Since the turn of the millennium, the Booker Prizes have recognised an explosion of talent among Black authors. As he introduces our reading list for Black History Month, Ben Okri, the first Black writer to win the Booker, says that the genius of the Black spirit in literature has been set free
The Booker Prize has been around since 1969 and, fittingly, the first Black writer it shortlisted was Chinua Achebe in 1987. This is fitting because Achebe was already an icon of Black literature with the publication of Things Fall Apart in 1958. Since its inception in 1969, the Booker has had over 30 Black writers pass through the categories of longlist, shortlist or winners. It is generally wrongly perceived that the prize has not featured many Black writers. Only as recently as September 2022, a magazine like Grazia can print, in its headlines, the erroneous fact that the first Black Booker winner was in 2019.
The first Black winner of the Booker prize was Ben Okri, in 1991, for The Famished Road. He was also the youngest winner, at the time. In the years that followed, writers like Caryl Phillips and Abdulrazak Gurnah were shortlisted. Gurnah has since gone on to win the Nobel Prize, proving that the Booker spots major talents before anyone else does.
Zadie Smith was the first Black woman writer to be shortlisted, with her novel On Beauty. Since then, there have been over ten Black women to pass through the Booker categories, with Bernardine Evaristo being the first Black woman to win the prize in 2019, for Girl, Woman, Other.
The range of novels by Black writers that have been picked by the Booker is amazing. There have been novels of childhood, of war, of exile. There have been meditations on power, on serial killers. There have been satires, novels about race, and novels that are playful with language and uncategorisable in form. The things they all share are ambition of scope, great skill, a strong desire to reveal the hidden power structures of the world, or to tell profound and sometimes disturbing truths about the human condition.
There are writers who are spare, or lush, realistic or magical. Many of them bring the richness of their ancestral traditions woven into modern form. Some of them are exponents of the tried and tested mode of realism. But none of them does what is expected. They all surprise, or delight, or stun, or disturb, or perplex. There is also a lot of humour. They all push at some boundary, and justice is as much an underlying theme as is freedom. These are novels to enjoy, to savour, to learn from.
They are a growing testament to the fact that works written by Black writers have gone beyond any fixed expectations. Each book on the list below was chosen on its merit, in competition with the best novels of the year. Their only criteria for being here, finally, is a certain excellence. They are as good an introduction to the undercurrents of our world, the higher and the lower news of the human spirit, as you would find anywhere.
If you look at the list you would notice how sparse the Black presence was in the Eighties, but through the years Black writers have made such a strong showing that in the new millennium there seems to have been an explosion of talent. The genie is out of the bottle. The genius of the Black spirit in literature has been set free. It can only continue to be a force for more truth, and more beauty.
The things they all share are ambition of scope, great skill, a strong desire to reveal the hidden power structures of the world, or to tell profound and sometimes disturbing truths about the human condition.— Ben Okri, winner of the Booker Prize in 1991
Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe (1987)
In his fifth novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1987, Achebe delivers a searing satire on political corruption, set in the fictional West African nation of Kangan. Chris, Ikem and Beatrice are three like-minded friends working under the military regime of His Excellency, the Sandhurst-educated President of Kangan. In the pressurized atmosphere of oppression and intimidation they are simply trying to live and love - and remain friends. But in a world where each day brings a new betrayal, hope is hard to cling to.
The Famished Road by Ben Okri (1991)
Ben Okri’s unique Booker Prize-winning epic, narrated by ‘an unwilling adventurer into chaos and sunlight, into the dreams of the living and the dead’.
The narrator, Azaro, is an abiku, a spirit child, who in the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria exists between life and death. The life he foresees for himself and the tale he tells are full of sadness and tragedy, but inexplicably he is born with a smile on his face. Nearly called back to the realm of the dead, he is resurrected to confront the tension between the land of the living, often joyful despite violence and political struggles, and the temptations of the carefree kingdom of the spirits.
Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips (1993)
Caryl Phillips’ intense historical fiction addresses slavery’s shattering of the lives of Black people through the story of one father’s lost family. In desperate financial straits, a father sells his three children into slavery. Crossing the River follows the scattered children across continents and through time to wherever their lives lead them: the hold of a slave ship, an African mission, Colorado, and an English village during the war. It was shortlisted for the prize in 1993.
Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah (1994)
An African boy comes of age in an East Africa increasingly corrupted by colonialism and violence, in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s powerful historical fiction that was shortlisted in 1994.
It soon transpires that the ‘uncle’ young Yusuf is travelling with is in reality a powerful merchant, and he has been pawned to him to pay his father’s debts. Having been sold into slavery by his father, Yusuf is thrown into a multi-ethnic world of war and violence - and the trials of adolescence - in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s rich 20th century odyssey.
By the Sea by Abdulrazak Gurnah (2001)
Abdulrazak Gurnah’s story of love and betrayal, of seduction and possession, and of people desperately trying to find stability amidst the maelstrom.
Saleh Omar arrives at Gatwick Airport from Zanzibar, a faraway island in the Indian Ocean. With him he has a small bag in which there lies his most precious possession - a mahogany box containing incense. He used to own a furniture shop, have a house and be a husband and father. Now he is an asylum seeker from paradise; silence his only protection. Meanwhile Latif Mahmud lives quietly alone in his London flat. When Saleh and Latif meet in an English seaside town, a story is unravelled. By The Sea was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001.
The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith (2002)
Zadie Smith delivers an unforgettable tale about who we are and what we really want to be, in this wry and thoughtful rite-of-passage novel that made the Booker Prize longlist in 2002. The Autograph Man introduces the reader to one Alex-Li Tandem: a twenty-something Chinese-Jewish autograph dealer turned on by sex, drugs and organised religion. From London to New York, love to death, fathers to sons, Alex tries to discover how a piece of paper can bring him closer to his heart’s desire. Through his journey, Zadie Smith exposes our misconceptions about our idols – and about ourselves.
A Distant Shore by Caryl Phillips (2003)
Caryl Phillips’ complex portrayal of two outsiders in an English village shows them finding a comfort in each other’s presence that alleviates their isolation. The English village is a place where people come to lick their wounds. Dorothy has walked away from a bad thirty-year marriage, an affair gone sour and a dangerous obsession. Meanwhile, although all he has in common with the English is a shared language, Solomon hopes that his new country will provide him with a safe haven. The two outsiders meet, and gradually a bond is formed. A Distant Shore was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003.
Purple Hibiscus by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie (2004)
The Nigerian-born Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was longlisted for the Booker Prize for her debut novel Purple Hibiscus. To date, she is the only Booker writer to have her words sampled by Beyoncé.
Adichie was just 27 when she was longlisted for the prize. She came to writing after moving to the United States aged 19, having initially studied medicine in Nigeria. She cut her teeth on poetry and short stories before turning to full-length fiction. Purple Hibiscus led to a vertiginous rise in public consciousness, which sees Adichie now not just as a writer but also as a prominent voice on issues such as African literature, feminism, LGBT rights and cancel culture. Her TEDx talk ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ was sampled by Beyoncé in her 2013 song Flawless.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005)
Male lust and female friendship draw two families together - despite the gulf that exists between them - in Zadie Smith’s engaging satire, Professor Howard Belsey has done something stupid. And what is more it is the stupid ‘something’ that men his age seem programmed by cliché to act out. Exiled in his own home by the anger of his wife and the disapproval of his three kids, Howard is about to see his role in the family further undermined by the arrival in their East Coast college town of his nemesis, British academic Monty Kipps. Smith’s novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2005.
Chinua Achebe, winner of the International Booker Prize for a body of work (2007)
The poet, critic and novelist Chinua Achebe came to prominence in 1958 with Things Fall Apart. By 1987 and Anthills of the Savannah, he was a venerated figure. The Nigerian Achebe drew on the Igbo traditions he had grown up with to take his fiction beyond the colonial concerns of most literature dealing with Africa.
Anthills of the Savannah fused modernity with myth and his family’s oral story-telling culture and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1987. Achebe won the Man Booker International Prize 2007 for his entire body of work. Nelson Mandela cited reading Achebe while in prison as an inspiration.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o, shortlisted for the International Booker Prize for a body of work (2009)
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s books include the novels Petals of Blood, for which he was imprisoned by the Kenyan government in 1977. Other novels include A Grain of Wheat and Wizard of the Crow. He has written three volumes of the memoirs, Dreams in a Time of War, In the House of the Interpreter and Birth of a Dream Weaver, and several essays, including Decolonizing the Mind, Something Torn and New and Globalectics.
He was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2009 for his body of work and was longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2021 for The Perfect Nine.
The Long Song by Andrea Levy (2010)
Andrea Levy’s bittersweet 2010 Booker Prize-shortlisted novel about the last days of slavery in Jamaica is powerful and intimate - and full of mischievous surprise.
Set in Jamaica during the last turbulent years of slavery and the early years of freedom that followed, The Long Story is a thrilling journey through that time in the company of people who lived it. Based on the lives of the people who live and work on the Amity sugar plantation, the narrative centres around July, a slave girl with an indomitable spirit for survival.
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (2011)
Esi Edugyan explores loyalty, betrayal and the horror that, if you don’t tell your story, someone else might in their 2011 Booker Prize-shortlisted novel. And they just might tell it wrong. In the aftermath of the fall of Paris in 1940, a rising star on the cabaret scene was arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. Hieronymous Falk was 20 years old. He was a German citizen. And he was Black. Fifty years later, Chip persuades Sid, Hiero’s bandmate and the only witness that day, to return to Berlin. But Sid discovers there’s more to the journey than he thought when Chip shares a mysterious letter, bringing to the surface secrets buried since Hiero’s fate was settled.
A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards (2011)
Yvvette Edwards’ unique and uncompromising 2011 Booker Prize-longlisted debut is stoked with violence and passion, rich with voices from East London and the West Indies. Fourteen years ago, her mother was brutally murdered in their East London home. Since then, Jinx’s life has been poisoned by guilt. Out of nowhere, Lemon arrives on her doorstep. An old friend of her mother’s, he wants to revisit the events leading to that terrible night, forcing Jinx to finally confront her past. But Lemon has his own secrets to share, and over the course of one weekend the pair unravel an unforgettable family drama.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (2013)
NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel is a bittersweet portrayal of life in a ramshackle Zimbabwean shantytown called Paradise. The story of Darling and her friends Stina, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Bastard. They all used to have proper houses, with real rooms and furniture, but now they all live in a shanty called Paradise. They spend their days stealing guavas, playing games and wondering how to get the baby out of young Chipo’s stomach. They dream of escaping to other paradises - America, Dubai, Europe. But if they do escape, will these new lands bring everything they wish for? We Need New Names was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2013.
Marie NDiaye, shortlisted for the International Booker Prize for a body of work (2013)
Marie NDiaye was born in France in 1967, and published her first novel at the age of 17. NDiaye has won the Prix Femina for Rosie Carpe in 2001 and the Prix Goncourt for Three Strong Women in 2009. Her play Papa Doit Manger has been taken into the repertoire of the Comédie Française. In 2007, after the election of Nicolas Sarkozy, NDiaye left France with her family to live in Berlin.
She was shortlisted, for her entire body of work, for the Man Booker International Prize 2013.
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (2015)
Chigozie Obioma combines classic African storytelling with contemporary fiction in this haunting fable suffused with supernatural power that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015. In a small Nigerian town in the mid-1990s, four brothers take advantage of their strict father’s absence to go fishing in a forbidden river. They encounter a dangerous local madman, whose mystic prophecy of violence threatens the very core of their close-knit family. He predicts that one of the brothers will kill another. This evil prophecy of violence unleashes a tragic chain of events.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (2015)
In a dazzling display of masterful storytelling, Marlon James explores the extraordinary backstory to the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. Jamaica, 1976. Seven gunmen storm Bob Marley’s house, machine guns blazing. The reggae superstar survives, but the gunmen are never caught. Marlon James investigates the story behind this near-mythical event. The result is a mesmerising, continent-crossing tale that spans three decades, with a shadowy cast of street kids, drug lords, journalists, prostitutes, gunmen and secret service agents. James’ novel won the Booker Prize in 2015.
Maryse Condé, shortlisted for the International Booker Prize for a body of work (2015)
Maryse Condé is a French novelist, critic, and playwright from Guadeloupe. Condé, perhaps best known for her novel Ségou (1984), is an author who explores the African diaspora that resulted from slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean.
Her novels, written in French, have been translated into English, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese. She has won various awards, such as the Grand Prix Littéraire de la Femme (1986), Prix de l’Académie française (1988), Prix Carbet de la Carraibe (1997) and the New Academy Prize in Literature (2018). Condé was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2015.
Alain Mabanckou, shortlisted for the International Booker Prize for a body of work (2015)
Alain Mabanckou, nicknamed ‘the African Beckett’, grew up in Pointe-Noire, Republic of Congo, and studied law in Brazzaville and Paris. His work has won many prizes, including the Renaudot Prize for Memoires of a Porcupine in 2006, and his novel Broken Glass was ranked by the Guardian as one of the 100 best books of the 21st century.
He has been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize twice: once in 2015, when the prize was for a body of work, and once in 2017 for a single novel, Black Moses. Alain Mabanckou is now a full Professor of Literature at UCLA.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2016)
Paul Beatty’s biting, 2016 Booker Prize-winning satire, about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court. The son of a pioneering sociologist believes that selling his father’s controversial memoir will solve the family’s financial woes. But when he realises there never was a memoir, drastic action is required… The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality - the Black Chinese restaurant.
Ladivine by Marie NDiaye (2016)
Marie NDiaye’s harrowing and subtly crafted 2016 International Booker Prize-longlisted novel of a woman captive to a secret shame that ensnares three generations. Translated by Jordan Stump. Clarisse is an orphan. Or so she tells her husband and daughter. But every month she makes a secret visit to her mother Ladivine - a poor Black housekeeper. This 25-year deception takes its toll. Her husband leaves her, frustrated at the gulf of silence that has grown up between them. She finds solace in another man, but this peace comes at a terrible price. It will be left to her daughter - also called Ladivine, without knowing why - to work out who her mother was and what happened to her.
Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila (2016)
In Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila plunges the reader into the atmosphere of a gold rush as cynical as it is comic and colourfully exotic. Translated by Roland Glasser. In a war-torn African city-state, tourists of all languages and nationalities converge with students, ex-pats and locals. They have only one desire: to make a fortune by exploiting the wealth of the country, both mineral and human. As soon as night falls, they go out to drink, dance and abandon themselves in the only nightclub of the city. Welcome to Tram 83, the den of all iniquities, in Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s African-rhapsody novel, hammered by rhythms of jazz. Tram 83 made the International Booker Prize longlist in 2016.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith (2017)
Zadie Smith’s dazzlingly energetic and deeply human story about friendship, music and true identity, how they shape us and how we can survive them. Two brown girls dream of being dancers – but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about Black bodies and Black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early 20s, never to be revisited. But never quite forgotten, either… Swing Time was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2017)
Through Colson Whitehead’s imagination, one woman’s attempt to escape the horrors of bondage becomes a shatteringly powerful meditation on history which made the longlist for the Booker Prize in 2017. In a Georgian cotton plantation, Cora hears rumours about the Underground Railroad and decides to escape on it to the North. In Whitehead’s razor-sharp imagining, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. The narrative of Cora’s journey seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day.
Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou (2017)
Alain Mabanckou’s poetic carnival of a novel chronicles a riotous journey through the Pointe-Noire underworld in late 20th century Congo-Brazzaville. Translated by Helen Stephenson. 1970, the People’s Republic of Congo. In an orphanage near the bustling port of Pointe-Noire, Moses is terrorised by a pair of twins and, worse, the corrupt director. United against this common enemy, the three orphans escape to Pointe-Noire and join the Congolese Merry Men, a gang of petty thieves grifting among the Zairean prostitutes of the Trois-Cents quarter. But as the authorities continue to hound the Merry Men and the Trois-Cents girls, all this injustice pushes poor Moses over the edge. Black Moses was longlisted for the International Prize in 2017.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (2018)
Esi Edugyan relates the astonishing adventures of Washington Black, whose escape from the brutal cane plantations of Barbados was only the beginning. In a Barbados sugar plantation, Washington Black, an 11-year-old field slave, is selected to be the personal servant of one of the new owners - the eccentric Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde. Titch is a naturalist, explorer, scientist, inventor - and abolitionist. Titch’s idealistic plans are soon shattered and Washington finds himself in mortal danger. They escape the island together, but Titch disappears and Washington must make his way alone, following his own path to freedom. Washington Black was shortisted for the Booker Prize in 2018.
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma (2019)
In the mythic style of the Igbo literary tradition, Chigozie Obioma weaves a heart-wrenching epic about the tension between destiny and determination in their 2019 novel which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. On a bridge in Nigeria, Chinonso, a young poultry farmer, come across a woman who is about to jump to her death. Horrified, he hurls two of his prized chickens into the water, to demonstrate the severity of the fall. The woman, Ndali, is moved by his sacrifice and the pair fall in love. Her rich family object to the union because he is uneducated, so he sells his possessions to attend a college in Cyprus. But Cyprus disappoints, and Chinonso only seems to be getting further from his dream…
My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2019)
Oyinkan Braithwaite’s fiendishly wicked comic novel about how blood is thicker - and more difficult to get out of the carpet - than water, was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019. When Korede’s dinner is interrupted by a distress call from Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend her lethal little sister has dispatched in ‘self-defence’ - and the third mess she’s left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police before Nigeria runs of men but, as they say, family comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating a doctor in the hospital where Korede works.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019)
With vivid originality, irrepressible wit and sly wisdom, Bernardine Evaristo presents a gloriously new kind of history for this old country. Welcome to Britain and twelve very different people - mostly women, mostly Black - who call it home. Teeming with life and crackling with energy, Girl, Woman, Other follows them across the miles and down the years, through different generations and social classes, in this ever-dynamic, ever-expanding and utterly irresistible novel of our times. Girl, Woman, Other won the Booker Prize in 2019.
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (2020)
Maaza Mengiste salutes the soldiers written out of history in her captivating exploration of female power, and what it means to be a woman at war. Ethiopia. 1935. With the threat of an Italian invasion looming, the commanders of Emperor Haile Selassie’s army rush to mobilise their strongest men. Hirut and the other women long to do more than care for the wounded and bury the dead. When Haile Selassie goes into exile, Hirut devises a plan to maintain morale. She disguises a peasant as the emperor and becomes his guard, inspiring other women to take up arms. The Shadow King was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor (2020)
Brandon Taylor’s deeply affecting story about the emotional cost of reckoning with desire and overcoming pain, which deftly zooms in and out of focus was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020. His father died a few weeks ago, but Wallace didn’t go back for the funeral, and he hasn’t told any of his friends. Instead, Wallace has spent all summer in the lab breeding a strain of microscopic worms. Self-preservation requires distance. Over the course of one end-of-summer weekend, however, the destruction of his work and a series of confrontations force Wallace to grapple with both the trauma of the past and the question of the future.
This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (2020)
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s searing novel about the obstacles faced by the women of Zimbabwe asks one question: where do lives go when all hope has departed? This Mournable Body was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020 and continues the story of Tambudzai, the protagonist of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s acclaimed first novel, Nervous Conditions. After leaving a dead-end job, Tambudzai finds herself living in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare. At every turn, she is faced with a fresh humiliation. As a last resort, she takes an ecotourism job that takes her back to her parents’ impoverished homestead. A homecoming that culminates in an act of betrayal…
Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid (2020)
Kiley Reid explores the awkwardness of transactional relationships and the consequences of doing the right thing for the wrong reason in their 2020 Booker Prize longlisted novel. Alix is a woman who gets what she wants. Emira - 25, aimless and broke - babysits for Alix. One night, Emira takes Alix’s two-year-old daughter to a local shop. Seeing a young Black woman with a white child, a security guard accuses her of kidnapping. A crowd gathers, a bystander films everything - and Emira is utterly humiliated. Without saying anything, Alix resolves to ‘make things right’. But then the video of Emira unearths someone from the past who changes everything for both of them.
The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed (2021)
Nadifa Mohamed’s gripping novel about a petty criminal in Cardiff who becomes the last man to be hanged there, wrongfully convicted of murder in 1952.
Mahmood Mattan is a father, a chancer, a petty thief. Many things, in fact, but he is not a murderer. So when a shopkeeper is brutally killed and all eyes fall on him, Mahmood isn’t too worried - secure in his innocence in a country where justice is served. But as the trial nears, it starts to dawn on him that he is in a fight for his life - against conspiracy, prejudice and the ultimate punishment. In the shadow of the hangman’s noose, he realises that the truth may not be enough to save him. The Fortune Men was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2021.
The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris (2021)
Conjuring a world fraught with tragedy and violence yet threaded through with hope, Nathan Harris’ debut novel is enthralling and deeply moving. It was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2021.
In the dying days of the American Civil War, newly freed brothers Landry and Prentiss are cast penniless into the world. Hiding out in woods, they’re discovered by the land’s owner, George Walker, a man still reeling from the loss of his son in the war. The brothers begin to work on his farm, and tentative bonds of trust begin to blossom. But this sanctuary survives on a knife’s edge. It isn’t long before the inhabitants of the nearby town of Old Ox react with fury at the alliances being formed.
The Perfect Nine by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (2021)
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o tells the story of the founding of the Gĩkũyũ people of Kenya, from a strongly feminist perspective in this 2021 novel which was longlisted for the International Prize. A verse narrative, blending folklore, mythology, adventure, and allegory, The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi chronicles the efforts the Gĩkũyũ founders make to find partners for their famously beautiful daughters - The Perfect Nine - and the challenges they set for the 99 suitors who seek their hands in marriage. The epic has all the elements of adventure, with suspense, danger, humour and sacrifice.
At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop (2021)
A hypnotic, heartbreaking rendering of a mind hurtling towards madness, shattered by grief and the horror of war. Alfa and Mademba are two Senegalese soldiers fighting in the Great War, dutifully climbing out of their trenches to attack whenever the whistle blows. Then Mademba is mortally wounded, and dies in a shell hole with his belly torn open. Without his more-than-brother, Alfa is alone and lost amidst the savagery of the conflict. He devotes himself to the war, to violence and death, but soon begins to frighten even his own comrades in arms. How far will Alfa go to make amends to his dead friend? At Night All Blood is Black won the International Booker Prize in 2021.
Phenotypes by Paulo Scott (2022)
Paulo Scott delivers a smart and stylish account of the bigotry lurking in hearts and institutions alike in this novel which was longlisted for the International Prize in 2022. In this complex tale, two very different brothers of mixed Black and white heritage are divided by the colour of their skin, as racial tension rises in society and a guilty secret resurfaces from their shared past. Paulo Scott here probes the old wounds of race in Brazil, and in particular the loss of a Black identity independent from the history of slavery. Exploratory rather than didactic, a story of crime, street-life and regret as much as a satirical novel of ideas, Phenotypes is a seething masterpiece of rage and reconciliation.
Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley (2022)
At once agonising and mesmerising, Nightcrawling presents a haunting vision of marginalised young people navigating the darkest corners of an adult world. ‘When there is no choice, all you have left to do is walk. Determined to survive in a world that refuses to protect her, a 17-year-old girl finds herself walking the mean streets of Oakland after dark. When she is picked up by the police, the gruesome deal they offer in exchange for her freedom lands her at the centre of a media storm - and facing a terrible choice. If she agrees to testify, she could help expose the corruption of a police department. But honesty comes at a price - one that could leave her family vulnerable to retaliation, and endanger everyone she loves. Nightcrawling was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2022.
Glory by NoViolet Bulaway (2022)
This energetic and exhilarating joyride from NoViolet Bulawayo is the story of an uprising, told by a vivid chorus of animal voices that help us see our human world more clearly. A long time ago, in a bountiful land not so far away, the animals lived quite happily. Then the colonisers arrived. After nearly a hundred years, a bloody War of Liberation brought new hope for the animals - along with a new leader: a charismatic horse who commanded the sun and ruled and ruled - and kept on ruling…
Glory tells the story of a country trapped in a cycle as old as time. And yet, as it unveils the myriad tricks required to uphold the illusion of absolute power, it reminds us that the glory of tyranny only lasts as long as its victims are willing to let it. Glory has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2022.
The Trees by Percival Everett (2022)
A violent history refuses to be buried in Percival Everett’s striking novel, which combines an unnerving murder mystery with a powerful condemnation of racism and police violence. Something strange is afoot in Money, Mississippi. A series of brutal murders are eerily linked by the presence at each crime scene of a second dead body: that of a man who resembles Emmett Till, a young Black boy lynched in the same town 65 years before. The investigating detectives soon discover that uncannily similar murders are taking place all over the country. As the bodies pile up, the detectives seek answers from a local root doctor, who has been documenting every lynching in the country for years… The Trees has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2022.