Today, the 2021 Booker Prize is going to be announced. Over the years, the Booker Prize has established itself as one of the most prestigious and influential awards in the world of literature. First awarded in 1969, among its honor roll are some of the literary world’s most popular and discussed literary works, such as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which once held the distinction of being called the Booker of Bookers; Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea; Nobel Laureate in Literature Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day; Yann Martel’s Life of Pi; and Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.
Later today, a panel of judges chaired by Maya Jasanoff, a renowned American academician, will converge and deliberate which of the six shortlisted works will win £50,000 and join an esteemed company of Booker Prize winners. In terms of subject and complexity, this year’s shortlist is eclectic. They have covered a wide range of subjects and themes that are prevalent in the contemporary, such as the poignancy of history and memory; the impact of social media on our lives; the devastation caused by war and how they still resonate in the contemporary; and the miscarriages of the justice system. There are, of course, the staple subjects such as the empowerment of women, the prevalence of politics, and the dynamics of family relationships. Before the winner is announced, I am going to do a quick run through of the six shortlisted works.
6. The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed
Nadifa Mohamed has made history this year as she became the first writer of Somali origin to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Her third novel, The Fortune Men reimagines the real life story of Mahmood Hussein Mattan. Born in British Somaliland, Mattan worked as a merchant prior to settling down in Cardiff, Wales’ Tiger Bay, a melting pot of different nationalities. The story revolves around his wrongful execution for the death of Jewish shop owner Lily Volpert (renamed Violet Volacki in in the book) in March 1952.
I did like the premise for it is timely and relevant. With the surge of injustice, it has become imperative to reexamine how the justice system works. While the story focuses on a local case, its message resonate on a global scale. However, I lament the fact that Mohamed’s voice was stymied by the story. She tried to stay loyal to the case that she sacrificed her own voice. Historical retellings, such as Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark, has won the Booker Prize before but I don’t think that The Fortune Men can pull off the same feat. It is also up against a strong competition. Its message, however, is undeniably seminal.
5. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
Of the six shortlisted works, it was Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle that has first piqued my interest. I did, however, hold back for I am naturally averse to hyped books and I feel like this is one of them. I relented when the book was longlisted, and eventually shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. The story follows two parallel strands: Marian Graves, an aviatrix born in the early half of the 20th century, and Hadley Baxter, a young actress who was set to play Marian’s character in a movie about the female aviator’s exploits and eventual disappearance, yes, ala Amerlia Earhart.
I did enjoy the parts when Marian’s story intersected with major historical events. I was particularly in awe of the part depicting the role of female aviators during the Second World War. However, the book is lengthy, actually the longest of the six books. It was filled to the brim with salacious details that did not move the story forward; it has the tendency to meander. The dual narrative strand also did not work; I wasn’t a fan of Hadley’s trite story. Yet another work of historical fiction, I am not dismissing its chances of brining home the Booker Prize. However, I do feel it is quite thin. The only advantage the novel had over The Fortune Men was in the details.
4. No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
The second of three American writers shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This is no stranger to being nominated for a prestigious literary award. It was also shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, won by Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. It was not difficult to see why everyone is talking about Lockwood’s first venture into fiction writing. Quite a celebrity in the Twitterverse, Lockwood grappled with a subject that we have long been avoiding: the impact of social media and the internet to our lives. What stood out in the early parts of the story was its Twitter-like flow. Lockwood balanced the story with a deep dive into the beauty of humanity in the second part of her debut novel.
Nevertheless, I am a little on the fence about No One Is Talking About This’ taking home this year’s Booker Prize. Indeed, the story was engaging, the writing style was innovative, and the subject was timely and seminal. There was also a fine balance between the first and second parts, about losing our humanity because of technology and regaining it through cherished moments. Albeit interesting, the eccentric qualities of the first part fell short of the “literary” and it just might be the drawback for it to going all the way to win the award.
3. A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam
Of the six shortlisted works, it was Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North that I read first. It was my first of the Sri Lankan-British writer who I heard of only this year because of his longlisting for the Booker Prize. The Booker Prize, I have realized, is a great avenue to discovering new literary vistas, both familiar and unfamiliar. The story revolves around Krishan who, like the author, is a Sri Lankan Tamil. At the start of the novel, he was summoned home because of the sudden demise of Rani, his grandmother’s (Appamma) caretaker. Home means a village in Sri Lanka’s war ravaged northern province. As Krishan rides a train that slithers across the Sri Lankan countryside, what ensues is a series of flashbacks and introspections that examine the poignancy of memory and history.
Krishan’s ruminations, intersecting with various elements of Sri Lankan society and culture, make up the backbone of the story. Its result is a story that is bereft of dialogues but was brimming with long and meditative sentences. It is the philosophical and meditative prose that really stood out for me, which made me conclude that the book is a Booker Prize material. True enough, a couple of days after I started the book, it was announced as part of the shortlist. Because of this, I am placing the novel in third place; I know, it is quit the unpopular opinion.
2. The Promise by Damon Galgut
In my second place is Damon Galgut’s The Promise. It is the last of the six books that I read. In fact, I just finished it late last night. I a manner of speaking, Galgut is the veteran of the bunch for, among the six shortlisted authors, he has received the most shortlist nominations at three; he was previously shortlisted for The Good Doctor (2003) and In A Strange Room (2010). His latest novel is a family saga which explores the story of the Swart family, white South Africans living on the outskirts of Pretoria. The story is predicated on the promise made by the family patriarch to the matriarch on her death bed. It was witnessed by the youngest of their three children, Amor. Divided into four parts and spanning nearly four decades, the story was characterized by the subsequent deaths of the members of the family.
Several literary pundits have called The Promise as the potential winner of the 2021 Booker Prize. And I can see why. Despite the missing quotation marks, the story flowed diaphanously across the decades and across the perspective of each family member. However, I wasn’t as riveted with the story as I expected to be. None of the characters were likable and the story skirted around the titular promise. Rather, what I read were fillers as the story diverges on each family member’s concerns. Albeit it not being my favorite, I can see why the novel is an early favorite. Family tales such as Anne Enright’s The Gathering and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace went all the way to the top. Maybe third time’s the charm?
1. Bewilderment by Richard Powers
I think that this year’s Booker Prize will be a toss between Damon Galgut and American popular novelist Richard Powers, who I first encountered with his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, The Overstory. The book was also shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize. I was reluctant to read The Overstory but I was convinced to read Bewilderment. In Bewilderment, the readers are provided a vision of what the future looks like through the story of Theo Byrne, an astrobiologist who was left to take care of his son, Robin, following the untimely demise of his wife, Aly. To summarize, the novel is about nature and discovering new planets to escape what we have. As expected of a work of American literature, politics was ubiquitous. Nevertheless, what it lost to the obvious it made up for the raw and emotional dynamics between Robin and Theo, especially in a world that is slowly losing its grip.
I giving Bewilderment a slight edge over The Promise simply because I found myself more riveted to it. It also provided a diagnosis of the contemporary and how our actions and decisions in the present can inevitably impact our future. Political awareness and activism were seminal parts of the story and it was easy to understand why. With politics sieving its way through every facet of our lives, it has become more and more imperative for us to find our voices and use it amidst the tumult. However, the novel’s politics might also be its own undoing. Outside of politics, the novel gave a powerful account of love and bond between fathers and sons, of the connections between sons and parents.
Each book is distinct and has its merits which make each book a viable winner. While there are strong contenders, each still has its own chance of winning. I sure don’t envy the panel of judges. Thus ends my evaluation of the shortlist. How about you fellow reader? Which book caught your fancy? Which of the six do you think will win the award later today? I hope you can share your thoughts in the comment box. For now, have a happy Wednesday everyone!
Thanks, Carl – I read all the Booker shortlists every year since ??? (about 2001 but many of them prior to that. This year I’ve only read Bewilderment but the o there are on my wish list. (I rad Powers’ “The Goldbug Chronicles” years ago and got hooked on him – that’s still his best, imo.) I’m very familiar with Galgut and I’m eager to read the rest of them. Great job on the list.
I read the short listers prior to the award one year and it was kind of a let-down in that after the award I had nothing to look forward to. LOL!
HAHA. Now that you mention it, I no longer have any book to look forward to, except for the last three books in the longlist. The only other year I managed to complete all shortlisted novels is 2019, although I read them post-announcement.
I think your review meant to say “astrobiologist” not “astrologist”; another victim of autocorrect?
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Thanks for pointing that out 🙂 It was my fault, not autocorrect. I was in too much of a rush I guess. 🙂
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