Six things you need to know about the International Booker Prize 2023 shortlist
As the International Booker Prize 2023 shortlist is announced, we’ve pulled together the most interesting facts and trends that have emerged in this year’s selection
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Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, Eva Baltasar’s poetic and sensual novella is a sumptuous exploration of appetite, and a love story between two women with very different visions of motherhood
Whether you’re new to the book or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide, featuring insights from critics, our judges and the book’s author and translator, as well as discussion points and suggestions for further reading.
Working as a cook on a merchant ship, a woman comes to know and love Samsa, who gives her the nickname ‘Boulder’. When the couple decide to move to Reykjavik together, Samsa announces that she wants to have a child. She is already 40 and can’t bear to let the opportunity pass her by. Boulder is less enthused but doesn’t know how to say no - and so finds herself dragged along on a journey that feels as thankless as it is alien. With motherhood changing Samsa into a stranger, Boulder must decide where her priorities lie, and whether her yearning for freedom will trump her yearning for love.
Eva Baltasar demonstrates her pre-eminence as a chronicler of queer voices and characters navigating a hostile world in prose as brittle and beautiful as an ancient saga.
Unnamed narrator / Boulder
Initially nameless until given the nickname ‘Boulder’ by her girlfriend, the novel’s lead character and narrator chooses a nomadic lifestyle. Originally from Barcelona, she has made her way to live on a Chilean island in Patagonia. After leaving the city, she joins a merchant ship, picking up work as a cook. While the ship is docked, she meets Samsa and the two begin a relationship together, eventually falling in love. Boulder is, however, used to a life of isolation, without responsibility, and begins to struggle with the huge changes that come her way as their relationship evolves.
Samsa is an Icelandic geologist with ‘white-blonde hair [and] swimmer’s shoulders’, who falls in love with Boulder. When she is offered a job in Reykjavik, the couple decide to move there together - the only alternative option is separation.
At the age of 40, Samsa decides she can’t bear to let the opportunity to have a child pass her by and embarks on a journey into motherhood, undergoing fertility treatment and IVF to eventually give birth to the couple’s newborn, Tinna.
‘Sexy and intense, Boulder is a vibrant love story between two women, exploring their relationship to the body and to sensuality - and the moment when the harmony of love breaks down. It’s a sumptuous exploration of desire, illuminated by inventive and dazzling images.
‘Baltasar condenses the sensations and experiences of a dozen more ordinary novels into just over one hundred pages of exhilarating prose. An incisive story of queer love and motherhood that slices open the dilemmas of exchanging independence for intimacy.
‘This is a book where you feel very close to the narrator. You don’t leave her side for a second, you feel every emotion she describes, with an extraordinary poetic force.’
The New York Times:
‘Baltasar, by way of Sanches’ translation, conjures a version of motherhood that shies away from the word. Instead, it’s an approximation, asking us to lean away from learned language, from the exact. And perhaps it shouldn’t have a name; maybe some things – like love – are meant to be hard to define.’
‘The second novel by Spain’s Eva Baltasar is billed as part of “a triptych that aims to explore the universes of three different women in the first person”… Baltasar’s protagonist is not unambiguously likeable but expresses her id in a sometimes chaotic, perhaps relatable manner. The translation skills of Julia Sanches have again been utilised here, too, and make for some remarkably visceral bursts of prose styling: both writers are standout talents.’
‘The book is a modern love story – global, queer, existential in its moral hierarchies – but it is also a rumination on those two most ancient of words: lover and mother … A novel that lionizes the desire to be alone even as it recognizes the beauty and grace found within a family.’
‘Baltasar offers a great deal of insight into the effect of the pregnancy and the child’s birth on the characters, though the plot turns on tropes. Frustrated by their sexlessness, for instance – which Boulder compares to a “dockyard gridlocked by a single ship” – she cheats with a younger woman. Still, this slim, visceral novel power gains power from its subversive blurring of maternal intuition and its queering of parenthood.’
‘In barely 100 pages, Catalan author and acclaimed poet Eva Baltasar has crafted a gem of a novella: sharp-edged, uncompromising and utterly compelling … Boulder is for everyone: a hard-hitting, incisive triumph.’
‘Through such intricate writing, in Julia Sanches’s voraciously readable translation, the author deftly manages to elevate the idea of a relationship to a force of nature, with the character of Boulder representing the struggle to reconcile a desire to be alone with a desire for company.’
‘Amid sexual trysts and growing tensions, Boulder searches for the mysterious sweet spot between her wants: freedom and connection. Baltasar has an innate talent for stretching the complexities of queer lives and predicaments into undulating adventure and tension.’
Through such intricate writing, in Julia Sanches’s voraciously readable translation, the author deftly manages to elevate the idea of a relationship to a force of nature
When asked about the inspiration behind her novel, Eva Baltasar told The Booker Prizes website: ‘My protagonists are mirror images of myself, only more precise and always veiled. [… ] I was driven to write Boulder because I was fixated on the idea of getting to know a woman, through literature, who could embody a boulder; a woman like that isolated, solitary rock; a living metaphor at the mercy of the elements and weather, with cracks that allowed me to dig into her and uncover the secret hardness inside.’ Do you see these traits within her characterisation of the lead protagonist? What makes Boulder unique as a character?
Baltasar’s novel is part of a triptych, with its predecessor Permafrost published in 2018. While there’s no explicit link between the novels, Baltasar noted within Permafront that ‘it is the first novel in a triptych that aims to explore the universes of three different women in the first person’. Why has the author taken the unusual step to write in this manner? Does it affect the experience of reading Boulder?
Baltasar is an acclaimed poet as well as an author and our judges described Boulder as ‘a poet’s book’. In an interview with The Booker Prizes website, the novel’s translator Julia Sanches said: ‘I translated this book slowly, though I can’t remember how long the entire process took. Only that I spent a long while weighing each sentence, re-writing it, reading it aloud, as if the whole thing were a collection of poetry. Which it is, in a way.’ To what extent did you feel that Baltasar’s prose and Sanches’s translation read like poetry? What did their use of language add to the reading experience?
Boulder is also rich with metaphor and simile: ‘We all incubate here in the boat’s amniotic fluid; the boat loves and nurtures us, it invites us to take another look at ourselves.’ (page 12). Our judges said: ‘We were overwhelmed by certain metaphors, whose originality and sensuality swept us away.’ What did you feel the author’s use of metaphor brought to the story? Did it help you understand the protagonist’s worldview on a deeper level?
Boulder begins with the unnamed narrator and protagonist living on her own on an island. She is searching for the ‘true zero’ of life (page 10). What does she mean by this? Does it or can it exist, for the protagonist or others?
The novel is written entirely in the first person and is made up of short sections, yet also lengthy monologues. Did this point of view and style enhance your connection with or understanding of the protagonist?
Much of the novel is concerned with the relationship between Samsa and Boulder, and the changes that ensue when Samsa decides she would like a child. ‘She looks at me with those blue eyes that fade to gray in the warm apartment light, and I have the feeling she has everything, that she is one and whole, like a god. That, somehow, her desire for a child spoils her.’ With Boulder ambivalent towards children and parenting, Baltasar has written a subversion of motherhood – something we don’t often see depicted in literature or art. Does this feel like an accurate portrayal? If so, why do we not see more of this point of view?
The protagonist feels at home in barren and stark locales, or adrift in the ocean. Discuss how landscape plays an important role in Boulder and how it speaks to the human drama that unfolds.
Kirkus Reviews called Boulder ‘a modern love story – global, queer, existential in its moral hierarchies – but it is also a rumination on those two most ancient of words: lover and mother.’ Baltasar has been cited as ‘a chronicler of queer voices’. Did Boulder read as queer fiction to you, or is that label unhelpful or restrictive? Why do we not see more queer accounts of motherhood in culture?
Baltasar told Pink News that she owed a debt to writers and pioneers in the LGBTQ+ space that came before her, such as Virginia Woolf, whose book, Orlando, she received on her 12th birthday, ‘giving birth to a “long lasting love”’. Do you see any of Woolf’s influence on the author’s writing?
Our judges said that Boulder is ‘a book about appetite – in the most common sense of the word, since the narrator is a passionate cook – but also about the appetite for another’s body, for life and for freedom. The passages where the narrator cooks on the boat while thinking about the woman she loves are madly sensual descriptions.’ Do you agree with the judges here?
Granta: In Conversation, Eva Baltasar & Irene Solà: ‘The tide carries my books from my head to a place that is no longer mine.’
Abovethetreeline.com: Julia Sanches on translating Eva Baltasar’s Boulder
Pink News: Booker Prize nominee Eva Baltasar on breaking boundaries in lesbian motherhood novel Boulder
If you enjoyed this book, why not try…
Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey
All The Lovers In The Night by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd
The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
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