Quick Thoughts on the Booker Prize Longlist

The 13-strong 2020 Booker Prize longlist was announced this morning. Looking at friends’ Booker predictions/wish lists (Clare’s and Susan’s), I didn’t think I would be invested in this year’s prize race, yet the moment I saw the longlist I scurried to look up the titles I hadn’t heard of and to request others I realized I wanted to read after all.

In general, the list achieves a nice balance between established names and debut authors, and the gender, ethnicity and sexuality statistics are good.

(Descriptions of books not experienced are from the Goodreads blurbs.)

 

Read:

Only one so far and, alas, I thought it among the author’s poorest work to date:

  • Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler (Chatto & Windus) – While this novella is perfectly readable – Tyler could write sympathetic characters like Micah and his Baltimore neighbors in her sleep – it felt incomplete and inconsequential, like an early draft that needed another subplot and plenty more scenes added in before it was ready for publication. Any potential controversy (illegitimate offspring and a few post-apocalyptic imaginings) is instantly neutralized, making the story feel toothless.

 

DNFed earlier in the year (but what do I know?):

  • The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel (4th Estate) – I only managed to read 80 pages or so, then skimmed to page 200 before admitting defeat. I would be totally engrossed for up to 10 pages (exposition and Cromwell one-liners), but then everything got talky or plotty and I’d skim for 20‒30 pages and set it down. I lacked the necessary singlemindedness and felt overwhelmed by the level of detail and cast of characters, so never built up momentum. Still, I can objectively recognize the prose as top-notch. But is 900 pages not a wee bit indulgent? No editor would have dared cut it…
  • Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (Bloomsbury) – “In the midst of a family crisis one late evening, white blogger Alix Chamberlain calls her African American babysitter, Emira, asking her to take toddler Briar to the local market for distraction. There, the security guard accuses Emira of kidnapping Briar, and Alix’s efforts to right the situation turn out to be good intentions selfishly mismanaged.”
  • How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang (Virago) – “Both epic and intimate, blending Chinese symbolism and re-imagined history with fiercely original language and storytelling, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a haunting adventure story … An electric debut novel set against the twilight of the American gold rush, two siblings are on the run in an unforgiving landscape—trying not just to survive but to find a home.”

 

On the shelf to read soon:

  • Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Picador) – “The unforgettable story of young Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher’s policies have put husbands and sons out of work, and the city’s notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings.” (Out on August 6th. Proof copy from publisher)

 

Already wanted to read:

  • Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (Bloomsbury) – Yes, I’m going to try this one again! (Requested from library)
  • Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Daunt Books) – “An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community.”
  • Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward (Corsair) – “Rachel and Eliza are hoping to have a baby. The couple spend many happy evenings together planning for the future. One night Rachel wakes up screaming and tells Eliza that an ant has crawled into her eye and is stuck there. She knows it sounds mad – but she also knows it’s true. As a scientist, Eliza won’t take Rachel’s fear seriously and they have a bitter fight. Suddenly their entire relationship is called into question.” (Requested from library)

 

Heard about for the first time and leapt to find:

  • The New Wilderness by Diane Cook (Oneworld) – “Bea, Agnes, and eighteen others volunteer to live in the Wilderness State as part of a study to see if humans can co-exist with nature … [This] explores a moving mother‒daughter relationship in a world ravaged by climate change and overpopulation.” (Out on August 13th. Requested from publisher)
  • Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (Hamish Hamilton) – “A searing debut novel about mothers and daughters, obsession and betrayal – for fans of Deborah Levy, Jenny Offill and Diana Evans … unpicks the slippery, choking cord of memory and myth that binds two women together, making and unmaking them endlessly.” (Out on July 30th. Requested from publisher)

 

Thought I didn’t want to read, but changed my mind:

  • Apeirogon by Colum McCann (Bloomsbury) – I’ve only read one book by McCann and have always meant to read more. But I judged this one by the title and assumed it was going to be yet another Greek myth update. (What an eejit!) “Bassam Aramin is Palestinian. Rami Elhanan is Israeli. They inhabit a world of conflict that colors every aspect of their daily lives, from the roads they are allowed to drive on, to the schools their daughters, Abir and Smadar, each attend, to the checkpoints, both physical and emotional, they must negotiate.” (Reading from library)

 

Would read if it fell in my lap, but I’m not too bothered:

  • Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze (4th Estate) – “An electrifying autobiographical British novel … This is a story of a London you won’t find in any guidebooks. This is a story about what it’s like to exist in the moment, about boys too eager to become men, growing up in the hidden war zones of big cities – and the girls trying to make it their own way.”
  • The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Canongate) – “A gripping novel set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King takes us back to the first real conflict of World War II, casting light on the women soldiers who were left out of the historical record.” I have seen unenthusiastic reviews from friends.

 

Don’t plan to read:

  • This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber & Faber) – “Anxious about her prospects after leaving a stagnant job, Tambudzai finds herself living in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare. … at every turn in her attempt to make a life for herself, she is faced with a fresh humiliation, until the painful contrast between the future she imagined and her daily reality ultimately drives her to a breaking point.” This is the third book in a trilogy and I have seen unfavorable reviews from friends.

 


Of course, Hilary will win; skip the shortlist announcement in September and go ahead and give her the Triple Crown! But I always discover at least a couple of gems through the Booker longlist each year, so I’m grateful to the judges (Margaret Busby (chair), editor, literary critic and former publisher; Lee Child, author; Sameer Rahim, author and critic; Lemn Sissay, writer and broadcaster; and Emily Wilson, classicist and translator) for highlighting some exciting books that I may not have been induced to try otherwise. I will probably end up reading only half of the longlist, but may readjust my plans after the shortlist comes out.

 

What do you think about the longlist? Have you read anything from it? Which nominees appeal to you?

38 responses

  1. As you may remember, we shared similar feelings about The Mirror and the Light. I persisted, however, and was eventually rewarded. Easily six weeks after I finished it, I find myself reflecting on it and wanting to re-read at least part of of it. I shan’t yet though. But I also think one of my problems was quite simply the weight of the book and therefore the discomfort of reading it. Making it available in three volumes might help it immeasurably!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was simply not willing to devote as much time and attention to ONE book as the Mantel would have required, but I know for many people it has been a memorable read. Who knows, I may return to it someday!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I get that. I really think it would work better as three. Though where the page-breaks come is a different question!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the link, Rebecca. I hope the judges will surprise us and not pick the Mantel

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t really imagine them doing otherwise! Surely she’ll win this or the Women’s Prize (though not both; that would make me cross). I envision McCann, Mengiste and Stuart joining her on the shortlist.

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      1. I’d love to see the Stuart there. Fingers crossed the judges will be brave.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Luckily, the presence of Lee Child on the judging panel hasn’t resulted in any dubious mysteries making the longlist!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Apart from Mantel, I’ve only read the Reid and the Zhang, and while I enjoyed both, I didn’t think either were Booker longlist material. Coincidentally, I’ve just got hold of a proof copy of The Shadow King and I’ve pre-ordered Real Life! Otherwise, nothing is really jumping out at me, except perhaps Shuggie Bain. I don’t have a great track record of getting on with the Booker, so I won’t be seeking most of these out 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And no Sarah Moss again! I think The Butchers by Ruth Gilligan could have been a nice left-field choice, as well.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. The Reid strikes me more as a Costa book (Eric is on the judging panel for the First Novel category this year!) and the Zhang strikes me more as a Women’s Prize book, though I haven’t looked back at its year eligibility.

      The Taylor is a really intriguing choice and I hope I’ll get a chance to read it. I’ll be interested to see what you think of The Shadow King; just going by the subject matter, it seems to me like a strong contender for the shortlist.

      Sigh — a shame about Moss. That and Evie Wyld’s latest are the two I most would have liked to see longlisted.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think you’ve nailed it with the Reid and the Zhang! I’d also have liked to see Wyld on the longlist.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve loved the Colum McCann I’ve read–especially Let the Great World Spin–so, while the plot summary of that new one doesn’t excite me as much as some of this others, I’ll probably try it one at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have copies of that one and Transatlantic and I don’t know why I’ve never read them! (I’ve only read Thirteen Ways of Looking so far.) Israel/Palestine is a tough subject to write about, but from friend reviews I’m confident that he’s handled it well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I liked Thirteen Ways…(the novella part of it, anyway) but not as much as the novels. I was surprised to see him tackling Israel/Palestine. (I guess he’s successful enough he doesn’t have to abide by #ourvoices strictures?) I also want to read his Dancer (about Nureyev) and I guess he was never a dancer either, so there’s that!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Oy, #ownvoices is a tricky question and it’s so easy for well-meaning authors to go wrong … so I’ll have my eyes open going into it. It’s on shelf at my library, so I placed a hold and will go pick it up tomorrow.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve not read any of them! Three particularly interest me: Cook, Doshi & Zheng, plus the McCann and Stuart sort of… Krauze sounds like the Guy Gunaratne book which I loved, so I’d read that too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel like none of us were prepared this year: loads of book releases have been moved, review copies have been scarce, library loans have been largely unavailable, etc. Eric said he’d read 4, but that’s the most I’ve seen so far.

      Yes, I was thinking that the Krauze sounded like In Our Mad and Furious City (which was also Booker-longlisted) — so much so that I’d probably only read one or the other.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m still enthusing about the Gunaratne which I loved. I’d like to compare and contrast though with the Krauze.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. That would be an interesting project! Then you can tell me which one to read 😉

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  6. Thanks for linking to my post! Shuggie Bain is the title I’m particularly interested in and I like the sound of Love and Other Thought Experiments too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m going to start Shuggie Bain tonight — fingers crossed that I’ll love it! Love and Other Thought Experiments sounds really intriguing, and Eric rates it highly.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Am I the only reader in the world who doesn’t get on with Mantel? (and Harry Potter, but that’s a different story…).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure you’re not, but most people probably don’t have the courage to say so 😉 I loved Bring Up the Bodies, the second book of her Cromwell trilogy, and would actually recommend it as a standalone, or you could always watch the Wolf Hall adaptation. But if it doesn’t appeal, no worries! I’ve read a few others of her books and have had mixed experiences. Her story collection The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is very good.

      I’m a Harry Potter refusenik as well. I read the first 1.25 books while I was a library assistant in America working evenings, to kill time when it was dead at the circulation desk. I was not impressed. I feel like you had to have been a child, or had a child, at just the right time to have gotten caught up in that craze. But there are so many better-written children’s fantasy series…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A couple of my kids enjoyed Potter (but I let them read them on their own!).

        I started watching the Wolf Hall series, hoping it would spur me to read the book but no, couldn’t get into it.

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    2. I absolve you of the obligation to read the Cromwell trilogy!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I liked Redhead more than you did, but this list pisses me off BIG time. Where is Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell? Where is Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce? Where is Code Name Helene by Ariel Lawhon? I like all three of these books more than I liked the Tyler book…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hamnet is a surprise omission for many, though I thought it the weakest of O’Farrell’s books. You’ll just have to hope she wins the Women’s Prize to make up for it!

      I’ve not had a chance to read Joyce’s latest yet, but I’d like to — I’ve read all her others.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Her weakest? Interesting. I thought it was her strongest so far. But hey, we’re entitled to agree to disagree. Which O’Farrell is your favorite?

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    2. The Hand that First Held Mine.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, god… yes! I cried so hard at the end of that one. My favorite (until Hamnet) was Esme Lennox!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I love Anne Tyler, but this book makes the nomination feel like a patronizing “life-time achievement award.” An, “Oops, we never got around to her,” thing. Shadow King is a hard slog. I’m on month 2 of trying to get thru it, but I am glad for the author.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are lots of her books that I love … but this one, not so much. I see what you mean about a lifetime achievement award — that’s similar to what happened with Margaret Atwood last year. (Though, as an American, Tyler has only been eligible for the Booker since 2014, when they changed the rules. This is her second nomination since then.)

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I think the list is quite exciting as there are so many new-to-me books on it. I haven’t read any but I have This Mournable Body, Apeirogin and Such A Fun Age and am keen to read Thought Experiments. It will be interesting to see what makes the shortlist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It seems like a notable number of debuts this year. Nice to have new names and not just the same old literary lions.

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  11. I’m only read Such a Fun Age (yay for trying again!) and will be reading Redhead next year of course. No real need to read the others but I love your category headings!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. The ones that most interest me (other than the McCann and Tyler) are Zhang’s debut (I’ve got a soft spot for fresh hands on western themes), the Diane Cook (I loved her short stories), and the Dangarembga. I’m not put off by those who haven’t got on with Dangarembga; she has a different approach to narrative shape but I like what she does with characterization and the risks she takes with dropping complexities into readers’ laps and leaving things unresolved (because life is messy). And I know what you mean about having thought you weren’t invested in a prizelist, only to find yourself freshly invigorated and sussing out copies ASAP. Nice feeling!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Zhang would definitely be one for you, then. I still have it on my Kindle so may try again sometime, especially if it’s shortlisted. I’m looking forward to the Cook. A copy should be on the way to me.

      Like

      1. buriedinprint

        Oh! I hadn’t registered that it was one of your DNFs! And, yes, isn’t that key: “should be on the way”. I feel like I spend more time investigating shipping delays or absences these days than I spend actually writing reviews.

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