Booker Prize 2021: Longlist Reading and Shortlist Predictions

The 2021 Booker Prize shortlist will be announced tomorrow, September 14th, at 4 p.m. via a livestream. I’ve managed to read or skim eight of 13 from the longlist, only one of which I sought out specifically after it was nominated (An Island – the one no one had heard of; it turns out it was released by a publisher based just 1.5 miles from my home!). I review my four most recent reads below, followed by excerpts of reviews of ones I read a while ago and my brief thoughts on the rest, including what I expect to see on tomorrow’s shortlist.

 

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Why ever did I put this on my Most Anticipated list of the year and pre-order a signed copy?! I’m a half-hearted Ishiguro fan at best (I love Nocturnes but am lukewarm on the other four I’ve read, including his Booker winner) and should have known that his take on AI would be no more inspiring than Ian McEwan’s (Machines Like Me) a couple of years back.

Klara is an Artificial Friend purchased as part of an effort to combat the epidemic of teenage loneliness – specifically, to cheer up her owner, Josie, who suffers from an unspecified illness and is in love with her neighbour, Rick, a bright boy who remains excluded. Klara thinks of the sun as a god, praying to it and eventually making a costly bargain to try to secure Josie’s future health.

Part One’s 45 pages are slow and tedious; the backstory could have been dispensed with in five fairy tale-like pages. There’s a YA air to the story: for much of the length I might have been rereading Everything, Everything. In fact, when I saw Ishiguro introduce the novel at a Guardian/Faber launch event, he revealed that it arose from a story he wrote for children. The further I got, the more I was sure I’d read it all before. That’s because the plot is pretty much identical to the final story in Mary South’s You Will Never Be Forgotten.

Klara’s highly precise diction, referring to everyone in the third person, also gives this the feeling of translated fiction. While that is part of Ishiguro’s aim, of course – to explore the necessarily limited perspective and speech of a nonhuman entity (“Her ability to absorb and blend everything she sees around her is quite amazing”) – it makes the prose dull and belaboured. The secondary characters include various campy villains, the ‘big reveals’ aren’t worth waiting for, and the ending is laughably reminiscent of Toy Story. This took me months and months to force myself through. What a slog! (New purchase)

 

An Island by Karen Jennings (2019)

Seventy-year-old Samuel has been an island lighthouse keeper for 14 years when a brown-skinned stranger washes up on his beach. Sole survivor from a sunken refugee boat, the man has no English, so they communicate through gestures. Jennings convincingly details the rigors of the isolated life here: Samuel dug his own toilet pipes, burns his trash once a week, and gets regular deliveries from a supply boat. Nothing is wasted and everything is appreciated here, even the thirdhand magazines and videotapes he inherits from the mainland.

Although the core action takes place in just four days, Samuel is so mentally shaky that his memories start getting mixed up with real life. We learn that he has been a father, a prisoner and a beggar. Jennings is South African, and in this parallel Africa, racial hierarchy still holds sway and a general became a dictator through a military coup. Samuel’s father was involved in the independence movement, while Samuel himself was arrested for resisting the dictator.

The novella’s themes – jealousy, mistrust, possessiveness, suspicion, and a return to primitive violence – are of perennial relevance. Somehow, it didn’t particularly resonate for me. It’s not dissimilar in style to J. M. Coetzee’s vague but brutal detachment, and it’s a highly male vision à la Doggerland. Though highly readable, it’s ultimately a somewhat thin fable with a predictable message about xenophobia. Still, I’m glad I discovered it through the Booker longlist.

My thanks to Holland House for the free copy for review.

 

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

This has just as much of an environmentalist conscience as The Overstory, but a more intimate scope, focusing on a father and son who journey together in memory and imagination as well as in real life. The novel leaps between spheres: between the public eye, where neurodivergent Robin is a scientific marvel and an environmental activist, and the privacy of family life; between an ailing Earth and the other planets Theo studies; and between the humdrum of daily existence and the magic of another state where Robin can reconnect with his late mother. When I came to the end, I felt despondent and overwhelmed. But as time has passed, the book’s feral beauty has stuck with me. The pure sense of wonder Robin embodies is worth imitating. (Review forthcoming for BookBrowse.)

 

China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

Sahota appeared on Granta’s list of Best Young British Novelists in 2013 and was previously shortlisted for The Year of the Runaways, a beautiful novel tracking the difficult paths of four Indian immigrants seeking a new life in Sheffield.

Three brides for three brothers: as Laura notes, it sounds like the setup of a folk tale, and there’s a timeless feel to this short novel set in the Punjab in the late 1920s and 1990s – it also reminded me of biblical stories like those of Jacob and Leah and David and Bathsheba. Mehar is one of three teenage girls married off to a set of brothers. The twist is that, because they wear heavy veils and only meet with their husbands at night for procreation, they don’t know which is which. Mehar is sure she’s worked out which brother is her husband, but her well-meaning curiosity has lasting consequences.

In the later storyline, a teenage addict returns from England to his ancestral estate to try to get clean before going to university and becomes captivated by the story of his great-grandmother and her sister wives, who were confined to the china room. The characters are real enough to touch, and the period and place details make the setting vivid. The two threads both explore limitations and desire, and the way the historical narrative keeps surging back in makes things surprisingly taut. See also Susan’s review. (Read via NetGalley)

 

Other reads, in brief:

(Links to my full reviews)

 

Second Place by Rachel Cusk: Significantly more readable than the Outline trilogy and with psychological depths worth pondering, though Freudian symbolism makes it old-fashioned. M’s voice is appealing, as is the marshy setting and its isolated dwellings. This feels like a place outside of time. The characters act and speak in ways that no real person ever would – the novel is most like a play: melodramatic and full of lofty pronouncements. Interesting, but nothing to take to heart; Cusk’s work is always intimidating in its cleverness.

 

A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson: In 1972, Clara, a plucky seven-year-old, sits vigil for the return of her sixteen-year-old sister, who ran away from home; and their neighbour, who’s in the hospital. One day Clara sees a strange man moving boxes in next door. This is Liam Kane, who inherited the house from a family friend. Like Lawson’s other works, this is a slow burner featuring troubled families. It’s a tender and inviting story I’d recommend to readers of Tessa Hadley, Elizabeth Strout and Anne Tyler.

 

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood: This starts as a flippant skewering of modern life. A woman who became a social media star by tweeting quips like “Can a dog be twins?” reflects on life on “the portal” and under “the dictator.” Midway through the book, she gets a wake-up call when her mother summons her back to the Midwest for a family emergency. It’s the about-face that makes this novel, forcing readers to question the value of a digital existence based on glib pretence. Funny, but with an ache behind it.

 

Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford: While I loved the premise, the execution didn’t live up to it. Spufford calls this an act of “literary resurrection” of five figures who survive a South London bombing. But these particular characters don’t seem worth spending time with; their narratives don’t connect up tightly, as expected, and feel derivative, serving only as ways to introduce issues (e.g. mental illness, sexual assault, racial violence, eating disorders) and try out different time periods. I would have taken a whole novel about Ben.

 


This leaves five more: Great Circle (by Maggie Shipstead) I found bloated and slow when I tried it in early July, but I’m going to give it another go when my library hold comes in. The Sweetness of Water (Nathan Harris) I might try if my library acquired it, but I’m not too bothered – from Eric’s review on Lonesome Reader, it sounds like it’s a slavery narrative by the numbers. I’m not at all interested in the novels by Anuk Arudpragasam, Damon Galgut, or Nadifa Mohamed but can’t say precisely why; their descriptions just don’t excite me.

 

Here’s what I expect to still be in the running after tomorrow. Clear-eyed, profound, international; bridging historical and contemporary; much that’s unabashedly highbrow.

  • Second Place by Rachel Cusk
  • The Promise by Damon Galgut (will win)
  • No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
  • Bewilderment by Richard Powers
  • China Room by Sunjeev Sahota
  • Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

 

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

29 responses

  1. Really interesting to hear your thoughts. We seem to be on the same page re. Bewilderment, Klara and the Sun and Great Circle! I thought Light Perpetual was brilliant and it’s easily my favourite of the list that I’ve read, but I’d be very pleased to see the Powers and the Sahota on the shortlist as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think (perhaps barring Great Circle!) you made great decisions on what to read and what not to read from the longlist 🙂 Tomorrow’s announcement isn’t likely to sway me into reading any of the others I’m not keen on.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m lukewarm about this whole list, at least the ones you wrote about. I haven’t been called to read any of them so far. Which is fine – I’ve got more than enough on my TBR as it is, ha ha.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could see you reading The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris, an Oprah book club pick. And it’s possible you’d like Bewilderment, but also possible that you might find it too depressing (I almost did). But in general, that’s fine to not be interested in prize lists. There are plenty that I ignore! It’s fun to pick and choose what appeals from longlists. Often I like a few of the nominees better than the finalists and the winner.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the link, Rebecca. I wouldn’t be at all sorry if China Room made it on to the shortlist. Looking forward to A Town Called Solace (which always calls to mind A Town Called Malice!) and won’t now be reading Great Circle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know you’ll enjoy the Lawson. I’m quite sad I’m down to just one of her books being new-to-me now. If only Great Circle was half the length 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I completely agree with you about Light Perpetual. I was surprised to see it on the longlist frankly. I’ve just finished The Fortune Men and thought it was really good. I have The Sweetness of Water waiting to be read. Judging by others’ comments on the longlist, Bewilderment seems to be a dead cert to make the shortlist, and probably win.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s good to hear about The Fortune Men; I don’t know many people who have read it. If it’s shortlisted and my library gets a copy, perhaps I’ll have a look. Bewilderment was very affecting. I feel sure it will be shortlisted. My winner prediction could be completely off. After all, last year I was sure Hilary Mantel would win, but she wasn’t even shortlisted!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m so glad you’re not a Kazuo Ishiguro fan. I’m not, but it’s not the sort of thing you can normally admit to in polite company. On the other hand, I’m disappointed that you’re disappointed in the Spufford. I’m a fan of his work, and am waiting with anticipation for it to be my turn at the top of the queue for this one at the library.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve never been able to understand people whose favourite book is Never Let Me Go…

      I hope you will be pleasantly surprised by the Spufford! It has some fantastic writing; I just wasn’t convinced about the overall aim and structure.

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  6. Glad to see you have such a high opinion on Bewilderment, which I look forward to read, when it comes out. Other than that, I’m not overly tempted by the longlist. I found Klara very disappointing, but must admit I’ve loved some of Ishiguro’s other books (incl. Never Let Me Go 😉 )

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This was my, er, second to least favorite of Ishiguro’s books that I’ve read, after A Pale View of Hills.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This made me laugh in my study: “the ending is laughably reminiscent of Toy Story.” I think even my husband’s given up on the idea of this one now. Fortunately, I transcribed him talking about it early on and realised I wouldn’t be keen … And I’ve read none of the others and really do not fancy any apart from (surprise!) the Lawson, which I’m sure I’ll read at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the Lawson. Have you read her others?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve only read one, Second Place, and enjoyed it (more ‘readable’ than I had anticipated). I’ll wait for the shortlist before I read any more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely a lot more readable than expected! I’ve struggled mightily with Cusk’s work in the past.

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  9. I’ve read and enjoyed Richard Powers before so this sounds good. I have a copy of Klara and the Sun but haven’t got round to it yet, mainly because most of the reviews I’ve read are like yours! I get the feeling that The Promise will be the one to beat.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was my third novel by Powers and I’ve been consistently impressed with his work.

      I’ve read two by Galgut before and the premise of this one doesn’t really draw me in at all, but it seems like the sort of book the Prize would honour.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Well, I predicted three correctly!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I had DNF’ed Never let me go so I’m glad to read your review. I love Tessa Hadley and Elizabeth Strout and was glad to see their names on your post, I definitely will get Mary Lawson’s book ! I also enjoyed Patricia Lockwood’s book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I’m pleased for Lockwood to get more attention. I hope you’ll enjoy Mary Lawson’s work if you get to try it.

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  12. My take home from this – I would love to read one of Powers’ books someday, they always sound so good. And I think the others I’d like to read are the Lockwood and the Galgut.
    I always enjoy these posts (even when I’m late getting to them)!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do think you’d appreciate Powers’s stuff. The Lockwood has been a really divisive book, but if you sample the first few pages you might get an idea of whether you appreciate her sense of humour. To be honest, I know very little about the Galgut. My impression is that it’s like Anne Enright’s The Gathering, but set on a South African farm — the latter aspect makes me think of Nadine Gordimer, whose work I couldn’t get into. But the reviews I have seen have made me think it’s most likely to win.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ooo… divisive. Now that’s the one I want to try!

        Liked by 1 person

  13. […] my first installment of summer reads, I’ve also finished Klara and the Sun (a bust with me, alas) and the three below: a wildlife photographer’s memoir of lockdown summer […]

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  14. We had exactly the opposite response to the Ishiguro! I started reading it right before bed, planning just to read a couple of pages, not feeling too terribly invested in it (I loved Remains and have enjoyed the others but am way behind and haven’t given that much thought). And I read straight to Part Two and lamented to MrBIP that I had started into it so late in the evening. That whole first scene simply captivated me, the question of yearning and potential connection and we do/don’t imbue expectations on those who make us promises (flimsy, meaningful). Then again, I had no idea what it was about, so I wasn’t expecting anything in particular.

    Also on your list, which I hope I enjoy as much as you did, China Room. Not on your list, which I also enjoyed, Anuk Arudpragasam’s second novel, which took me back to his debut last weekend. Even though I’ve not been following the prizes very closely this year, I find most of these interesting, but perhaps not enough to rush out looking for copies while everyone else is doing so, yaknow?

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    1. Arudpragasam made the shortlist instead of Sahota … but that doesn’t make me any more interested in reading his book. The rest will be waiting for you whenever your schedule allows!

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  15. […] fiction titles that came out this month: Blank Pages and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty and Bewilderment by Richard Powers. I’m still working through the 500+ pages of Ruth Ozeki’s new novel, The Book […]

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