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Children, toads, and The International Booker Prize

Children, toads, and The International Booker Prize

In an interview shortly after they were revealed as The 2020 International Booker Prize winner, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld fell to discussing the countryside. The Discomfort of Evening is set in rural Holland and they seemed slightly surprised that people are taken aback by her descriptions of children on a farm – forcing toads to mate, random animal killing, shenanigans with an artificial insemination gun, that sort of thing: “I’m not sure that they’re such unusual rituals,” they said. The incidents “are something that’s almost normal in the countryside. Children are interested in death, they’re very curious. It’s not something you can imagine in the same way at all in the city. On a farm, people see nature, animals and people differently.”

Rijneveld’s translator Michele Hutchison also revealed an added reason as to why she was drawn to translate the novel. Initially she was struck by Rijneveld’s voice when she heard them speak at a poetry reading in 2018, and then by Discomfort’s “fresh view of the world”. But it was the setting that played a big part: Hutchison grew up in Lincolnshire, “which looks like the Dutch countryside”, to the extent that “it’s got tulips and windmills”.

A quick scan of the coverage that greeted Rijneveld and Hutchison’s win shows something of the global scope of the prize. Their victory was news in, among other places, Taiwan, India, Ireland, Australia, America, Pakistan and the Gulf States. And the list grows day by day.  

In the aftermath of her Booker Prize win in 2018, Anna Burn’s Milkman continues on its triumphant way. The novel is one of ten shortlisted for the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award, which is sponsored by Dublin City Council and at €100,000 is the world’s most valuable prize for fiction (in monetary terms at least). There are eight women on the shortlist and Burns finds herself in familiar company: also shortlisted are Esi Edugyan, twice a Booker Prize shortlistee (Half-blood Blues in 2011 and Washington Black in 2018), the 1995 Booker Prize winner Pat Barker with her The Silence of the Girls and the 2018 International Booker Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk for Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Prize judges always have a tough time of things but this year’s jury is really being put to the test.

Bernardine Evaristo, joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, recently offered succinct proof of the power of the Booker Prize. Winning, she said, “was the defining moment of my career. . . It put my career into a different league.” She went on to describe the different league and what it was like to have Barak Obama name Girl, Woman, Other as one of his favourite books of 2019: “You don't think about famous people reading your book, you just think about writing the book and hope it finds a good readership, but when you hear about it it's a really surreal experience.”

Headline writer of the week award goes to the subeditor at the Times, who tagged an interview with Gabriel Krauze, one of this year’s Booker Prize longlistees, with the must-read “The Russell group uni gangster (with grade eight piano)”. Krauze’s criminal past, recounted in his autobiographical fiction Who They Was, has – unsurprisingly – captured the imagination. Although, only a few years ago, he was familiar with stabbings, muggings and drugs, Krauze was an assiduous student: “I loved university. I never ever wanted to be late or skip a lecture,” he said. “I’d see these students bunking off and think, ‘Why do you even want to be here?’ but then I’d be going home and doing. . . bad things.” The criminal life is no longer his, he says, but some of its characters still fascinate him: “There are top drug dealers earning a million a year I can sit down with and discuss Epicurus. And by the same token people I know have suffered terrible early experiences and are not sucked into crime or violence at all.”