The Booker Prize 2021
1. The Promise by Damon Galgut
Brutal emotional truths hit home in Damon Galgut’s deft, powerful story of a diminished family and a troubled land. The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks, deliciously lethal in its observation of the crash and burn of a white South African family. On their farm outside Pretoria, the Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation detests everything the family stands for, not least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land, yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled.
Damon Galgut is a South African playwright and novelist, who has now been shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize.
‘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, 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.’
2. A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam
Anuk Arudpragasam’s masterful novel is an attempt to come to terms with life in the wake of the devastation of Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war.
As Krishan makes the long journey by train from Colombo into the war-torn Northern Province to attend a family funeral, so begins an astonishing passage into the innermost reaches of a country. At once, a powerful meditation on absence and longing, and an unsparing account of the legacy of Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war, this procession to a pyre ‘at the end of the earth’ lays bare the imprints of an island’s past, the unattainable distances between who we are and what we seek.
Anuk Arudpragasam is an award-winning Sri Lankan Tamil novelist, who is shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize for his second novel.
‘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.’
3. No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
Patricia Lockwood’s sincere and delightfully profane love letter to the infinite scroll, and a meditation on love, language and human connection.
A social media guru travels the world, her entire existence overwhelmed by the internet or what she terms ‘the portal’. ‘Are we in hell?’ The people of the portal ask themselves. ‘Are we all just going to keep doing this until we die?’ Two urgent texts from her mother pierce the guru’s bubble. As real life collides with the absurdity of the portal, she confronts a world that seems to suggest there is goodness, empathy and justice in the universe – and a deluge of evidence to the contrary.
Patricia Lockwood is an American poet, novelist and essayist who was born in a trailer in Indiana and raised ‘in all the worst cities of the Midwest’.
‘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.’
4. The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed
Nadifa Mohamed’s gripping novel about a petty criminal in Cardiff who becomes the last man to be hanged there, wrongfully convicted of murder in 1952.
Mahmood Mattan is a father, a chancer, a petty thief. Many things, in fact, but he is not a murderer. So when a shopkeeper is brutally killed and all eyes fall on him, Mahmood isn’t too worried – secure in his innocence in a country where justice is served. But as the trial nears, it starts to dawn on him that he is in a fight for his life – against conspiracy, prejudice and the ultimate punishment. In the shadow of the hangman’s noose, he realises that the truth may not be enough to save him.
Nadifa Mohamed is the first British Somali novelist to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
‘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.’
5. Bewilderment by Richard Powers
An astrobiologist thinks of a creative way to help his rare and troubled son in Richard Powers’ deeply moving and brilliantly original novel.
Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist. He is also the widowed father of a most unusual nine-year-old. Robin is loving, funny and full of plans to save the world. He is also about to be expelled, for smashing his friend’s face in with a metal thermos. What can a father do, when the only solution offered is to put his boy on psychoactive drugs? What can he say, when his boy asks why we are destroying the world? The only thing to do is to take the boy to other planets, while helping him to save this one.
Richard Powers is the multi-award-winning American author of 13 novels, who has now been shortlisted twice for the Booker Prize.
‘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.’
6. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
The lives of a fearless female aviator and the actress who portrays her on screen decades later intersect in Maggie Shipstead’s vivid, soaring novel.
Marian Graves was a daredevil all her life, from her wild childhood in the forests of Montana to her daring wartime Spitfire missions. In 1950, she sets off on her ultimate adventure, the Great Circle – a flight around the globe. She is never seen again. Half a century later, Hadley Baxter, a scandal-ridden Hollywood actress, whose own parents perished in a plane crash, is irresistibly drawn to play Marian Graves. This role will lead her to uncover the real mystery behind the vanished pilot.
Maggie Shipstead is an American novelist who lives in Los Angeles.
‘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.’
The writer is a student of UMT, Lahore.