Booker Prize 2021 shortlist announced

Richard Powers and Damon Galgut shortlisted again with debutant Patricia Lockwood

Anuk Arudpragasam, Damon Galgut, Patricia Lockwood, Nadifa Mohamed, Richard Powers and Maggie Shipstead have been shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction. Previous winner and Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro was one of seven longlisted authors not to make the cut.

Debut novelist Lockwood is shortlisted with No One Is Talking About This, while Galgut makes the list for the third time with The Promise, having previously been recognised for The Good Doctor (2006) and In a Strange Room (2010); Richard Powers makes his second shortlist appearance with Bewilderment, following The Overstory (2018).

The shortlist
A Passage North (Granta Books) by Anuk Arudpragasam (Sri Lankan) Irish Times review
The Promise (Chatto & Windus) by Damon Galgut (South African) Irish Times review
No One Is Talking About This (Bloomsbury Circus) by Patricia Lockwood (US) Irish Times review
The Fortune Men (Viking) by Nadifa Mohamed (British/Somali) Irish Times review
Bewilderment (Heinemann) by Richard Powers (US) Published Sept. 21st
Great Circle (Doubleday) by Maggie Shipstead (US) Irish Times review

The presence of three US writers and only one British author on the shortlist is likely to reopen the debate about the decision in 2013 to open the prize to all novelists writing in English. Maya Jasanoff, chair of the judges, said, however: “Literature has always crossed borders,” questioning the value of the former British empire as an appropriate container to judge literature today. Prize director Gaby Wood added: “Do you or don’t you want to find out who the next Joseph Conrad or Vladimir Nabokov are?”Chigozie Obioma, another judge, said: “The Booker Prize is the great leveller. These are writers telling stories that don’t make the news. We look not just at what they say but how they say it. Nationality doesm’t matter. It’s what is on the page.”


Fellow judge Rowan Williams, fielding a question about the presence of four historical novels on the shortlist, welcomed the recent revival in the genre, saying: “to understand where we are, w ehave to understand where we have come from.”

Jasanoff said: “With so many ambitious and intelligent books before us, the judges engaged in rich discussions not only about the qualities of any given title, but often about the purpose of fiction itself. We are pleased to present a shortlist that delivers as wide a range of original stories as it does voices and styles.

“Perhaps appropriately for our times, these novels share an interest in how individuals are both animated and constrained by forces larger than themselves. Some are acutely introspective, taking us into the mind of a Tamil man tracing the scars of Sri Lanka’s civil war (A Passage North), and an American woman unplugging from the internet to cope with a family crisis (No One Is Talking About This).

“Some enter communities in the throes of historical transformation: the Cardiff docklands in the early years of British decolonisation (The Fortune Men), and the veld around Pretoria in the last years of apartheid (The Promise). And some have global sweep, following a mid-century aviator in her attempt to circumnavigate the planet (Great Circle), and a present-day astrobiologist raising a son haunted by climate change (Bewilderment).

“While each book is immersive in itself, together they are an expansive demonstration of what fiction is doing today.”

Gaby Wood, director of the prize, suggested that journalists might avoid the temptation of creating an overarching narrative from the shortlist and instead simply recognise six outstanding individual titles.

“This year, over the course of nine largely solitary months, five strangers of disparate backgrounds showed each other what they saw in stories – what dazzled them or challenged them, what touched them or left them unmoved. In the process they showed something of themselves, and came to trust each other as a result.

“They also proved that the best literature is elastic: both because so many different things can be seen in it, and because – as one of the judges said – the best of fiction can make you feel as though your mind, or heart, are a little bit larger for having read it.”

The books were chosen by historian Maya Jasanoff; writer and editor Horatia Harrod; actor Natascha McElhone; twice Booker-shortlisted novelist and professor Chigozie Obioma; and writer and former archbishop Rowan Williams from 158 novels published in Britain or Ireland between October 2020 and September 30th, 2021. The prize is open to works by writers of any nationality, written in English and published in the UK or Ireland.The winner of the £50,000 prize will be announced on November 3rd. Douglas Stuart won last year with his debut novel Shuggie Bain.

Shortlisted books: judges’ comments

Horatia Harrod on Anuk Arudpragasam's A Passage North
We had to find a place on the shortlist for A Passage North, in which Anuk Arudpragasam turns his poetic sensibility and profound, meticulous attentiveness to the business of living in the aftermath of trauma. The story unfurls like smoke as our narrator sifts through memories of a lost love affair while turning over in his mind the strange death of his grandmother's carer, a woman irrevocably damaged by the death of her young sons in the Sri Lankan civil war. In hypnotic, incantatory style, Arudpragasam considers how we can find our way in the present while also reckoning with the past.

Chigozie Obioma on Damon Galgut's The Promise
The Promise is an expansive family novel that explores the interconnected relationships between members of one family through the sequential lens of multiple funerals. Death assumes here both a closing but also an opening into lives lived. It is an unusual narrative style that balances Faulknerian exuberance with Nabokovian precision, pushes boundaries, and is a testament to the flourishing of the novel in the 21st century. In The Promise, Damon Galgut makes a strong, unambiguous commentary on the history of South Africa and of humanity itself that can best be summed up in the question: does true justice exist in this world? The novel's way of tackling this question is what makes it an accomplishment and truly deserving of its place on the shortlist.

Rowan Williams on Patricia Lockwood's No One Is Talking About This
This is a first novel from a writer already outstanding as a poet and memoirist, and her gifts in both roles are much in evidence in this extremely funny, poignant and challenging book. Patricia Lockwood manages to tell her story in the glancing, mayfly-attention-span idiom of contemporary social media, but she uses this apparently depth-free dialect with precision and even beauty. The drastic shift of gear in the middle of the story, the introduction of real suffering, love and loss, doesn't break the seamless flow of wit; but the book's triumph is in evoking so full a range of emotional discovery and maturing within the unpromising medium of online prattle. We're left wondering about the processes by which language expands to cope with the expansiveness of changing human relations and perceptions at the edge of extremity.

Maya Jasanoff on Nadifa Mohamed's The Fortune Men
The Fortune Men takes us to a place we haven't encountered on the page before: the docklands of 1950s Cardiff, jostling with Somali, Welsh, Jewish, Jamaican, and Indian communities, thrown together by the tides of empire and war. In the story of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali sailor accused of murder, Nadifa Mohamed creates a story as local as it is exhilaratingly global. Grippingly-paced and full of complex, richly-drawn characters, the novel combines pointed social observation with a deeply empathetic sensibility. The Fortune Men demonstrates what historical fiction can achieve at its best – to get inside the head of the past – while implicitly yet urgently underscoring the present-day persistence of racism and injustice.

Natascha McElhone on Richard Powers' Bewilderment
Theo is a widowed astrobiologist raising a troubled nine-year-old son tagged with a 'special needs' label. On his mission to help the boy, Robin, he is prepared to engage with experimental treatments. He dares to decode his son's mind in order to save him, thereby drawing us into the claustrophobic relationship of a grieving man playing solo parent to a vulnerable child. Theo's determination to protect Robin from becoming a prisoner of bureaucracy, something of a high wire act of its own, is beautiful and truly inspiring. That, and his willingness to venture beyond the known world into the cosmos make this book a clarion call for us to wake up and realise what our minds might be truly capable of if we were less obedient to the status quo.

Maya Jasanoff on Maggie Shipstead's Great Circle
A book of tremendous narrative ambition and scale, Great Circle pulled us into its vividly-created worlds-from prohibition-era Montana to wartime Britain to present-day Hollywood-and made us want to dwell in them indefinitely. Maggie Shipstead has an extraordinary ability to conjure characters and settings so fully-realised one feels one knows them-and spills her story out in one gorgeously-crafted sentence after another. Absorbing in the manner of the immersive realist novels of the 19th century, the book speaks to ever-present questions about freedom and constraint in womens' lives.

Author biographies

Anuk Arudpragasam is a Sri Lankan Tamil novelist, shortlisted for his second novel. His first, The Story of a Brief Marriage, won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. He studied philosophy in the United States, receiving a doctorate at Columbia University and credits Descartes' Meditations, which he discovered as a teenager in a bookshop near his home in Columbo, Sri Lanka, with setting him off on that path. He looked to writers Thomas Bernhard and Javier Marías for 'their use of digression and rhythm' when writing A Passage North. He is working on a new novel about mothers and daughters in the Tamil diaspora.

Damon Galgut is a South African playwright and novelist, who wrote his first novel aged 17 and has now been shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize. He has won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. His eighth book, Arctic Summer, won the 2015 Sunday Times Fiction Prize, and two films were made of his book The Quarry. He grew up in Pretoria, where The Promise is set, and now lives in Cape Town. When asked about why he became a writer, he told The Guardian that he had lymphoma as a child, during which he 'learned to associate books and stories with a certain kind of attention and comfort'. He is currently working on a collection of short stories.

Patricia Lockwood is an American poet, novelist and essayist who was born in a trailer in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She is the only debut novelist on this year's shortlist, having previously written two poetry collections, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black and Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, and the memoir Priestdaddy, which was chosen 15 times by various publications as their book of the year. She is a contributing editor to the London Review of Books. No One is Talking About This was also shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction. She told The New York Times that the baby in her book – their medical issues and personality – is based on her late niece, Lena, and she wrote that part in 'compulsive bursts' after helping her sister care for her in NICU. She is currently working on a collection of short fiction based on notebooks she's kept of the past 18 months, along with a new novel.

Nadifa Mohamed is the first British Somali novelist to be shortlisted for the prize. She was born in Hargeisa, Somaliland and moved with her family to London at the age of four. The Fortune Men is her third novel, following Black Mamba Boy and The Orchard of Lost Souls. She has received both The Betty Trask Award and the Somerset Maugham Award, as well as numerous other prize nominations for her fiction. She was named as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists in 2013 and the editor of Granta at the time, John Freeman, is now US editor of The Fortune Men. She says she first became aware of Mahmood Mattan - the Somali man whose fictionalised story features in her book, and whom her father knew - in 2004, and kept checking back over the next 11 years as more information became available.

Richard Powers is an American author of 13 novels who has now been shortlisted twice for the Booker Prize. The Overstory, which made the list in 2018, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2020 American Academy of Arts and Letters' William Dean Howells Medal for the most distinguished American work of fiction published in the last five years. He is also the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the National Book Award, among other accolades. He says he is indebted to Booker winner Margaret Atwood, among other writers, for Bewilderment, which is in part about the anxiety of family life on a damaged planet. He lives in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains and is currently exploring 'what social media, deep learning, hidden algorithms, and surprisingly intelligent marine creatures have to do with one another.'

Maggie Shipstead is an American novelist who lives in LA and is shortlisted for her third novel. Her debut novel Seating Arrangements, published in 2012, was a New York Times bestseller and winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize and the LA Times Book Prize for First Fiction. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Guardian, Conde Nast Traveller, and The Best American Short Stories. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford and a two-time National Magazine Award finalist for fiction. She told the Independent that her plan for Great Circle was to write a book about 'scale, travel and what it means to live a life that's truly free' and that it was inspired by a statue she saw of New Zealand's Jean Batten at Auckland airport. She has a collection of short stories coming out next summer.