileen. “The years don’t slow down as they pass,” they tell each other as they spend their evenings negotiating the hardships of life out of the earshot of their children.
Whispers and secrets are the manner in which life is done in the small town of New Ross, where Bill was brought up by a wealthy Protestant woman – an outcast in the community as a result of he religion, but therefore also free of the strictures of its self-policed morality – after his biological mother became pregnant with him as an unmarried teenager. The omerta on the reality of all this is complete, and Bill proceeds through life with a great absence at the centre of his self-knowledge: “Surely some local knew who his father was – everyone had a father – and it didn’t seem likely that someone hadn’t ever said a word about it” (p. 21). On the edge of town, meanwhile, is a nunnery into the centre of which few, too, are admitted; when Bill finds himself there to delivery a last-minute Christmas delivery of lumber to fuel the nuns’ winter, he for reasons obscure to himself forces past the invisible barriers and unspoken codes of conduct to find a girl locked in a coal-shed. Something, he realises, is wrong.
If Treacle Walker holds back its meaning, then, Small Things Like These pushes its characters past the point of discovery – and asks moral questions of their new knowledge. The novella ends hopefully – although frankly also in a way that feels as if this is in truth the prologue to a novel, not the thing itself – and Furlong emerges as something of a hero. In doing something about and with his knowledge – “was there any point in being alive without helping one another?” (p. 108) – he places, too, a demand upon the reader. The novella reads like a sentimental Christmas story of the sort Dickens might have recognised; but in placing women at its centre, and asking questions not of its fictional characters but those who read them, it eschews the settled moralities of the happy ending to probe deeper into the whys and hows of unspoken injustice.
This is the project, too, of Percival Everett’s The Trees – but here it is writ large and gaudily, in a grand guignol horror-comedy in which the ghost of Emmett Till, apparently for real but in actuality in figurative spirit, returns to avenge not just his lynching but all racist murder. In the town of Money, Mississippi, the descendants of Till’s murderers are being themselves murdered – and at the scene lies the body of a beaten Black man that resembles Till himself … and springs unexplainably free from the morgue each time it is collected by the police. When first the Mississippi and then the Federal Bureau of Investigation become involved in the spiralling sequence of cases, The Trees expands what is often a laugh-out-loud satire of white supremacy outwards to an entire society that is – it seems – about to be submerged by a refusal any longer to let injustice go unspoken or unpunished, to avenge crimes in which “no suspects were identified … [no one] was arrested … [and no one] cared” (p. 177).
What lifts the novel is its wonderful characterisation. A satire can so easily fall back on types, but here Everett’s sympathy extends to characters sketched with such deep economy that they become almost instantly known to us – and make the often absurd cycle of events in the novel feel weighted with real significance. Critically, too, despite the comical names – Mr Pick L. Dill, three friends name Ho, Chi and Minh – Everett makes clear by contrast that the reality of racism is as quotidian as the Furlongs’ trusty old Rayburn: when Ed, one of the two Black MBI detectives assigned to Money, is “charged with learning as much about the four White victims [of the revenge killings] as possible”, he realises that “the three men and one woman were so unremarkable that there was little to uncover” (p. 184). In one scene, a character sings “Strange Fruit”, that song of lynching that begins in the “southern trees”; this, too, is a story about the trees from which Black men hang in America – and they are plentiful and everywhere. Ed believes the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot should not be a museum – because “It’s just a motel. That’s what it is. That’s all it is” (p. 276). There’s nothing remarkable about it; it’s just another tree.
In its fierce moral clarity and absolute commitment to its own form of generic play, The Trees was for me one of the best reading experiences on the shortlist: it’s a page-turner with philosophical complexity, a rare mix which demonstrates considerable technical skill that is worn extremely lightly. The same could be said of Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William!, a novel which begs to be read in a single sitting and which one gets to know as one might a friend. Its narrator, Lucy Barton, has featured in several of Strout’s previous novels, and her voice is captured here with beautiful and convincing attention to detail; but she’s not quite the novel’s focus. Instead, her first husband – the William of the title – comes into focus as a selfishly charming lost old man. When his third wife leaves him and takes their daughter, Lucy – despite having just lost her second husband, and while she subsumes her grief for him into caring for others – is called upon to usher William through a road-trip he has decided to take in order to understand, Furlong-like, his childhood: he has, he has discovered, a sister he never knew.
Lucy’s apparent lack of self-esteem – she places others before herself, is always surprised when people praise the writing she makes an excellent living from, rarely eats, and feels routinely subordinate and inferior to others – is captured in this novel with a rare, transparent obliviousness. Barton – of course! – cannot see herself as others clearly do. At one point, William – a flawed man who is a serial philanderer, and yet is never quite the villain of the piece – is permitted to tell Lucy some home-truths about her own methods of drawing attention to herself – “you are always hungry because you never eat anything – and so everything becomes about getting Lucy something to eat” (p. 146) – he demonstrates an insight into others that Lucy lacks. He also begins his journey of self-discovery – “You’re no more self-absorbed than any of us,” he tells her, tacitly admitting his own narcissism (p. 153) – which culminates in, ultimately, his feeling that he does not, in fact, need to meet his long-lost sister. “We are all mythologies,” Lucy realises. “We are all mysteries, is what I mean” (p. 237).
In some ways, all this makes Oh William! the most Bookerish book on this list: middle-class people on voyages of self-discovery, a writer on a road trip, neurosis attached to human experience. We’ve read this book before. But Strout lashes it to a buddy movie, and injects a glug of Frasier-like farce for good measure. Oh William! is such fun not because of the lessons it teaches its characters – but because of all the ways in which we are shown just how much they need to learn them. On another level entirely, this is exactly what happens in NoViolent Bulawayo’s Glory – itself a Booker-ish book, given that its author was also shortlisted for their previous novel. But here the resemblances end: Glory is a big novel, an allegory – not a metaphor – for Zimbabwe in its post-Mugabe years. It adopts the conceit of Orwell’s Animal Farm – all of its characters are non-human, from the crocodile who stands in Emmerson Mnangagwa to the goat who appears a third of the way through and proves the novel’s heroine – and adds an episodic approach, proceeding in chapters split into tiny, page-long sections. This enables it to cover a lot of ground quickly, and break off from its state-of-the-nation omniscience to focus where necessary on individuals and vignettes. In so doing, it shows us how broken across how many axes the political system of its nation of Jidada is, to ensure we understand how crucial it is to repair it.
This makes it an extremely noisy novel: one can hear the elephants trumpet, the zebras stampede. Bulawayo squeezes George Floyd into this story of Zimbabwe; she brings in apartheid South Africa and twenty-first-century social media; we proceed through quite Byzantine inner-circle politics and take part in the politics of the crowd. All this can be overwhelming, but perhaps in the ways it was meant to be: chaos is the primary effect of much of what happens in Glory, a novel which excoriates the destructive will-to-power of men – for it is mostly men, and their misogyny is am important element of the novel – who presume to rule. Despite this breadth, however, the novel is often at its best when it takes time to skewer with pin-point accuracy one or other particularity. Here is the Old Horse – the novel’s Mugabe figure – on his vision of leadership:
I’m not going anywhere! Because me, I was Jidada’s leader almost forty years ago, and I was Jidada’s leader thirty years ago, and twenty years ago, and ten years ago! Because I was Jidada’s leader yesterday, and I am Jidada’s leader today, and I will be Jidada’s leader when?” the Father of the Nation invited, ears now cocked at the square.(Glory, p. 16)
“Tomorrow and Forever!!!” Jidada Square thundered in celebration of the Old Horse’s endless rule.
The strongman’s egotism – and the effect of it on their public – has rarely been so vividly summarised. “Our future was plundered and pillaged by the deposed tyrant while we were in our mothers’ bellies,” a classroom of children sneer at one point, and in this line the novel’s recurrently rapier-like moral seriousness is sharpened to an effective point. The novel ends – like Keegan’s – on a note of plangent hope. If the novel can sometimes strain to raise its voice above its own tumult, that may be one of the intended effects of its remarkable fusing of anthropomorphic fable with an immersed account of populist despotism – again, here is a book which picks an unusual lane and practically speeds down it.
Which brings us to the novel that races simultaneously down several streets somehow all at once, Shehan Karunatilaka’s winning The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. As in Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, shortlisted for the Booker in 2019, this novel begins with its protagonist already dead. What follows is a ghost-story-cum-spy-thriller-cum-noir-mystery-cum-horror-novel. It takes in Sri Lanka’s destructively complex politics of the 1980s, neocolonialism and neoliberalism, queer culture and homophobia. At its heart is the eponymous Maali Almeida character, who is given the titular seven moons to track down his murderer and come to terms with all he has left behind. Almeida was a photographer, taking shots of events many would rather not have recorded, and the secret of his death seems to lie in the box of prints that sit beneath his bed; but in reality it also and at least equally lies in the knotty interpersonal dynamics of his messy – because persecuted – private life. He and every other character negotiate the painful and impossible realities of 1980s Sri Lanka, negotiating between the Tamil Tigers and the Marxist revolutionaries, the Indian peacekeepers and the American spooks, the gangsters and the politicians and the charities and NGOs. It’s as if Dashiell Hammett met Gabriel García Márquez and decided to write with the fury of Arundhati Roy.
The novel is written in the second-person, in what I think may be its least successful – but alas most persistent – feature. The intention, of course, is to involve the reader more directly in events which may be unfamiliar and indeed unintelligible to them (in one of the novel’s many efforts to build bridges between cultures as well as genres, early on we read a note left by Maali for an American visitor to Sri Lanka, which describes – and perhaps, though I lack the insight to confirm this, flattens into false balance – the country’s various factions). But, as so often, the second person instead because a sort of barrier between the reader and the narrator, its accusatory call flattening into a “who, me?” response. At one point, we are told, “The house in Bambalapitiya was owned by your father’s mother, left to your father’s sister, and given to your father’s first wife after the divorce. You, the first wife’s son, few up here”; but of course this is all about Maali, and we know that. The elision never quite occurs, leaving the “yous” a little marooned.
Despite this, however, the novel excels: it builds worlds like Treacle Walker, allegorises politics like Glory, demands moral action like Keegan and enacts self-discovery like Strout; most importantly, it extrudes injustice from a society’s tumult like Everett. And it does all of this in several modes at once, in the style of Graham Greene at one minute and by channeling Marlon James in the next. We swerve from violence to tenderness in a couple of pages, from torture chambers to music venues … and yet always we return to characters we care about, and in whose personal lives ultimately lie the answers to this (literally and figuratively) multi-dimensional story.
I’ll be honest: had I written this piece before the announcement, and without really knowing or especially caring which of these six fine novels won, I might have suggested The Trees would tip it. I think it is probably more consistently – and finely – written, and it feels especially well-honed, perhaps well edited. But, as soon as Karunatilaka’s name was called out by MacGregor, I understood – and agreed with – the judges’ contrary reasonings. Were The Seven Moons of Maali Almedia a genre novel – and it nearly is – the critic would write of its “world-building”, the remarkable manner in which it creates its every milieu and reflects the rules not just for the profusion of forces that it depicts as tearing at the seams of its Sri Lanka, but the ones which govern its ghost-world, too: the novel has at least two worlds, and inhabits both equally; several modes, and does each justice; and many tones – each of which holds its own. It is the 2022 shortlist in microcosm – not to be read apart from or above the other five books, but perhaps in summary of them. That’s a worthy winner – and a good year for fiction.