Will 2020 go down in history as the year Americans finally took over the Booker? Nine of the 13 authors on this year’s longlist are from the US or US-based, a disproportion made all the starker by the strong British line-up of the past two years.
Notable home-grown omissions include two of the year’s most directly political novels: Summer, the final instalment in Ali Smith’s Brexit-themed Seasonal quartet, and Jenny Offil’s climate emergency novel Weather. Only three works: Sophie Ward’s cleverly philosophical Love and Other Thought Experiments, Gabriel Krauze’s gritty coming-of-age story Who They Was, and the final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s majestic Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & the Light, have been left to face down the international competition. Is this really the best of British talent? Some will argue it’s time to add “literary” to our list of national crises.
More cheering, however, is the number of first-time authors: Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold, Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar, Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, Brandon Taylor’s Real Life and Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, as well as Ward’s and Krauze’s works, are debuts. Similarly pleasing is the number of female authors.
After last year’s controversial double win (for Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo), it is likely that the board will want to play it safe.
From debuts to sagas: the 13 longlisted novels
The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel
The final instalment in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy – following Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring up the Bodies (2012) – picks up from the aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s execution and takes us all the way to Cromwell’s fall and execution (no, that’s not a spoiler, that’s GCSE history). Despite its desperate need for a tougher edit, Mantel’s unique knitting together of character, myth and granular history remains mesmerising. (Fourth Estate)
Burnt Sugar, Avni Doshi
In her youth, Tara was wild; abandoning her loveless marriage, joining an ashram, chasing after a deadbeat “artist”, all with her young daughter, Antara, in tow. Now Tara has dementia and Antara is faced with caring for a woman who never cared for her. Avni Doshi follows in the fine feminist footsteps of Deborah Levy and Jenny Offill with this debut portrait of a mother-daughter relationship but brings a witty, acidic edge of her own. (Hamish Hamilton)
Love and Other Thought Experiments, Sophie Ward
The polymathic Sophie Ward, an actor, short story writer and PhD (on the use of narrative in the philosophy of mind), has found a fruitful outlet with this clever novel. Eliza and Rachel are considering having a baby. Rachel wakes up and is convinced an ant is living inside her head. So begins a super-smart metaphysical romp that’s warm, wistful and heartfelt. (Little Brown)
How Much of These Hills is Gold, C Pam Zhang
“I wanted to write a great American epic in which I saw myself reflected” is how Zhang has described her vision for this saga set during the Gold Rush, with a Chinese-American family at its centre. Two young sisters have a dead body to deal with – their father. Chinese tradition dictates that he be buried “home” – but where is that? A tender and searching tale. (Virago)
The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste
Set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, Mengiste’s second novel – which dramatises the forgotten role of female resistance against the invaders – was inspired by her own family history. After emperor Haile Selassie is exiled, orphan Hirut disguises a man she meets as the absent emperor and inspires women to take up arms to guard him. Violence and impeccable character work blend in this tale of a fragmenting nation. (Canongate)
Apeirogon, Colum McCann
For his seventh novel, the author of 2009’s acclaimed Let the Great World Spin was inspired by the unlikeliest of real-life friendships: Bassam Aramin is Palestinian and Rami Elhanan is Israeli (the title – a mathematical term for an object with endless sides – is a reference to the complexity of the conflict between their two countries). What ties them together is grief – both lost their daughters in political violence – and McCann’s painstaking structure. (Bloomsbury)
Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid
Kiley Reid’s exceptional first novel begins with a jolt: while out at the supermarket, Emira Tucker, a black 25-year-old babysitter, is accused of kidnapping the white toddler she’s paid to look after. The narrative flips between Emira and Alix, a blogger/female-empowerment brand, who sees a video of the incident online and resolves to become Emira’s best friend. It’s a sharp portrait of liberal racism that touches on money, class and growing up. (Bloomsbury)
Real Life, Brandon Taylor
In this campus coming-of-age story set in a Midwestern university town, Wallace, an introverted young man from Alabama, struggles to fit in. He is black, gay and – although he hasn’t told his friends yet – he has just lost his father. But present tensions and past traumas cannot be kept at arm’s length forever: his surprising encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate sees hostilities exposed and secrets revealed. (Originals/Daunt)
Redhead by the Side of the Road, Anne Tyler
This is the 23rd work from one of the most influential American novelists of her generation. The orderly life of Micah Mortimer is thrown into confusion when the teenage son of a woman he dated years ago turns up on his doorstep. The novel suffers a little from being pared-down – Tyler is at her best when she is more crowded and garrulous – but bears her hallmark of deeply thought-out ethical questions, lightly worn. (Chatto & Windus)
This Mournable Body, Tsitsi Dangarembga
The Zimbabwean author completes a trilogy that she began in 1988 with Nervous Conditions, and followed up with The Book of Not in 2006, which followed teenager Tambu’s attempt to climb out of poverty in civil war-ravaged Rhodesia during the Sixties and Seventies. This Mournable Body picks up the story 30 years later. Tambu has quit her job and is living in a women’s hostel in Harare, once again confronting poverty and oppression. (Faber)
The New Wilderness, Diane Cook
Cook’s imagined world feels uncomfortably like a not-too-distant future: Agnes flees a smog-filled city in which her five-year-old daughter Bessie is slowly nearing death from pollution for The Wilderness State, a social experiment in which volunteers must learn how to live in their quest to survive. A mother-daughter relationship carrying the allegorical weight of a mother earth corrupted by her children. (Oneworld)
Who They Was, Gabriel Krauze
Krauze grew up in a tough part of north-west London and, even while studying for an English degree at Queen Mary University, he was still heavily involved in drugs, robbery and violence. He’s now in his thirties, and Who They Was is his very personal reckoning with his early experiences, a coming-of-age story set amid concrete towers and overnight stays in empty cells, a world in which violence can erupt at any moment. (Fourth Estate)
The Booker Prize 2020
The shortlist of six books will be announced on September 15, while the 2020 winner will be announced in November. The winner of the 2020 Booker Prize will receive £50,000, while each shortlisted author will receive £2,500 and a specially bound edition of their book.
The Daily Telegraph