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The Booker Prize 2021

Tomorrow, the winner of the 2021 Booker Prize will be announced. Over the past few weeks I read my way through the shortlist, and it was a great reading experience. I definitely agree that all six of these earned their nomination and any criticism I have for any of these books should be considered in this highly competitive context. So here is my personal ranking.

6. I know that many people loved Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, and I think it achieves what I sets out to do really well. I like the fragmented storytelling, the form that echoes the context – the fragmentation of our lives and selves in the digital age, but it just was not my cup of tea. There were some extremely sharp observations in here, I underlined many thoughts, but maybe most of it speaks to people who are more invested in the world of social media that I am.

A social media guru travels the world, her entire existence overwhelmed by the internet or what she terms ‘the portal’. ‘Are we in hell?’ The people of the portal ask themselves. ‘Are we all just going to keep doing this until we die?’ Two urgent texts from her mother pierce the guru’s bubble. As real life collides with the absurdity of the portal, she confronts a world that seems to suggest there is goodness, empathy and justice in the universe - and a deluge of evidence to the contrary.

5. The Promise by Damon Galgut left me somewhat disappointed. The premise of the story, the historical setting, the multi-generational cast of characters were all so promising but the way Galgut constructed this story did not work out. Divided into four different part, and told along four funerals, The Promise follows one family and its, as well as the national, politics. Over the decades we see changes in people and historical circumstances, but most of each chapter seemed concerned with setting the scene and once the story got started and food for thought was added the chapter would be over and I was left with nothing.

The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks, deliciously lethal in its observation of the crash and burn of a white South African family. On their farm outside Pretoria, the Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation detests everything the family stands for, not least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land, yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled.

4. Had I read this book at another times it might have topped this list for me. Certainly, it was the nominee I was most excited to read, but for some reason A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam just did not work for me. Normally, I would love the stream of consciousness style, the slow flow of this narration that skilfully connects personal experience and emotion with history and politics – and it taught me a lot and Sri Lanka. But somehow the balance felt off. Whenever I started to really dive into the historical investigations, I would be interrupted by a personal story and once I started to get invested in that and wanted to know more, the story would skip years ahead. I am almost certain, that this was done on purpose and it definitely adds to the atmosphere but this time I did not have the patience for this narrative style. I will return to this novel another time.

As Krishan makes the long journey by train from Colombo into the war-torn Northern Province to attend a family funeral, so begins an astonishing passage into the innermost reaches of a country. At once a powerful meditation on absence and longing, and an unsparing account of the legacy of Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war, this procession to a pyre ‘at the end of the earth’ lays bare the imprints of an island’s past, the unattainable distances between who we are and what we seek.

3. The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed explores the dangers of stereotypes and racism. This novel is brim-filled with complex characters that are endearing in their quirks and human in their flaws. Mohamed manages to tell of a greater issue without turning her protagonists into mere symbols. In places, the prose is almost lyrical; especially where the focus shifts to the sea Mohamed’s language seems to ride the waves. Other times, however, the timing feels slightly off and there are moments when the shifts in perspective and time are disruptive.

Mahmood Mattan is a father, a chancer, a petty thief. Many things, in fact, but he is not a murderer. So when a shopkeeper is brutally killed and all eyes fall on him, Mahmood isn’t too worried - secure in his innocence in a country where justice is served. But as the trial nears, it starts to dawn on him that he is in a fight for his life - against conspiracy, prejudice and the ultimate punishment. In the shadow of the hangman’s noose, he realises that the truth may not be enough to save him.

2. Richard Powers’ Bewilderment left me utterly astonished. From the narrative style to the philosophical insights, this work on the relationships between humans and nature, but also between people, this call for empathy and care is masterfully executed. Usually science fiction and dystopian novel are not my cup of tea, but here both elements where interwoven with such a beautiful message of wonder and compassion that it didn’t distract from my enjoyment at all. This book is both intellectually and emotionally inspiring, and even though I didn’t love the abstractions of current political events and figures like Greta Thunberg, Bewilderment deeply moved me.

Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist. He is also the widowed father of a most unusual nine-year-old. Robin is loving, funny and full of plans to save the world. He is also about to be expelled, for smashing his friend’s face in with a metal thermos. What can a father do, when the only solution offered is to put his boy on psychoactive drugs? What can he say, when his boy asks why we are destroying the world? The only thing to do is to take the boy to other planets, while helping him to save this one.

My personal winner:

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead was perhaps the book on this list I had least expectation for – despite one of the protagonists sharing my name. While historical fiction is perhaps my favourite genre I have no particular interest in airplanes (or Hollywood stars, really). But somehow, Shipstead’s writing completely lured me in, enchanted me. This novel that spans decades, a whole century, is so elegantly woven and compassionately told. Initially, I was hesitant about the necessity of including Hadley’s storyline but it added such a heart-warming layer of connection between strangers and a beautiful portrayal of how we touch each other’s lives. The historic scope of this novel is epic, but Shipstead is up for the task and over six hundred pages, there is not one boring paragraph or misplaced sentence.

Marian Graves was a daredevil all her life, from her wild childhood in the forests of Montana to her daring wartime Spitfire missions. In 1950, she sets off on her ultimate adventure, the Great Circle - a flight around the globe. She is never seen again. Half a century later, Hadley Baxter, a scandal-ridden Hollywood actress, whose own parents perished in a plane crash, is irresistibly drawn to play Marian Graves. This role will lead her to uncover the real mystery behind the vanished pilot.

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