Firstly, I feel it is important to mention that I had the pleasure of hearing George Saunders speak about this book at a literary festival. There also may have been a performance piece narrated by George and some of my colleagues, and this was nothing short of cool AF. Nevertheless, this was a while ago now. The book had only just come out, and there has been enough time between all the hype and my reading of this book, that I feel I was able to remain impartial during my reading experience. I’ve also never read any of Saunders’ previous works, so his writing is very new to me.
Although this book is quite the marmite of the book world at the moment, I’m going to remain somewhat annoyingly on the fence with it. There is no question that Saunders can write, and I can very much see this novels merit. But whilst it was an enjoyable and fresh reading experience, I’m not sure I completely buy into the gimmick. I finished this feeling a lot like I often feel when finishing a poetry collection. Whilst I can admire some passages, appreciate the themes and pick up on some of the imagery – ultimately, I don’t feel I quite ‘get’ it.
Whether you’ve read this one or not it’s probably of no surprise to you that you will encounter a huge cacophony of characters within these pages. Personally, this felt fun, kept me attentive, and propelled me forward in the book. But having said that, the inclusion of all these different voices did seem a little unavailing at times. I can see how this would work brilliantly in the audiobook version, but there is a thin line between impressing your audience and seeming unnecessarily flash when executing this in writing.
Saunders has clearly done a lot of research in order to accomplish this novel. He is great at giving us insightful snapshots of events, characters and their feelings. And funnily enough this works great in short stories, which he is more well known for and has exclusively written up until this point. But for me, the whole point of a novel (at least the ones I tend to enjoy) is that you don’t rush characterisation like that. You can give your audience time to get to know your characters in depth, to entice them into your narrative, to boldly set the scene. It was all go go go in this novel, and the nature of the way it’s written, almost play-like, is unrelenting.
In terms of where it sits for me in this years Man Booker Longlist, it’s pottering around towards the bottom with its’ equally hyped pal – ‘The Underground Railroad’. And that’s not to say that I consider this a ‘bad’ book, or that I didn’t enjoy aspects of both of these reads. However, I think in both cases, I was a victim of the hype somewhat. They didn’t quite live up to preconceived notions I had of them. That doesn’t mean I don’t think this isn’t a real contender for the win, and I would be shocked if they didn’t both at least make the shortlist.
Essentially, I liked this book. It pleasantly helped pass a leisurely weekend. But did it leave any real impact on me? No, not really. And no, i’m not of the opinion that all books need to do that. And yes, there were some genuinely human gems to be found in here, that made me intrigued enough to want to pick up some of his short stories in the future. However, I feel that this novel set out to achieve a heavy hit. And in my opinion, due to the way it’s constructed, it doesn’t quite manage that.