Debut novels and women writers dominate the 2020 Booker Prize longlist perhaps signalling a continuation of the shift away from the power of well-established novelists. Not that the 2019 prize broke that mould entirely, for, in a first-for-the-Booker, the prize was shared by a titan, Margaret Atwood forThe Testaments and a much newer writer, Bernadine Evaristo; for Girl, Woman, Other. Still, both winners were women.
Of the 13 writers, nine are women, and eight of the 13 books are debuts. For India, the intersection of women novelists and debutants is particularly significant because a writer of Indian origin, Avni Doshi, is on the longlist with her first novel, published as Burnt Sugar in the UK and as Girl in White Cotton in India, which is set in India.
This year’s longlist of 13 books was selected by a panel of five judges: Margaret Busby (chair), editor, literary critic and former publisher; Lee Child, author; Sameer Rahim, author and critic; Lemn Sissay, writer and broadcaster; and Emily Wilson, classicist and translator. The list was chosen from 162 novels published in the UK or Ireland between 1 October 2019 and 30 September 2020.
The shortlist of six books will be announced on Tuesday 15 September, and the winner of the £50,000 prize, in November. The shortlisted authors each receive £2,500 and a specially bound edition of their book.
Gaby Wood, one of the judges from the panel wrote, “In this year of seismic change, visibility for new books published in the UK has been drastically low. So, however unintended the ratio, it’s especially heartening to know that some authors who have launched their careers in the midst of Covid-19 may now have a chance to reach the readers they deserve.” Here’s a quick guide to the “Booker Dozen”.
The New Wilderness, Diane Cook
Author of Man vs Nature, a finalist of the Guardian First Book Award, Diane Cook’s, The New Wilderness, is a stunning look into a world ravaged by climate change. Cook is known to venture into the deeply psychological and complex world of human beings by looking specifically at how they interact with the natural world. In The New Wilderness, her focus is on the relationship between a mother and daughter.
Bea and her daughter Agnes, along with a scant number of volunteers, enter into the Wilderness State – where human beings are forbidden – to study how humans could co-exist with nature. Around them, the city clots with population and pollution. Cook’s speculative novel has been lauded for its portrayal of the tense relationship between the urban and primate, and an exploration of the bond between mother and daughter that shifts from the city to community.
The Mournable Body, Tsitsi Dangarembga
Dangarembga wrote her famous debut, Nervous Conditions, 30 years before the release of this long-listed book. Her debut was the first book to be written in English from Zimbabwe and since then has gathered attention and acclaim. In this novel, Dangarembga writes about her heroine Tambu from Nervous Conditions, and explores her middle-aged life in Zimbabwe where she lives in a women’s hostel without a husband or children.
In the previous book, Tambu explored the systemic racism and sexism of the Rhodesia Education Act of 1930. In pre-independent Rhodesia, torn apart by civil war, European children got compulsorily free education whereas black families had to pay for that right. In The Mournable Body, Tambu deals with the conflict of her African heritage and white values, struggles to find employment, and suffers from humiliation and sadness. The Bookers Prizes describes the novel as a “journey to discover where lives go after hope has departed.”
(Dangarembga was arrested in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, on Friday as part of a crackdown on planned anti-corruption protests in the country. She has been tweeting about her arrest and related developments.)
Burnt Sugar, Avni Doshi
Avni Doshi’s debut novel took her almost seven years to write. The book explores the fraught relationship between mother Tara and her daughter Antara. Set in Pune, it revolves around Tara’s decline of cognitive abilities – a woman who could remember the different variations of teas made in different homes now forgets the name of her own son-in-law.
Tara lived a rebellious life, rejecting her upper-middle class upbringing to live life in an ashram where she lives freely, without materialistic values. She treats her own daughter with ambivalence; Antara remembers this and despises having to look after a mother who never cared for her. “Any kind of conflict or difficulty with the mother can lead to a fragmentation of one’s own self,” said Doshi in an interview to The Guardian. Her novel has been described as unusual, complex, and mysterious.
Who They Was, Gabriel Krauze
Releasing on 2 September 2020, Krauze’s debut novel explores London in a new way. London, with its perpetual violence, has cycles of betrayal and brotherhood that don’t often get reflected in the larger narrative of the city. Krauze, who grew up in a Polish family in the city, was attracted to the lives of gangs from early on. Now, he’s reflecting back on his life through writing, and has published short stories in Vice. His writing has been described as uncomfortable, electrifying literary non-fiction.
The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel
Mantel has already written two Booker-Prize winning novels – Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up The Bodies. Mirror and the Light is the end to the trilogy she has cleverly crafted; it sequences the final years of Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell, a powerful minister in the court of Henry the VIII, is seen in this book after the execution of Anne Boleyn – he had a huge role to play in her downfall – from his success to fall in the public eye, and finally his execution. The book was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Although it is Mantel’s twelfth novel, it is the first one she’s published in almost eight years.
The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste
In her second book Mengiste, an Ethiopia-born Fulbright Scholar, explores the Second Italo-Ethiopian war. The protagonist Hirut lives with her employers Kidane and Aster in a small room described as a metal box. She has been orphaned and now lives as a servant, until her country is invaded and all three are forced to flee their home. Hirut, against Kidane’s will, decides to take up arms and defend her country, serving the Shadow King: a peasant impersonating the exiled king of Ethiopia. The book aims to remember the women soldiers who have been written out of war history, and their personal struggles for liberation and the fight for freedom for their country.
Such A Fun Age, Kiley Reid
Reid’s debut novel after graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is the story of Emira, a young black woman who is the babysitter for two-year-old Briar, her white employer Alix Chamberlain’s child. One night, when Emira takes Briar out to a high-end supermarket, the security guard accuses her of kidnapping the child.
Reid said the book was inspired by her own experience working as a babysitter. The book details the relationship between Emira and Alix as it complicates and crashes, exposing everyday insidious instances of racism. “I wanted to explore these instances of racial biases that don’t end in violence as a way of highlighting those moments that we don’t see on the news but still exist every day,” said Reid in an interview to BookPage.
Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart
Stuart’s debut novel is about life in Glasgow 1981. Shuggie lives in a run-down public housing apartment; the city around him is dying because of the extreme poverty. Shuggie has a difficult relationship with his mother Agnes, who still dresses up as a “Glaswegian Elizabeth Taylor,” and drinks up the major reserves of money on her extra-strong lager. Thatcher’s policies have led many men out of work, and Shuggie’s father struggles as a taxi-driver and often has extra-marital relations. Shuggie’s elder siblings keep their distance from the family, abandoning him to live with his mother. As the city plunges into a drugs epidemic, the book serves as reminder of love in its beautiful portrayal of working-class life.
Real Life, Brandon Taylor
Taylor holds graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Iowa and works currently for Electric Literature. His debut novel is described as a coming-of-age campus novel, chronicling the life of Wallace, an African American student in a predominantly white midwestern university. Much like Taylor, Wallace is a black, gay student from a small town in Alabama, who considers dropping out of his college, where he works on breeding a strain of microscopic worms. His father dies but he does not go back home for the funeral.
The book deals with Wallace’s past trauma, of being sexually assaulted by his uncle, his relationship with his mother, and also recent suffering like the sabotage of his scientific experiments at the hands of his fellow white classmates. Taylor has been lauded for his honest portrayal of conflict and isolation.
Redhead by the Side of the Road, Anne Tyler
Former Pulitzer Prize winner, Tyler has written a novel about the life of Micah Mortimer, once star-child of a family with many sisters, but who now works for Tech Hermit, a one-man tech help-service. He’s an odd character one would be fond of, written true to the style of Tyler. Micah has a geeky sense of perfectionism; he is prone to dividing his life into clear schedules. His life is disrupted when his long-term girlfriend, who lives in a different building, is threatened with eviction. And a college student shows up at his house claiming to be his son. Tyler is known to bring out the uniqueness in mundanity and this novel is no exception.
Love and Other Thought Experiments, Sophie Ward
Divided into ten self-contained chapters, Ward’s debut Love and Other Thought Experiments explores the philosophy of the mind. Ward, who has a PhD in Literature and Philosophy, uses her knowledge of some of the best-known thought experiments – such as Pascal’s Wager – in philosophy to create her own unique story. Eliza, a scientist, and her wife Rachel are planning on having a baby – until their relationship is called into question one night when Rachel wakes up screaming, swearing an ant has crawled into her eye and is stuck there.
When Eliza refuses to believe her, calling it a nightmare, Rachel pleads her to believe the ant exists based on the fact that they love each other. The book pushes the limits of reason and love itself, weaving a complex narrative about life.
How Much of These Hills is Gold, C Pam Zhang
Born in Beijing and raised in the US, Zhang focuses in her debut novel on survival and finding a home. The author, who has lived in thirteen different cities and is still on the lookout for a home, writes about a Chinese-American immigrant family during the Gold Rush. Two newly orphaned siblings, Lucy and Sam, travel through a country that denies their existence, in order to bury their father. The novel has been described as an epic that heavily uses Chinese symbolism.
Also on the longlist
Apeirogon, by Colum McCann, is the only book among the 13 that is neither a debut novel nor written by a woman. It is also the only work on the list written by someone who has been accused of sexual assault on social media (by Randa Jarrar, author of short story collection, Him Me and Muhammad Ali) in a tweet which she had said she would not keep visible for a long time.)
Jarrar was supported by many scholars and friends such as writer Roxanne Gay. Writer Anuradha Bhagwati tweeted to the same effect.
Apeirogon is named after the geometrical concept of an infinite polygon or a polygon with countably infinite number of sides. The book is about an impossible friendship between Bassam Aramin who is Palestinian and Rami Elhanan who is Israeli. Its Irish author has also been charged with appropriating a traumatic narrative that doesn’t belong to him. Jarrar tweeted: “Has a Palestinian writer ever been nominated for the booker? Asking for a friend – who was abused by someone on the longlist.”