The Booker shortlist is out again. Hype! Salman Rushdie’s on it. Two ducks grace two separate covers. Margaret Atwood has written a much-anticipated sequel to her ‘dystopian’-realist novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s an event. 

Unfortunately (or not – I mean, one of these novels is over 1000 pages), I’m probably not actually going to read any of them. Neither are you. Or maybe you are? Maybe you’re the one who’s got it together, who’ll review each one in loving or scathing detail on your Goodreads account. But I’m an English student. When has not reading the book ever stopped me before? Most awards processes end up being a little ridiculous, anyway. Judges are meant to read a book a day – even if you can manage to keep that up for any length of time, you still have to think about them critically and compare them to each other. Here, I’ll be judging the Booker shortlist the only truly fair way: by their covers.

Quichotte, Salman Rushdie

This cover is what Once Upon a Time in Hollywood would look like if it were character Rick Dalton’s autobiography. That’s not a good thing. Quichotte?! I imagine this book’s concept as basically Don Quixote re-envisaged as an early ‘70s cookbook writer with an unhealthy interest in quiche and Spam. He rides off into the sunset with his sidekick, who is apparently by this point a literal shadow of himself, and mansplains to any luckless passing traveller his recipe for ‘quichotte’. If this is the avant-garde, experimental pick of the bunch, the whole novel might be a 1001-page recipe for this mysterious dish, with most of it consisting of copious, increasingly insane footnotes like Nabokov’s Pale Fire. I feel like this is definitely the middle-aged man of the shortlist. 

9/10 – I hate this content, but I love to hate it. This title raises so many questions, and I really don’t want them answered. The cover is the masterpiece here.

The Testaments, Margaret Atwood 

So, as even I know, and the cover helpfully points out, this is by the author of dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood. In that book, the handmaids wear red costumes, so why is this one in green? Is this version an eco-fascist state? Or perhaps the handmaids have escaped and turned into eco-warriors. Either way, it's got me thinking about the climate crisis and now I'm nervous and slightly scared. ‘The Testaments’ is a bit like the ‘Tale’ of the previous book, but sounds more religious – could this just be Atwood writing the foundational text of this evil regime? Or does the plural point to multiple narrators? Also, what’s with the girl with the ponytail and the outstretched arms? Is the eco-fascist government putting women’s heads on wind turbines like a modern version of Henry VIII sticking traitors’ heads on pikes? Is she a female version of that Christ statue in Brazil?   

7/10 – Minimal, but the strange girl image adds intrigue. 

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, Elif Shafak

The title and the cover really jar here. With this kind of lush, wallpaper-esque design, I’d expect a historical novel – it’s very similar to the cover of The Essex Serpent. The ultra-precise time detail and ‘this’ strange world seems to suggest a contemporary novel, so I wonder why the optics suggest otherwise. I love a time-shifting novel in the vein of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten, so my best hope for these decisions is that it’s something like that, and each chapter covers 10 minutes and 38 seconds in a different character’s life.

5.5/10 – Not a combo I would choose, but perhaps there’s a reason behind it? Maybe you should, I don’t know, read the book to find out. 

Ducks, Newburyport, Lucy Ellmann

The title looks like those bits in American movies where they point out you’re in ‘Paris, France’ rather than in Texas, in case the Eiffel Tower shots didn’t do the trick. ‘Unstoppable’ already sounds ominous. I like my books to end, usually quite soon unless they’re really good, and preferably not have minds of their own. I have very normie tastes in fiction. ‘Unstoppable’ sounds like the scary, grownup version of ‘un-putdownable’. Covers are, obviously, always metaphors for their contents. I see this duck as like a reverse iceberg. Is the cover design warning us that, in this novel, there’s less beneath the surface than meets the eye? At first glance I just assumed the duck had died in a weird position. But it’s actually probably doing that duck thing, isn’t it. But where’s the bottom of the pond? Is there any food for the duck? Why is the sky red? Please say the duck’s safe. That’s the only question I ultimately have here. 

3/10 – Were any animals harmed in the making of this novel, Lucy?

Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo

Where does ‘A Novel’ figure in this title? I guess you’re meant to read it as coming after and separately from ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ but top to bottom it reads ‘Girl, A Novel Woman, Other’. Is this deep, or am I just clutching at straws here? Reader, I probably am.


Mountain View

Iris Murdoch – the Philosopher-Novelist at a hundred

6.5/10 – Great images, but the ‘A Novel’ confused me. I almost believe the propaganda that you can’t truly understand a book just through its cover. 

An Orchestra of Minorities, Chigozie Obioma 

The other cover for this has a duck on it as well. Is this the first double duck appearance on a Booker shortlist? Is this the most water birds to appear on any literary shortlist at all? If so, I'm here for it. That said, I’m concerned that on this alternative cover, only the feathers feature. Again, duck safety is my primary concern.

2.5/10 – My worry for duck welfare still trumps any artistic judgement.

  • Updated 28th September 2019: This article was amended to remove a line which diminished the severity of reproductive freedom in Ireland

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