The Birdcage Archives

Tuesday 27 July 2021

The Booker Prize Longlist 2021

Hello Gentle Reader,
As the dog days of summer rage on with that drought ridden breath lapping at the crack and dried earth that have become the threshold of August, the Booker Prize has announced the longlisted candidates for this year's Booker Prize, which becomes an endearing distraction from last years postponed Olympics now being conducted in Japan (though unfortunately with great controversy). The sheer athleticism of the games as a marvel they are to witness and observe, can become otherwise lost in the continued stream, and thankfully a literary prize has come along to provide some reprieve.
The following list, Gentle Reader are this years’ longlisted writers:
Mary Lawson – Canada – “A Town Called Solace,”
Kazuo Ishiguro – United Kingdom – “Klara and the Sun,”
Nathan Harris – United States – “The Sweetness of Water,”
Rachel Cusk – Canada – “Second Place,”
Anuk Arudpragasam – Sri Lanka/United States – “A Passage North,”
Karen Jennings – South Africa – “An Island,”
Richard Powers – United States – “Bewilderment,”
Francis Spufford – United Kingdom – “Light Perpetual,”
Patricia Lockwood – United States – “No One is Talking About This,”
Sunjeev Sahota – United Kingdom – “China Room,”
Maggie Shipstead – United States – “Great Circle,”
Damon Galgut – South Africa – “The Promise,”
Nadifa Mohamed – Somalia/United Kingdom – “The Fortune Men,”
Surprisingly this year’s Booker Prize Longlist is not entirely dominated by the usual United Kingdom and United States writers, which smuggles in a few writers from hither and yon. Rather there appears to be an honest attempt and interest in the books from varying regions and locations, with all those specific perspectives wrapped up in them. The longlist also finds itself composed of a combination of both recognizable names and those finding their foothold. Immediately recognizable on this year's long list is of course the previous Booker Prize winner and Nobel Laureate, Kazuo Ishiguro, with his novel: "Klara and the Sun."  The novel retraces familiar ground for Ishiguro, who crafts another dystopian fable such a his previous work: "Never Let Me Go," which allows him to trace his eternal preoccupations with memory, emotions, and the baffling question of what it means to be human -- or what is the designation which segregates them from being less than human.  "Klara and the Sun," has been warmly received by critics and the reading public, though it retraces the common ground of Ishiguro's literary preoccupations. Another novel noted for its slight science fiction bent is the Pulitzer Prize winning writer Richard Powers with his novel: "Bewilderment." The novel is also a dystopian fable and charts the account of a widowed astrobiologist as they seek to keep their son safe, as the world slowly deteriorates and succumbs to nothing. Powers traces the concept of survival and sacrifice as the world approaches the threshold of ending. "Bewilderment," with its topical story of the climate crisis and the approaching mass extinction event, is rumoured to be a strong contender for this year’s award, with its humanistic vision of how even our personal woes do not cease and desist even in the face of the end of the world. 
Though from Canada, and now living in the United Kingdom, both Mary Lawson and Rachel Cusk have been nominated for this year's Booker Prize, there is something parochial and Canadian about their work. Perhaps it is their quaint provincial settings, those small towns and villages remote and removed where the world stands still. Those small abodes have woven themselves into the quilted schizophrenic identity that is the Canadian cultural identity crisis. They have become the firm stitching that holds it together. Regardless of the major cities (Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal) the small and parochial remain, becoming the lighthouses and beacons which provide home and sanctuary for so many people who flee the urban and seek to reconnect with the rural and the expansive (and at times harsh and brutal) Canadian landscape. Mary Lawson's novel: "A Town Called Solace," is just that. It explores through the frame of the small town - yes, the hallmark of the Canadian landscape - as it explores the family tragedy, personal loss, and grief through the intercepted lives of three people. It's a small drama which ripples into large and everlasting waves as we contemplate personal tragedies that touch and influence not only our own lives, but those around us even in the most indirectly related matters. "Second Place," by Rachel Cusk has been called a singular stand out novel on this year's Booker Prize Longlist. The secluded and solitary landscape is once again the backdrop for this novel, which explores the geometric difficulties and awkwardness of human relationships, male privilege and the fatalistic attitude of women. The novel explores the relationship between a woman, her family, and the famous artist who she lets stay at her guesthouse. What follows is a tumultuous summer where creativity shows itself as being both saviour and destroyer.
South African literature is also represented on this year’s Booker Prize longlist, with Karen Jennings and Damon Galgut. "An Island," recounts isolation and seclusion disturbed. When one is isolated and secured the troubles and concerns of the daily world are of little to no concern to anyone else. Politics is nothing more than driftwood or washed-up seaweed. A mere afterthought or inconvenience. Something to toss back into the sea. For Samuel, the lighthouse keeper, the isolation of his work is personal refuge, but it becomes indiscriminately disturbed when a young refugee washes up on the small island's beach awakening buried memories of times spent fighting against the oppressive colonial laws of the past. Damon Galgut's novel: "The Promise," explores the dynamics of a dysfunctional family. Isolated in a rural setting, on a farm nonetheless, one can't help conjure notions of nihilistic expanse of the desolate prairie countryside threatening to consume the existence that dares call its scrub brush land home. Taking place during four funerals over 40 years, "The Promise," recounts with acute examination the anguish that resides at the characters’ lives, and what causes them to repeat the same old mistakes of dysfunction continually and circularly. The novels of Karen Jennings and Damon Galgut recount the personal and the political, and often their relationship with each other. Nathan Harris's novel: "The Sweetness of Water," is equally concerned with historical and political events as it pertains to the question of freedom with two brothers who after the end of the American Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation becomes law, two brothers are forced to explore and understand the concept of freedom, and its limits within a s still racially influenced society which demands segregation.
Nadifa Mohamed tackles racial injustice in her novel: "The Fortune Men," detailing the true story of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali seaman who was wrongfully accused, charged, and convicted of murdering a woman by the name of Lily Volpert on March 6, 1952. Throughout the botched proceedings and construed trial, Mahmood Mattan was found guilty, and became the last man to hang at HM Cardiff Prison. Nadifa Mohamed traces the story, account, and case and weaves a historical narrative that tackles the question of racism as it influenced the proceedings. Mahmood Matten was later acquitted in 1998. Francis Spuffold conducts equal historical revisionism with his novel "Light Perpetual," contemplates the possibilities of lives in the event they were not destroyed so quickly. Five children are killed by a V2 rocket during the Second World War during the London Blitz, and Spuffold recounts the possibilities of lives not lived by envisioning what they could have done or have been. The judges praised the novel as it recounted the contingencies of life and exercised the full potential fiction as a form. Maggie Shipstead performs a similar feat with her novel "Great Circle," as it treats time and history as otherwise plural and parallel concepts, detailing two stories of the lost female aviator who attempted to circumnavigate the north-to-south borders, and a contemporary actress who sets out to play this devilish and fearless woman. Patricia Lockwood also makes an appearance on this year's longlist for her social and technological engaged novel: "No One is Talking About This," that explores the real-life perplexities of social media, fame, and the impacts all of this has on our concept of reality and self in a media saturated world. The novel itself appears topical in its fixation on otherwise immediate concerns regarding the internet, social media, and societies interaction with such matters, but has won over critics and readers alike for its wry commentary and warmth, which engages and challenges our perspective of the modern world and its technological advances and conundrums.
Anuk Arudpragasam and Sunjeev Sahota discuss difficult political situations and conflicting cultural traditions and perspectives. Anuk Arudpragasam and his novel "A Passage North," explores community connections, individuals interwoven into those communities and cultural conflicts, as a young man's journey into the northern reaches of war-torn Sri Lanka to attend the funeral of his grandmother's caregiver. The novel has been praised for its gentle and penetrating prose, which has been noted by critics that the true strength behind "A Passage North," is not the plot or how the themes are tackled or dealt with, but rather how quietly the novel laps at the readers consciousnesses, long after it’s been shut and placed down. Its strength is its subtle explorations of the otherwise complicated nature of community, culture, and our own heritage. Sunjeev Sahota tackles the concept of cultural conflicts and expectations with more force in his novel: "China Room." The novel recounts two concurrent narratives of two individuals seeking to free themselves from the cultural shackles and expectations of their position, their gender, or their circumstance. From arranged marriage to ostracization and diaspora that leads to drug abuse, Sunjeev Sahota recounts these preoccupations with certainty and authority that makes his work not only engaging but poignantly relevant for a multicultural and globalized world.
This year’s Booker Prize parades a surprising genuine perspective towards diversity, and not just for the sake of meeting some inclusion quota. Rather the perspective contains a sincere sentiment, one in which the judges advertise but uphold with unimpeachable integrity. The longlist inevitably will be trimmed, and not all the writers will inevitably make it to the shortlist. I don’t advise speaking in absolutes, nor declaring any statement as unequivocally true when lacking any empirical evidence beyond instinctual inclination. Yet, I have a sense that both Patricia Lockwood and Maggie Shipstead will not make it to the shortlist and have doubts regarding the fate of Mary Lawson (to provincial) and Nathan Harris (to American). On the contrary, there is no doubt that Kazuo Ishiguro will certainly be welcomed to the shortlist on conventional grounds alone, of course he’ll have Richard Powers as company as well due to the critics swooning about his novel; Rachel Cusk might as well make it too, her novel has been praised as a singular stand out novel, and of course it has great admiration and allusions to D.H Lawrence (the English love tributes and acclimation to themselves); while I suspect Nadifa Mohamed will make it, and Damon Galgut is deserving as a place on the shortlist as well. Everyone else is but a wild card.
Congratulations to the longlisted writers, and good luck to them as the Booker Prize judges though enjoying the praise of their longlist will now be forced to begin the butchery of judging. The trimming, the cutting, and the discarding. For now, though, the writers longlisted will enjoy the nod. On a singular side note: this year’s Booker Prize longlist truly became an otherwise impressive longlist balance the expected conventional with writers who usually are not considered for the Booker Prize or would otherwise be side stepped in favours of others. In all this year’s Booker Prize appeared to be more enjoyable to glance over then those in years past.
Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
M. Mary

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