This year’s Booker shortlist is notable for its gender balance and racial diversity, a reflection perhaps of current sensitivities and concerns, with two men, one of whom is black, and four women, three of whom are black or brown.
One of the writers, Avni Doshi, author of Burnt Sugar, currently lives in Dubai and is believed to be the first UAE resident to be shortlisted for the £50,000 prize. Tsitsi Dangarembga, author of This Mournable Body, lives in Zimbabwe, while the remaining four live in the US, three in New York City, which shows the creative pull of that part of the globe. There are no English authors on the shortlist and no one from London. Douglas Stuart, author of Shuggie Bain is from Glasgow, but now lives in New York.
The books take the reader to corners of the globe and corners of history. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Canongate), set in Ethiopia in 1935 and explores female power and what it means to be a woman at war. Mengiste is the first writer from Ethiopia to make the shortlist. She is a professor in the MFA in Creative Writing & Literary Translation programme at Queens College, City University of New York.
Stuart’s Shuggie Bain (Picador) takes the reader into working class Glasgow poverty in the Nineties and tells the story of the unusual boy of the title. This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber) follows the main character Tambudzai who lives in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare and is anxious about her prospects after leaving a stagnant job. The author is a filmmaker, playwright, and director of the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa Trust.
Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness (Oneworld), is a debut novel about a mother’s battle to save her daughter in a world ravaged by climate change. Cook is a former producer for the radio show “This American Life”. Based in Brooklyn, she released her debut short story collection Man v Nature (Transworld) in 2015 and is currently adapting the novel into a screenplay with Warner Bros planning a TV series.
Doshi’s debut novel Burnt Sugar (Hamish Hamilton), is a love story and tale of betrayal about a mother and daughter. The author wrote eight drafts of the novel before it was first published in India under the title Girl in White Cotton, winning the 2013 Tibor Jones South Asia Prize.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Daunt Books) centres on a biochemistry student who, over the course of a weekend, has to grapple with past trauma and the future. Taylor is a senior editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and a staff writer at Literary Hub.
Independent publishers have fared well this year, with Taylor’s novel being a perfect example. Daunt Books joins Canongate, One World and Faber on the list. Of the big five, HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster did not make the cut. The winner will be announced at a virtual ceremony in London on 17 November.