In 2015, ‘The Vegetarian‘ by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith) was one of my top reads of the year. In 2016, it was rightly awarded the (newly reorganised) Man Booker International Prize. In honour of those judges getting it so right, I have decided to give the 2017 prize my full attention. Below is my summary of the shortlist, with full reviews to follow in the weeks leading up to the award ceremony.
‘Compass’ by Mathias Enard (translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell) first grabbed my attention because it is attractively wrapped in a Fitzcarraldo Editions striking blue cover. It is also one of the longer novels on the shortlist, an insomniac stream of musings and reminiscences as our narrator considers his past and present through an obsession with ‘Orientalism.’ Packed full with references to Western and Eastern literature, culture, history and art, the book literally orients itself around this longing to understand a constantly changing other.
The narrator of David Grossman’s latest novel (translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen) hates stand up comedy; the protagonist is a stand up comedian giving the performance of his life. This short, frenetic novel follows the course of one night’s show, complete with jokes, slapstick and brutal emotional and physical violence. A hypnotic tour-de-force, Grossman’s novel is both a masterful monologue on the part of the comic and a deeply moving reflection on trauma, love and loss.
After all of my Nordic reading at the start of the this year, Roy Jacobsen’s ‘The Unseen’ (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw) felt like very familiar territory. It is set on an isolated archipelago, owned and inhabited by a single small family. We follow the Barrøys through their joys and sorrows, through the good times and the bad. Despite the fearsome odds stacked against them, from the punishing weather to the politics and corruption of the mainland, the book is a love song to a precarious yet beautiful way of life.
On the surface, ‘Mirror Shoulder Signal’ by Dorthe Nors (translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra) is about the trials and tribulations of forty-something Sonja as she tries to learn how to drive. Underneath this surface, we’re made aware that driving (and the process of learning) is really a metaphor for modern day existence, navigating independence, unexpected obstacles and the isolation of contemporary urban life. As an example of the sly humour that runs throughout, Sonja makes a living translating violent and phenomenally successful Scandi noir, (my favourite job of any protagonist on this shortlist).
Amos Oz’s ‘Judas’ (translated by Nicholas de Lange) is set in Jerusalem in the winter of 1959-60. As the divided city is contested around them, a small cast of characters try to work out their own conflicting loyalties to each other, their past and their present. The main character is Shmuel, a young, lonely student who has dropped out of university half way through completing his research on Jesus (who fascinates him), and Judas (who intrigues him still more). Shmuel finds himself living in a house where ideas of treachery, conflict and love have seeped into the very floorboards. A philosophical and deeply personal novel.
The horror story, ‘Fever Dream,’ is every bit as nightmarish as the title suggests. Samata Schweblin’s novel (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell) is very hard to describe, partly because I don’t want to spoil the plot, but also because the story itself is terrifyingly vague. Set in rural Argentina this is a story about the environment and pollution, about witchcraft and demons. Most of all, it is a story about a mother’s love for her child and a terrifying evocation of what can happen if this love is unbalanced. Probably one of the most surprising novels on the shortlist; in my opinion, it is definitely one of the most impressive.