Booker Prize 2021 longlist: two debutants and former winner Ishiguro but no Irish

Previously shortlisted Damon Galgut, Richard Powers and Sunjeev Sahota recognised

The 2021 longlist for the £50,000 Booker Prize

The 2021 longlist for the £50,000 Booker Prize


Five previously longlisted authors, including Booker and Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro, have made this year’s Booker longlist, along with two debut novelists, Nathan Harris and Patricia Lockwood. Previously shortlisted authors Damon Galgut, Richard Powers and Sunjeev Sahota and longlisted author Mary Lawson have also been recognised.

From the 158 titles submitted, the 13 books on this year’s longlist for the £50,000 prize were chosen by historian Maya Jasanoff (chair); writer and editor Horatia Harrod; actor Natascha McElhone; twice Booker-shortlisted novelist Chigozie Obioma; and writer and former archbishop Rowan Williams.

Booker longlist

A Passage North (Granta Books) by Anuk Arudpragasam (Sri Lankan)  Irish Times review
Second Place (Faber) by Rachel Cusk (British/Canadian) Irish Times review
The Promise (Chatto & Windus) by Damon Galgut (South African) Irish Times review
The Sweetness of Water (Tinder Press) by Nathan Harris (American)
Klara and the Sun (Faber) by Kazuo Ishiguro (British) Irish Times review
An Island (Holland House Books) by Karen Jennings (South African)
A Town Called Solace (Chatto & Windus) by Mary Lawson (Canadian) Irish Times review
No One is Talking About This (Bloomsbury Circus) by Patricia Lockwood (American) Irish Times review
The Fortune Men (Viking) by Nadifa Mohamed (British/Somali)
Bewilderment (William Heinemann) by Richard Powers (American)
China Room (Harvill Secker) by Sunjeev Sahota (British)
Great Circle (Doubleday) by Maggie Shipstead (American) Irish Times review
Light Perpetual (Faber) by Francis Spufford (British) Irish Times review

Jasanoff said: “One thing that unites these books is their power to absorb the reader in an unusual story, and to do so in an artful, distinctive voice.

“Many of them consider how people grapple with the past – whether personal experiences of grief or dislocation or the historical legacies of enslavement, apartheid, and civil war. Many examine intimate relationships placed under stress, and through them meditate on ideas of freedom and obligation, or on what makes us human.

“It’s particularly resonant during the pandemic to note that all of these books have important things to say about the nature of community, from the tiny and secluded to the unmeasurable expanse of cyberspace.

“Reading in lockdown fostered a powerful sense of connection with the books, and of shared enterprise among the judges. Though we didn’t always respond in the same way to an author’s choices, every book on this list sparked long discussions amongst ourselves that led in unexpected and enlightening directions. We are excited to share a list that will appeal to many tastes, and, we hope, generate many more conversations as readers dig in.”

Gaby Wood, director of the prize, said: “In recent years Booker Prize longlists have drawn attention to various elements of novelty in the novel: experimentalism of form, work in unprecedented genres, debut authors. This year’s list is more notable for the engrossing stories within it, for the geographical range of its points of view and for its recognition of writers who have been working at an exceptionally high standard for many years. Some have already been rewarded with prizes (a Nobel here, a Pulitzer there). Two are debut novelists. Many have fallen within the Booker’s orbit before. To see them brought together, and to hear from them in these books, is to know that literature is in the most capable and creative of hands.”

Five novelists have been recognised by the prize before: Galgut (shortlisted twice in 2006 for The Good Doctor and in 2010 for In a Strange Room); Ishiguro (won in 1989 for The Remains of the Day; shortlisted in 2005 for Never Let Me Go, in 2000 for When we were Orphans and in 1986 for An Artist of the Floating World); Lawson (longlisted in 2006 for The Other Side of the Bridge); Powers (shortlisted in 2018 for The Overstory and longlisted in 2014 for Orfeo); and Sahota (shortlisted in 2015 for The Year of the Runaways).

Six of the longlisted books come from independent publishers: Bloomsbury, Granta, Faber and, for the first time, Holland House Books. Faber has won the prize seven times , just behind Jonathan Cape which has won eight times.

The shortlist of six books will be announced on September 14th. The shortlisted authors each receive £2,500. The 2021 winner will be announced on November 3rd. The 2020 Booker Prize for Fiction was won by Douglas Stuart for his debut novel Shuggie Bain.

Longlisted books: judges’ comments

A Passage North, Anuk Arudpragasam

A Passage North is quiet by serendipity, possessing its power not on its face, but in hidden, subterranean places. It has a simple conceit which revolves around the philosophy of the present as a disease of the past. It is in subverting our sense of time and even of how a story should be told that this novel achieves its strongest effect and strikes an indelible mark on the reader’s soul.

Second Place, Rachel Cusk

We were astounded by Cusk’s slim volume, which teems with questions about art, love and what it takes to live a free life, told in exquisite prose and with a forensic eye for social observation. And there are moments of farce in Second Place that will make you laugh out loud (or squirm in your seat).

The Promise, Damon Galgut

The Promise is a testament to the flourishing of the novel in the 21st century. Here, nothing is as it seems. The standard narrative logic of an omniscient narrator is here expanded and reinvented to create an eye so intrusive its gaze is totally untrammelled. It is through these eyes that the fate of a white South African family burdened with old lives, old wounds, crimes against humanity, dark history, and misreckonings, becomes, cumulatively, the fate of South Africa itself.

The Sweetness of Water, Nathan Harris

This debut novel astonished us as much for its wise, lyrical voice as for its dense realisation of a fictional small town in the American South at a rarely written-about moment, the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. We were incredibly impressed by the way it probes themes of trans-historical importance – about race, sexuality, violence, and grief – through meticulously-drawn characters and a patient examination of their relationships.

Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro

‘What stays with you in Klara and the Sun is the haunting narrative voice – a genuinely innocent, ego-less perspective on the strange behaviour of humans obsessed and wounded by power, status and fear. This is a fiction that not only asks in general about the nature of consciousness and personal dignity but presses home the assumptions we make about how we value some consciousnesses more than others and how we make others serve the cause of our survival.

An Island by Karen Jennings

An Island concerns itself with lives lived on the margins, through the story of a man who has exiled himself from the known world only to find himself called to the service of others, themselves exiled from the world by cruelty and circumstance. It is on these grounds that this writer deftly constructs a moving, transfixing novel of loss, political upheaval, history, identity, all rendered in majestic and extraordinary prose.

A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson

This deftly-structured novel draws together the stories of three people at three different stages in life, each of whom is grappling with loss. We were captivated by A Town Called Solace’s beautifully paced, compassionate, sometimes wry examination of small-town lives.

No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

How does the relentlessly self-ironising and unserious language of the social media adept deal with the actualities of ordinary, terrible human suffering? Can influencers find any words for loss? No One is Talking About This is a brilliantly funny book about tragedy and survival. It never takes itself seriously; it never takes seriously its own lack of seriousness either. A very uncomfortable book, which makes its fundamental and simple compassion all the more powerful.

The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed

Racial diversity is seldom if ever a plain binary opposition. The Fortune Men is a wonderful evocation of a particularly rich diversity, the many-faceted life of dockland Cardiff in the 1950s. Each cultural voice is drawn out richly and sympathetically. But the story is rightly dominated by a single, shocking instance of legal violence against an individual. A reminder that the scars of the murderous effects of routine and unquestioned racism are not quickly healed, and shouldn’t be.

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

We were very moved by Bewilderment, which follows a widowed astrobiologist and his young son as they find their way in a world that has cast the boy as aberrant. (“I wanted to tell the man that everyone alive […]was on the spectrum. That’s what a spectrum is.”) Powers thrills us with intricate scientific ideas even as he inhabits the consciousness of the grieving, non-neurotypical child - and shows us the loneliness and complexity involved in parenting him.

China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

Weaving together two timelines and two continents, China Room struck us as a brilliant twist on the novel of immigrant experience, considering in subtle and moving ways the trauma handed down from one generation to the next. In crisp, clean prose, and with a dash of melodramatic action, Sahota turns these heavy themes into something filled with love, hope and humour.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

We were blown away by the ambition and epic sweep of this beautifully written novel about the doomed fictional aviatrix Marian Graves and a Hollywood actress cast in her biopic decades later. We felt that we knew these people and found ourselves comparing the experience of reading it to that of reading some of the great novels of the 19th century. Yet, Great Circle is fresh and utterly unusual.

Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

Light Perpetual opens with a bang – a V2 rocket hits a Woolworths in south London in 1944, killing five children – and continues with an arresting counterfactual. What if they had lived? An absorbing chronicle of the five’s possible trajectories into old age, the novel made us reflect on the contingencies in every human life, and the purpose of fiction itself.

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