Nigerian writer Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ has made it onto the Booker Prize longlist, announced on August 1, with her captivating second novel, A Spell of Good Things. Set in Osun state in the early ’00s, the story delves into the inequalities of Nigerian society. Adébáyọ̀ is the fifth Nigerian novelist to be nominated for the Booker.
The longlist was selected by a panel chaired by Esi Edugyan, twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize; actor, writer and director Adjoa Andoh; poet, lecturer, editor and critic Mary Jean Chan; professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and Shakespeare specialist James Shapiro; and actor and writer Robert Webb.
“The list is defined by its freshness — by the irreverence of new voices, by the iconoclasm of established ones,” said Edugyan. “All 13 novels cast new light on what it means to exist in our time, and they do so in original and thrilling ways. Their range is vast, both in subject and form: they shocked us, made us laugh, filled us with anguish, but above all they stayed with us. This is a list to excite, challenge, delight, a list to bring wonder. The novels are small revolutions, each seeking to energise and awaken the language. Together — whether historical or contemporary — they offer startling portraits of the current.”
In A Spell of Good Things Ẹniọlá and Wúràọlá come from different financial backgrounds but share an obsession with social status. Struggling student Ẹniọlá faces expulsion due to unpaid tuition, while Wúràọlá, a wealthy doctor, is engaged to Kúnlé, an abusive television news anchor whose father is a politician.
Adébáyọ̀ makes the point that the lives of the haves and the have-nots are intertwined, and that both are susceptible to greed and violence. The novel’s title refers to the grim observation of Wúràọlás mother “that life was war, a series of battles with the occasional spell of good things”.
Adébáyọ̀ skilfully depicts Ẹniọlá’s struggle for dignity while he begs on the streets, while Wúràọlá struggles to keep up appearances in a novel that reveals the dangers of blind adherence to tradition and family.
The list includes 10 writers longlisted for the first time, including four debut novelists: Jonathan Escoffery, Siân Hughes, Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow and Chetna Maroo. The longlist also features four Irish authors at once: Sebastian Barry, Elaine Feeney, Paul Lynch and Paul Murray. A total 37 Irish writers have been recognised by the Booker Prize, making Ireland the country that has produced the most nominees, relative to population size, in the prize’s history.
Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng has been nominated for each of his three novels: The Gift of Rain (longlisted in 2007), The Garden of Evening Mists (shortlisted in 2012), and The House of Doors. Set in Penang in 1921, and based on real historical events, last-mentioned is a haunting tale of forbidden love, betrayal, and loss under the shadow of Empire.
Lawyer Robert Hamlyn and his wife Lesley, a famed hostess, find their lives transformed by the arrival of their old friend Willie. A prominent writer of his time, Willie Somerset Maugham struggles with an unhappy marriage, health issues and failed business ventures, making it difficult for him to focus on his writing. As Lesley’s friendship with Willie deepens, she discovers his need to conceal his true self.
If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery follows Jamaican parents Topper and Santa, who escape the 1970s’ Caribbean troubles to Miami with their sons, Delano and Trelawny. Told through a series of linked stories, the novel focuses on Trelawny as he struggles to carve out a place for himself amid financial ruin, racism, and plain bad luck.
As the characters navigate the challenges of America and their own family dynamic, they wrestle with the questions that plague immigrants everywhere: who have they become, and where do they belong? It is described by novelist Ann Patchett as, “a collection of connected short stories that reads like a novel, that reads like real life, that reads like fiction written at the highest level”.
Mothers feature prominently in a number of books on the longlist. Maroo’s Western Lane, the shortest novel on the list, follows a family, and in particular 11-year-old Gopi, after the mother dies. In Hughes’ Pearl, eight-year-old Marianne’s mother goes missing and her vanishing haunts Marianne throughout her life. Elaine Feeney’s How to Build a Boat is about Jamie, who wants to connect with his late mother Noelle, and build a perpetual motion machine. In Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song, a mother-of-four faces a terrible choice after officers from Ireland’s secret police talk to her trade unionist husband.
The longest book on this year’s list is The Bee Sting by Paul Murray. Set in the Irish Midlands, the novel explores how our secrets and self-deceptions catch up with us in the end. Told from multiple perspectives, it is simultaneously hilariously funny and tragic, as is the case with so many Irish novels.
“We read 163 novels across seven months, and in that time whole worlds opened to us,” said Edugyan. “We were transported to early 20th century Maine and Penang, to the vibrant streets of Lagos and the squash courts of Luton, to the blackest depths of the Atlantic, and into a dystopic Ireland where the terrifying loss of rights comes as a hard warning.”
- Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ (Nigerian) A Spell of Good Things (Canongate)
- Sebastian Barry (Irish) Old God’s Time (Faber & Faber)
- Sarah Bernstein (Canadian) Study for Obedience (Granta Books)
- Jonathan Escoffery (American) If I Survive You (fourth Estate)
- Elaine Feeney (Irish) How to Build a Boat (Harvill Secker)
- Paul Harding (American) This Other Eden (Hutchinson Heinemann)
- Siân Hughes (British) Pearl (The Indigo Press)
- Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow (British) All the Little Bird-Hearts (Tinder Press)
- Paul Lynch (Irish) Prophet Song (Oneworld)
- Martin MacInnes (British) In Ascension (Atlantic Books)
- Chetna Maroo (British) Western Lane (Picador)
- Paul Murray (Irish) The Bee Sting (Hamish Hamilton)
- Tan Twan Eng (Malaysian) The House of Doors (Canongate)
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