Everything you need to know about the Booker Prize 2023 shortlist
As the Booker Prize 2023 shortlist is announced, we’ve pulled together the most interesting facts and trends that have emerged in this year’s selection
An exhilarating novel-in-stories, Jonathan Escoffery’s debut pulses with style, heart and barbed humour, while unravelling what it means to carve out an existence between cultures, homes and pay cheques
Whether you’re new to the book or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide, featuring insights from critics, our judges and the book’s author, as well as discussion points and suggestions for further reading.
In 1979, as political violence consumes their native Kingston, Topper and Sanya flee to Miami. But they soon learn that the welcome in America will be far from warm. Trelawny, their youngest son, comes of age in a society that regards him with suspicion and confusion. Their eldest son Delano’s longing for a better future for his own children is equalled only by his recklessness in trying to secure it.
As both brothers navigate the obstacles littered in their path – an unreliable father, racism, a financial crisis and Hurricane Andrew – they find themselves pitted against one another. Will their rivalry be the thing that finally tears their family apart?
Trelawny is one of the collection’s recurring characters. The youngest son of Carribean-born parents, Topper and Sanya, and brother to Delano; Trelawny was born in the U.S., growing up in Miami, Florida. But the introverted Trelawny struggles to fit in and often feels like an outsider, because of his mixed heritage - he’s considered too American in Jamaica, and too Jamaican in America. He goes to college in the Midwest yet cannot find the sense of community for which he yearns.
Topper was born in Jamaica and is now an immigrant living in Miami with his wife and family, Sanya, Trelawney and Delano. Topper is determined to give his family the chance of a better life in the U.S. He is hardworking and committed, but not without his flaws. His relationship with his sons can be tempestuous, and he struggles to understand and connect with Trelawny in particular, because of their cultural differences.
Delano is brother to Trelawney and the favoured son of Topper. He is often seen as the tougher of the two brothers and eschews education, instead taking a loan from his father to start his own landscaping business. Delano gets married and has two children, but risks losing them after his marriage fails and he falls into the same toxic cycles as his father.
Jonathan Escoffery is the recipient of the Paris Review’s 2020 Plimpton Prize for Fiction, a 2020 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, and the 2020 ASME Award for Fiction. His fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, American Short Fiction and Electric Literature, and has been anthologised in The Best American Magazine Writing.
He received his MFA from the University of Minnesota, is a PhD fellow in the University of Southern California’s PhD in Creative Writing and Literature Program, and in 2021 was awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University. His debut, If I Survive You, is shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2023.
‘In Jonathan Escoffrey’s vital, captivating debut novel, each chapter takes us deeper into a family album of stories, revealing the life and survival of a family, fleeing the violence of early Seventies’ Jamaica for the uncertain sanctuary of a new beginning in America. From the heartbreaking to the hilarious, Escoffrey effortlessly conducts the various voices, contradictory in their perspectives, their dreams and desires, while wrestling with the age-old immigrant dilemma – who are my people and where do I belong?’
Ian Williams, the Guardian
‘As the underdog against the monstrous antagonists of racism and poverty, morality becomes extra weight when Trelawny is in survival mode, hanging on to an unethical job for the privilege of “a toilet on which to sit and unload your twisted, clogged-up colon”. It’s hard to like Trelawny at his most unscrupulous. And then one remembers that Black people should not have to be heroic in order to live ordinary lives. In the final pages, the collection surges with the symphonic, imaginative, propulsive energy of Gabriel García Márquez into a vision of a possible future for Trelawny. We find ourselves resisting it because our fate is wrapped up in his, and we trust that Escoffery will not flatten his characters – or us – into statistics.’
Michael Donkor, iNews
‘This story is typical of Escoffery’s Miami – a city full of smooth-tongued promises that turn out to be swindles, a place full of dreams of sun-drenched success that give way to brutal storms. Yet his characters’ continual self-examination helps them make their way through all the intensity and strangeness in the end.
‘In Escoffery’s astonishing, compassionate entrance to the literary scene, the family come to understand that being truthful to oneself really is the only way that one can get by.’
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi, Washington Independent Review of Books
‘It’s a given that Trelawny is the author’s alter ego, and he has us even before hello. But Escoffery imbues each of his speakers with a fragile humanity that lets us see them fully, whether at the moment we’re laughing out loud, wincing in anticipation of calamity, or feeling our hearts break. His gift is in how much meaning and weight he invests in each sentence without our even noticing it.’
Andrew Martin, The New York Times
‘Given Escoffery’s skill in making me care for these characters, I wished at times that I was caught more forcefully in a current of narrative momentum with them, and some episodes (as when poor Cukie ends up in an overheated slice of Florida noir) struck me as less than convincing. But the author is, throughout, a gifted, sure-footed storyteller, with a command of evocative language and perfectly chosen details, as in his description of a biblical plague of crabs in which the brothers sit “in silent reverence for the clack of claws on asphalt, witnessing pincers and shell-fragments puncturing car tires up ahead.”
‘Perhaps most important, he wields a disarming, irreverent sense of humor, as when Trelawney’s brother tells him he’s “been acting like a bum.” “I took no offense,” Escoffery writes, “but clarified, I identify as dispossessed.” It could be this writer’s credo, and it’s the kind of line that makes me eager to read him for a long time to come.’
Katy Waldman, The New Yorker
‘Escoffery’s fiction is marked by ingenuity. The eight stories in If I Survive You employ the first, second, and third person, as well as the past, present, and future tense. One tale unfolds in Jamaican patois; another dips in and out of Black American idioms. There’s peacocking humor, capers, and passages of shuddering eroticism. The book feels thrillingly free.
‘His technical exuberance stands in stark contrast to his subject matter, which can feel hopeless, a litany of the cruelties that people in straitened circumstances visit upon one another.’
Escoffery imbues each of his speakers with a fragile humanity that lets us see them fully, whether at the moment we’re laughing out loud, wincing in anticipation of calamity, or feeling our hearts break
‘I used some personal experiences and what I observed in the environment I grew up in as the backdrop and cultural context for the book, but I imagined my way into scenarios that dramatise issues my community deals with, while working to engage readers with every tool I had in my toolbox. I wanted the book to express emotional truths without limiting it to what literally happened, and much of the enjoyment of writing the book was in figuring out how to get my characters out of the trouble I created for them. Of course, in some cases, they don’t get out of it.’
Read Jonathan Escoffery’s full interview here.
If I Survive You has an unusual structure for a Booker Prize-nominated title, as a collection of short stories with an interconnected narrative. Why do you think the author favours this fragmented approach over more straightforward long-form writing? And how does this approach serve the overarching plot of If I Survive You?
‘If you marry she, you will have garden wedding, and you will design your suit and pay tailor to stitch it nice.’ (Page 49). Much of the book is written in second person, which invites the reader into the story and creates a connection with characters. Yet the author, Jonathan Escoffery, also uses first and third-person narrative, too. Why do you think he switches perspective throughout the collection, and how did this serve your reading experience?
The collection begins in the 1970s Caribbean, following the family as they emigrate to Miami, with the story expanding into the preceding decades. Throughout this, the author incorporates real-world events such as Hurricane Andrew and the 2008 recession. How does the addition of these pivotal moments in history cultivate an authentic sense of place and time?
‘You’re a rather pale shade of brown, if skin color has anything to do with race. Your parents share your hue. As do their parents. Their parents, your great-grands, occupy your family’s photo albums in black-and-white and sepia tones that conceal the color of their skin. Some look like they might guest-appear on The Jeffersons, while others look like they’d sooner be cast on All in the Family.’ (Page 10). Much of If I Survive You is concerned with the complex nuances of identity with regards to ‘Blackness’. Discuss the conversation the author is creating around this – from colourism to nationality, accents and names – throughout the collection.
The second story, titled ‘Under the Ackee Tree’, is narrated by Trelawny and Delano’s father and written in Jamaican Patois. ‘If a Reyha you pick, you will carry she to drive- in, where you can stroke she hair while unoo watch Bond ’pon big screen.’ (Page 47). Discuss why the author has chosen to leverage dialect and write in this manner. Did you think it brought authenticity to the prose?
‘In your fifth-grade history section, you learn more about the founding of America. You learn about the subject referred to simply as “slavery.” It’s an abbreviated, watered-down lesson, much like its subject heading. It’s: Mostly good people made a big mistake. It’s: That was a long, long time ago. It’s: Honest Abe and Harriet Tubman and M.L.K. fixed all that nasty business. It’s: Now we don’t see race.’ (Page 8). Discuss the significance of this moment with regard to the novel’s overarching messages on immigration and racism. Prior to your reading of this, what was your perspective of the transatlantic slave trade and do you think it has been whitewashed in history?
The story also explores Black masculinity. ‘I’m interested in what models we have for being good men, and in what potentially damaging messages we send men about how to be in the world, and in how those messages get passed from one generation to the next,’ Jonathan Escoffery recently said when interviewed by the Booker Prizes website. Did you find the author’s portrayal of the Black male experience affecting? And do Trelawny and Delano succeed in breaking toxic cycles?
The Booker Prize judges described the novel as having ‘remorseless, laugh-out-loud code switching’. This book could be described as tragi-comedic, with a humour that tempers heavier topics including racism, classism and poverty. How does this use of humour help readers navigate the more harrowing elements of the story? Do you think it risks detracting from the serious subject matter at any point?
‘“It’s so true,” the third, a brown-haired woman, says. “Just because my mother is Jewish, all of a sudden I’m treated like I’m not White here.” “Oh, you’re White.” The Mexican places a sympathetic hand on the brown- haired woman’s arm. “Don’t worry.” “Aw, you’re White, too,” she says, returning the arm pat. “I’m White,” the Argentine says.’ (Page 28). At a student party in the story ‘In Flux’, three women reassure each other that they are ‘white’. Discuss the importance of this label to them, and why in this case, it transcends nationality or religion.
The protagonists in the collection are chasing the American Dream, yet, as immigrants, the power dynamics in the book are often skewed against them and they remain in a cycle of generational poverty. To what extent do you think the US is a place that offers opportunity for all? Could the American Dream be described as a fallacy for immigrants?
Chicago Review of Books: Black Immigrants and the American Dream: An Interview with Jonathan Escoffery on “If I Survive You