When the shortlist was announced this week, I discovered that I'd already read three and had just started a fourth.
Initially this means the three I have piled up on my side table from the library have not made it through to the top table, yet are still to be read if I'm to complete the full readathon this year. I shall have to keep a careful eye on time though, to ensure that the remaining two shortlisters are read before the winner is announced at the black-tie dinner being held on Tuesday, 25th October.
There is a good round-up of the shortlist here, from which it is clear that any pattern to be discerned for those aiming to figure out where the judge's choice will fall this year, is entirely lacking.
And so onto my seventh longlister and fourth shortlister: Madeleine Thien's "Do Not Say We Have Nothing". I am happy to say that this was my favourite so far. As I started to read, I felt "finally, a proper Booker book!" Yes, I know, it's judgemental of me, but I'm human and this is an opinion piece.
So, what about it did I love? At 463 pages, it was long enough for there to be a big story, a family history, but not so long that it was dragged out. Most important of all - for me - is that this story weaved through the history of a largely unknown culture. Taking us through the tumultous history of China via The Great Leap Forward, famine, Mao's Cultural Revolution and the student uprising in Tianamen Square, I learned a tremendous amount. Not just of China's history, but how that is linked to the psyche of its people.
The story is narrated by Marie Jiang (or Jiang Li-ling), a Chinese-Canadian, whose father leaves his family to go to Hong Kong, before subsequently taking his life there. Marie's life is changed when Ai-ming - whose family has some connection to her father - arrives in Canada seeking refuge. Marie's later search for her friend gradually uncovers the details of that connection and their family histories.
Ai-ming's father and his family are all musical - either players, singers or composers - as is Marie's father, so there are a lot of discussions about classical music, both western and chinese. Being ignorant of classical music, I found those sections a struggle to read, although it has encouraged me to seek those pieces out as a listener.
There is another theme running through the book - the Book of Records. We start off by wondering who wrote it, until we start to fall in love with the way it was used to court Ai-ming's great-aunt, how it is subsequently used by her great-aunt to trace her lost husband and how Marie subsequently uses it in her attempts to find Ai-ming herself. The visual beauty of chinese characters and their caligraphy provides a fascinating sub-discussion, particularly the subtle variation leading to differing translations. How that caligraphy is later used to publicly denounce individuals, for the confessions and self-recriminations that people were required to write, demonstrates the stark contrasts of life in China.
The depiction of the uprising in Tianamen Square is taut, pacy and filled with pathos. Thien shows but never tells the great tragedy of history repeating itself and its impact on the psyche of China's people.