Women-dominated and debut heavy

August 9, 2020

Chosen from a list of 162 titles, this year’s Booker Prize long list is fresh, exciting and unexpected

The long list for the 2020 Booker Prize, touted as The Booker Dozen was announced last week. The Booker Prize is regarded as a leading literary award and is open to writers of any nationality, writing in English and published in the UK or Ireland.

This year the judging panel included 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.

Chosen from a list of 162 titles, this year’s long list is fresh and unexpected. While it is always exciting to see our favourite writers on the long list, it is refreshing to finally have a long list that goes beyond hyped up, PR-driven titles and actually makes you google the titles of some of the nominated books. The only two heavyweight literary names on the list are Hilary Mantel and Anne Tyler, both well deserved.

Interestingly, this women-dominated and debut-heavy list features mostly American writers. This is significant since the recent change of rules which allow any writer writing in English and published in the UK to be eligible for the prize was met with resistance in the UK.

In 2018, 30 publishers signed a letter urging the prize organisers to reverse the change, citing the risk of a “homogenised literary future”. Since the rule change took effect, there have been two US winners - George Saunders in 2017 for Lincoln in the Bardo, and Paul Beatty in 2016, for his satirical novel The Sellout. Still, this is a point of contention since influential figures in the publishing world argue that the inclusion of US authors has affected the diversity of the long lists.

“Being on the Booker long list offers a kind of visibility for a debut writer that would be hard to find otherwise,” says Avni Doshi, an Indian-American Dubai based writer, about what this long list which is dominated by debuts means for new writers. “I think new writers might feel hopeful seeing this list - and perhaps publishers will submit more debuts for prizes within their quotas.”

Margaret Busby, chair of the 2020 judges, says: “Unplanned, our final selection encompasses both seasoned favourites and debut talents - a truly satisfying outcome.”

Below are some of the details about the thirteen titles nominated for the long list.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (US)

I read this book earlier this year when it came out and have been raving about this debut, which got a tremendous buzz, ever since. Such a Fun Age is the story of the skewed relationship dynamic of a black babysitter and her white employer who is a privileged blogger turned entrepreneur. Reid shrewdly eviscerates the woke culture and shines a light on just how prevalent casual racism is. Written in digestible prose, this is a contemporary analysis of modern race relations and the social media savvy generation.

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (US)

Another favourite of mine on the list, this searing literary debut is about a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. The novel is an authentic and poignant depiction of the simmering resentment for neglectful parents, the struggles of caring for parents in their old age, memory and nostalgia.

The Mirror and The Light by Hilary Mantel (UK)

Hilary Mantel has been nominated for the third book in her trilogy. The first two episodes in her trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both won the Booker prizes which puts her in the niche club of authors who are two-time winners of the prestigious prize, along with Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey and JM Coetzee. If Mantel wins this time, she would become the first writer to win the Booker thrice.

While it is always exciting to see our favourite writers on the long list, it is refreshing to finally have a long list that goes beyond hyped up, PR-driven titles and actually makes you google the titles of some of the nominated books.

How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang (USA)

One of 2020’s breakout debuts, this novel had already generated a lot of well-deserved hype before even making its way onto the long list. A sweeping Western epic that subverts the stereotypes of the genre and reimagines the gold rush days from the immigrants’ perspectives. Zhang has written a necessary work of fiction that revises history and dissects the reality of the American dream.

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook (US)

This is a wildly imaginative debut novel of a mother’s battle to save her daughter in a world ravaged by climate change. A high-wire, apocalyptic tale which features plenty of action but also traces the emotionally charged mother-daughter relationship at the centre of the narrative.

This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe)

Thirty years on from her acclaimed debut Nervous Conditions, which was considered one of the 100 Books that Shaped the World by the BBC, the award-winning Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga’s trilogy comes to an end with this book. This Mournable Body portrays the hope and potential of one young girl in Harare and a fledgeling nation to lead us on a journey of hope against hope.

Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze (UK)

Described as the literary rendition of the Top Boy generation, this novel is a gritty work of debut auto-fiction about one man’s involvement in London’s gang culture. Krauze has written a significant tale that shines a light on rampant poverty and organised crime.

Apeirogon by Colum McCann (Ireland-US)

From the National Book Award-winning author comes a novel that puts a unique spin on the Israel-Palestine conflict. McCann was inspired by the friendship between Rami Elhanan, an Israeli, and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, living on opposite sides of the wall in Jerusalem. The novel is about two fathers, one Israeli and one Palestinian, who bond over the shared grief of losing their daughters to the war.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia-US)

Set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, this magnificent epic shines a light on the often-overlooked legacy of the women soldiers who went to war. Historically charged and inspiring, this feminist masterpiece is an essential rewriting of the African history.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor (US)

This unique spin on the campus novel is one of my personal favourites on the long list. It is a remarkable debut which depicts the nuances of the life of a biomedical graduate student with immaculate precision. It’s a sophisticated portrayal of the otherness of being black in a predominantly white setting, intimacy and trauma.

Redhead by The Side of the Road by Anne Tyler (US)

For me reading Anne Tyler is like indulging in comfort food so I was glad to see her on this list. In her latest work of fiction, Tyler paints a subtly profound portrait of the life of a computer repairman. She displays her knack for finding originality and charm in the mundanities of everyday life in this empathic tale about human connection, or the lack thereof, that resonates more than ever during this lockdown phase.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Scotland-US)

A harrowing rendition of poverty, addiction and abuse in 1980s’ Glasgow. Emotionally layered yet gritty, this novel brings alive the struggles of the Scottish working class and a fractured family with its searing prose.

Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward (UK)

This is one of the most experimental books on the list, with regards to the structure of the narrative. The novel reads like a set of loosely connected short stories and is inspired by ten of the best-known thought experiments in philosophy – the ‘what ifs’ of philosophical investigation – which the author uses to explore the theme of love. Mind-bending and thought-provoking, this debut cleverly combines philosophy and fiction.

The shortlist of six books will be announced on Tuesday, September 15. The 2020 winner will be announced in November; the winner of the 2020 Booker Prize will receive a prize of £50,000.

The writer is a Karachi-based book critic writing for several international publications.

Women-dominated and debut heavy