The Man Booker International Prize shadow panel’s scores are in and we can now announce our own shortlist of six books. They are:

  • Compass by Mathias Énard (translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell)
  • The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw)
  • Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire)
  • Judas by Amos Oz (translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange)
  • Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell)
  • Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton)

There is a fair amount of overlap between our shortlist and the official shortlist with just ‘Bricks and Mortar’ and ‘Fish Have No Feet’ being favoured over ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ and ‘A Horse Walks Into A Bar’. My personal preferences lean towards the books by Jacobsen, Stefánsson and Schweblin while other shadow panel members have made strong cases in favour of the more avant-garde titles. We will be deliberating our choices this month and announcing our winner in June.

Black Moses Alain Mabanckou

This brings us to my final two longlist reviews, the first of which is Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou. Translated from the French by Helen Stevenson, it tells the story of Moses, a young orphan nicknamed ‘Little Pepper’ (or ‘Petit Piment’ as the book is titled in French) and his life in Point-Noire, the capital of the People’s Republic of Congo, in the 1970s during a Marxist-Leninist revolution. He encounters a range of bizarre characters from the much-feared and corrupt Director of the orphanage in Loango, Dieudonné Ngoulmoumako, to his friend at the orphanage Bonaventure and brothel-owner Maman Fiat 500.

Moses mostly just muddles through life without much direction – something which is reflected in the odd and unbalanced structure of the book. The first part focuses on his life in the orphanage while the second half is more unconventional in style as Moses eventually descends into madness. Mabanckou was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize in its previous form as an award for an author’s whole body of work but I’m not too surprised that ‘Black Moses’ didn’t make the shortlist this year. While the satire and inventiveness has some appeal, it didn’t really stand out enough for me compared to some of the other nominated books this year.

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen emerged as a strong favourite among the shadow panel very early on and it certainly looks as though I really have saved the very best until last. The Norwegian novel is notable for being the only longlisted title to have two translators: Don Shaw and Don Bartlett. Set on the fictional island of Barrøy off the coast of Norway, the reader is introduced to three generations of the sole family who live there including Hans, his wife Maria, father Martin, sister Barbro and daughter Ingrid. Hans wants to build a quay to connect the island to the mainland while Ingrid must contend with the challenges of further change as she grows up.

Both ‘The Unseen’ and ‘Fish Have No Feet’ have very similar settings based in Scandinavian fishing communities but they are also both quite different in style. Despite being set in the early twentieth century, ‘The Unseen’ has a relatively timeless quality and addresses the momentous events alongside the mundane with assured ease. The prose is quietly dramatic, capturing the isolation of the island and how daily life is driven almost entirely by the weather. I was particularly impressed by the way in which the local dialect was rendered into something completely original while still being comprehensible in the English translation – a very difficult thing to pull off successfully, in my view.

‘The Unseen’ very much deserves its place on the shortlist and is probably my favourite book on the longlist. However, we shall have to wait until Wednesday 14th June to find out which book wins the overall prize both officially and among the rest of the shadow panel…