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A closer look at The 2020 Booker Prize longlist

A closer look at The 2020 Booker Prize longlist


Diane Cook (USA), The New Wilderness (Oneworld Publications)

Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe), This Mournable Body (Faber & Faber)

Avni Doshi (USA), Burnt Sugar (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House)

Gabriel Krauze (UK), Who They Was (4th Estate, HarperCollins)

Hilary Mantel (UK), The Mirror & The Light (4th Estate, HarperCollins)

Colum McCann (Ireland/USA), Apeirogon (Bloomsbury Publishing) 

Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia/USA), The Shadow King (Canongate Books)

Kiley Reid (USA), Such a Fun Age (Bloomsbury Circus, Bloomsbury Publishing)

Brandon Taylor (USA), Real Life (Originals, Daunt Books Publishing)       

Anne Tyler (USA), Redhead by The Side of The Road (Chatto & Windus, Vintage)

Douglas Stuart (Scotland/USA), Shuggie Bain (Picador, Pan Macmillan)

Sophie Ward (UK), Love and Other Thought Experiments (Corsair, Little, Brown)

C Pam Zhang (USA), How Much of These Hills is Gold (Virago, Little, Brown)

The just-announced Booker Prize longlist of 13 novels,  “The Booker dozen”, has shown yet again that predicting what will make the cut is at best a mug’s game and at worst downright impossible. Even Nostradamus would have struggled to predict the make-up of this year’s longlist. When faced with 162 possibles (the daunting number the judges had to work through), who could have foretold the presence of eight – yes eight – debut novels on the longlist; who could have guessed that three quarters of the list, nine out of 13, would be women writers? who would have predicted that the same proportion would be American or part American? Indeed, the only thing about the longlist that was expected is the presence of Hilary Mantel, now in the running for an historic third Booker Prize win.

At this stage of proceedings, the prize is always a numbers game. So, to continue the theme, the number three also plays a prominent part. Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light is the third book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy; the Zimbabwean novelist and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga is also longlisted with the third novel, This Mournable Body, in a trilogy; while there are three writers – Mantel, Anne Tyler (Redhead by the Side of the Road) and Colum McCann (Apeirogon) – who have previously been longlisted.

What though is the most fascinating aspect of the list? It must surely be the unprecedented number of debut novels. The longlist usually includes a couple but never before the majority – something that apparently took the judges – Margaret Busby (chair), Lee Child, Sameer Rahim, Lemn Sissay, and Emily Wilson – by surprise when they sat back and surveyed their handiwork. Submissions for the prize are limited and therefore extremely precious so it shows great faith on behalf of the debutants’ publishers that they were put forward in the first place. Clearly the people who had read their manuscripts, signed them up and ushered their books into the light knew they were dealing with writers who were a cut above the throng. Because they are first timers, however, few readers will have yet come across them – something that their nomination will rectify, in spades. A special mention too should go to Daunt Books, a small independent publisher of one of those debutants, Brandon Taylor (Real Life); this is its first Booker Prize nomination.

Back to numbers… it is also noticeable that many of the books have pairings at their heart. In The New Wilderness (Diane Cook) and Burnt Sugar (Avni Doshi) it is the mother-daughter relationship; in Apeirogon (Colum McCann) it is a pair of bereaved parents; in Love and Other Thought Experiments (Sophie Ward) it is two female parents; while in How Much of These Hills is Gold (C Pam Zhang) it is two immigrant children in the Californian Gold Rush; and of course in The Mirror and the Light it is a courtier and a king.

Meanwhile the geographical spread is all-encompassing. The novels are set, among other places, in 1930s Ethiopia, 19th-century California, 16th-century England, contemporary London and contemporary small-town America, the realm of philosophical thought, the unpolluted wilderness, the modern Middle East, in Zimbabwe, a Mid-Western university, a British mining town, and in India. The lives they recount are straight and gay, white and BAME, historical and modern, adult and children. The subjects and settings are bewilderingly rich.

Is there a common theme, a sense of the zeitgeist? If so it is not instantly discernible. No one can accuse the judges of a homogenous outlook. What they have done, it seems, is take each book on its merits and in putting them on the list, inviting readers around the world to do the same.