Once again, it’s that exciting time of year when we get to take a look at all the exceptional books that have caught the attention of this prestigious prize. And isn’t it a comfort, given everything that this year has thus far thrown at all of us, to know that there is still a whole community dedicated to celebrating the best books out there? Since the selection this year is every bit as enticing as ever, it’s never a bad idea to try to give as many of these a read as you can. Oh, and don’t forget to be awed by just how many debuts have been picked for consideration.
There are thirteen titles on the list. Here we’ll be aiming to give you a good idea of what you can expect from each of them.
This Year’s Judges:
- Margaret Busby – Publisher, Editor, Writer, Broadcaster and Critic
- Lee Child – Award-winning Novelist
- Lemn Sissay – Award-winning Writer, Poet and Broadcaster
- Sameer Rahim – Literary Journalist
- Emily Wilson – Author and Classical Studies Professor
For more on the prizes, judges and selection process, check out: https://thebookerprizes.com/
Apeirogon by Colum McCann
The title of McCann’s newest work offers a taste of its content. An apeirogon is defined as a two-dimensional polygon with an infinite number of sides – and the fact that the novel is derived from an extensive mix of real-world material and fiction seems therefore appropriate. Taking inspiration from the surprising true friendship of two very different fathers brought together by immeasurable loss, Apeirogon is a soaring epic that traverses centuries and continents as it splices history, politics and art into a universal meditation on belonging and love.
Rami and Bassam live lives as different as they are similar. Rami is Israeli. Bassam is Palestinian. And while they are close to each other geographically, they occupy different worlds. That all changes when they are brought together by two horrific killings. Rami’s teenaged daughter is killed by a suicide bomber while she is out shopping with friends, and Bassam’s ten-year-old daughter is shot dead by a policeman outside her school. The two men should, historically, share a mutual enmity, but their respective losses unite them in ways they would never have foreseen
Other Notable Titles by Colum McCann:
- Let The Great World Spin
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
One of the year’s most notable LGBTQ releases, Real Life tells the story of an introverted African-American university student struggling to realise himself beneath a mound of buried pain and behind a set of carefully built defences. It’s an intimate and beautifully-written look at many things including loneliness, privilege, education, desire, trauma and the experiences of being an outsider on both a sexual and racial level. It is as powerful a look at real life, tempered by humour and sensitivity, as it sets out to be. A debut that rightfully commands attention.
Wallace is a biochemistry student. He focuses almost exclusively on his work, maintaining distance from even those closest to him. He did not go home for the funeral of his recently deceased father – he hasn’t even told his friends about it. He remains cocooned in a shell of self-preservation. Until, that is, one weekend sees a series of confrontations so intense that he can no longer trust the future… and no longer avoid the past.
Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward
This one, if you’ll indulge me, deserves an extra bit of attention because of just how dazzlingly unusual it is.
You might think that a work of fiction rooted in various philosophical thought experiments sounds a dubious prospect. It isn’t. Chances are, you’ve heard of things like “The Trolley Problem” (in which participants have to decide…etc), but it’s fair to suggest that many of us have seldom thought to apply such mind exercises to our loves and relationships. Ward is an exceptionally imaginative writer – who has considerable philosophical chops to boot – and what she has crafted here is an unusually stimulating tale of family and loves various guises.
Here’s the publisher’s short, yet oh-so-tempting, blurb:
“Rachel and Eliza are hoping to have a baby. The couple spend many happy evenings together planning for the future.One night Rachel wakes up screaming and tells Eliza that an ant has crawled into her eye and is stuck there. She knows it sounds mad – but she also knows it’s true. As a scientist, Eliza won’t take Rachel’s fear seriously and they have a bitter fight. Suddenly their entire relationship is called into question.Inspired by some of the best-known thought experiments in philosophy, particularly philosophy of mind, Love and Other Thought Experiments is a story of love lost and found across the universe.”
This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangeremba
Here, one of Zimbabwe’s most notable writers grapples burningly with the legacy of colonialism, the brutal stresses of capitalism and the challenges faced by Zimbabwe’s women. This Mournable Body is a potent, staggering work that illuminates the bitterness, ongoing humiliations and complex prospects faced by a woman trying to make a life for herself in a country, and a world, beset by struggles.
Tambudzai’s life has landed her in a place of stagnation. Having left a frustrating dead-end job, she subsists barely in a rundown part of Harare. Each attempt she makes at a new life, a new direction, is met by a new painful obstacle. Finally, the tension between what she imagined for herself and the reality of her situation pushes her to a precipice from which she may not return.
Other Notable Titles by Tsitsi Dangaremba:
- Nervous Conditions
- The Book of Not
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
Narratives that centre on environmental destruction (just like the raging debate itself) often have the potential to invite glib disregard. This book does not. By framing the issue as one mother’s terrifying struggle to keep her young daughter alive in a blighted and unforgiving world, Diane Cook brings our collective disdain for climate change into elegiac focus. The result is a singularly human, passionate and brutal novel; heartrending and prescient.
Five-year-old Agnes is dying. The metropolis in which she and her mother, Bea, live is so fatally polluted that it is quickly sapping Agnes’ life. If they stay, Agnes will make it no further. The only alternative is the vast and nigh-uninhabitable wasteland that surrounds them. But there is no humanity there. Desperate, Bea manages to join a small band of people looking for a new life. As condemned hunter-gatherers with no choice but to scratch from the ravaged landscape what little life they can, Bea and the others embark on a forbidding and nomadic existence. Taking well to the wilds, Agnes survives – but their relationship can never again be what it once was.
Other Notable Titles by Diane Cook:
- Man V. Nature
Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze
Another excellent debut on the longlist, Who They Was is a powerful evocation of violent London life: of cutthroat ambition, of lost youth, vengeance and reputation. Gabriel Krauze himself lived this life, becoming actively involved in the gangs, drugs and violence that thrived among the confounding concrete estates and despair of a city at war with itself. At the same time, Krauze was completing an English degree. As such, his is a unique perspective from which to tell this enthralling tale of all that is lost and gained, and lost again, in the struggle for hard-won influence.
“The voice of the streets” is a phrase that no doubt gets cast too freely about. But, in this case, it is apt, and the story wrought by this particular voice is as authentic a portrayal of a devastating way of life as you’re likely to find.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
Immediately recalling the work of Frank McCourt (of Angela’s Ashes), this is yet another stellar debut up for consideration.
It’s a bleak and harrowing depiction of terrible poverty, but it’s also a beautiful ode to pride and the hunger for a something better.
Glasgow in the early 1980’s was a place at the end of its tether. The families that remained there were forced into a life of hard graft and hopeless distraction. Cast aside by her loathsome husband, Agnes Bain and her three children find themselves stuck in a hollowed-out mining town with few prospects. Fixating more and more on the life she feels she was meant to have, Agnes retreats further into the bottle as her kids give up on trying to save her. All of them abandon her except for Shuggie. Shuggie isn’t really like anybody else – but for his mother, with whom he shares a certain grandiosity – and he has no other allies. In spite of everything though, Shuggie still believes that he can help her escape… if only he can make himself normal.
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zhang
The part played by Chinese-Americans in the early days of the American west is not often focused on, but C Pam Zhang’s debut seeks to correct this by telling the epic tale of two orphans impelled to carry their dead father’s body through the ebbing days of the gold rush as they confront their own sense of The American Dream. Set upon by the many dangers that flourish where opportunity, wilderness and greed intersect, Lucy and Sam are left alone to survive in a changing, unfamiliar world – a prospect that can tear them apart just as it keeps their orbits entangled.
The writing is a blend of stark beauty and mythic horror, musical, compassionate and haunting and the story itself reveals the brutal delusion of a golden future just as ably as it explores every bold flavour of growing up and stalking dread.
A debut absolutely not to be missed.
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
Another sparkling debut to have made the list, Burnt Sugar is a delicious, ferociously intelligent portrait of toxicity and devotion; a mother-daughter tale that’s as funny as it is acerbic.
In her younger years, Tara was indomitable. Slipping the constraints of her wealthy parents and a loveless marriage, she spent years seeking a wilder life – a life of ashrams homelessness and artistic infatuations. And her young daughter had no choice but to tag along. Now, Tara is frail, forgetful and struggling to manage, and that young girl she dragged around is grown-up. In a flip that provokes as much betrayal as it does love, Tara must now look to her daughter for the care she needs… though she never set her any such example.
Cruel, tender and with a tendency to cut right through the myths and memories that hold mothers and daughters together, Burnt Sugar is vivid and riveting.
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
Unearthing and bringing to new life an oft-overlooked aspect of African and European history, The Shadow King delves into female power in unforgettably skilful fashion.
In 1935, Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia faces imminent invasion by Mussolini’s forces. As the country frantically rushes to mobilise the strongest troops it has, Hirut struggles in her new position as a maid. As Italian forces bear down upon them, Hirut and the other women of her community find themselves caring for the wounded and tending to the dead. But they long to do more.
When Selassie goes into hiding, and Ethiopia seems doomed to fall, Hirut quickly conceives a plan that might hold the country together. Disguising a peasant as the Emperor, Hirut sets herself up as an imperial guard, with the other women taking up arms at her side. But Hirut’s war of togetherness takes a horrific turn when she is captured by an infamous Italian sadist.
Expertly constructed, The Shadow King weaves an epic tale of a world on the brink and the incredible (largely forgotten) women who fought to keep their country alive.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Another striking debut that’s already become a big deal, this utterly-timely novel sees a black babysitter accused of kidnapping a young white child. Of course, this disturbingly familiar mishap is filmed by someone in the by-standing crowd and the video, along with the other fallout from the incident, sets off a series of events that change and challenge the lives of more than one woman just trying to get by.
Its deceptively upbeat jacket, beguiling title and breezy, accessible style conceal a complex and layered story that some will find funny, some will find discomfiting and all will find apt. Such a Fun Age is a truly contemporary novel brimming with millennial anxieties and very much steeped in the privilege and race debates that are becoming an increasingly familiar part of our lives. It’s never reductive, though: this is about hearts and characters and keeping it real. For all its pointed commentary, it’s eminently readable and substantially entertaining.
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
It’s fair to say that Mantel is the biggest writer in the longlist this year (let’s say she’s tied with Anne Tyler, see below). She has won the prize twice before after all. And there’s a host of reasons for this – many of which you’ll see represented, once again, in Mantel’s most recent literary achievement.
Yes, one of the English-speaking-world’s greatest masters of historical fiction is back at last – and this one concludes the riveting, and frankly astounding, trilogy that began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. The trilogy, in case you’re not familiar with it, charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell, poor young nobody turned arch political genius, and his involvement with the contentious, frequently fatal, court of Henry VIII. Audiences seldom tire of intriguing machinations and conniving schemes – especially when you throw in a few executions – and Mantel has proven herself unusually capable of instantly snagging the interest of even those of us who aren’t crazy about historical fiction. These are novels that deliver the kind of visceral thrill that you don’t typically expect of the genre, novels that absolutely bring new life to a historical period we (wrongly) thought we’d had enough of sometime back in our school years.
Other Notable Titles by Hillary Mantel:
Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Breathing Lessons back in 1989. Ever since, she’s been widely touted as one of the “greatest novelists writing in English” and regularly acclaimed for the quiet profundity, compassion and wit of her work. Here, it’s fair to say, she does it again.
“Micah Mortimer is a creature of habit. A self-employed tech expert, superintendent of his Baltimore apartment building, cautious to a fault behind the steering wheel, he seems content leading a steady, circumscribed life. But one day his routines are blown apart when his woman friend (he refuses to call anyone in her late thirties a “girlfriend”) tells him she’s facing eviction, and a teenager shows up at Micah’s door claiming to be his son. These surprises, and the ways they throw Micah’s meticulously organized life off-kilter, risk changing him forever. An intimate look into the heart and mind of a man who finds those around him just out of reach, and a funny, joyful, deeply compassionate story about seeing the world through new eyes, Redhead by the Side of the Road is a triumph, filled with Anne Tyler’s signature wit and gimlet-eyed observation.”
Other Notable Titles by Anne Tyler:
And that’s the Longlist.
The Shortlist is scheduled for announcement on 15/09/2020. Until then, see how many you can dive into, be sure to discover as many of those new voices as you can and keep a note of your predictions for winner.