If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery

Alison’s Take:

This is an interesting choice for the Booker longlist, because it straddles the line between short stories and a novel, and the Booker is for novels. In some ways, this works very well as a novel – though episodic, there are clear and overarching themes. In others, it’s clear these were written as stand-alone stories; there’s a lot of repetition of information which we don’t need, in reading them as a novel.

This follows Jamaican-American Trelawney and his family: his parents, who immigrated to the US before he was born; his brother Delano, the clear and obvious favourite of his parents; and his cousin Cukie, who drifts in and out of their lives. Some of the stories are told from other perspectives, but most of them are from Trelawney’s eyes. This grapples with race, in ways I surely cannot do justice, and masculinity, examining the ways performative masculinity damages.

This book is fine. It was interesting and well done, though a little too American MFA style (you know, that current in-vogue tone). It isn’t particularly ground-breaking, and that is where it fails for me as a Booker nominee. Well-written, yes. Engages with important themes in an engaging way, definitely. Pushing the bounds of literature? Nah. And for a prize like the Booker, I need more.

Clementine’s Take:

Escoffery’s debut follows a Jamaican-American family for several decades: Sanya, Topper, and their toddler Delano fled Jamaica in the late 1970s, settling in Miami and having an American-born son, Trelawny. We are mostly following Trelawny, who feels like he has no homeland, born in a country that views him with hostility and suspicion but not really belonging to his parent’s home country either. To make matters worse, Trelawny’s father heavily favours Delano, his mother moves back to Jamaica when he graduates college, and he is generally adrift, an underachiever trying to survive the economic crash of 2008.

To me, this book does not feel substantially different from any number of novels to emerge from American MFAs following a dysfunctional family navigating the hellscape of late capitalist America. The primary difference here is that it’s a series of interconnected short stories, or a novel in stories, if you’d like. @time4reading has a post about this debate, as the Booker is specifically for long-form fiction. The amount of repetition in the book suggests to me that some sections were indeed conceived as standalone stories (because, I mean, I don’t need to be reminded of things I just read), but I don’t know that every chapter/story would make sense outside of the context of the book or even make for very compelling short fiction. It does indeed feel like a unified work of fiction. I’m not personally troubled by the indeterminacy of its structure. To me, this one is competent, fine, but not exciting or special. I wanted more emotional depth, more exploration of the women (especially Sanya), and more fleshing out of some of these vignettes. It felt like Escoffery was holding a lot back! What I liked most was the overarching theme of masculinity and patriarchal inheritance of trauma and toxic attitudes.

Should it make the shortlist? I say no. It’s just not a memorable book to me.

Alison Manley bounced around the Maritimes before landing in Miramichi, NB, where she works as a hospital librarian. She has an honours BA in political science and English from St. Francis Xavier University, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. When she's not reading biomedical research for her work, she likes reading poetry, contemporary and historical fiction, and personal essays. Noted for a love of bright colours (and lipstick), you can find her wandering the banks of the Miramichi River with a book and a paintbrush.

Clementine Oberst is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in television studies. Born and raised in Toronto, she has lived in Montreal and Glasgow and now calls Hamilton home. When she isn't writing her dissertation, Clementine can be found knitting, trying to cultivate a green thumb, and playing with her cats. She loves nothing more than losing herself in a good book. You can connect with her on Instagram @clementinereads.