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Booker International Longlist 2020: Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq


Book 6 from the longlist and I think it is fair to say this is the book our shadow panel was most dreading. That said all 4 panellists have read and reviewed this book so how did it fare in our rankings?

Details from the Booker Website: Dissatisfied and discontented, Florent-Claude Labrouste feels he is dying of sadness. His young girlfriend hates him and his career as an engineer at the Ministry of Agriculture is pretty much over. His only relief comes in the form of a pill – white, oval, small. Recently released for public consumption, Captorix is a new brand of anti-depressant which works by altering the brain’s release of serotonin.

Armed with this new drug, Labrouste decides to abandon his life in Paris and return to the Normandy countryside where he used to work promoting regional cheeses, and where he had once been in love. But instead of happiness, he finds a rural community devastated by globalisation and European agricultural policies, and local farmers longing, like Labrouste himself, for an impossible return to what they remember as the golden age.

Michel Houellebecq is a poet, essayist and novelist. He is the author of several novels including The Map and the Territory (winner of the Prix Goncourt), Atomised, Platform, Whatever and Submission. He was awarded the Legion d’Honneur in 2019.


Shaun Whiteside’s translations from French, German, Italian and Dutch include works by Georges Simenon, Amélie Nothomb, Patrick Rambaud, Ralf Rothmann, Walter Kempowski, Judith Schalansky, Luther Blissett/Wu Ming and Marcel Möring, as well as classic authors including Freud, Nietzsche, Robert Musil and Adolf Loos. His reviews have appeared in a range of journals including the Guardian, the TLS, the Literary Review and the Irish Times. He lives in London with his wife and son.

Book Worm’s Thoughts: I actually enjoyed this more than I expected to and more than some others I have read from this list. Yes Houellebecq courts controversy with the way he refers to women and anyone not French however he can certainly turn a phrase and his observations about the state of French farming and the despair of the French farmers certainly held my interest.

Without the misogyny this wouldn’t be a Houellebeq and sad as it is to say this it probably wouldn’t have made the longlist. That said Houellebeq will be sad to know that his book is not the one that has shocked and disgusted me most from the longlist, sorry about that.

Writing Quality: 3/5
Originality: 3/5
Character Development: 2/4
Plot Development: 2/4
Overall Enjoyment: 1/2
Total 11/20

Emily’s Thoughts: Michel Houellebecq thinks people hate him because of his principles. He’s partly right, I hate him cause of his principles but also his self indulgent basic style that hasn’t developed since his sub-Martin Amis 80s novels. Picking which I hate him for more feels like splitting hairs. In this novel a pretentious, crude agricultural theorist (he LOVES agricultural theory nearly as much as listing his views about vaginas) drives round France thinking about how clever he is, correcting sections of Proust to include more ‘pussy’ references and once describing a paedophile attacking a girl in so much detail I had to skip it. He smokes because he’s clever and nobody else understands why he smokes so much because no one else, particularly women, is clever. Somehow both shocking and boring.

Writing Quality: 0/5
Originality: 0/5
Character Development: 0/4
Plot Development: 0/4
Overall Enjoyment: 0/2
Total 0/20

Rachel’s Thoughts: I’m not too sure what to make of ‘Serotonin’. It’s a story of impotence – physical, yes, but more in life in general. Initially I assumed this was going to be a black comedy – the early ‘shock’ elements are on the ridiculous side – but there was little humour in the main character’s withdrawal from the world, or in his non-actions. He goes out of his way to keep you away – whenever you start to take an interest, he’ll come out with something so sexist, racist, classist or homophobic, you back off again.

The writing didn’t draw me in either. It was certainly true to his voice – pompous, exclusionary and often repetitive. On the plus side, I totally believed in the character – his actions and words became almost predictably shocking – I just didn’t want to spend any time with him. Maybe that was the point?

Writing quality: 2/5
Originality: 2/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development: 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 0.5/2
Total 9.5/20

Tracy’s Thoughts: This isn’t my first Houllebecq. I should have been better prepared for the content of this book. And I was prepared for the naughty parts. (except for one scene involving the main character’s ex-girlfriend. No one could prepare for that.) What surprised me was how good the rest of this book was.

Houllebecq touched on agricultural and political issues in the EU and he discussed mental health frankly. I’m a farmer’s daughter and a healthcare professional, so these topics are right in my wheelhouse, and I was captivated. The explicit sex and thinly disguised misogyny could have been edited out, though.

The characters and storyline were taut and professional. Clearly Houllebecq is an intelligent writer, and I’m sure the controversy he generates with his writing is very intentional. This is another dark book on the longlist- I’m going to need a stack of fluffy reads after this list is done!


Writing: 4/5
Originality: 3/5
Characters: 3/4
Plot: 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total: 13/20

Tyll 19/20
The Eighth Life 18.5
Memory Police 15.5
Faces on the Tip of my Tongue 14.17
Mac and his Problem 12.5
Serotonin 8.375

Have you read this one? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.



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