Summer reading special: take the Booker Prize... to India
From family dramas to iconic works of magical realism, these Booker and International Booker Prize-nominated novels explore India’s vibrant culture
From the coastal waters of Norway to the shimmering nightlife of Seoul, these International Booker Prize-nominated novels are guaranteed to broaden your literary horizons this summer
It’s said that fiction knows no boundaries – which is certainly true – but we’d argue that only a work of translated fiction can truly transcend a border. As the American novelist Henry Miller once said, ‘One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things’.
Translated fiction allows readers to travel thousands of miles in a single page turn - it offers windows into new cultures, connecting us through words in a heartbeat. But of course, all of this owes a debt to the translators - the shapeshifters of literature who traverse two worlds, deftly transforming one original language work into another.
Perhaps you’re grabbing your passport for an overseas adventure this summer, or simply planning a staycation. Whatever your holiday plans, there’s no better time to pick up a work of fiction from the International Booker Prize Library, so we’ve compiled a list that will take you on a literary journey around the world.
Set in thirteen countries and originally written in as many languages, these extraordinary works will transport you from the tranquillity of Norway’s fjords to the shimmering nightlife of Seoul, through China’s Cultural Revolution by way of the bustling metropolis of Buenos Aires, and more.
Contemporary South Korea is brought to life in Love in the Big City, Sang Young Park’s semi-autobiographical series of interconnected vignettes which was longlisted for the International prize in 2022.
The title follows Young, a free-spirited gay man, through his hedonistic college youth and into his thirties spent in Seoul’s underbelly, after hours among the city’s clubs and bars. But beyond the revelry, there is a darker side to this story - one which tells of the lives of the LGBTQ+ community in a socially conservative country, a place where gay marriage is not legal, and national law provides no protection from discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity.
Sang Young’s queer characters exist in their safe spaces, negotiating the complex social boundaries of his homeland. ‘The course of our dates followed the flow of Seoul’s gentrification. The galleries of Samcheong-dong and Bukchon, Serosugil … past Bogwang-dong, Mangwon-dong, Haebangchon, and Seongsu-dong ….’. They forge relationships on nocturnal walks, under cover of darkness, and behind the closed doors of Seoul’s heady nightlife.
This is a deeply moving collection of stories about millennial loneliness and life’s fragility. The Skinny called it ‘a bold, sparkling novel that encompasses what it feels like to be young and in love with life itself, surrounded by strangers and yet completely, wrenchingly alone’.
Fernanda Melchor presents a dichotomy of life in provincial Mexico, where a gated community for the rich brings together two young men from either side of the divide. Polo, an impoverished and exploited gardener, works inside the compound where he meets Franco, an incel best described as an ‘overfed cherub’ who lives with his wealthy grandparents behind the protective bars of the development.
Paradais opens with the discovery of a body, a local woman. It’s an event in which Melchor anchors the plot, and, as news of the murder spreads and the investigation begins, locals must navigate the aftermath of the hideous crime. But this act of violence is not a one-off, and Melchor uses it as a springboard for what is a searing critique of the deep-rooted misogyny, high rates of femicide and cycle of violence which plague many marginalized communities in Mexico.
Melchor’s writing style is unique - she eschews page breaks in favour of drawn-out, rhythmic sentences that gallop poetically from page to page, gathering pace towards a climactic ending. There are many uncomfortable truths in this novel and set against the oppressive Mexican heat, it’s a stifling read. The TLS called Paradais a ‘contemporary masterpiece’, and the novel went on to be longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2022.
Norman Erikson Pasaribu wrote Happy Stories, Mostly inspired by the queer community around them - the friends with whom they laughed ‘over miseries’ while ‘crying over achievements’, they revealed, when speaking to the Booker Prizes website when longlisted for the International Prize 2022.
It’s this thread that runs through the 12 short stories of Happy Stories, Mostly, all of which chart the lives of contemporary Indonesians - some ordinary, some not - in their pursuit of happiness. Within this, Pasaribu probes the binary and challenges convention, all while leaning into their heritage - drawing on Batak culture and philosophies, and reconfiguring myths and folklore. While that sounds like some heavy reading, Happy Stories, Mostly is immensely playful, and funny - just when it needs to be most. There are queer pop culture references by the dozen - think Amy Winehouse quotes, Toy Story references, mentions of Brokeback Mountain and fragments of Joni Mitchell’s iconic album Blue.
Happy Stories, Mostly is an emotional collection of queer belonging. It’s bittersweet and unflinching, so it’s no wonder Litro Magazine called Pasaribu ‘one of the most important Indonesian writers today’.
In a small town on the storm-battered coast of Norway, lives Asle, a widow. Not far away, in Bjørgvin, another Asle lives. Both are artists; their lives separate, but entwined. They are different versions of the same person - doppelgängers.
A New Name: Septology VI-VII is the final instalment of Jon Fosse’s Septology trilogy, a body of work about the intersecting lives of a group of people in his homeland. Fosse himself grew up on a small farm on the west coast of the country, and, whether intended or not, he imbues a connection to the land deep within his stories - the Norwegian sea and landscape providing an ever-present backdrop through his narratives.
Written in Fosse’s signature style - wandering steam-of-consciousness prose that begins to feel hypnotic - this is a melancholic and soul-searching read, which questions the true meaning of identity. ‘Amidst a field of writers intrigued by the potential of religion, Mr. Fosse has created something of a different order: a work of art that itself approximates a religious experience’, The Wall Street Journal wrote in review of the novel.
A New Name: Septology VI-VII was shortlisted for the International Prize in 2022. Fosse and Searles were also previously longlisted for the first instalment, The Other Name: Septology I - II, in 2020.
When Claudia Piñeiro wrote Elena Knows, there was a ‘trigger image’ that led her to create protagonist Elena, who is both ageing and diseased. It was the body of her very own mother, who suffered from Parkinson’s. Her close proximity to the condition inspired what is one of literature’s most unlikely protagonists.
Elena’s condition means she measures time in pills, and when her daughter is found hanging from the bell tower of the local church, she embarks on a quest for the truth, even as her body conspires against her. Unfolding over the course of a day, Elena must make her way across Buenos Aires to the house of a woman who might provide vital information - and the keys to the truth.
This is a terse crime novel with a difference, one which intertwines the genre with an intimate tale of morality and a quest for individual freedom. Hailed by many as ‘the Hitchcock of the River Plate’, Piñeiro is a globally bestselling author; Elena Knows went on to be shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2022 and is currently being developed for TV.
Mieko Kawakami wrote Heaven with a 14-year-old boy as its lead because she was ‘tired of being called a feminist author’. Kawakami’s work to date has been unabashedly feminist, but the label itself irks her. ‘I want to be understood as a human writer’, she told The New York Times Magazine when interviewed early this year.
Set in 1990s Japan, Kawakami’s 2022 shortlisted novella opens with a note passed between two teens, Hare and Kojima. Both suffer bullying by their classmates, with Hare called ‘Eyes’ due to a lazy eye, and Kojima called ‘Hazmat’ for being unwashed. ‘We should be friends’, the note says. An unlikely alliance is formed. Together, they navigate the challenges of adolescence, finding pockets of joy and safe haven in an otherwise brutal and alienating world.
Kawakami began her writing career unconventionally, as a blogger who moved into poetry then general fiction, and this poetic style is evident in her work - her writing is lyrical, sometimes delicate, when needed most. She writes refreshingly of a life in modern Japan, avoiding the overused ‘kawaii’ style tropes often lusted after by a Western gaze. There is no cherry blossom here, just the urban lives of ordinary people.
Yet Heaven isn’t for the fainthearted: the bullying is violent, relentless. It’s a morality tale, one which is unusually nihilistic at times. ‘Kawakami never lets us settle comfortably, which is a testament to her storytelling power’, said the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life is the story of one man, from birth to death, encapsulated in just 160 pages. Set in an idyllic Alpine village in Austria, the novel follows the life of Andreas Egger, an austere man of few words, whose entire existence unfolds within the confines of a mountainside valley. His profound connection to the land, his mountain, permeates the story.
‘And in the mornings after the first snowmelt, when he walked across the dew-soaked meadow outside his hut and lay down on one of the flat rocks scattered there, the cool stone at his back and the first warm rays of sun on his face, he felt that many things had not gone so badly after all.’
Pivotal moments in 20th-century history, such as the First World War, serve as markers within Eggar’s life. He suffers through personal tragedy when his only love dies in an avalanche, yet his fortitude remains.
Seethaler’s prose throughout the novel is pared back and understated, much like Eggers himself. Yet, within the simplicity of the writing lies a profound and lingering beauty that ensured this novel made the shortlist for the International Booker Prize in 2016.
Olga Tokarczuk takes us to a secluded Polish village in the Silesia region of the Czech-Polish border, in her International Booker Prize-shortlisted novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.
Set in the depths of a harsh Polish midwinter, the hunters of the village are slowly being picked off and an ageing activist who lives deep in the forest has turned super sleuth. She has a theory: the animals are fighting back.
Voice propels this novel, and in the cantankerous Janina, we find one of the most memorable characters in modern fiction. Tokarczuk’s prose burrows into your bones, much like the winter chill of the novel, capturing the beauty of nature for which Janina so furiously fights. This is an ode to the natural world, a fable that points a finger at human corruption. It’s part whodunit, part eco-thriller, embedded with a political treatise.
Critically acclaimed, Tokarczuk was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature ‘for a narrative imagination that with encyclopaedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life’. She also won the 2018 International Booker Prize for her novel Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft.
Emmanuelle Pagano’s 2020 longlisted title is a series of 13 short stories about meetings, partings, loves and losses, set in rural France. Each story depicts a momentary fragment of life in a hillside community, told through a unique voice, sometimes echoing prior events from a different perspective. It’s what Le Monde described as ‘a treasure hunt that you can follow from title to title’.
Pagano expertly mosaics together a picture of a French community affected by loss, tragedy and suicide. It’s a France beyond the guidebooks, residing in the margins of the country - a France of dirt tracks and townships, storekeepers and neighbours.
Pagona articulates the ephemeral nature of relationships and the traces they leave behind with compassion and sensitivity. The stories in Faces on the Tip of my Tongue are emotional, and deeply moving. Her novels have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and she has won multiple awards for her writing, including the EU Prize for Literature and the French Ecology Novel Prize.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is a country with a cruel past. In a short period of around 150 years, colonialism in the mineral-rich region led to instability, exploitation, widespread corruption, governmental theft, embezzlement, economic collapse, extraordinary humanitarian issues and civil wars.
Naturally, the country is still shadowed by these abuses of power, and it’s here that DRC native Fiston Mwanza Mujila draws his inspiration.
‘In the beginning was the stone, and the stone prompted ownership, and ownership a rush, and the rush brought an influx of men of diverse appearance who built railroads through the rock, forged a life of palm wine, and devised a system, a mixture of mining and trading.’
He documents the picaresque lives of two friends, Lucien and Requiem, as they navigate a fictional metropolis, frequenting the jazz nightclub of Tram 83. Here, musicians, sex workers, miners, gangsters and politicians collide in a battle of anarchy and ambition, ‘in search of good times on the cheap.’
Through use of repetition, Mujila builds momentum - it is rhythmic and pulsating, a style that has been likened by many to the work of beatniks. His prose is poetic, sometimes frenzied. Longlisted for the prize in 2016, this is a riotous look at an underworld in which Mujila illustrates the continued complexities of the region.
‘…Across the expanse of black lava that ground to a painful halt hundreds of years ago, naked in places, but elsewhere moss has softened and soothed it, clothed it in silence and serenity.’
This is Keflavík, or ‘Driftwood Bay’, as it’s also known - a ‘peculiar town situated behind the world’ on the southwest peninsula of Iceland, home to just 15,000 people. It’s here that Ari, a troubled middle-aged man returns after a failed marriage, beckoned by his dying father. It’s a homecoming where he must confront his inner demons and reckon with his past. What ties bind us, he asks?
Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s 2017 longlisted novel tells of a family’s past across the 20th century, alongside a history of place, all set against the stark beauty of the volcanic, seafaring island. It’s a reflective read, one that explores the tensions between tradition and progress, and the quest for meaning in an ever-evolving world.
Born in 1952, Zou Jingzhi came of age during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. His formative years were shaped by it, first as a boy in Beijing and then as a teenager, exiled to the countryside. Ninth Building is Zou’s work of autofiction, an episodic memoir that he wrote ‘to let go of my childhood’, he told the Booker Prizes website when longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2023.
It’s a book of three parts, with each composed of a series of vignettes, moving from the perspective of a young child to ‘an educated youth’, as part of Mao’s regime. The opening story, titled ‘Eight Days’ and set within November in 1966, describes the desperation with which a group of youths vie for their Red Guard armbands. ‘We put on our armbands as soon as we emerged from the hutong. Our arms grew glorious, weighty. Only swinging them vigorously made them feel natural’.
It’s not clear that they understand just what these bands signify. Yet despite the brutality of the revolution, to some extent, life went on. Zou hones in on this side of the Cultural Revolution that is often overlooked - the monotony and day-to-day tedium.
Despite this, Zou manages to find fragments of hope even in the darkest days. Told through gallows humour, he skillfully captures the complexities and contradictions of a time, offering a glimpse into a society grappling with adversity.
In 2015, Perumal Murugan declared himself and his writing ‘dead’ after his novel Madhorubagan was accused of insulting caste groups. It had sparked protests, litigation and the burning of his book in parts of India due to an extramarital sex ritual within the plot.
Thankfully, Murugan returned from this self-imposed exile in 2017 and it was in 2022 that his novel Pyre made the longlist for the International Booker Prize, a novel he was compelled to write after reading of honour killings in Tamil Nadu. ‘The reports made me deeply sad because it also reminded me of other similar stories. It was a strong feeling to write through the grief’, he told the Booker Prizes website, upon being nominated.
The story of an intercaste couple, Kumaresan and Saroja, who are young and in love. They elope and marry in a southern Indian town in the hope they can remain together, but the villagers are in no mood to celebrate this union and only want to know one thing: what caste Saroja is. And they will stop at nothing to find out. While the couple harbour their secret, a story of forbidden love and societal intolerance emerges.
Set against the arid lands of India, the International Booker Prize judges said Pyre had ‘flashes of fable’ and told ‘a story specific and universal’ about ‘how flammable are fear and the distrust of others’.