If you think it doesn’t seem like a year since the last International Dublin Literary Award, don’t worry – the pandemic hasn’t completely skewed your sense of time. Last year’s award was delayed, so it’s only five months ago that Anna Burns’s Milkman was announced as the 2020 winner.
But Covid-19 has affected this year’s award too: nominations come from libraries around the world, which makes the prize attractively egalitarian. But many libraries have been closed, so the field for this year’s prize is smaller, with about half the usual nominations and a shorter longlist. There is no dilution of quality, however, with every title punching hard for its place.
All but one of these titles have already won the Booker, the Pulitzer, the Rathbones Folio Prize or the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger, or been shortlisted for the International Booker
This year’s long eligibility period (open to books released from January 2019 to June 2020) means all but one of these titles have already won major prizes (the Booker, the Pulitzer, the Rathbones Folio Prize, the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger) or been shortlisted (the International Booker). It feels like a missed opportunity for a less well-known writer to be given a leg up as happened in 2019 with Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho.
The International Dublin Literary Award is the world’s richest award for a novel published in English, but it may need to revise its form to remain the distinctive force it started out as, rewarding writers such as Nicola Barker, Javier Marías, Colm Tóibín and Herta Müller before any other major prize did.
Here’s my digest of the 2021 shortlist, in roughly reverse order of my preference.
By Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes
There's a theory, attributed to media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, that you can gain an impression of any book just by reading page 69. If you do that in Hurricane Season, here are some of the phrases you find: "eyes all glassy and bloodshot … already on the floor, high as a f**king kite … a wave of nausea sent him reeling to the floor … the mad bitch … a shadow plunged in deafening silence…"
The rule works. Hurricane Season is a relentless assault on the senses: as gross as it is engrossing, as stomach-turning as it is mind-bending. Even a chapter that opens with the miracle of childbirth turns, within a page, to “frog-lipped scraggy runts sucking on ... black nipples”.
Is the slog worth it to depict, as the book seeks to, the chaos and brutality of Mexican machismo and misogyny? I’m undecided. It’s undeniably powerful, and it’s possible with care to follow the story of neighbourhood woman “the Witch” and why she was killed, but the constantly sickening violence by the poor and disadvantaged, from the pen of a middle-class writer, turns after a time into a sort of Grand Guignol poverty porn.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
By Ocean Vuong
After his impressive poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Vietnamese-American Ocean Vuong proves he can do fiction too. This novel – a letter from Little Dog, a young man sharing some of Vuong's characteristics, to his mother – for the most part strikes a nice line between lyricism and storytelling, reminding me at its best of Michael Ondaatje.
It does stray into over-ripeness at times (the title is enough to tell you that) but that is forgivable in a debutant. Little Dog’s story is one of intersectionality – race, sexuality, gender – ranging in scope from his grandfather’s experience in the Vietnam War to the truth and history of all-American institutions such as Coca-Cola and Tiger Woods. There’s even a love story, with a romantic hero who goes by the unlikely name – on this side of the Atlantic – of Trevor.
The Nickel Boys By Colson Whitehead
This novel made Whitehead only the third double winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, after William Faulkner and John Updike. It's a smaller-scale work than his earlier winning novel, The Underground Railroad, but no less powerful.
The novel opens with the discovery of a burial ground in Florida, at the old Nickel Academy reform school: the book doesn’t seek to surprise us, but to make us understand. Then we go back to the source, and the segregated school’s treatment of its black boys. There’s no finessing what happens, and Whitehead delivers a brutally effective account without diversions: like the casually delivered fact that the strap used to beat the boys “had to be repaired or replaced every so often”.
The centre of the story is Elwood, a boy whose good performance in school is no match for the bad luck that lands him in Nickel, where “your head is the one place they can’t get to – until they do”. The story loses some of its force after Elwood leaves the school, but there’s an additional tragedy in the “cliff face” he must then climb to get clear of these wrong beginnings – and he may never do it.
By Colum McCann
A Colum McCann win this year would make him the first ever double winner of the Dublin Literary Award, after his victory in 2011 with Let the Great World Spin. Apeirogon takes the spirit of McCann's earlier novels -–inspired by real people, structured with ambition – to its limit: it's told in 1,001 short sections, each like a shard of mirrorball coming together to make an illuminating and reflective whole.
And this one takes on the knotty evergreen issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict, through the stories of two men on either “side” whose daughters were killed. They are real people, not creations: McCann points out that he is the only author who goes on tour with his characters.
The story itself combines truth, invention and a wide-ranging grab bag of details about everything from birds to eyes to the fact that in the 1980s, Belfast was the biggest market for Israeli flags outside the Middle East. But what sticks are the personal stories of the men and their daughters, and the resulting pain which, although it never stops travelling, finally becomes a transformative power for good.
Lost Children Archive
By Valeria Luiselli
Like McCann, Valeria Luiselli doesn't lack ambition: this is the Mexican-American writer's first novel written in English, and it includes many modernist and postmodern features, from photographs and documents embedded in the text to a single twenty-page sentence.
Such ambition is fitting for a novel that looks outward more than inward. It describes a road trip from New York to Arizona by a family exploring lost children, that is, “children who have lost the right to a childhood” – such as during border migration, and the book goes back through previous migration crises and “the chaos of history repeated”.
The conceit is that our narrator during the journey is working through storage boxes they brought with them – what, she asks, does documenting things mean? This is an opportunity for lots of cultural references from films, music and especially books, offering a sense of depth that may be slightly second-hand but feels resonant as well as readable – no mean trick.
Girl, Woman, Other
By Bernardine Evaristo
Few recent novels have slid so quickly toward potential modern classic as this book. The 2019 Booker Prize winner is innovative, wide-ranging, provocative, satisfying, and most of all funny. Evaristo has built on her previous work (which includes a novel in verse) to create this flexible narrative of 12 women, mostly black, in Britain over the past 100 years.
There are cynical middle-aged theatre directors and young optimistic lawyers; mothers and lovers; women who are driven and women who are stuck; and Evaristo manages to define each of the dozen with (almost) equal care and detail while connecting them as part of something bigger than themselves.
Indeed the one problem with this book is that it’s been so widely celebrated that everyone may have read it already. If that’s you, then there are plenty of riches in Evaristo’s backlist, starting with her wonderful 2013 novel Mr Loverman, about a septuagenarian who has, unknown to his wife, been having an affair with his best friend for decades.
And since winning the Booker, Evaristo has been so thrust into the spotlight that we can only hope she has time to keep writing her own fiction. In the meantime, Girl, Woman, Other is not only a superb novel, but a timely one as people pay more attention than ever to race issues in our society.
So if, as William Morris said, you should only have things in your house that you know to be useful or believe to be beautiful, here’s something that’s both.