'The Testaments' marks Margaret Atwood's sixth appearance on the Booker shortlistACTUALITTE/WIKICOMMONS

This year’s Booker Prize shortlist, revealed on 3rd September, comes at a time which sees literature more urgent and necessary than ever. Evidently aware of this, the judges’ choices didn’t disappoint in their capacity for social and political commentary. Most hotly anticipated of the nominees has surely been The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s follow-up to her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Though now 34-years-old, the novel has once again risen to popularity as protesters worldwide re-appropriate the figure of the Handmaid and a well-timed television series brings the story to life for a new generation.


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Finally compelled to return to the dark theocracy of Gilead she created some thirty years ago, Atwood claims she penned the long-awaited sequel – not even published at the time of the shortlist announcement – as a potent response to the rise of the far-right in the United States and the election of the current president. Asked what the inspiration was for the book, she claimed that in part it was “the world we have been living in”.

Atwood’s is not the only novel on the shortlist which forms a rebuke of Trump’s America: Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport constitutes an Ohio housewife’s musings on the declining state of her country, spread over more than one thousand pages and just eight sentences. Ellmann’s novel is perhaps the most daring choice of the list, a clear message from the judges about the didactic merits of “challenging” books and an elevation of the domestic female voice all too often side-lined in literature. Its all-encompassing stream-of-consciousness style seems all the more pertinent at a time when consciousness – political, social – cannot be taken for granted.

Female writers take precedence in this year’s selection: established authors Elif Shafak and Bernardine Evaristo also land coveted places on the list with their respective novels 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World and Girl, Woman, Other. The former narrates the life of a dying prostitute in Istanbul and the latter chronicles the stories of twelve black British (mostly) women.

Stream-of-consciousness style seems all the more pertinent at a time when consciousness – political, social – cannot be taken for granted.

Shafak’s work feels anti-climactic: the potential of her beautiful evocation of Istanbul in the first part of the novel is eclipsed by the farcical feel of the last hundred pages, as the protagonist’s friends attempt to exhume her body from Turkey’s infamous Cemetery of the Companionless and give her a proper burial. The novel’s vivid foregrounding of marginalized voices is undermined by this latter episode, which borders on the absurd and sadly misses the mark.

Evaristo’s book, on the other hand, seems a masterpiece of modern British fiction: the author poses a new ‘herstory’ of an old patriarchal country, evoking her eclectic cast of characters with a glorious multiplicity of voices. The novel is a love letter to England, to London, built within the framework of intersectional feminism and told in the author’s trade-mark poetic prose, allowing her to tackle contemporary issues with a deft nuance and wit.

Salman Rushdie and Chigozie Obioma offer the final two titles on the list, both drawing on old traditions in the creation of their novels, Quichotte and An Orchestra of Minorities. Rushdie offers a fantastical retelling of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, his protagonist, a pharmaceutical salesman, embarking on a picaresque American road-trip during which he encounters the weird, the wonderful and the ugly: guns that talk, Italian-speaking crickets, opioids. As ever with Rushdie, plain realism doesn’t quite cut it for a depiction of today’s world, however his outlandish offering appears more far-fetched than it is funny.

Atwood’s is not the only novel on the shortlist which forms a rebuke of Trump’s America

Obioma also re-appropriates an old story for his own agenda: his heart-breaking tale of a Nigerian poultry farmer is a modern-day Odyssey, told painstakingly in the mythical and oratorical style of the Igbo literary tradition by the protagonist’s ‘chi’, his guardian spirit. Unlike Rushdie’s tale, An Orchestra of Minorities is a master feat of storytelling, woven with a prose rich in Nigerian proverbs and history.

Clearly, the shortlist provides a diverse, varied range of titles, the layering of old stories with new an underlying theme. Almost all the authors nominated, however, are relatively well-known: this is where the list, ironically, falls short. Long-listed novels by lesser-known writers didn’t make the cut, pipped to the post by big names like Atwood and Rushie who, however deserving their work may be, certainly don’t need the publicity and validation offered by the prize.


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Max Porter’s Lanny and Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive – also overlooked by the Women’s Prize shortlist earlier this year – are experimental novels which break boundaries of structure and form: they would have been deserving of a shot at the prize, or at least a place on the shortlist. Thankfully, unsung heroes of unconventional storytelling Evaristo and Ellmann claim spots on the list and will hopefully, if you’re a fan of backing the underdog, take home the prize.

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