It’s taken over half a century, but the Booker longlisting of Alan Garner is recognition at last for an under-sung national treasure too often pigeonholed as “just” a children’s writer. Over the decades his writing has deepened and clarified and Treacle Walker, a flinty little fable about a convalescent boy visited by a rag-and-bone man, reads like a perfect distillation of his long-worked themes: mythology, archaeology, childhood, the transient rhythms of vernacular speech, deep time and inner visions.
This is a thoughtfully curated list which spotlights small presses and ignores some of the biggest names (Hanya Yanagihara and Jennnifer Egan, Ian McEwan with his strongest novel in years, the forthcoming Lessons) for quieter pleasures and rewarding surprises. Like Treacle Walker, Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These is another miracle of concision, compressing the usually capacious novel form into diamond. This story of an Irish coal merchant in the 1980s who is forced to confront what the whole town ignores – the church’s institutional abuse of young women – wastes not a word, implications rippling out from the brief text. Another Irish novel, The Colony by Audrey Magee, about an English painter visiting a tiny Irish island, is set in the era of the Troubles, but shades into broader allegory about power, colonialism, marginalised languages and even Brexit.
An interest in form unites the list: Trust by Hernan Diaz investigates the shared fiction of money through different perspectives on a 1920s Wall Street tycoon – novel, self-revealing autobiography, memoir, diary. With only his second novel, Diaz has become an ambitious and significant voice. Graeme Macrae Burnet, who came to fame when His Bloody Project was a surprise inclusion on the Booker five years ago, is known for his tricksy, hall-of-mirrors narratives. Case Study is a shifting tale of psychotherapy, false identity and mental instability in 60s London.
Other titles on the list also rejoice in experiment. There’s NoViolet Bulawayo’s rambunctious political satire Glory, which dramatises the fall of Robert Mugabe through animal allegory, and Maddie Mortimer’s debut Maps of our Spectacular Bodies, which brings an innovative narrative approach to writing about the bodily incursion of cancer. Selby Wynn Schwartz’s After Sappho is a fragmented collective biography of female artists and writers in the late 19th and early 20th century – women pushing at the bounds of an oppressive society and asserting their desire to study, create, and love other women. It’s lyrical, scholarly, passionate and entirely unique.
In The Trees, Percival Everett uses black comedy, absurdist horror and the whodunnit form to tackle the history and legacy of lynching in the US. America’s historical violence is the theme of Karen Joy Fowler’s Booth, a family epic which explores the life and times of the man who shot Abraham Lincoln. Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley, the list’s youngest discovery, is an explosive, exuberant debut based on a real case of corruption and abuse in the Oakland police department, set against a backdrop of omnipresent racism.
It’s a decade since Shehan Karunatilaka’s hugely enjoyable debut, Chinaman. Narrated in the second person and set in the afterlife, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida returns to 1980s Sri Lanka, and is again a riotous, unrestrained satire of terrible times. The 13 titles are completed by Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William!, the third in her much-loved series about a writer called Lucy Barton. It’s a more lightly spun work than many of the other novels on the list, set down in a confessional, spontaneous style, like a murmured voice in the ear – but it’s not easy to make prose look this natural.