The longlist for this year’s Booker Prize has been announced, and it as – as ever – an interesting mix. 2020’s longlist saw a large number (eight) of debut novelists longlisted, but this year seems to have swung more in favour of former Booker nominees. There are two debuts – Nathan Harris and Patricia Lockwood – up against six novelists who have previously been nominated: Rachel Cusk, Damon Galgut, Kazuo Ishiguro, Mary Lawson, Richard Powers, and Sunjeev Sahota. Of these, Ishiguro won the Booker Prize in 1989 with The Remains of the Day, while Galgut, Powers, and Sahota have seen previous titles shortlisted.
The shortlist of six titles will be announced on 14 September. This has happened previously, but Richard Powers’ Bewilderment isn’t actually due for publication until 21 September, making it difficult for readers to read the full longlist should they so desire. The publication date may be brought forward – that has also happened before – given its nomination. The winner will be announced on 3 November.
If you’re interested, I correctly predicted two of the thirteen titles to be longlisted – Klara and the Sun and Bewilderment. This feels a little low, but the Booker has always proved to be unpredictable, and while there are titles that I would have liked to have seen longlisted, I’m not too disappointed with this.
A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam (Granta Books)
It begins with a message: a telephone call informing Krishan that his grandmother’s former care-giver, Rani, has died in unexpected circumstances, at the bottom of a well in her village in the north, her neck broken by the fall. The news arrives on the heels of an email from Anjum, an activist he fell in love with four years earlier while living in Delhi, bringing with it the stirring of distant memories and desires.
As Krishan makes the long journey by train from Colombo into the war-torn Northern Province for the funeral, so begins a passage into the soul of an island devastated by violence. Written with precision and grace, A Passage North is a poignant memorial for the missing and the dead, and a luminous meditation on time, consciousness, and the lasting imprint of the connections we make with others.
Second Place by Rachel Cusk (Faber)
A woman invites a famed artist to visit the remote coastal region where she lives, in the belief that his vision will penetrate the mystery of her life and landscape. Over the course of one hot summer, his provocative presence provides the frame for a study of female fate and male privilege, of the geometries of human relationships, and of the struggle to live morally between our internal and external worlds. With its examination of the possibility that art can both save and destroy us, Second Place is deeply affirming of the human soul, while grappling with its darkest demons.
The Promise by Damon Galgut (Chatto & Windus)
The Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. The Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand 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.
The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks: moving fluidly between characters, flying into their dreams; deliciously lethal in its observation. And as the country moves from old deep divisions to its new so-called fairer society, the lost promise of more than just one family hovers behind the novel’s title.
In this story of a diminished family, sharp and tender emotional truths hit home. Confident, deft and quietly powerful, The Promise is literary fiction at its finest.
The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris (Tinder Press)
In the dying days of the American Civil War, newly freed brothers Landry and Prentiss find themselves cast into the world without a penny to their names. Forced to hide out in the woods near their former Georgia plantation, they’re soon discovered by the land’s owner, George Walker, a man still reeling from the loss of his son in the war.
When the brothers begin to live and work on George’s farm, the tentative bonds of trust and union begin to blossom between the strangers. But this sanctuary survives on a knife’s edge, and it isn’t long before the inhabitants of the nearby town of Old Ox react with fury at the alliances being formed only a few miles away…
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)
‘The Sun always has ways to reach us.’
From her place in the store, Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, watches carefully the behaviour of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass in the street outside. She remains hopeful a customer will soon choose her, but when the possibility emerges that her circumstances may change for ever, Klara is warned not to invest too much in the promises of humans.
An Island by Karen Jennings (Holland House Books)
A young refugee washes up unconscious on the beach of a small island inhabited by no one but Samuel, an old lighthouse keeper. Unsettled, Samuel is soon swept up in memories of his former life on the mainland: a life that saw his country suffer, then fight for independence, only to fall to a cruel dictator; he recalls his own part in its history.
A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson (Chatto & Windus)
Clara’s sister is missing. Angry, rebellious Rose, had a row with their mother, stormed out of the house and simply disappeared. Eight-year-old Clara, isolated by her distraught parents’ efforts to protect her from the truth, is grief-stricken and bewildered.
Liam Kane, newly divorced, newly unemployed, newly arrived in this small northern town, moves into the house next door, a house left to him by an old woman he can barely remember and within hours gets a visit from the police. It seems he’s suspected of a crime.
At the end of her life Elizabeth Orchard is thinking about a crime too, one committed thirty years ago that had tragic consequences for two families and in particular for one small child. She desperately wants to make amends before she dies.
Set in Northern Ontario in 1972, A Town Called Solace explores the relationships of these three people brought together by fate and the mistakes of the past. By turns gripping and darkly funny, it uncovers the layers of grief and remorse and love that connect us, but shows that sometimes a new life is possible.
No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (Bloomsbury Circus)
A woman known for her viral social media posts travels the world speaking to her adoring fans, 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?
Suddenly, two texts from her mother pierce the fray: ‘Something has gone wrong,’ and ‘How soon can you get here?’ As real life and its stakes collide with the increasing absurdity of the portal, the woman confronts a world that seems to contain both an abundance of proof that there is goodness, empathy and justice in the universe, and a deluge of evidence to the contrary.
Irreverent and sincere, poignant and delightfully profane, No One Is Talking About This is at once a love letter to the infinite scroll and a meditation on love, language and human connection from one of the most original voices of our time.
The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed (Viking)
Mahmood Mattan is a fixture in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay, 1952, which bustles with Somali and West Indian sailors, Maltese businessmen and Jewish families. He is a father, chancer, some-time petty thief. He is 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. It is true that he has been getting into trouble more often since his Welsh wife Laura left him. But Mahmood is secure in his innocence in a country where, he thinks, justice is served.
It is only in the run-up to the trial, as the prospect of freedom dwindles, that it will dawn on Mahmood that he is in a terrifying fight for his life – against conspiracy, prejudice and the inhumanity of the state. And, under the shadow of the hangman’s noose, he begins to realise that the truth may not be enough to save him.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers (William Heinemann)
Theo Byrne is a promising young astrobiologist who has found a way to search for life on other planets dozens of light years away. He is also the widowed father of a most unusual nine-year-old. His son Robin is funny, loving, and filled with plans. He thinks and feels deeply, adores animals, and can spend hours painting elaborate pictures. He is also on the verge of being expelled from third grade, for smashing his friend’s face with a metal thermos.
What can a father do, when the only solution offered to his rare and troubled boy is to put him on psychoactive drugs? What can he say when his boy comes to him wanting an explanation for a world that is clearly in love with its own destruction? The only thing for it is to take the boy to other planets, while all the while fostering his son’s desperate campaign to help save this one.
China Room by Sunjeev Sahota (Harvill Secker)
Mehar, a young bride in rural 1929 Punjab, is trying to discover the identity of her new husband. She and her sisters-in-law, married to three brothers in a single ceremony, spend their days hard at work in the family’s ‘china room’, sequestered from contact with the men. When Mehar develops a theory as to which of them is hers, a passion is ignited that will put more than one life at risk.
Spiralling around Mehar’s story is that of a young man who in 1999 travels from England to the now-deserted farm, its ‘china room’ locked and barred. In enforced flight from the traumas of his adolescence – his experiences of addiction, racism, and estrangement from the culture of his birth – he spends a summer in painful contemplation and recovery, finally gathering the strength to return home.
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (Doubleday)
I WAS BORN TO BE A WANDERER
From the night she is rescued as a baby out of the flames of a sinking ship; to the day she joins a pair of daredevil pilots looping and diving over the rugged forests of her childhood, to the thrill of flying Spitfires during the war, the life of Marian Graves has always been marked by a lust for freedom and danger.
In 1950, she embarks on the great circle flight, circumnavigating the globe. It is Marian’s life dream and her final journey, before she disappears without a trace.
Half a century later, Hadley Baxter, a brilliant, troubled Hollywood starlet is irresistibly drawn to play Marian Graves, a role that will lead her to probe the deepest mysteries of the vanished pilot’s life.
Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford (Faber)
November 1944. A German rocket strikes London, and five young lives are atomised in an instant.
November 1944. That rocket never lands. A single second in time is altered, and five young lives go on – to experience all the unimaginable changes of the twentieth century.
Because maybe there are always other futures. Other chances.
From the best-selling, prize-winning author of Golden Hill, Light Perpetual is a story of the everyday, the miraculous and the everlasting. Ingenious and profound, full of warmth and beauty, it is a sweeping and intimate celebration of the gift of life.
So there you have it – this year’s Booker Dozen. What do you think of the longlist?