MBIP2019 Round Up – Reviews 1 & 2

I always have mixed feelings when the Man Booker International Prize longlist appears.  On the one hand, I’m keen to find out what new books I’m likely to be trying over the next couple of months.  However, there’s also a sense of trepidation at the thought that I may not have tried many of the chosen baker’s dozen, leading to a mad scramble to get through the list and complete my shadowing duties effectively.  This time around, I was fairly confident, having read a number of potential contenders, including six highly rated titles just before the announcement.  So how many longlisted books have I actually read?

Two.  I suppose I’d better fill you in on those before I head off to make inroads on the rest of the list 😦

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk –
Fitzcarraldo Editions, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
What’s it all about?
An elderly woman living near the Polish-Czech border stumbles across the body of one of her neighbours.  An unfortunate accident?  Not quite.  There are signs that something is very wrong in her isolated little town, and strangely enough, it seems to have something to do with animals.  As the body count rises, and the locals become ever more fearful, the woman continues to investigate, discovering that there’s something very wrong about life in the country…

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
You wouldn’t think so from that brief overview, but there’s far more to Drive Your Plow… than just a thriller with pets.  It’s a wonderfully funny book, a look at the oddities of life on the fringes (of society and the country), with a strong environmental message and some wonderful writing from Tokarczuk and Lloyd-Jones.  At this stage, it’s hard to predict just how well this deserves to do, but I’ve certainly seen weaker books on shortlists before.

Will it make the shortlist?
It definitely has a good chance.  With the rather surprising longlist the judges have cooked up for us, one thing that’s short on the ground is star power.  In addition to balancing the merits of the various books, they must be subconsciously weighing up whether the reigning champion would add some glamour to the shortlist, or whether it would be better to have fresher faces make the final cut.  The jury(!), inevitably, is still out on this 😉


At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong –
Scribe Publications, translated by Sora Kim-Russell
What’s it all about?
A chance encounter brings an ageing architect to reflect on his life, allowing the reader glimpses into the Seoul of his youth.  Meanwhile, a twenty-something theatre director attempts to make a life for herself in the modern-day metropolis.  As the two strands alternate, we get to compare life then and now, the hardships of the post-war era and the stresses of Hell Joseon – no prizes for guessing which era the writer thinks is more disturbing…

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
I love Hwang’s work and have read virtually everything of his in English (six novels and a couple of short stories), but it’s a little surprising that At Dusk is the book that has made an English-language longlist.  This is a fine story, and Kim-Russell has continued her excellent work on Hwang’s fiction (her third book of his over the last few years).  However, Princess Bari, with its magical realism-tinged story of a North Korean making her way over to London, seemed a better bet, and Familiar Things, a novel set in the rubbish dumps of Seoul, was a book I championed long and hard (to no avail…).  While I enjoyed At Dusk, I’m not sure it’s quite as good as his other work, and I’m not convinced it should go any further.

Will it make the shortlist?
I suspect that the longlist is as far as this one will go.  I can’t see it really standing out and being fiercely fought for by several judges, and in a year where the longlist (for the first time) has more female than male writers, I expect to see that reflected in the shortlist, too.

And that’s as far as I’ve got so far…  Two down, eleven to go, and a fair amount of uncharted territory to come.  After these brief visits to Poland and Korea, join me soon for the next leg of my literary travels, a journey that will take us around the world in a quest to find the best work of translated fiction of the year.  Have I already read the winner, or is it still out there waiting for me?  There’s only one way to find out – let’s go!


8 thoughts on “MBIP2019 Round Up – Reviews 1 & 2

  1. Ah, that’s why I know the name Hwang Sok-yong. I read Familiar Things when it first came out in the UK and bloody loved it.

    I’ve just read Drive your Plow and really enjoyed it… I thought Janina was a marvellous creation, so funny and eccentric, and the neat little twist at the end was so unexpected I wanted to go back to the start and read it again.


    1. Kim – Yes, that’s a book I plugged a lot, and I’m still annoyed it never really got the recognition it deserved. Typical that he got nominated for this one instead 😉 As for ‘Drive Your Plow…’, I suspect that it’s a potential shortlister, and I’m looking forward to rereading it at some point soon – and to seeing her next, longer book when it appears next year 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I wonder about Drive Your Plow’s chances. She just won, but, it’s a different translator and such a different book. It’s the only one I’ve read, but was also my favourite book of last year. And thanks to the fact that these are all small presses, there’s no way I’ll read them all… too difficult and expensive to obtain in Canada! But I have a couple on hold at the library. Looking forward to your reviews, as always.


    1. If you liked the book, check out the film version, Pokot. The main character is extraordinary in print, but the movie brings her to life in visual grandeur. She’s amazing. And Olga wrote the script.


    2. Laura – I’d be surprised if it won, purely because they’ll want to give the prize to someone else (even if they’d *never* admit it!).


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