I have got a bit of a problem here because I have seven books on my shortlist! The judges will only have six.
Given that, here are my suggestions, in no particular order.
Sebastian Barry – Days Without End – this has already appeared on several lists and won. I enjoyed this novel and consider it among one of his best. I love the way he creates a narrative from character and situation, setting them both against a dramatic historical background and bringing it all vividly to life.
George Saunders – Lincoln in the Bardo – this Gothic fantasy snatched from a snippet of historical information, shows a brilliant disregard for the “way in which a novel should be written”. The stylistically daring presentation of historical contemporary writing interspersed with invented dialogue, the setting and the intense rendering of a father’s grief make it both comical and tragic. A masterpiece of imaginative writing.
Mohsin Hamid – Exit West – this novel must surely be on the shortlist. It is such intelligent prose, capturing some of the most pressing concerns of today. The exodus from a war-torn city; transit camps filled with refugees; perilous conditions. The magic realism may put readers off this book, but I consider that the newsprint and TV streaming amply covers those aspects of the refugee experience that are too horrific to contemplate. It is not that the author skates over the horrors, it is just that he does not expand on them.
Zadie Smith – Swing Time – I think I made it clear that I am not one of Zadie Smith’s readers, but I think this novel will appear on the shortlist because it does what a novel ought to do: draws you tightly into the narrative and keeps you turning and twisting in the story, so that you must read on.
Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad – this is another prize winner already, so I think it will go on the shortlist, but it would have been on my list anyway. It is an unsparing look at what slavery meant, both to the owners and to the slaves. The pursuit of the “property” for its own sake regardless of the time past, but simply because it “belonged” to the owner was, and is, a matter of horrific fact. This novel presents it from the point of view of the runaway. The courage it must have taken is monumental.
Paul Auster – 4321 – a challenging book, 866 pages long, stylistically different and full of complex and mind-altering ideas. Identity, what is it? How does one individual become himself? The reader really has to concentrate, but it is worth it in the end. I would suggest two ways of reading this, either straight through or part by part. I did a bit of both, the cliff-hangers were sometimes too insupportable, and I could not wait to see what happened next, so I skipped to the follow-on. One man, four lives. But whatever you do, don’t read the last “life” through to the end first.
Fiona Mozley – Elmet – I loved this brooding, English, visionary story. I really felt part of it, the sensations and the scents, the slow-burn of it touched me. It might not be the best book in the pile, but it really deserves the wider audience that a place on the shortlist would give it.
These are the most likely candidates, some are on the list because they have already garnered prizes and therefore have an accredited following, other are stylistically unique and then finally, there is likely to be one debut novel and Fiona Mozley has created a more coherent novel, though both of them were very good.
So why isn’t Reservoir 13 in this list. Because while I loved it, and love the writing, I know this scatter-gun, unfocussed approach to narrative does not appeal to many readers. I happen to be a great fan of Jon McGregor.