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A closer look at The 2020 Booker Prize shortlist

A closer look at The 2020 Booker Prize shortlist

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)

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

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

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

The “rule of six” may be the buzz-phrase of the moment but the first rule of the Booker Prize is that there are no rules. Anyone who saw this shortlist coming is a Nostradamus with added future spectacles. Of course, each year the announcement comes up with a surprise or two but this year’s judges – Margaret Busby (chair), Lee Child, Sameer Rahim, Lemn Sissay and Emily Wilson – have decided to deal exclusively in eyebrow-raisers.

Where to start with them? The fact that five out of the six shortlistees are from America? That  four of them are debutants? That four are women? That none of the longlistees with previous Booker Prize form have made the cut? Or that Hilary Mantel won’t complete her trio of Thomas Cromwell novels with a trio of Booker Prize wins?

There is something very 2020 about the shortlist, reflecting, as it does, diversity and the awareness that storytelling is perhaps more broad-based than ever before. The US element may well attract the headlines but this is a shortlist that carries the tang not just of America but of Scotland, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and India too.

Parents and children feature more than once. Avni Doshi’s tale recounts a relationship where filial resentment at a mother’s choice of an ashram and a free-love advocating guru over a more hands-on parenting still bubbles even as the mother’s mental faculties fade. Diane Cook’s novel, on the other hand, describes a mother and daughter in a world that has undergone environmental catastrophe and who head for redemption and safety to a small patch of unspoiled wilderness. While Douglas Stuart focuses on a mother and son living amid alcohol, drugs and poverty in 1980s Glasgow.

Tsitsi Dangarembga tells a story of poverty, striving, race and urgent moral decisions in modern Zimbabwe, while a different African time and place are explored by Maaza Mengiste, who looks at the role of women soldiers during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. The black experience also features heavily in Brandon Taylor examination of gay culture and racial prejudice among American doctoral students.

Race, the environment, gender, sexuality. . . the writers and the judges have gone for some of the pressing issues of the contemporary moment. The fact that Cook, Doshi, Stuart and Taylor are all debut novelists might help explain why they can tackle these weighty subjects with such seeming fearlessness. Their inclusion is also an incontrovertible statement that this is a list chosen explicitly for the quality of the books themselves and in which a career or previous reputation holds no sway. 

Fearlessness is also a characteristic of Dangarembga and Mengiste. The former was recently arrested in Zimbabwe for her role in protests against government corruption while the latter escaped the Ethiopian revolution at the age of four and now, alongside her literary activities, is deeply involved with human rights and immigration initiatives. Whatever else they may be, this group of writers hardly conforms to the idea of the fey creative spirit conjuring up fiction from an ivory tower. As the books themselves show, the authors are familiar first-hand with the nitty gritty of life and are no strangers to its unpleasantnesses.

As well as the writers and their books, the shortlist also marks a triumph for independent publishers. Four of the novels were published by firms outside the larger conglomerates. Oneworld (publisher of former Booker Prize winners Marlon James and Paul Beatty), Daunt Books Publishing, Canongate and Faber & Faber show that courage when commissioning can pay off, while Picador and Hamish Hamilton are literary imprints with a long a noble history. What connects them all is a dedication to unearthing quality and bringing it into the light.

Six such books are now in the spotlight awaiting new readers, firing up new comments and discussions, and all the while showing that the idea of what literature is never stands still.