The Booker Prize longlist will be revealed tonight at one minute past midnight, which allows for 12 more hours of idle speculation as to who might succeed last year’s winners, Bernardine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood?
Which novels published in the qualifying period from October 1st last year to the end of September 2020 have caught the eye of this year’s judges? The panel will be chaired by Margaret Busby, editor, literary critic and former publisher; and consists of: author Lee Child; author and critic Sameer Rahim; writer and broadcaster Lemn Sissay; and classicist and translator Emily Wilson.
There is a remarkably strong field of Irish contenders, led perhaps by former winner Anne Enright, whose Actress was published to standing ovations back in February. Staying with the theatrical theme, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, about the death of Shakespeare’s son, is a powerful contender. Colum McCann’s Apeirogon divided opinion, most memorably in the New York Times, which ran two reviews, one praising it, the other panning it, but it must be in the running. Twice longlisted previously, Donal Ryan may well be in with a shout again for Strange Flowers, which comes out next month.
Sebastian Barry’s A Thousand Moons might suffer from being a sequel to his wonderful Days Without End, but then again Atwood was joint winner last year with The Testaments, when The Handmaid’s Tale was only shortlisted. And The Mirror & the Light, the climax of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, will surely be on there, joined perhaps by Olive, Again, Elizabeth Strout’s sequel to Olive Kitteridge.
Mary Costello’s beautiful, languid, Joycean The River Capture came out last October but the very fact that it is still causing ripples speaks to the power of its appeal. These debutants are also surely contenders – Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan; This Happy by Niamh Campbell; The Weight of Love by Hilary Fannin; and Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen – while second novels by Caoilinn Hughes (The Wild Laughter) and Adrian Duncan (A Sabbatical in Leipzig) have also caused a stir.
Looking further afield, we might look out for Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day, Lily King’s Writers and Lovers. Weather by Jenny Offill and Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler.
Others not yet published but that must be on the radar include Summerwater by Sarah Moss, Sisters by Daisy Johnson, Jack by Marilynne Robinson and Betty by Tiffany McDaniel.
John Self makes the very good point that as well as the players, we need to consider the referee. “As always it’s a good idea to read the judges as much as the books. Might we see some historical fiction chosen by classicist Emily Wilson? A thriller or two via Lee Child? Some poetic, lyrical fiction chosen by Lemn Sissay?
“Thinking of some of the best-received books in recent months, I’d put a pound on one or two of the following making it: Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, Eley Williams’ The Liar’s Dictionary, Amanda Craig’s The Golden Rule, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again, Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times, Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, Jenny Offill’s Weather, Derek Owusu’s That Reminds Me and Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend.
Some of my own favourites from the relevant Booker period would include Anne Enright’s Actress, Adam Mars-Jones’s Box Hill, Marina Kemp’s Nightingale, Mary Costello’s The River Capture, Cynan Jones’s Stillicide and JM Coetzee’s The Death of Jesus.
“Naturally there will be books on the list that haven’t been published yet, or that slipped under the radar and nobody but the judges has read them. Then we’ll all rush out to buy them –or rush to our laptops to order them – and find out what the fuss is about. That’s the beauty of the Booker, after all.”
Given Child’s presence on the judging panel, which books do the Irish Toimes’ two crime fiction reviewers reckon might make the cut?
Long Bright River by Liz Moore is “probably the single best thing I’ve read in five years’ reviewing”, according to Declan Hughes. Lee Child himself said: “Tough, tense and twisty – but tender, human and deeply affecting, too ... I don’t have a sister, but when I finished the book I called my brother, just to hear his voice.” The Last Crossing by Brian McGilloway has an outside chance too, Hughes reckons. “The book is very good and also it is about important things.”
Declan Burke reckons “Amanda Craig’s The Golden Rule might be a long shot – she has the literary reputation, but the book is a reworking of Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. The valedictory tone of The Last Trial might sneak Scott Turow in there. Sarah Jane by James Sallis is probably ideal for the genre-literary overlap. And I wouldn’t be totally shocked, given the political content of her novels, if Attica Locke appeared on the longlist for Heaven, My Home.”
Reviewer Niamh Donnelly said: “There are so many big hitters this year; many of them homegrown. I think Colum McCann, Sebastian Barry, Anne Enright, Maggie O’Farrell, Eimear McBride, Mary Costello and Donal Ryan are all in with a shot – O’Farrell being the most likely, in my opinion, though I’m a devout Enright apostle and will happily plump for Actress, which I thought was sharp, sad, funny and very typically Enright. Maybe not zeitgeisty enough, or stylistically wacky enough to win, but I still adored it.
“Further afield, there’s Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, Jenny Offill’s Weather, Awaeke Emezi’s The Death of Vivek Oji, David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue...the obvious bet would be Hillary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the third in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. I haven’t read it yet but I’ve heard it’s a masterpiece and I’m certainly curious to see if she’ll do the hat-trick.
“The books that stood out to me personally this year – Niamh Campbell’s This Happy, Rob Doyle’s Threshold, Emma Jane Unsworth’s Adults, Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age – don’t really fit the Booker mould, so it’s unlikely their publishers will take a punt on them (publishers only have a limited amount of books they can enter, depending on strange and complex criteria). Though, with Lee Child on the judging panel, what we think of as the Booker-mould might be upset. American Dirt has been conspicuously absent from prize lists and will likely be absent from this one, what with the hype and controversy that overshadows it.
“I like to see lesser-known books from smaller publishing houses do well. One I reviewed earlier this year, Adrian Duncan’s A Sabbatical in Leipzig, published by The Lilliput Press, certainly deserves recognition. It is carefully constructed and moving, but for reasons that are hard to pin down, because its style is like nothing else.
“Finally, when I worked as a bookseller, any mention of the word Olive Kitteridge would change the light in the room. Those books bring such joy to so many people and for that alone, I think Olive, Again should get a nod.”