The longlist for the Booker Prize makes for one of the most interesting reading lists in the world. Like every year, the longlist for 2021 comprises 13 books – a baker’s dozen – chosen by a jury comprising Maya Jasanoff (chair); writer and editor Horatia Harrod; actor Natascha McElhone; twice Booker-shortlisted novelist and professor Chigozie Obioma; and writer and former Archbishop Rowan Williams.
Jasanoff said: “It’s particularly resonant during the pandemic to note that all of these books have important things to say about the nature of community, from the tiny and secluded to the unmeasurable expanse of cyberspace. Reading in lockdown fostered a powerful sense of connection with the books, and of shared enterprise among the judges. Though we didn’t always respond in the same way to an author’s choices, every book on this list sparked long discussions amongst ourselves that led in unexpected and enlightening directions.”
What can readers expect from the longlist?
A Passage North, Anuk Arudpragasam
After the critical success of The Story of a Brief Marriage, Arudpragasam’s second novel comes with great anticipation. It is set in the aftermath of the three-decade long bloody Sri Lankan civil war. Krishan, journeys from Colombo to the north to attend the funeral of Rani his grandmother’s caretaker.
During his journey, he recalls his past with Anjum, a woman he met in Delhi when he was working on his PhD. In Colombo he works with an NGO and in his journey to the former war zone in the North East he rediscovers the ravages of war.
Arudpragasam himself grew up in Colombo and studied philosophy in Columbia University. He told NPR that he visited the Northeast “to learn more about the people who were directly affected by the civil war.” His work is littered with Proustian interruptions and covers Krishnan’s journey, which has no conclusive ending.
Second Place, Rachel Cusk
After the success of the Outline Trilogy, which pushed the boundaries of what constitutes fiction, Cusk has written a domestic novel that explores human relationships and male privilege. The protagonist M is obsessed with painter L; when she sees his painting in Paris, she is moved by the freedom it encompasses and leaves her husband to feel the same freedom for herself. Through this decision, she loses everything.
Fifteen years later, when she is happily married, she invites L to stay in her guest cottage, known as the second place. The result is an ungrateful artist, who sneers at her interests, often insulting her very being. The novel comes at a time when people are questioning the culture around art, especially the behaviour of male artists, and explores the possibilities of art as saviour or destroyer.
The Promise, Damon Galgut
Galgut has been previously shortlisted for the Booker for his book In a Strange Room. In The Promise, he borrows narrative techniques from In a Strange Room to write his most political novel yet – the chronicles of a white South African family who do not live up to their promise of giving their black employee her own house and land.
The novel begins in the late 1980s, at the height of Apartheid, and ends in 2018. Although the book is about the literal promise of giving a black woman her own land, it is also about how white South Africans have not lived up their metaphorical promises of freedom and equality.
The Sweetness of Water, Nathan Harris
Harris’s debut novel is set during the final days of the American Civil War. In Georgia, two formerly enslaved brothers are found by George Walker, living on his property. They agree to work on his land to earn enough money to travel up North.
George, who has a lonely marriage, and a son who deserted from the Confederate army, is an outcast in the town. The family’s isolation is heightened once the town discovers they are employing former slaves.
The freed brothers are never accepted as free. In Harris’s engaging story, which shifts the point of view multiple times, every character’s depth of individuality is explored in the backdrop of emancipation and the resentment of a White society that still sees itself as superior.
Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro
Nobel prize winning Ishiguro is known for writing about human fragility and death, exploring loneliness through big existential themes. In his eighth novel, he explores a rapidly changing world. Klara, an Artificial Friend watches the behaviour of those who come to browse in the store where she is put up for sale.
Artificial Friends have been designed to give company to the children of this new world who don’t go out. Klara is purchased for Josie, a chronically ill girl. Although she sees the world with tenderness and complexity, her sentience and ability to love is always in question. Reminiscent of Never Let Me Go, Klara and the Sun expands the definition of science-fiction and what it means to feel love.
An Island, Karen Jennings
An Island is the story of Samuel, an old lighthouse keeper. One day, a young refugee washes up on the shore of the beach where Samuel is the sole inhabitant. Samuel, who had been in jail for twenty-five years for fighting for the independence of his country, is reminded of his past because of the refugee.
Although there is a language barrier between the two, they both have experienced colonialism and dictatorship. An Island is a book that questions what it means to belong and to have a home.
A Town Called Solace, Mary Lawson
Her first novel in nearly a decade, Lawson’s latest work is set in Northern Ontario in 1972 and explores the relations between three people brought together by fate. The book opens to a family in crisis, where Rose, an angry and rebellious teenage is missing and her younger sister Clara spends every day by the living room window hoping for her sister’s return.
Meanwhile, the family’s neighbour Mrs Orchard, has a new tenant who is greeted by the police within hours of his arrival because he is suspected of a crime. Mrs Orchard, on the last leg of her life, is also thinking of a crime with tragic consequences that she wants to make amends for. The book, full of warmth and empathy, follows the lives of the three characters to uncover layers of grief.
No One is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood
Lockwood’s debut novel follows the life of an unnamed protagonist who went viral on social media. Her entire existence is on the internet, on what she terms “the portal” and Lockwood captures the vapidness of a life that only exists online.
The novel is full of references written in the language of the portal and the narrator is navigating the problems of the world under the shadow of the “dictator” elected in 2016. Lockwood herself wrote large portions of the book on the notes app of her phone, mimicking the language of the internet – sharp and unregulated.
The narrator’s existence of the portal is challenged by a distressed call she receives from her mother regarding her younger sister’s pregnancy. When real life is at stake, the protagonist has to confront the bizarre problems that exist on the portal, while simultaneously seeing the empathy of real life.
The Fortune Men, Nadifa Mohamed
Mahmood Mattan, a young Somali man living in Cardiff, is the father of three kids and a petty thief. Ever since his Welsh wife left him, he has been getting into trouble, but when a shopkeeper is brutally killed, he does not expect to be accused of the crime.
The novel is based on a true story of injustice where a Somali seaman was wrongfully convicted of a murder and executed. Evidence was fabricated and false witnesses were brought in to convict Mattan for the murder of shopkeeper Violet Volacki. Mattan was the last man to be hanged in Cardiff prison. In this book, he comes to the realisation that the truth was not enough to save him in the face of racial profiling.
Bewilderment, Richard Powers
Powers, the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize in fiction and previously shortlisted for the Booker Prize, writes about the life of Theo Byrne, a young astrobiologist who has found a way to search for life on planets several light years away. As Theo’s wife dies, he becomes the sole caretaker of their nine-year-old child, who is expelled from third grade for smashing his friend’s face with a metal thermos.
The child, who is diagnosed with OCD, ADHD, and Asperger’s is not given psychoactive medication by Theo. Instead, he treats him with an experimental neural feedback treatment and homeschools him. Bewilderment is the story of raising a child on a dying planet, plagued by the climate crisis, and about a father’s love for his son.
China Room, Sanjeev Sahota
Mehar is a child bride in rural Punjab, trying to find out the identity of her husband. After she is married, she is sent off to live in the China Room with her sisters-in-law – sequestered from contact with men. All the women were all married on the same day to the three brothers, but do not know exactly which of the brothers they have married.
Mai, their mother-in-law, summons them to a secluded room where they are to spend time with their husband and bear a son. Because sex takes place in complete darkness, the women still do not know whom they have been married to. Mehar starts to suspect one man is her husband, and a passion is ignited in her that puts her life in danger.
The story ricochets to a different time, following the life of a man living in England, who spends a summer in the same part of Punjab as Mehar, in the shadows of the China Room and battles with his addiction to heroin. Mehar was his great grandmother. The story captures the ruptures and alienation of life and how connections can transport trauma.
Great Circle, Maggie Shipstead
Ever since she was a child in Montana, Marian Graves had always wanted to take to the skies. In the 1950s she embarks on a journey to fly around the world, but on the last leg of their travels, both Marian and her navigator vanish. Her story runs parallel with that a Hollywood actress, Hadley Baxter, who in order to save her career and reputation decides to star as Marian in a movie.
Hadley finds many links from her life to that of Marian’s and in these connections, she finds herself a freedom unlike any other she has ever experienced. The immersive and ambitious novel stretches the genre of historical fiction with unforgettable interwoven narratives and characters.
Light Perpetual, Francis Spufford
Spufford is known for writing bizarre works of non-fiction and his daring debut into fiction, Golden Hill. In Light Perpetual, he pushes the edge of the novel by experimenting with the very idea of fiction. In 1944, a German rocket strikes London taking the lives of five people. The novel explores what would’ve happened had the five survived.
As the characters age, the society in the backdrop changes, with the threat of desktop publishing, female insurgence in male-dominated fields, and so on. Through the novel, Spufford dramatises the worth of every life and its experiences.
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