Six years ago the Man Booker prize opened up from only considering British and Commonwealth writers to allowing any book published in English and in the UK to participate. At the time, many UK writers and publishers kicked up a lot of fuss. It somehow didn’t seem quite fair to let the Americans in when there were so many more of them: that appeared to be the general gist of the complaint. This year’s longlist, announced today, seems to bear out the darkest forebodings of the pessimists. Of the 13 titles on the list, only three are by English writers: Hilary Mantel for her third Cromwell novel, The Mirror and the Light (the first two both won the Booker for their years), Sophie Ward for her debut Love and Other Thought Experiments and Who They Was (another debut) by Gabriel Krauze.
But these novels are, no matter where they come from, true fiction in that they all deal with universal themes, which is why so many links can be made between them. – Sophia Waugh
Our three home-grown products could not be more different: an historical novel of deep interiority (Mantel); a philosophical novel, stunning in its metaphysical wizardry, about the nature of love (Ward) and a coming of age novel from a point of bleakness and violence (Krauze). The writers are as diverse as their subjects: Ward is an actor, gay rights activist and academic; Krauze, of Polish extraction, was brought up in a tough part of London and was heavily involved in drugs and violence while multi-award winning Mantel is fast becoming the Grand Old Lady of English letters.
Diversity does seem to be the keynote of the long list of 13 titles. Were you to read the whole collection you would be taken to Zimbabwe (Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body), to Ethiopia during the Italian invasion (The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste) and to the unlikely friendship between an Israeli and a Palestinian, drawn together by grief (Colum McCann, Apeirogon). You would meet a Chinese American family struggling in Gold Rush (How Much of These Hills is Gold, C Pam Zhang) and a young black gay man from Alabama trying to fit in to life in a Midwestern University (Real Life, Brandon Taylor). Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid, looks at liberal racism with a sharply observant eye in telling the story of a black woman accused of kidnapping the child she is babysitting and the blogger who tries to befriend her.
Perhaps even more important than the spread of the diverse across these novels is the breadth of the minority, whether of race or sexuality. But these novels are, no matter where they come from, true fiction in that they all deal with universal themes, which is why so many links can be made between them. Douglas Stuart’s novel Shuggie Bain, like Who They Was, explores a cruel world of drugs and poverty. Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness and Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar both consider mother/daughter relationships, one in a futuristic social experiment and the other (Doshi) with a daughter looking after her ex-hippy dementia-suffering parent.
Even more important than the spread of the diverse across these novels is the breadth of the minority. – Sophia Waugh
Last but not least on the longlist, and perhaps (equal with Mantel) the most well known of the authors is Pulitzer Prize winning Anne Tyler, with her twenty-third novel Redhead by the Side of the Road. As ever, Tyler deals beautifully with the small things of life – small lives, small societies, small concerns – while pondering the moral and ethical conundrums that face us all.
If we do want to sulk about the preponderance of American on the longlist, we can be cheered by the number of debut authors – eight. This must be a consoling factor to all those writers whose book tours and launch parties had to be cancelled amid the Coronavirus lockdown, and who might have thought their books would be lost in the “what ifs” of 2020.
What happens next? We wait until September for the release of the shortlist – and good luck to the judges with that one.