What is the Booker Prize for? Its primary purpose is to sell literary fiction but different judging panels have different priorities. This year’s shortlist is the first in the Booker’s 51-year history not to have a well-known author on the list and four of the novels are debuts, suggesting a target is to highlight worthwhile new voices.
That’s not an unreasonable approach: if judges had one place left on the shortlist and couldn’t decide between, say, Ian McEwan and a debut novelist, it makes sense to give the new writer a platform.
But have the judges, to adopt a cliche no Booker-worthy writer would adopt, thrown the baby out with the bathwater by going exclusively with newer names? Does the shortlist suggest that, rather than being something you can get better at, novel-writing is a skill where you should hit the heights straight away?
I’ve read all of the shortlisted titles to help you make up your mind whether you should bother. With the lack of experienced novelists on the list, there’s nothing as outstanding as Bernardine Evaristo’s glorious 2019 winner, Girl, Woman, Other, or as groundbreaking as Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport.
And there’s one other thing that brings together this year’s shortlist: these books will not cheer you up. A polluted Earth, an alcoholic parent, lives that start badly and get worse are the high points of this year’s Booker. But don’t let me put you off! At least, not yet. The winner will be announced on Thursday, November 19th.
Brandon Taylor – Real Life
This campus novel feels lower key than the other shortlisted books, largely because its lead character, Wallace, a biochemistry student at a midwestern university, is so passive that he muffles his own story. Wallace lives in his head, and this, together with his related tendency to absorb everything that others hit him with, gives the narrative an inert, deadened feel, even when he's arguing with someone else.
Wallace is a locked-up type, doesn’t drink and has never been kissed (but, er, has had sex). He subsumes his emotions – into a tennis match, into his mind-numbing lab work on nematode worms – but there’s trauma in his background beyond his present grief (homophobia and sexual violence) which is revealed halfway through the story.
Indeed, the past not only forms the character, for Wallace as well as his lover Miller, but also seems more interesting than what is going on now, which is mostly long conversations between Wallace and his fellow students on life and love. I mean, who’s interested in life and love, eh? Wallace thinks about leaving his studies – “he’d like to live in the real world, with a real life” – but as others remind him: “This is real life, Wallace.”
We do get a build up of tension toward the end in both Wallace's professional and personal lives, but for me Real Life is a standard debut: semi-autobiographical, an author learning his trade (it was written in five weeks), who has been done no favours by the Booker judges hoisting his work into the spotlight as one of the very best books of the year.
Read review here
Maaza Mengiste – The Shadow King
A friend once identified a category of cinema that he called the "Hollywood Gentlemen's Film" – sincere, well-made, thoroughly acted movies, often based on a true story, even more often directed by Robert Redford: and typically a bit dull. In literature, "the Booker Prize novel" has a similar, sometimes unfair, reputation: we expect a book that tells us about a part of the world or a moment in history that we don't know, described at length in lyrical prose.
That is a fair summary of The Shadow King, which I admired but didn’t love. For those of my generation, who still instinctively associate Ethiopia with its terrible famines in the 1980s, the conceit is exciting, focusing on the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, and in particular the overlooked female warriors who defended the country against Mussolini’s fascists.
It’s hard to write about the scale of war and maintain focus on the smaller human stories, and Mengiste manages this by switching frequently between numerous viewpoints: main character Hirut, an orphan struggling to fit into her new home; a bloodthirsty Italian colonel and his photographer; a watching chorus in the classical tradition; and Emperor Haile Selassie, in exile. (The shadow king of the title is a local man who stands in for Selassie back home to rally the troops.)
There's plenty of emotional depth and tragedy in Hirut's story, though I found I sometimes had to hunt quite hard for it in Mengiste's elegant, often ornate language, which had a distancing effect.
Read review here
Avni Doshi – Burnt Sugar
This is the second book on this year's shortlist – along with Shuggie Bain – about the relationship between a sick mother and her child. If I tell you that the opening line is "I would be lying if I said my mother's misery has never given me pleasure", then you might not believe me if I say it's also the funniest book on the shortlist. Well, these things are relative, and perhaps, as Basil Fawlty once said, it's more "sort of pithy, I suppose".
The narrator, Antara, a young Indian woman living in Pune, has a deeply cynical view of family life, inspired by the childhood she spent tagging along with her mother’s whims: a convent school where she was beaten; years living in an ashram under a dodgy guru; struggles over Antara’s work as an artist. Now her mother seems to be suffering from some form of dementia, though the doctors can find nothing wrong with her brain.
Yes, sounds grim again, but it's all delivered with a dry wit: Antara's grandmother wonders, if her daughter really is on the way out, "how will we pry the jewellery off her fat hands when she dies?" Eventually three generations become four, and Antara is a mother herself, struggling with the aftermath ("my vagina is a crime scene") and feeling squeezed from above and below. This is a book with a bit of life to it, even if it isn't one you'd want to live yourself.
Read review here
Tsitsi Dangarembga – This Mournable Body
Faber & Faber
This is Zimbabwean novelist Dangarembga's third novel, and her experience and assurance shows in the beautifully controlled scenes in the life of Tambu, a woman in early middle age who keeps trying to get up when she gets knocked down.
But while the book is at every point what Dangarembga must have intended it to be, what that is is the third book in a trilogy. The first two books (Nervous Conditions (1988) and The Book of Not (2006) – Dangarembga doesn’t rush the muse) provide essential ballast on Tambu’s character and background, so without those, This Mournable Body – like Tambu herself – can only ever climb so high.
Is it fair for judges to recommend the end of a trilogy as a great novel in its own right? Would it be worse for them to overlook it? Either way, the fact that, even after three books, Tambu doesn't have a firm conclusion to her story is frustrating.
Read review here
Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain
Shuggie Bain is the heartstring-tugger of the shortlist: a young Glaswegian boy in the 1980s struggling to cope with an alcoholic mother and the knowledge that he's not as "manly" as he's expected to be. There's no fancy stuff here: Shuggie's story is told in a linear, direct way, all the better to grind the reader's emotions to a pulp. His life is stunted not just from the start, but from before the start: his mother Agnes had no chance either, and in some ways she's a more central character than Shuggie.
Where Stuart shows less confidence is in his unwillingness to trust the reader, inserting his own perceptions in place of the characters', and hammering in tragedy after tragedy. Life, after all, can't be entirely without light. This means when there is an occasional joke – "Elizabeth Taylor has been to Blackpool. I wonder if she likes whelks?" "Who doesnae?" – you grab it gratefully. On this year's shortlist, Shuggie Bain would be a very worthy winner.
Read review here
Diane Cook – The New Wilderness
Could independent publisher Oneworld make it three Booker wins in five years, after A Brief History of Seven Killings in 2015 and The Sellout in 2016? I hope so. The New Wilderness filled me with hope – not that there's much hope in the book – and felt like a breath of fresh air – oh, and there isn't much of that either. But unlike the trend of autofiction elsewhere, this is a big book full of characters and rich in imagination.
Okay, so it’s a dystopian story in a year where we hardly need to be told to worry about the future. The story focuses on Bea and her daughter Agnes – like a female The Road – who are part of a group living as nomads in America’s “Wilderness State”, trialling it as a way of life now that “the City” has become mostly uninhabitable.
The setup may be implausible – the City has only 10 trees left and fossil fuel use is still rampant – and any hope that this book may be less grim than the others is dispelled on the first page when Bea gives birth to a stillborn child while fending off a swooping magpie. But Cook puts meat on the bones. There is plenty of conflict and stuff to chew on about leadership, community, opting out of society and whether “having close ties with nature made one a better person”. There are some bold narrative decisions and a sense of constant tension both within the group and from the Rangers who police their movements.
At the risk of damning with faint praise, this is the only debut novel on the shortlist that never reads like one.
Read review here
The Ones That Got Away
OK, so this isn’t a vintage Booker shortlist. But here are some other eligible novels that might have made the list in an alternative 2020 (what a fantasy!):
Mary Costello – The River Capture
A beautiful and surprising book that blends John McGahern and James Joyce
Meena Kandasamy – Exquisite Cadavers
Inventive, original and political
JM Coetzee – The Death of Jesus
A fine conclusion to his thrillingly mysterious trilogy
Anne Enright – Actress
One of the greatest living novelists at the top of her form
Andrew O'Hagan – Mayflies
A pure, direct hit of love, friendship, class and death
Eley Williams – The Liar's Dictionary
Funny and imaginative, with a love of language throughout
Charlotte Wood – The Weekend
A blistering story of old friendships fraying
Matthew Sperling – Viral
A satire on social media influencers and thriller in one