2022 Booker Prize judges with shortlisted novels

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Why you should read the Booker Prize 2022 shortlist, according to our judges

We asked the Booker Prize 2022 judges to explain what impressed and delighted them most about each book on the shortlist – and why they are relevant to today’s world

Cultural historian, writer and broadcaster Neil MacGregor chairs the panel of judges for 2022 and is joined by academic and broadcaster Shahidha Bari; historian Helen Castor; novelist and critic M. John Harrison; and novelist, poet and professor Alain Mabanckou. Here, they share their thoughts on the six books they have selected for the Booker Prize 2022 shortlist.

Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo

How would you sum up this book in a sentence to encourage readers to pick it up?

Glory is a magical crossing of the African continent with its political excesses and its wacky characters. Here, the fable is never far from the reality.

What do you think it is about this book that readers will not only admire, but love?

The particular voice of the storyteller: the way NoViolet Bulawayo describes her characters will make you think that there are no boundaries between our world and the world of animals. 

Can you tell us about any particular characters that readers might connect with, and why?
 
Destiny is one of the most unforgettable characters of Glory. She has returned to Jidada from a long exile. She witnesses the tumult, the revolution in the country and how the women are fighting against the regime. She is the symbol of the young African women in the continent. The other unforgettable character would be the Old Horse, as it inevitable to see behind him the despotic president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. The Old Horse has a strange cabinet: a Minister of the Revolution, a Minister of Things, a Minister of Nothing, and so on. 
 
Although it’s a work of fiction, is there anything about it that’s especially relevant to issues we’re confronting in today’ world? 
 
This political satire goes beyond Zimbabwe and could relate to nations with despotic regimes around the world. It is also a book about feminism and power sharing. 

Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo

The Trees by Percival Everett

How would you sum up this book in a sentence to encourage readers to pick it up?

Part southern noir, part something else entirely, The Trees is a dance of death with jokes – horrifying and howlingly funny – that asks questions about history and justice and allows not a single easy answer.

Is there something unique about this book, something that you haven’t encountered in fiction before?

The Trees is a mash-up of genres – murder mystery, southern noir, horror, slapstick comedy – handled with such skill that it becomes a medieval morality play spun through 20th-century pop culture to say something profound and urgent about the present moment. There aren’t too many of those around.

What do you think it is about this book that readers will not only admire, but love?

It’s an irresistible page-turner, hurtling headlong with swagger, humour, relish and rage.

Can you tell us about any particular characters that readers might connect with, and why?

Ed and Jim, the Special Detectives (‘And that’s not just because we’re Black,’ Jim said. ‘Though plenty true because we are’) sent to investigate an uncanny murder in Money, Mississippi – a classic cop double-act with a nice line in deadpan jokes.

Although it’s a work of fiction, is there anything about it that’s especially relevant to issues we’re confronting in today’s world?

Everything about The Trees is relevant to today’s world. Everett looks at race in America with an unblinking eye, asking what it is to be haunted by history, and what it could or should mean to rise up in search of justice.

Is there one particular moment in the book that has stuck in your mind and, if so, why?

The horror of the first murder scene – and the last sentence. Everything between is an adrenaline rush.
 

The Trees by Percival Everett

Treacle Walker by Alan Garner

How would you sum up this book in a sentence to encourage readers to pick it up?

It’s a mysterious, beautifully written and affecting glimpse into the deep work of being human. Alan Garner’s stories always draw you relentlessly into their echoing metaphysical and emotional space: this one made some of us cry.

What’s it about?

Joe Coppock, a boy with poor vision, lives alone. His inner world is built out of a comic book and the sound of the noon train in the valley below his cottage. Then one day a rag-and-bone man called Treacle Walker knocks at his door. In the medieval period, the word ‘treacle’ meant ‘medicine’, and it soon becomes clear that the medicine man’s purpose is to cure Joe’s sight in more than one sense. Seeing the world is not the same as seeing what the world is. Quantum physics and the imagination entangle themselves around Joe’s subsequent adventures and learning experiences. Tautly-written, but with a visionary poetry in every line, Treacle Walker is the story of an apprenticeship, a struggle during which Joe must gain a new kind of sight. But the Treacle Walker has his own problems and together they take us on a heartbreaking tour of Garner’s concerns: age, repetition, change, the perception of time, the entanglement of human history and personal history.

Is there something unique about this book, something you haven’t encountered in fiction before?

It’s a unique combination of quantum physics and folklore, presented through a touching and completely human story, as fabular and powerful as anything of William Golding’s.

What do you think it is about this book that readers will not only admire, but love?

The playfulness. The humour. The darkness and light. The personalities of the boy and his ageing spiritual guide, as they develop around the attempt to communicate with each other from the opposite ends of life.

Can you tell us about any particular characters that readers might connect with and why?

Joe seems so vulnerable and inturned, perhaps even a little sulky. At the same time, he possesses an innate energy and determination that immediately capture our hearts. He has, perhaps, exactly the characteristics the Treacle Walker set out with when he began his own strange, long, tiring life. For the apprentice to become the master, these qualities only need bringing out, and that process is one of the central stories of the book.

Although it’s a work of fiction, is there anything about it that’s especially relevant to issues we’re confronting in today’s world?

Treacle Walker confronts the issues that anyone who ever lived has had to confront. The transition out of childhood. The transition into old age. The gaining and loss of personal agency. What we can expect to know about the world – and our life in it – and what we can’t; and how we face up to that. One of the central themes of the book is how – and from whom – we get our knowledge: that would seem to be a very important question, given the information environment in which people now live. But there’s also a need to find our own languages and ways of dealing with the world, and not become dependent on the Treacle Walker.

Is there one particular moment in the book that has stuck in your mind, and, if so, why?

One of the joys of Alan Garner’s late writing is a kind of minimalist intensity: as a result, there’s something striking on every page. I liked it when the Treacle Walker played a tune on a human shinbone, an act which reminded me of the bone flute in Ray Bradbury’s short story ‘Skeleton’.

Treacle Walker by Alan Garner

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka

How would you sum up this book in a sentence to encourage readers to pick it up?

Colombo, 1990: Maali Almeida is dead, and he’s as confused about how and why as you are. A Sri Lankan whodunnit and a race against time, Seven Moons is full of ghosts, gags and a deep humanity.

Is there something unique about this book, something that you haven’t encountered in fiction before?

The voice of the novel – a first-person narrative rendered, with an astonishingly light touch, in the second person – is unforgettable: beguiling, unsentimental, by turns tender and angry and always unsparingly droll. 

What do you think it is about this book that readers will not only admire, but love?

The exhilarating energy with which we’re plunged into a rich and darkly comic world. This is Sri Lankan history as whodunnit, thriller, and existential fable teeming with the bolshiest of spirits. ‘You have one response for those who believe Colombo to be overcrowded: wait till you see it with ghosts.’

Can you tell us about any particular characters that readers might connect with, and why?

Maali himself is the heart and (literally) soul of the book, and he’s wonderful company, cheerfully unapologetic about what others might see as his failings, and uncowed – even by his own sudden death – in his commitment to his violently chaotic country and to Jaki and DD, the loves of his complicated life.

Although it’s a work of fiction, is there anything about it that’s especially relevant to issues we’re confronting in today’s world?

There’s relevance in every one of Seven Moons’ many layers. It’s not just that Sri Lanka’s present is almost as complex – if thankfully not as violent – as its past. This is also a deeply humane novel about how to live in intolerable circumstances, about whether change is possible, and how to set about coping if it’s not.

Is there one particular moment in the book that has stuck in your mind, and, if so, why?

Rather than a single moment, there’s a haunting motif as Maali searches for the truth in the confusion of the afterlife and the carnage of civil war. His trusty camera is always round his neck, ‘though its lens is smashed and its casing is cracked. You look through the viewfinder and all you see is mud.’
 

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

How would you sum up this book in a sentence to encourage readers to pick it up?

Keegan is measured and merciless as she dissects the silent acquiescence of a 1980s Irish town in the Church’s cruel treatment of unmarried mothers – and the cost of one man’s moral courage.

Can you tell us about any particular characters that readers might connect with, and why?

It is the tale, simply told, of one ordinary middle-aged man – Bill Furlong – who in December 1985, in a small Irish town, slowly grasps the enormity of the local convent’s heartless treatment of unmarried mothers and their babies (one instance of what will soon be exposed as the scandal of the Magdalene laundries). We accompany Furlong, and we feel – and fear – for him as he realises what is happening, decides how he must in conscience act, and accepts what that action, in a small church-dominated town, will cost him, his wife and his children.  

Although it’s a work of fiction, is there anything about it that’s especially relevant to issues we’re confronting in today’ world? 

The book is not so much about the nature of evil as the circumstances that allow it. More than Furlong’s quiet heroism, it explores the silent, self-interested complicity of a whole community, which makes it possible for such cruelty to persist. It forces every reader to ask what they are doing about the injustices that we choose not to think about too closely. Astonishingly, Keegan achieves this without ever sounding angry or preachy. The limpid calm of her prose clearly tells us what did happen, but its measured coolness leaves us free to ponder how and why. 

What do you think it is about this book that readers will not only admire, but love?

Keegan gives us a message of hope. Furlong’s moral strength is grounded in the kindness he himself had received as a child: generous acts bear long fruit. And the actions of one individual can – may – change the world.  

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

How would you sum up this book in a sentence to encourage readers to pick it up?

Oh William is one of those quietly radiant books that finds the deepest mysteries in the simplest things. Strout’s gentle reflections on marriage, family, love and loneliness are utterly piercing. 

Is there something unique about this book, something that you haven’t encountered in fiction before?

Has there ever been a character quite like Lucy Barton? Unassuming and yet profound, entirely ordinary and yet deeply moving. A woman in her later life, full of doubt and regret, Lucy’s reflections illuminate the reader, too. 

What do you think it is about this book that readers will not only admire, but love?

Strout’s writing is steeped in compassion for human beings, damaged and disappointed, full of follies and frailties, but capable, too, of deep understanding.  

Can you tell us about any particular characters that readers might connect with, and why?

Lucy Barton is an older woman, divorced, with grown-up children, and yet still coming to terms with her own childhood and learning how little she has understood the people closest to her.  Strout writes her with a capacious empathy and probing insight. 
 

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout