Booker Prize 2020: Longlist Progress & Shortlist Predictions

The 2020 Booker Prize shortlist will be announced tomorrow, September 15th. Following on from my initial thoughts … I’ve only managed to read one more book from the longlist, reviewed in brief below along with some thoughts on a few other nominees I’ve sampled.

 

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

This short, intense novel is about two women locked into resentful competition. Tara and Antara also happen to be mother and daughter. When the long-divorced Tara shows signs of dementia, artist Antara and her American-born husband Dilip take her into their home in Pune, India. Her mother’s criticism and strange behavior stir up flashbacks to the 1980s and 1990s, when Antara felt abandoned by Tara during the four years they lived in an ashram and then her time at boarding school. Emotional turmoil led to medical manifestations like excretory issues and an eating disorder, and both women fell in love in turn with a homeless photographer named Reza Pine.

When Antara learns she is pregnant, the whole cycle of guilt and maternal ambivalence looks set to start again. Memory is precarious and full of potential hurt here, and Antara’s impassive narration is perfectly suited to the story of a toxic relationship. Neither the UK title nor the one for the original Indian publication (Girl in White Cotton) seems quite right to me; I might have chosen something related to the cover and endpaper image of the aloe plant: something that is as spiky as a cactus yet holds out hope of balm. This was a good fictional follow-up to a memoir I read earlier in the year about dementia’s effect on an Indian-American mother–daughter pair, What We Carry by Maya Shanbhag Lang.

Favorite passages:

It seems to me now that this forgetting is convenient, that she doesn’t want to remember the things she has said and done. It feels unfair that she can put away the past from her mind while I’m brimming with it all the time. I fill papers, drawers, entire rooms with records, notes, thoughts, while she grows foggier with each passing day.

I will never be free of her. She’s in my marrow and I’ll never be immune.

My rating:


My thanks to Hamish Hamilton for the free copy for review.

 

DNFed:

Apeirogon by Colum McCann

Reminiscent of the work of David Grossman, this is the story of two fathers, one Israeli and one Palestinian, who lost their daughters to the ongoing conflict between their nations: Rami Elhanan’s 13-year-old daughter Smadar was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber, while Bassam Aramin’s 10-year-old daughter Abir was shot by Israeli border police. The two men become unlikely friends through their work with a peacemaking organization, with Bassam also expanding his sense of compassion through his studies of the Holocaust.

It doesn’t take long to piece the men’s basic stories together. But the novel just keeps going. It’s in numbered vignettes ranging in length from one line to a few pages, and McCann brings in many tangentially related topics such as politics, anatomy, and religious history. Bird migration is frequently used as a metaphor. Word association means some lines feel arbitrary and throwaway. Looking ahead, I could see the numbering goes up to 500, at which point there is a long central section narrated in turn by the two main characters, and then goes back down to 1, mimicking the structure of the One Thousand and One Nights, mentioned in #101.

The narrative sags under the challenge McCann has set for himself. At 200 pages, this might have been a masterpiece. Though still powerful, it sprawls into repetition and pretension. (I read the first 150 pages.)

My rating:

 

Set aside temporarily:

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook: The blurb promised an interesting mother–daughter relationship, but so far this is dystopia by numbers. A wilderness living experiment started with 20 volunteers, but illnesses and accidents have reduced their number. Bea was an interior decorator and her partner, Glen, a professor of anthropology – their packing list and habits echo primitive human culture. I loved the rituals around a porcelain teacup, but in general the plot and characters weren’t promising. I read Part I (47 pages) and would only resume if this makes the shortlist, which seems unlikely. (See this extraordinarily detailed 1-star Goodreads review from someone who DNFed the novel near where I am now.)

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart: Dialect + depressing subject matter = a hard slog. Poverty and alcoholism make life in 1980s Glasgow a grim prospect for Agnes Bain and her three children. So far, the novel is sticking with the parents and the older children, with the title character barely getting a mention. I did love the scene where Catherine goes to Leek’s den in the pallet factory. This is a lot like the account Damian Barr gives of his childhood in Maggie & Me. I left off on page 82 but will go back to this if it makes the shortlist.

 

So that makes a total of 2 read, 4 DNFed, 2 set aside (and might yet DNF), 2 I still hope to read (one of which I’m awaiting from the library; the other is on my birthday wish list), and 3 I don’t intend to read. Not a great showing at all this year!

Still, I can never resist an opportunity to make predictions about a prize shortlist, so here’s what I expect to still be in the running after tomorrow. Weighty, diverse; a mixture of historical and contemporary.

  • The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel (will win)
  • Apeirogon by Colum McCann
  • The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
  • Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
  • Real Life by Brandon Taylor
  • How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang

 

What have you read from the longlist? What do you expect to be shortlisted?

42 responses

  1. I’m so sorry you didn’t get on with Shuggie Bain. I put off reading it for some time but it was one of only two from my own Booker wishlist that made it on to the judges’ list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m still willing to pick it back up if it makes the shortlist (which I expect it to).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Looking forward to the shortlist! The longlist looked a bit uninspired to me honestly, and so far I’ve only read The Mirror and the Light and intend to read Real Life, although The Shadow King does sound interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought it was a fairly interesting longlist this year: a good mix of established names and debut authors, and the gender, ethnicity and sexuality statistics were pretty good. However, that didn’t necessarily translate into it containing lots of books I wanted to read! Each year I usually find at least one gem from the longlist. I’m not sure if that will be the case this year, but I’m still holding out hope for the Taylor and Ward.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, that seems like an abnormally short time between longlist and shortlist! My perceptions have probably been skewed by the Women’s Prize 🙂 I’ve read four of the list and am reading number five now. Apart from the Mantel, none of the other titles I’ve read (Zhang, Reid, Mengiste, Taylor) feel *to me* like shortlist material, although I’d agree with you that Taylor and Zhang have a good chance of making it. I’m not very far through the Mengiste but the prose feels very clumsy and overwrought to me, so I hope that doesn’t make it through. The only other title I’m really interested in reading is the Ward.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can hardly believe that 7 weeks have gone by already! It feels like just yesterday the longlist was announced. They’ve pushed the winner announcement back from late October to mid-November, though.

      Obviously I didn’t get through the Zhang and haven’t read the Mengiste and Taylor, but with my predictions I was thinking about the kind of weighty topics and stories that usually get shortlisted, plus I liked the idea of one of the contemporary books getting through and I think the Taylor seems less lightweight than the Reid. I hope to be able to get through a few more before the winner is chosen.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think the Taylor is a good bet. It does have some wonderful passages, but it was too distant and mannered for me.

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  4. Oh my! I’ve not managed to read any of them yet. The one I still do want to read is the Zhang, the one I’ll also read on my shelf is the Krauze, the one I thought I wanted to read but probably won’t bother with now is the Cook, undecided about Shuggie Bain…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll be interested to hear how you get on with those. I might try the Zhang again someday (I only tried the first few pages).

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have a copy of The Shadow King in my TBR pile, so no verdict yet. Absolutely nothing else on the list appeals to me, and I would have to be bribed with vast sums of money before I opened Shuggie …. As to likely finalists: who knows? Looking forward to anjnouncement.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There were a fair few that initially appealed to me … but the shine wore off. Shuggie works well as an evocation of its time and place, but I can’t deny it’s pretty depressing.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I struggled with the Mengiste but actually think it has a reasonably good chance of getting through, and the same is true of Zhang (stylistically it wasn’t for me, but I suspect it might do quite well). I haven’t read Taylor or Ward yet but have both on my TBR pile. I do think Mantel is a shortlist gimme, for better or worse, and Krauze seems to be getting good reviews. There have been so many negative reactions to the McCann that I’d be quite annoyed if it made it through, and I feel the same way about the Reid, which was perfectly pleasant but more book club-y than Booker-y.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I kind of think the Israel/Palestine book is a shoo-in just for daring to air the issues; is that cynical of me? However, I didn’t like that McCann wasn’t entirely upfront about what was fictional and what was from real life (he calls it a hybrid book, based on interviews — but are these real people, or what?).

      I think the Reid could win a Costa Award (Eric is judging the debut category this year!), but, yeah, not Booker material.

      Do you reckon you’ll read Shuggie Bain?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mm, that’s a possibility. (Not cynical; voice of experience, I should say!) I’m also not best pleased by the whole “hybrid fiction” concept; my general feeling is, cite your sources or go home (even if it’s only in small type in the Acknowledgments).

        The Reid is definitely a Costa contender, and I could see it winning there pretty handily.

        Tbh I keep forgetting about Shuggie Bain and I don’t own a copy, so I imagine I won’t look for it unless it hits the shortlist.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. FWIW, I think his sources would be relieved that he has protected that information. The antagonism surrounding this conflict, and the hate that proliferates in response to even the simplest statements…it’s overwhelming. Many people who dare to speak out for peace and understanding are targeted and harassed.

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      3. I’m sure you’re right. Even just saying “these characters are based on various real people but given aliases” would have been enough for me.

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  7. The Doshi book looks quite interesting, and I dare say I will get round to the Mantel eventually. I’ll give Shuggie Bain a miss though, there is so much more to Scottish culture and history than miserable drunk people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a strong character study (mostly of the mother) so far, but does have a whiff of the misery memoir about it, though it’s fiction. I suspect it’s highly autobiographical for Stuart.

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  8. I usually love McCann’s writing and I have a copy of Apeirogon but just haven’t been tempted to start it. I do think he’ll make the shortlist though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll be interested to hear what you make of it.

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  9. I’ve dropped the ball on the Booker the last few years. I have a couple on the longlist (and particularly looking forward to Shuggie Bain), but no rush to read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We’ll know the shortlist within an hour. I may adjust my reading goals based on what makes it through.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Looks like I might have to move Shuggie up the list!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. It seems most likely to win out of the remainder. I can’t believe Mantel didn’t make it through!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was interested in one of the judges’ comments about the shortlist being representative of the ‘modern novel’ (or words to that effect). Perhaps Mantel’s style does not fit the brief??

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      2. I didn’t watch the video. Maybe that explains it! It’s a fairly vague criterion, though. Apeirogon seems to fit it, and I would think Zhang rather than Mengiste is the more modern approach to historical fiction.

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      3. I don’t really blame the judges; they want to make their own mark and not just do what everyone expects by honouring Mantel a third time. And no literary prize is or ever can be purely objective.

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  10. Well I’m reading this after the announcement and THAT being left off was a shock!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Indeed, I think we’re all taken aback.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Everyone seems surprised that Hillary Mantel’s book didn’t make the short list, but there you go! Apparently there are NO British authors on the short list at all.

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    1. There’s been a lot of talk about how American the list is this year. Douglas is in fact Scottish, though I presume he is also a naturalized American citizen. There’s a lot of diversity on the list, yet 5 of the 6 authors were born or now live in the USA. Before 2014 (when the rules changed to allow Americans), I think only Dangarembga and Stuart would have been eligible from this year’s pack.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Having read several Booker longlisted books that I would consider some of the worst books that I have ever read, I tend to avoid this prize now. I thought Mantell had it sewn up, but life is full of surprises…

    I think it has lost its impact now American authors are eligible (no offence, Rebecca), it feels like a Pulitzer lite

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve read some pretty awful nominees as well, but most years I find at least one gem via the longlist. I think the Folio Prize has tried to present itself as an alternative to the Booker, though as far as I can tell both have been dominated by American authors since 2014.

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      1. They haven’t all been bad, but it is more often than not that I find this. Not really looked at the Folio prize lists

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    2. When Karen of Booker Talk read through all the winners she found some great ones but also some terrible ones that were basically unreadable. I know you don’t read a lot of fiction in general, but you’d probably be better off getting your recommendations from different prize lists (the Arthur C. Clarke Award, etc.)!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The Booker Prize has not excited me at all in some recent years. The last good winner was Milkman.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. Well of course by now we know that Mantel didn’t even make it to the shortlist, a decision I find frankly baffling. I’m getting the feeling that the judges got a bit carried away with the desire to have a diverse list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is quite the snub. She surely deserved a place on the shortlist — at least over The New Wilderness, which I have been finding a very run-of-the-mill dystopian.

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  14. There have been such long hold lists for most of these that I’ve been content to sit on the sidelines, but I do have a copy of Diane Cook’s novel, because I loved her debut collection of stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll be interested to hear what you think. You get on better with dystopian novels in general. I do intend to pick it back up, but finding the motivation will be a struggle.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. […] memoirs.) After I reviewed Burnt Sugar and correctly predicted half of the shortlist in this post, I’ve managed to finish another two of the novels on the shortlist, along with two more from the […]

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