Chair of the 2019 Booker Prize judges, Peter Florence, said:
“If you only read one book this year, make a leap. Read all 13 of these. There are Nobel candidates and debutants on this list. There are no favourites; they are all credible winners. They imagine our world, familiar from news cycle disaster and grievance, with wild humour, deep insight and a keen humanity. These writers offer joy and hope. They celebrate the rich complexity of English as a global language. They are exacting, enlightening and entertaining. Really – read all of them.”
Levy, twice shortlisted for the Booker for Swimming Home and Hot Milk, is writing with gorgeous, juicy assurance here. It’s stylish: written with a speedy, vivid economy, her characters’ eccentricities leaping off the page. It’s funny: Saul’s narcissistic narration is full of deadpan details of youthful pretentiousness, social awkwardness. It’s sexy: Levy writes keenly about layered attraction and resentment, how her characters bestow and withdraw gifts of sex and affection. And it’s political: the novel exposes the hypocrisies that accompany rigid ideology, but also questions how an individual can live with integrity if they only live for themselves.
Nominated for this year’s Booker Prize, The Man Who Saw Everything is an intricate jigsaw, full of pieces that tantalisingly never quite fit together. Its sheer technical bravura places it head and shoulders above pretty much everything else on the longlist, and it ought to make Levy a household name on a par with the similarly inventive Ali Smith. Like much of Levy’s writing, the novel plays around with linear time, here to such an extent that it’s never clear at what point in time anything is taking place... The writing is immaculately controlled. Its surfaces feel endlessly reflective, as though each sentence were composed of a thousand tiny mirrors... Perhaps Levy’s extraordinary novel is, in the end, a hallucination of our broken, fractured, traumatised world, as experienced by a man who seems to hold all its damage inside him, yet who has managed to cross another sort of border, to become, finally and entirely, free.
Levy is a versatile writer who moves between genres and recently made a particular splash with her fictionalised autobiography, The Cost of Living. Such a varied writer won’t please everyone all the time, but if you secretly felt that Hot Milk, her previous novel that was shortlisted for the Booker prize, or any of her previous work was just too stickily, intensely weird, don’t give up. Because this one is brilliant in a new way: cool, calm, highly atmospheric (especially the scenes in the wild forests and sinister apartment buildings of the GDR) and an ice-cold skewering of patriarchy, humanity and the darkness of 20th-century Europe.
The struggle continues, however, and the balance shifts through Levy’s skilful, dizzying storytelling, so that at the book’s close, as Saul crosses Abbey Road for the last time, he is “walking across deep time”, hearing the sounds of different episodes of his life in symphony. In the end, Saul becomes the man of the sculpture too.
This is an ambitious book that creates more questions than it answers. Levy doesn’t patronise her readers and she is able to pull off such scope because of her humour and ability to evoke a mood. There are lyrical passages about lake swimming, cold white wine and pasta restaurants in Soho alongside intense psychological probing of childhood, parental duty and sexual attraction. It’s clever, raw, and it doesn’t play by any rules.
The twice Booker-shortlisted Levy is a genius author and she returns with an electrifying new novel in which historian Saul Adler is hit by a car on London’s famous Abbey Road — once in 1989 and again in 2016. Artfully navigating both time zones, the novel explores both what we see and what we miss until the past and present are staring directly at us.