Updated: Jan 21, 2021
Over the past few weeks I read my way through the 2020 Booker Prize Shortlist – and a month after Shuggie Bain has been announced the winner, I am finally finished. Here is my personal Booker ranking, from least favourite to winner.
6. My least favourite of the six was Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness. This novel explores a mother-daughter relationship in a future world devastated by the effects of climate change. Bea becomes part of a study sending 20 people into The Wilderness State - the last natural territory in a world threatened by overpopulation and pollution – as her sick daughter Agnes struggles to survive in the city. Cook addresses the many complex issues which arise between mothers and daughters, and more importantly, between nature and humanity. While The New Wilderness is mostly well-written and certainly a read that makes you think, I could not make friends with it. Something about the narrative made it difficult for me to fully access this world Cook has created and I would disagree with some of the conclusions that are apparently reached – of course, that can make for a brilliant read as well. Overall, I think dystopian fiction is simply not my cup of tea. Ever the optimist, I prefer just utopian writing which seems more constructive to me, presenting an alternative to work towards.
5. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is a heartrending novel about the son of an alcoholic-mother growing up in 1980’s Glasgow. Poverty is all around this child, struggling to find a foothold in a world in which the odds seem stacked against him. Shuggie refuses to give up on his mother, and sacrifices his childhood in an attempt to save her. Knowing from the very beginning that this story was utterly tragic, it took me a good 200 pages to feel it as well. I admit, I might have enjoyed this one more, hadn’t I read it in comparison to the other five finalists. It is a perfectly good novel, and I understand why many seem to have adored it. However, from the winner of a prize for literary fiction I would have expected more, well, literary innovation.
4. Brandon Taylor’s Real Life invites you in for an emotional and impactful weekend in the life of Wallace and his friends, who study biological sciences at university. The novel addresses the distance Wallace has created between himself and his friends, the walls he has built to protect himself from pain – which, as we know, never ends well. Over just a few days these walls come crumbling down and Wallace has to face both past trauma and the uncertainties of his future. This book started beautifully. If you like an abundant, joyous use of language you’ll find some great moments here. Especially the way science is described every now and then really drew me in – no need for developments of the narrative, I could have enjoyed 3000 pages of Taylor’s explorations of lab work and bacteria. Overall, however, I just couldn’t warm to this book as much as I wanted. I liked the story, enjoyed the language, felt for the characters but something in the narrative just didn’t feel quite right. Maybe it’s the short timeframe of a weekend that doesn’t leave quite enough space for an organic unfolding of sentiments and thoughts. Something felt a bit unfinished. Still, I think Real Life is a wonderful debut novel and everyone who enjoyed the topics and characters of A Little Life but found it too emotionally exploitative, might prefer Taylor’s work.
3. This Mournable Body is the final book of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s trilogy, in which she returns to the protagonist of Nervous Conditions. Tambudzai is jobless, homeless and hopeless in Harare, desperate to turn her life around but plagued by paralysing anxieties and a general atmosphere of stagnation. Every opportunity presented to her turns out a failure and humiliation. Constantly, Tambudzai is reminded of the future she has wished and worked for, while her reality looks so very different. This novel is tense, diving deep into psychology and hopelessness. It is definitely not an enjoyable read in the literal sense, but full of sharp observations about the conflict of aspirations and reality. This Mournable Body ends dramatically, highlighting the devastating consequences of colonialism and capitalism on Zimbabwe and its population. Published 30 years after Nervous Conditions, this third part of the trilogy can easily be read as a stand-alone novel. Still, I do now want to read the first two books as well, in order to witness the progression from post-colonial hope to twenty-first century devastation.
2. Burnt Sugar was the first book I read of the six, and definitely a great start to this little trip through contemporary literary fiction. The novel follows a woman dealing with the slow demise of her mother’s mind. The mother she knows is disappearing and now she is confronted with the difficult past they share. The mother, Tara, was never the “motherly type”. Wild and stubborn, she has put her child through difficult times. Now, it is the daughter’s responsibility to care for a woman who never cared for her. Burnt Sugar is less of a story than a psychological exploration. The protagonist analyses herself and her mother, but also humans more generally, sexual desires, life in the city and so much more. Granted, these introspections and observations are not often positive, and I read some reviews from people saying it left them disgusted with humans – maybe not the best read for the current climate. Avni Doshi has written some of the best sentences I read all year. “For a moment she did not know who I am and for a moment I am no one.” I thoroughly enjoyed the subtle play with grammar and structure. In the most simple of sentences she bare truths about life, love, forgetting and the difficult relationship between mothers and daughters. Doshi’s writing feels natural and fluent.
1. My personal winner of the Booker 2020 shortlist has to be The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste. Good historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, so I went into this with high hopes and was not disappointed. The novel is set in Ethiopia during the invasion of Mussolini’s army and introduces the female soldiers largely left out of the official historical narrative. Young Hirut is a maid in the house of Kidane and his wife Aster, a domineering and temperamental figure. Kidane is an officer in Haile Selassie’s army and prepares his forces for the Italian invasion. But as the war begins and Ethiopia is obviously powerless against the Italian technologies, Hirut, Aster and the other women decide to be more than “just” carers for the wounded soldiers. Hirut is faced with unknown struggles, violations and betrayals but she grows into the role of an essential warrior and develops a plan to keep up her countrymen’s morale. Through the Jewish Italian soldier Ettore and his camera, the reader is also allowed a glimpse into the mentality of the invader. Mengiste presents her heroines’ story in almost mythological manner. It took a few chapters for me to get into the flow of this epic novel, but the original voice and magnificent storytelling made it impossible for me to put The Shadow King down. To me, Mengiste has created an absolute masterpiece.