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Deconstructing the shortlist

Deconstructing the shortlist

Now that it’s out there, this is the time that critics and commentators start to pick over the Booker shortlist looking for patterns, clues and significances. The trouble is, no one other than the judges has read all of the books because Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments isn’t published yet. Nevertheless, this doesn’t appear to have stopped her being put forward as the favourite nor of being treated as an oracle. As David Sexton, a Booker Prize judge in 2005, noted in the Evening Standard at least the presence of four women on both the shortlist and the judging panel meant that: “The patriarchal tyranny so alarmingly envisaged by Atwood is faltering here at least!” It was a particularly good week for Atwood, who was also named on the shortlist for Canada’s pre-eminent literary award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Atwood previously won The Booker Prize in 2000 for The Blind Assassin, so it will be her second win if she goes on to take the Award.


So, what other quirks has the shortlist revealed? If Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport goes on to win, it will be the longest winning novel since Eleanor Catton’s 2013 winner The Luminaries. While Ellmann’s book is told in a one-sentence monologue, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is told in free verse. Meanwhile, Chigozie Obioma brings to an end a four-year barren patch where no African author appeared on the shortlist, and Turkish-born Elif Shafak has been shortlisted for a novel written in her second language. This is also Atwood’s sixth shortlisting, Rushdie’s fifth, and Obioma’s second. Literary pub quiz-setters might find such gobbets useful.


Long-time observers of the prize will have paid particular attention to the words of Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, who said at the announcement that “It was hard to watch the judges narrow down their longlist to this shortlist: they were so committed to all 13 of the books they’d chosen just over a month ago that the discussion was intense.” Now if a politician had used the phrases “hard to watch” and “intense” when discussing a summit between world leaders the inference drawn would be that there had been screaming and shouting. Of course this is the Booker and so politeness and mutual respect are the order of the day - Probably. . .


Of course the shortlist announcement is no parochial affair – the news goes global. A quick scan of reactions reveals that the news was instantaneously broken everywhere from India, Australia, and America, to Ireland, South Africa and the Gulf. Mentions too appeared on the websites of proud publishers and even prouder agents. Perhaps the nicest headlines, however, appeared on Brunel University’s website: “Bernie makes Booker shortlist”. Bernie is Bernardine Evaristo professor of creative writing at the university.

Booker Prize 2019 Shortlist