The Booker Prize Longlist, 2021

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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 ArudpragasamA 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?

14 thoughts on “The Booker Prize Longlist, 2021

  1. I very much enjoyed An Island and hope it makes the shortlist (reviewed on my blog today). I wasn’t so impressed with A Passage North (posting review on Friday). I haven’t read any of the others but might pick up the Ishiguro when it comes out in paperback.

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  2. I’m actually very uninspired by the longlist this year (which is good, I need a literary prize detox) but definitely want to get to a couple of them at some point. Looking forward to your review of Great Circle in particular.

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    • Elle loved Great Circle so I was hoping to be really impressed, but I’m about a third of the way through now and, while I’m enjoying it, it feels like a sub-par version of Michael Christie’s Greenwood. Hoping it gets better when Marian finally gets flying.

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  3. Enjoyed the review! Before I discovered book blogs, reading the long list was one of my favorite summer projects. I didn’t always make it through the whole list and I was very elastic about dates, i.e., I just tried to read the entire list before the award. In the last few years, however, I’ve pretty much stayed away from it, as the books that made the list didn’t really interest me; this year’s list was the first in some time that tempts me to read a few of the nominees.
    Unlike you, I’m been a fan of Galgut’s writing since his In A Strange Room (I was reading the list the year it was nominated & read the book because of the list!). I read Galgut’s The Promise earlier this summer & thought that it was very good (not perfect by any means but . . . very good). I have Sahota’s novel but have put off reading it, although I thought his Year of the Runaways was one of the best things I read the year it was published (another year I was reading the list!). I’m an enormous Ishiguro fan but I’ve avoided Klara so far, afraid it won’t stand comparison with Never Let Me Go (like you, this is one of my favorite novels). Richard Powers — what can I say? Another perennial Booker nominee, a very good writer, but not quite on my wavelength (I did read his Orfeo when it was on the list; was in awe of Powers’ talent and never read another of his novels!). In the past, I’ve considered reading Maggie Shipstead a time or two (I was a little tempted by Astonish Me) but other writers appealed more; I’m afraid The Great Circle doesn’t tempt me at all.
    In a way, I’m a little sorry that I don’t follow the list much any more. Although I usually didn’t agree with the selections, it was a fun thing to do and I discovered many interesting writers that way (Galgut, Powers & Sahota for example; many others as well). When I committed to reading the list, It was often fairly common for me to find that novels I would otherwise have avoided actually turned out to be quite worthwhile. I don’t know if it’s me or the judges, but again like you I’ve found the long list for the past few years to be dull and off-putting.

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    • I absolutely loved The Year of the Runaways! I’ve only read The Overstory by Powers apart from Bewilderment (which I’m reading now and really enjoying) but I’d like to read some of his earlier novels.

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  4. I feel like that about A Passage North but was feeling guilty about it, so I’m glad you’ve said that. I don’t like Cusk at all, and I haven’t read any of the others, I think I’ve been reading more contemporary non-fiction than fiction, maybe? Or not literary fiction. I’m more inclined to read the Lawson out of these!

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  5. I’m relieved to hear your assessment of the Ishiguro — I just finished it last night and it was THE biggest slog I’ve had with a book for a long time, taking me months to limping progress to read (alongside lots of other stuff). At a certain point I felt like, “isn’t this the same plot as that Mary South story I read last year?”

    I suspect you won’t enjoy the Cusk, though you might surprise us both! If you haven’t seen Eric’s 1-star review, you might get a kick out of it either way 🙂

    I’m working on Bewilderment, China Room and An Island now. Like you, I’m only going to try a couple more that appeal to me, and not worry about the rest.

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  6. im feeling very meh about the longlist this year, but im definitely interested in checking out some of the novels. im especially interested in China Room since I’ve heard a lot of good things about the author (also very won over by your description of it as a “quiet folktale” – that is right up my alley haha).

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    • I really liked China Room. Some readers felt the contemporary thread was unnecessary (and it certainly moves away from the folktale feel) but I appreciated the resonances it set up.

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  7. I’ve never thought of reading books on a prize list. Maybe because I rarely have the money to buy books, so I get them at the library through random shelf trawls. Maybe I should try your approach though… once a year 🙂

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