In a fresh approach for 2021, each of the six shortlisted novels is appraised by one of the judges, who voice both the panel’s shared opinion and their own, highly personal response to the book.
‘We had to find a place on the shortlist for A Passage North, in which Anuk Arudpragasam turns his poetic sensibility and profound, meticulous attentiveness to the business of living in the aftermath of trauma.
The story unfurls like smoke as our narrator sifts through memories of a lost love affair while turning over in his mind the strange death of his grandmother’s carer, a woman irrevocably damaged by the death of her young sons in the Sri Lankan civil war.
In hypnotic, incantatory style, Arudpragasam considers how we can find our way in the present while also reckoning with the past.’
‘The Promise is an expansive family novel that explores the interconnected relationships between members of one family through the sequential lens of multiple funerals.
Death assumes here both a closing but also an opening into lives lived. It is an unusual narrative style that balances Faulknerian exuberance with Nabokovian precision, pushes boundaries, and is a testament to the flourishing of the novel in the 21st century.
In The Promise, Damon Galgut makes a strong, unambiguous commentary on the history of South Africa and of humanity itself that can best be summed up in the question: does true justice exist in this world? The novel’s way of tackling this question is what makes it an accomplishment and truly deserving of its place on the shortlist.’
‘This is a first novel from a writer already outstanding as a poet and memoirist, and her gifts in both roles are much in evidence in this extremely funny, poignant and challenging book. Patricia Lockwood manages to tell her story in the glancing, mayfly-attention-span idiom of contemporary social media, but she uses this apparently depth-free dialect with precision and even beauty.
The drastic shift of gear in the middle of the story, the introduction of real suffering, love and loss, doesn’t break the seamless flow of wit; but the book’s triumph is in evoking so full a range of emotional discovery and maturing within the unpromising medium of online prattle.
We’re left wondering about the processes by which language expands to cope with the expansiveness of changing human relations and perceptions at the edge of extremity.’
‘The Fortune Men takes us to a place we haven’t encountered on the page before: the docklands of 1950s Cardiff, jostling with Somali, Welsh, Jewish, Jamaican, and Indian communities, thrown together by the tides of empire and war.
In the story of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali sailor accused of murder, Nadifa Mohamed creates a story as local as it is exhilaratingly global. Grippingly-paced and full of complex, richly-drawn characters, the novel combines pointed social observation with a deeply empathetic sensibility.
The Fortune Men demonstrates what historical fiction can achieve at its best—to get inside the head of the past—while implicitly yet urgently underscoring the present-day persistence of racism and injustice.’
‘Theo is a widowed astrobiologist raising a troubled nine-year-old son tagged with a ‘special needs’ label. On his mission to help the boy, Robin, he is prepared to engage with experimental treatments.
He dares to decode his son’s mind in order to save him, thereby drawing us into the claustrophobic relationship of a grieving man playing solo parent to a vulnerable child.
Theo’s determination to protect Robin from becoming a prisoner of bureaucracy, something of a high wire act of its own, is beautiful and truly inspiring. That, and his willingness to venture beyond the known world into the cosmos make this book a clarion call for us to wake up and realise what our minds might be truly capable of if we were less obedient to the status quo.’
‘A book of tremendous narrative ambition and scale, Great Circle pulled us into its vividly-created worlds—from prohibition-era Montana to wartime Britain to present-day Hollywood—and made us want to dwell in them indefinitely.
Maggie Shipstead has an extraordinary ability to conjure characters and settings so fully-realised one feels one knows them—and spills her story out in one gorgeously-crafted sentence after another.
Absorbing in the manner of the immersive realist novels of the 19th century, the book speaks to ever-present questions about freedom and constraint in womens’ lives.’