The 2021 Booker Prize shortlist is one to surely leave you uncomfortable in your certainties
If there is one thing more exciting than reading the six most popular English fiction novels in the running for the Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary award, it is speculating which author will take home, not only the £50,000 prize, but witness an instant boost in book sales and be bestowed with an honour that will forever immortalise them in the literary landscape.
Originally selected from 158 English fiction titles, published in the United Kingdom and Ireland between October 1, 2020 and September 30 2021, and then from a further 13–book longlist, called the Booker Dozen, this year’s shortlist hones in on a globe-spanning range of characters grappling with the past and the retribution that comes with it.
Be it debunking national narratives or novelising personal stories, the 2021 Booker shortlist is one to surely leave you uncomfortable in your certainties. British-Somali author Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men, for example, offers a spine-tingling depiction of an often overlooked aspect of British history: racism. By fictionalising the harrowing tale of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali seaman wrongfully sent to the gallows for the murder of a 42-year-old female shopkeeper in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay in 1952, the author revisits one of Britain’s greatest miscarriages of justice premised entirely on race.
It is purely coincidental that Mohamed’s book came out a time when England had lost the Euro 2020 football championship and some of the young black players in the English team were at the receiving end of what became an ugly eruption of hate-filled, racial invective — only making this novel all the more pertinent in the now. The Fortune Men, therefore, becomes another reminder that not everyone is willing to embrace the diverse, pluralistic and tolerant front Britain puts up to the world today.
Similarly, The Promise, by Damon Galgut, zooms in on the life of an ill-intentioned South African family in the years following the end of Apartheid. Just as the title suggests, the book is based on a promise of a house made to Salome, the Black maid of a South African family. Now that the maid’s Afrikaner masters are dead, the children of the family she has worked for and looked after her whole life conveniently “forget” to honour this promise.
Salome’s example is a chilling testament to how this must surely have been a reality for numerous enslaved Black people and their families, whilst South Africa shifted from a dramatically divided to a more democratic dispensation. Galgut is perhaps the most prolific of all the other shortlisted authors as this is the third time he has made it to the Booker shortlist, previously having been nominated for his books, The Good Doctor and In the Strange Room.
All the books in the shortlist weigh in on a central theme of a cataclysmic tragedy that upends everyone’s life. The storylines of how the characters in each novel deal with misfortune and bereavement alternate.
Coming close to Galgut in terms of prolificacy is the American Pulitzer-winning author of The Overstory, Richard Powers. Shortlisted for the venerable Booker Prize the second time since 2018, Powers in his latest sci-fi offering, Bewilderment, narrates the story of an autistic boy grieving the loss of his mother, whilst being raised by a struggling father whose boundless obsession with the cosmos and the metaphysical consumes him. An astrobiologist, Powers’ protagonist, Theo Byrne, is curious about whether life for earthlings is possible on other exoplanets, while a climate emergency looms large and the earth inches towards self-ruination.
Among other things, the book also evokes deeper feelings of longing and community love as a family copes with the tragedy of losing a loved one. In the same vein, Anuk Arudpragasm’s A Passage North, explores a sense of suffering and familial loss, taking place this time against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war. The protagonist, Krishan, is studying for his PhD in Delhi where he learns of the death of his grandmother’s carer, Rani. While he is able to take care of his grandmother in his own way, he constantly finds himself preoccupied with thoughts of how Rani had such a devastating fate with both her sons dying in the civil war, which permanently incapacitates her with a profound sadness that eventually leads to her own demise. Arudpragasm’s novel, in essence, deals with the unexpected loss that takes place in the aftermath of war and regime change; a trauma that travels through to future generations.
Maggie Shipstead’s historical fiction novel, The Great Circle, also made it to the final round of this year’s Booker Prize. What starts off as an empowering story of Marion Graves, a young girl from Montana with a passion for flying turns dark with her mysterious disappearance on an aviation excursion. A century later, actress Hadley Baxter rises to fame in her portrayal of Marion Graves for the silver screen. The greatest takeaway from Shipstead’s novel is how she is able to draw parallels between two extraordinarily self-determined and resilient women who lived completely different lifetimes but were similarly indefatigable in their passions and pursuits.
Sealing the shortlist for this year is Twitter poetess Patricia Lockwood’s bravura genre-bending debut novel, No One is Talking About This. The two-part novel is an aberration from the other historical fiction novels in the running for the prize as it meditates on the artificiality of internet fame and centres around the life of an influencer. The second part, just like all the other books, focuses on a family mourning the death of a beloved family member.
All the books in the 2021 Booker Prize shortlist, though, weigh in on a central theme of a cataclysmic tragedy that upends everyone’s life, the disparate tones with which the characters in each novel deal with misfortune and bereavement alternate. From Lockwood’s somewhat profane prose to Mohamed’s intelligent, well researched presentation of courtly jargon from the 1950s, all novelists are able to shed drama on and disseminate messages from their books in their own exceptional ways.
With a nonpartisan jury, chaired by historian Maya Jasanoff, and consisting of judges like Roward Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury; editor Horatia Harrod; actor Natasha McElhone; and twice Booker-shortlisted author Chigozie Obioma, it is fascinating to wait and watch who will be crowned as one of the finest writers of the generation. Or will the judges divide the £50,000 prize between two people, as they did in 2019 between Bernadine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood?
The only thing we can do is read and speculate and read some more till the big announcement on November 4.
The writer is the Digital Director of the Lahore Literary Festival