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Bookerites everywhere

Bookerites everywhere

As 2021 judders in – new year, new lockdown – newspapers and other media outlets have been running their annual “look forward” pieces about the major books due in the coming year. In the spirit of solidarity, it is perhaps worth this column highlighting that a fair few Booker Prize alumni are due to make welcome reappearances.

A not-exhaustive list sees, for example, former winners in the shape of Kazuo Ishiguro (Klara and the Sun: Faber, March), Pat Barker (The Women of Troy: Hamish Hamilton, August) and Salman Rushdie (Languages of Truth: essays: Jonathan Cape, May); and numerous former shortlistees, including Edward St Aubyn (Double Blind: Harvill Secker, March), Jon McGregor (Lean Fall Stand: Fourth Estate, April), Rachel Cusk (Second Place: Faber, May), Jhumpa Lahiri (Whereabouts: Bloomsbury, May), Zadie Smith (The Wife of Willesden: Hamish Hamilton, June), Colm Tóibín (The Magician: Viking, September), and Richard Powers (Bewliderment: Heinemann, October). Then there are former judges such as John Sutherland (Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me: Her Life and Long Loves: Weidenfeld, April), Claire Tomalin (HG Wells: Viking, October), Lucasta Miller (Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph: Jonathan Cape, February), Ruth Scurr (Napoleon: Chatto & Windus, May), Antonia Fraser (The Case of the Married Woman: Caroline Norton: A 19th-Century Heroine: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, May) and Frances Wilson (Burning Man: The Trials of DH Lawrence: Bloomsbury, May). That may not be as many books as the new 2021 Booker prize judges are having to confront, but at least, whatever is going on outside one’s windows, there will be no excuse for not having something decent to read. 

Another former winner with a new book out is George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo) with a look at fiction through the lens of the great Russian short-story writers ­– Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol et al. In a recent interview, Saunders explained the genesis of A Swim in the Pond in the Rain (Bloomsbury, January): “I just have a connection with [these writers] – with the simplicity and also the moral-ethical core of the stories. They’re all pretty much about: will this guy live? Did this person do right or wrong? And that resonates with my mind.” He also thinks that the Russian authors have much to say about the modern world of social media: “There’s something wonderful about the spontaneity of social media, but I think at this point it’s becoming 100 per cent toxic for people to be firing off the top of their brains.” What his writers did was “revise something 20 times” and by so doing “for a mysterious reason, it becomes more social, empathic and compassionate”. Essentially, think before you tweet.

Should your eyes cry out for a break from the page then we can add a Booker Prize film to the reading list. Later this month, Netflix’s adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 prize winner, The White Tiger, hits a small screen near you on 22 January. Early reviews have been glowing: “enthralling”, “so tense”, “social commentary with real teeth”, “immersive plunge”, and the weighty “Balzac-worthy satire on subjugation and power”. And there’s plenty more where that came from.

For several years past, the Booker Prizes have been lucky to have the Duchess of Cornwall as a warm supporter and unofficial honorary patron. The Duchess has made no secret of her love of reading and during the year past she released some of her favourite books, which mixed classics such as Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White with modern works from Bookerites Edna O’Brien (Girl), Susan Hill (The Risk of Darkness) and Elik Shafak (The Architect’s Apprentice) to the likes of William Boyd and Philip Pullman. From 15 January, HRH will be taking things further with a book club, “Duchess of Cornwall’s Reading Room”, which will take place on Instagram. Though since discretion of the royal and the Booker Prize watchword there’s no point in looking there for any insider info the Duchess might have picked up on how the Booker judges are thinking.

For literature sceptics – and there are some, it’s true – a pithy adage from Kiley Reid, Booker Prize longlisted in 2020 for Such a Fun Age: “The premise that literary fiction has to be a drag is so silly.” In the spirit of “Keep Calm and Carry On”, Reid’s words should be emblazoned on t-shirts, mugs, posters and tea towels instantly.