A LITTLE LIFE
Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel has been praised directly in proportion to its size; that is to say, massively. Yet for such a mammoth book, it lacks substance. The story follows four classmates from their New England college through decades of their lives in New York.
There’s Jude, abandoned as an infant and with a past of gothic misery, first as a child abused by monks, then abducted and pimped by one of them, and, after that, captured and tortured by still another pred ator. Willem is an orphan, bound for Hollywood fame.
JB is a Haitian-American painter whose first show puts him in MoMa (it’s that sort of book — the exploded myth of American exceptionalism and success is here fully internalised).
Jude’s experience (details of which are exasperatingly withheld for hundreds of pages, for no good reason) leaves him diseased and prone to self harm.
His friends’ devotion to him dominates the narrative. It’s admirable (he’s even adopted as an adult) yet Yanagihara does a poor job accounting for it. Jude is a condition of suffering and its legacy, rather than a compelling character.
UNDER THE UDALA TREES
In 2014, Goodluck Jonathan signed into law a bill criminalising same-sex relationships in Nigeria. It was a codification of Nigerian society’s endemic and violent homophobia. As such a novel like this is an important one.
It tells the story of a gay woman’s life and loves, from the civil war up to 2014. Okparanta’s writing is clear and concise, though at times hampered by oddly artless similes. For a non-religious reader, however, there is little drama in the heroine’s tortured nights of the soul.
THE GREEN ROAD
Several family members coming together in a west-of-Ireland home, to thrash out their past and problematic relations with their mother might have the Irish reader thinking “Here we go again.”
But while the scenario is all-too predictable, Enright’s sense of humour, eye for detail, and graceful, sly, creative prose elevate her story above the merely generic.
A WHOLE LIFE
Seethaler tells the life story of Andreas Egger, which begins and ends in the same Alpine valley. Through him we see the end of European peasant life, with tourism and skiing replacing transhumance.
Eventually he is a man out of time, but his times are precisely captured – his war years, his brief marriage, ended by a deadly avalanche – and in a way that probes the nature of time as we live by it, and in it.
A STRANGNESS IN MY MIND
The biggest character in all Pamuk’s fiction is arguably his home town of Istanbul. Having told stories of his own affluent, westernised class, in A Strangeness in My Mind Pamuk follows Mevlut, a street-vendor who, like millions from across Turkey, swelled the population of Istanbul.
We share the decades of Mevlut and the city’s slow progress and he is a keen-eyed companion during an encyclopaedic novel. He remains throughout, in the tradition of pavement-pounding city dwellers like Leopold Bloom, an observant outsider, alive to, but not prey to, the vices and manias of his fellows.
THE PROPHET OF ETERNAL FJORD
Leine’s epic would be a deserving winner. We begin in a pungent, filthy Copenhagen, in 1782. Morten Falck is training to be a pastor, though he is more interested in body than soul – attending medical dissections and whorehouses with equal enthusiasm.
A disciple more of Rousseau than Christ, he travels to Greenland to meet man in nature. But the stain of human corruption cannot be so easily washed. Leine’s is a journey to the dark heart of colonialism, a hypocritical enterprise blind to its own depravity but viciously punitive of native recalcitrance.
Nguyen enters the field of Vietnam War literature from a better position than most. He was born in Vietnam and raised in the US, adding a fresh perspective to his work that American writers necessarily have lacked.
The benefits are seen from the start – a gripping account of escape from what he archly calls the fall, liberation or both of Saigon. From there, we follow events as told by a nameless narrator, an undercover communist spy among the exiled South Vietnamese.
At times gleefully satirical, at others contemplative, The Sympathiser is tightly plotted and must be a strong contender.
THE STORY OF MY TEETH
Gustavo Sanchez Sanchez is, according to himself, “the best auctioneer in the world”. He sells his own teeth, claiming they belonged to Plato, Virginia Woolf and others.
He’s fond of quoting uncles with names like Marcelo Sanchez Proust; he takes excursions into the arcane aspects of his profession, or into philosophy, or tells us short stories.
Luiselli’s deadpan, mosaic style allows us suspend our disbelief, before we reach a closing section reminiscent of some gallery installation with its photos, timeline and annotations.
The book is a commission from an art gallery, one Luiselli has made in collaboration withsome Mexico City factory workers, who were both contributors and first listeners to her story.) The quirkiest book on the shortlist, The Story of My Teeth is a work of art in itself, but also a wry comment on how art is valued, and priced.
A GENERAL THEORY OF OBLIVION
It’s 1974 and Portuguese rule is coming to an end in Angola, unleashing a 26-year civil war.
Those decades of turmoil are seen in Agualusa’s remarkable book through the experiences of Ludo, a little bit of Portugal who has remained behind, after bricking herself into her apartment.
She lives off vegetables and trapped pigeons; the reader is sustained by a crafty device that allows Agualusa a crack through which to survey a vast historical landscape.
CONFESSIONS OF THE LIONESS
Another civil war in Lusophone Africa casts a long shadow of this work, set in Mozambique. A hunter is sent to a remote village where lions have been preying on people.
His account alternates with a version of events by one of the village women — and between them Couto weaves between allegory and realism, myth and superstition, politics and tribalism.
The lions are killing only women, something freighted with symbolism by the village elders, but it is they who ostracise the women. Who is the real predator, then? Couto’s achievement is to manage several registers, and never come across like an anthropologist interloper.
Yet at the same time, he mounts an unapologetic attack on the violent misogyny at the heart of so many folk rituals and superstitions.