The Written World

With Sarla Langdon

The Booker Prize 2018 was won predictably by a woman writer, Anna Burns for her novel Milkman, set in Northern Ireland. As a voice of the Irish troubles, Anna Burns joins a seriously illustrious panel; she also carries on the modernist stream-of- con-sciousness style initiated by James Joyce with great effect, going a step further by not naming any of her characters nor the town where all the action happens.

The sinister eponymous Milkman is the bête noir of the unnamed protagonist, stalking her, threatening her and her (all unnamed) family and friends, especially maybe-boyfriend. Burns conveys all the latent toxicity of a com-munity poisoned by religio-political schisms in a strong narrative, the chronicle of a young woman coping with the bigotry and paranoia in a hate fuelled milieu where victim attacks victim and there are no possible winners.

Even while retreating from all the horror of her situation by minimising her interaction with her tormentors, our protagonist manages to tell a vivid story with flashes of dead-pan humour, a story that makes this the most readable of all the Booker submissions. Burns’ Milkman is a worthy winner of the Booker prize.

The shortlist for the Booker prize 2018 included four woman writers, a nod to the increasingly vociferous clamour for more recognition of women writers’ achievements that appears to be justified from the quality of the titles selected. It is worth looking more closely at these shortlisted books received:

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson ~ UK (Jonathan Cape £14.99)

Everything Under is Daisy Johnson’s mytho-magical story of an indigent family, and their isolated canal-side life. Gretel and her negligent mother live on the fringes of the community, away from the mainstream, leading a life complete with foggy wastelands, spooky noises and a scary ‘Bonak’ an elusive river monster—all creating a backdrop of timeless rural mysteries.

This sort of mystical, surreal existence in the midst of solid unperturbable English countryside, brimming with vague secrets and soulful sorrows, fear and ferocity, is a well- known genre, made popular by brilliant writers such as Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro in The Buried Giant, Jim Crace in Harvest, and Fiona Mozley in Elmet – to name a few who have featured on previous Booker shortlists.

Daisy Johnson is in very good company and she has earned a place in this elite genre with her fluid evocative style and her beautifully told narrative.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan ~ Canada (Serpent’s Tail £12.99)

Washington Black is Esi Edugyan’s second appearance in the Booker shortlist (2011 with Half-blood Blues), and is a deeply evocative story of a slave, the eponymous Washington Black, growing up amid the unremitting brutality of a sugar plantation in Barbados powered by slave-labour. Black catches the attention of his master’s scientist brother, who takes him on as an assistant, in a mad attempt at building a flying machine, and finds his road to freedom after harsh adventures and terrifying persecution. Washington Black is an authoritative portrayal of the hardships endured by slaves, again, a genre already represented by some outstanding novelists, including past Booker contenders such as British writer Andrea Levy’s The Long Song and South African novelist the late Andre Brink’s Philida—both searing narratives of the most shameful period of modern history.

It is an honourable genre that Edugyan has entered and her novel is a very creditable addition to the bitter annals of slavery.

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner ~ USA (Jonathan Cape £16.99)

With American novelist Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, we are treated, once again, to the outpourings of a woman writer obsessed with violence and brutality. Kushner’s protagonist Romy Hall, a lap-dancer in the infamous and eponymous Mars Room, is the unfortunate victim of neglect and poverty and has grown up deeply under-privileged. When she is pursued beyond endurance by a stalker, she retaliates, and because of the completely incompetent and careless government legal advice she receives, finds herself incarcerated in a dreadful prison facing two life sentences.

Rachel Kushner’s narrative is a powerful indictment of the injustices perpetrated by a so-called free and equalsociety on its more helpless citizens.

Interestingly, The Secret Barrister by Anonymous (Macmillan £16.99) deals with exactly this shortcoming in the modern justice system, equally as fallible in the UK today as Rachel Kushner depicts it in the USA. The Secret Barrister is a book that has recently achieved a certain notoriety in the literary world, partly because of the author’s successful insistence on total anonymity, but largely because of its passionate plea for amelioration of the criminal justice system. The anonymous barrister who is the author of The Secret Barrister illustrates the shortcomings of the cash-starved legal system with numerous cases as disturbing as that of Kushner’s protagonist Romy Hall. Both books are important chronicles of the sorry state of public justice systems and both deserve kudos for their detailed expose of the iniquities of the innocent and the guilty who have the misfortune to face court proceedings.

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