I never shadow the Booker Prize. I almost always find its longlists and shortlists highly disappointing, and this was epitomised by last year’s shortlist, which for me reached a new nadir, put together by a panel whose idea of literary fiction was clearly the stereotype of literary fiction – weighty, miserable and tortured – rather than all the other things literary fiction can be. I was also furious when, in 2019, it forced Bernardine Evaristo to share the 2019 prize with Margaret Atwood, especially given that Girl, Woman, Other was incredible and The Testaments terrible. So why am I writing this post? For the first time EVER, I was pleasantly surprised by a Booker Prize announcement when I saw the 2021 longlist. I’d already read four of the novels on the list – always a good sign that a prize is on my wavelength – and was intrigued by a number of the others. The list seemed to showcase authors I hadn’t heard of before and kinds of novels that don’t usually get considered for the Booker.
So while I am still definitely not shadowing the Booker Prize, I’m going to take the approach I did for this year’s Women’s Prize: read the titles from the longlist that appeal to me and then read the whole shortlist. The shortlist is announced on 14th September, so, rather ambitiously, I’m hoping to get three additional titles read by then. Here are my thoughts on the list overall.
The Ones I’d Already Read
- Francis Spufford, Light Perpetual. This is possibly my book of the year so far, so I was thrilled to see it on the longlist, and I so hope it advances to the shortlist. I think Spufford has achieved something really wonderful with this book. My review is here.
- Sunjeev Sahota, China Room. I was won over by the quiet folktale feel of this novel, set in the rural Punjab, which moves between a young woman in an arranged marriage in 1929 and a young man detoxing on his family’s farm in 1999. My review is here.
- Patricia Lockwood, No One Is Talking About This. I don’t understand the hype behind this novel, which felt to me like it was trying to say something clever about online culture but fell short. My review is here.
- Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun. I’m such an Ishiguro fan but I found this so disappointing. Unlike Never Let Me Go (possibly my favourite novel of all time) which transcended SF tropes, Ishiguro just wrote an inferior version of many SF novels I’ve read. It’s still hard to forget, because it’s Ishiguro, but its appearance on this list feels tokenistic.
The Ones I Now Want to Read/Am Reading
- Maggie Shipstead, Great Circle. I’m reading this right now! I loved the premise – moving between a pioneering female aviator and the actor who plays her in the present day – and I’m liking it so far, though the writing is perhaps a little light, and I’m a bit done with long family-saga-style histories.
- Richard Powers, Bewilderment. I loved The Overstory, so I’d already requested this from Netgalley before it was longlisted for the Booker. This focuses on an astrobiologist struggling with his nine-year-old son, and I love everything about the blurb.
- Rachel Cusk, Second Place. The latest from Cusk focuses on a woman who invites an acclaimed artist to her isolated home. I don’t often have time for this kind of elliptical literary fiction (and struggled with Cusk’s Arlington Park and In the Fold), but I loved Outline, so have decided to give her another try.
The Ones I Still Don’t Want To Read
- Anuk Arudpragasam, A Passage North. A young man reflects on Sri Lanka’s civil war. This sounded too schematic, and the prose too convoluted, for me.
- Damon Galgut, The Promise. I think of Galgut as the kind of writer who always gets longlisted for the Booker, which is not a plus for me. I’ve only read The Good Doctor, which I thought was massively overrated, so I’ll be giving his latest – which focuses on the undoing of a white South African family – a miss.
- Nathan Harris, The Sweetness of Water. To be fair this actually sounds quite good, I am just tired of novels set during the American Civil War and Reconstruction. I’ll read it if it’s shortlisted.
- Karen Jennings, An Island. This novel – focusing on two men trapped on an island – sounded too limited and allegorical for me.
- Mary Lawson, A Town Called Solace. This sounded very much like Anne Tyler, and I’m not a fan. The horribly cliched child’s narrative voice in the first few pages put me off as well.
- Nadifa Mohamed, The Fortune Men. This was initially one of the titles I had my eye on – it fictionalises a real-life story of a Somali seaman wrongly executed for murder in Wales, which sounded fascinating. However, when I flicked through it in the bookshop, I wasn’t impressed by the prose. Another one I’d return to if it were shortlisted.
Have you read any of the titles longlisted for the Booker Prize 2021? Are there any you want to read? Am I skipping any that I really should read?