It’s an understatement to say 2020 is a bit of a strange year! Covid-19 and the resulting politics around controlling it both unites and divides us. While some people reach out to neighbours, colleagues, families for support, some feel their ‘otherness’ and loneliness more distinctly than ever. It is a trying time for many unsure of how they fit in.
While this year’s published books do not yet have Covid storylines (am sure we’ll see those soon) the Booker shortlisters do portray this sense of otherness, plus a hopefulness for the future. Marginalised people, poverty stricken families, war-affected communities and those who consider themselves outsiders feature strongly in this year’s shortlist.
For example: This Mournable Body features a woman stuck between past and present, attempting to rebuild her life in post-colonial Zimbabwe; Shuggie Bain‘s eponymous protagonist is a young gay man in a working class Glaswegian tenement struggling for acceptance; Hirut is a female warrior in The Shadow King, fighting amongst men; Wallace is a black, gay biochemist struggling for acceptance at an academic level in Real Life; Burnt Sugar tells the story of a young girl brought up in a commune and on the streets now trying to care for her dementia-ridden mother; The New Wilderness features a number of outsiders trying to adapt in a new environment on a dying planet.
But rather than depict them as outsiders, the formidable writing styles of these authors sees these protagonists portrayed as real people. Most are not over wrought, or over written, nor have moralistic opinions to shove down our throats. We appreciate that this group of authors let their characters simply tell their incredible stories then leave it up to us, the reader, to develop our own opinions on how this represents the real world, how it affects or involves us and what, if any, actions we feel obliged to take.
As Suzy wondered in one of her reviews, when have we “othered” people without realising? Each of these stories provides so much food for thought about how we interact with people and how our interactions can affect those people, and how small adaptions to our behaviours can have the largest of effects.
We both agree that while initially the list was a surprise, it ended up being a year where most nominees evoked a real sense of the world.
I say most because there is one title we feel does not fit. The New Wilderness is topical, we acknowledge that, but its characters who feel like characters and the lack of reason in its plot works against it. We struggle to see how it could have been shortlisted amongst these other developed titles. Therefore, it is out of the running for us. (Hilary Mantel must be wondering even more so how she was left off this list.)
As we lounge about in our rented Thorndon villa in Wellington, we agree we’d like to pick multiple winners. However, unlike the Booker judges of 2019 we are prepared to make a tough call. Here are our thoughts:
This Mournable Body: a synchronised depiction of a country and its people learning to adapt to colonisation and independence, without judgment of the mistakes they make along the way and ending with opportunities not results
Shuggie Bain: a true representation of alcoholism, poverty and sexuality on a struggling Glaswegian family without pointing any fingers of blame nor nicely sewing up the conclusions
The Shadow King: a factually based retelling of a time when women were warriors but still people with successes and failings, a duty of care for those around them and a blood thirsty desire to live
Burnt Sugar: a study of human nature and mother-daughter relationships where resentfulness and co-dependence mar an ability to see clearly, and where the outcome is the best that can be hoped for
Real Life: a very real account of the lives of marginalised peoples, told in a matter-of-fact manner without judgement or sentimentality
So which comes out on top for each of us?
Suzy chose The Shadow King. “This novel somehow transported me from the rural Waikato to 1930s Ethiopia with complete ease! I was absolutely drawn in to The Shadow King and relished reading a book with a storyline unlike anything I’d come across before. Amazingly compelling and fresh writing – I loved it.”
Rachel chose Burnt Sugar. “I loved the ever-evolving relationship between Tara and Antara – their love for one another, mixed with their mutual contempt was very convincing. The slow drip feed of their toxic past added to the intrigue plus there was a nice little plot twist. Slow-burning, fictional studies of human nature are definitely my type of book.”
Rachel (favourites in order 1-6)
Burnt Sugar – Anvi Doshi
The Shadow King – Maaza Mengiste
Real Life – Brandon Taylor
This Mournable Body – Tsitsi Dangarembga
Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart
The New Wilderness – Diane Cook
Suzy (favourites in order 1-6)
The Shadow King – Maaza Mengiste
Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart
Real Life – Brandon Taylor & Burnt Sugar – Anvi Doshi
This Mournable Body – Tsitsi Dangarembga
The New Wilderness – Diane Cook
A disillusioned native woman re-establishes her life in post-colonial Zimbabwe.
✚ “Finding out about halfway through This Mournable Body that it was the third book in a trilogy was useful to know as there was certainly the feeling that the Zimbabwean war that was often referred to was the ‘real’ story, whereas we were learning more about its aftermath and the impact on the character Tambudzai and her family. I’m thinking maybe the first two books dealt with the war and its politics more comprehensively?”
“The book wasn’t without violence and there was a constant underlying feeling of menace that hovered on the edges of the story and threatened to spill over in many ways. Tambudzai spent most of the time on edge and was constantly negotiating with herself whether she would deal with issues in flight or fight mode.
“I genuinely felt for Tambudzai and her experiences and its clear this book can standalone with no need to read the preceding two books, however I think I would have got more out of it had I had a bit more background.” – Suzy
Your umbilical cord is buried on the homestead; in the empty space that widens within at every step, you feel it tugging.
✚ “This Mournable Body is the story of Tambudzai, a woman who has lived through the long and devastating guerrilla war between the white Rhodesian army and native black nationalists. Now the 1990s, the nation has gained independence and is trying to rebuild itself, as is Tambudzai (Tambu).
“However, it is clear Tambu is in the midst of a personal or post-traumatic crisis as she jumps from one experience to the other, making observations of her new fragmented environment and attempting to find purpose, but hurting people and herself along the way.
“The book is jarring but hopeful and its anti-hero Tambu is an emotive parallel for a country with a new and promising future. Zimbabwe, and Tambu, must look for opportunities in its new-look reality and acknowledge that the past cannot be erased, but must be respected as something that will continue to shape them.
“Told in second person, as though Tambu is trying to distance herself from her past, ensures we, the readers, are intimately invested. The episodic wanderings of Tambu can seem a little disruptive to the flow of the plot but if you remember her experiences are also notations of a post-colonial era’s history, the plot is more meaningful.” – Rachel
Set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King portrays the first real conflict of World War II, casting light on the women soldiers who were left out of the historical record.
✚ “Early on in The Shadow King I had to google “Italian invasion of Ethiopia 1930s” proving yet again my historical knowledge is slightly lacking. It was such an unexpected event and I wasn’t sure if it was even real (nearly as bad as when I was teacher aiding in a Year 12 English class and learned about the Warsaw ghetto thanks to the students reading The Pianist) .
“Well yep the invasion sure was real and Maaza Mengiste takes you to the absolute heart of it. This book was at times terrifying, at times exhilarating and then a lot of the time it was just very sad. There was little joy and not much relief from the absolute onslaught of overwhelming events.
“Reading the note from the author at the end about her personal connection to the story was shocking. I read this while it was longlisted and was rapt to see it on the shortlist. At the time of writing this I’ve read no other shortlisters, but I’ll be very surprised to read one that tops this.” – Suzy
To be in the presence of our emperor is to stand before the sun. You must respect his power to give you life and to burn you alive.
✚ “Stories of female contributions to war efforts are few and far between. Usually the women are carers or victims or fictional superwomen. The Shadow King is different. It tells the story of Hirut, a young Ethiopian woman who goes from lowly servant to proud warrior during the 1935 Italian invasion.
“The story has a base in the author’s own family history and this attachment is obvious in the realistic portrayal of the characters and their war-time experiences. At no time did they seem over-written, and the war activities had the right measure of atrocity and hopefulness. Although I knew nothing of this conflict prior to reading this book, I was quickly lured into this story and captivated throughout.
“Hirut, an orphan seeking meaning in life, seemed to me a symbol of many people, many cultures, many communities and though I was left feeling shocked, I was also satisfied at the completeness of the story.” – Rachel
W W Norton Company
A group of strangers escape a polluted city and learn to live in the wild as part of a study
✚ “This dystopian-type novel features a polluted and over populated city and a location which is the only place in which nature still exists: the Wilderness State. A group of people, led by Bea and her daughter Agnes, live a nomadic life there as part of a nameless study.
“There are a lot of topical themes raised in this book, about environmental concern, our relationship with nature, social change, mother-daughter relationships, what our children will inherit from us, and back-to-basics survival. Plot markers revealed early on were portrayed with a no-nonsense sensibility and brutal acceptance about life and death in a harsh environment.
“However it soon become apparent that there were many holes in the plot, too many to mention here. Plus I felt let down by the characterisation. Stereotyping and dramatisation led to unbelievable interactions and I just couldn’t relate to the characters, nor accept some of the actions they took. I felt completely distant from the story about half way through and only finished the book because I had to for Bookerthon.” – Rachel
A story of love and betrayal between a woman and her mother.
✚ “Though dementia is the vehicle for the plot, the real story in Burnt Sugar is the toxic co-dependent relationship between Tara and her daughter Antara. Despite Antara’s sense of injustice at her mother’s less than acceptable parenting, she still feels responsible for her care when she begins losing her memory. Now all Antara has of her past is her own memory, which in Doshi’s unsentimental writing style, is not totally reliable in itself. For this reason Antara is never able to reconcile her un-challenged thoughts and feelings and therefore unable to forgive or accept her mother’s wild behaviour: in the commune; with various men; begging on the street.
“It is a story that starts of slowly but quickly gathers momentum until the pages of toxicity between mother and daughter cannot be put down. It’s a bit like watching a train wreck, horrifying but you know you won’t look away. It is addictive and compelling and a truthful, unglamorous account of love, memory and dependency. If you appreciate literary studies of human nature, try this one out.” – Rachel
✚ “I had been trying to come up with the word that best describes Burnt Sugar and lo and behold there it is on the cover as Fatima Bhutto calls it: “taut, unsettling, ferocious”. I would agree with all three, but especially ‘unsettling’. It wasn’t a book I was compelled to pick up to find out what was happening next as it meant I would have to experience a certain level of discomfort and yes feel unsettled. It’s a real slow-burner of a book especially compared to The Shadow King.
“Antara was a distinctive female character who revealed so much about herself I was left feeling like I was encroaching too much on her life. I almost feel relieved that I’ve finished it if that makes sense? Amazing writing and I would not be disappointed at all if this one took the Booker win.” –Suzy
A biochemistry student’s experiences of life as a gay, black man captured over one weekend
✚ “What started off as a fairly innocuous read soon became anything but. Reading Real Life after Burnt Sugar and The Shadow King I was more than ready for some shallow banter between some smart American twenty-somethings, however the eventual brutality beneath the happy accomplished veneer of the characters often made me feel sick.
“The experience of being an ‘other’ was conveyed in such a raw and authentic way made me reflect on the times where I might have ‘othered’ people without realising. This was another very uncomfortable read with not much breathing room for the reader.
“I thoroughly enjoyed this book and so far the shortlisted books have been amazing.” – Suzy
‘Yes, your deficiencies. I won’t say what they are. You already know. You come from a challenging background. It is unfortunate, but it is how it is.’
✚ “Wallace is a black, gay biochemistry student from Alabama who is simply trying to get ahead in his studies and find his place in a white, straight dominated world. But as he breeds nematodes in the lab and teeters on the edge of friendships he must endure a raft of prejudices, both intentional and inherent.
“In Real Life, one weekend of Wallace’s life is examined, with conversations, dinner parties, relationships and human interactions studied microscopically. What’s discovered is not just brutal honesty but an exacting portrayal of intimacy, sexuality, violence and loneliness. What’s more the weekend is replayed in a perfectly paced, delicate and nuanced writing style.
“There is no part of this book that is unbelievable, it really is a story about one person’s real life. I felt like I was right there, in every scene, observing and absorbing the lives of this group of friends. A moving experience that I sometimes hated and sometimes loved but always respected.” – Rachel
Chosen by Jodie
The memoir of one man’s coming-of-age, set during the twilight of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed.
✚ “Born a Crime is the true story of a South African boy who starts his life under Apartheid and who feels the effects of the regime throughout his formative years. His childhood is filled with extraordinary events, an incredible mother and an abusive stepfather. Despite the consequences of these factors, the story is one of resilience, especially when one doesn’t have the resources to advance themselves. There were many people in the book who did not thrive, but Trevor’s mother wanted to show her son a different world and a different way of living. She was unique for her time and place; she was a critical thinker who knew how to make the best of situations. Not only was the book entertaining but witty too and I would highly recommend it. ” – Jodie
✚ “I learned a lot reading Born A Crime. I thought the mother was an incredible rock for her son throughout their lives under apartheid. What astounded me was how Trevor lived in no man’s land constantly – not considered black enough to be black or white enough to be white, nor brown enough to be coloured. Trevor opened my eyes to situations I wasn’t aware of before hand. For example I had always thought of the South Arican slums as a mass, not as individual people. But they have hierarchies, and dreams and desires. But Trevor did not want to be a victim and his mother was always educating him even when he didn’t realise; even when he was getting a hiding.” – Becks
✚ “Trevor Noah definitely has an interesting story to tell. However I don’t think his focus was in the right spot. His mother was a remarkable women and a snippet of some of the horrors she endures are offered at the beginning of the book. But it’s not until the end that those stories come to light, all the pages in-between filled with Noah’s petty crimes and childhood antics. This made Noah seem self-absorbed – the story should have been hers not his. Plus the lack of plot continuity created a stop-start effect that interrupted my interest in the story.” – Rachel
✚ “I enjoyed Born A Crime, finding it entertaining and informative at the same time. For me it was a memoir that held a good balance between personal anecdote, social-cultural commentary and historical insight into South Africa and apartheid. I think it was blended well with humour and a little irreverance. I was uplifted by a sense of hopefulness and admiration about the author’s Mum and Trevor Noah himself. It is a read I’ll recommend to others and my kids when they are a little older. A new (to me) view on apartheid and race relations. Humbling” – Sonya
✚ “This story of a South African childhood was witty as well as educational. Trevor dealt with situations that most children would never experience with humour and directness. The book’s chapters were sectioned by themes. It did sometimes feel disjointed with the abrupt stop-start of the themes but it was an interesting way to structure the book, rather than the traditional chronological presentation. I thoroughly enjoyed this story and would happily recommend it to a friend.” – Jo
Chosen by Sonya
A New Zealand woman traces her father’s World War II history and discovers a heartbreaking truth.
✚ “Driving To Treblinka is a memoir by New Zealand journalist Diana Wichtel. In it she seeks to redeem the past, a past in which she did not truly know her father Ben, nor his sufferings trying to evade the Nazis in German-controlled Poland.
“The biographical book opens with lines from her father’s autopsy report, so it is clear from the outset that there will be no happy reunion. Each chapter starts this way, with a quote from a report, or official document that slowly reveals her father’s demise.
“The author’s life is highly detailed throughout. Her life with her father in Canada, her years without him in New Zealand, the years spent wondering, the years spent searching, the years spent guilt-stricken, agonising over her own culpability.
“Also highly detailed are the discoveries about her father’s life, including those discovered on the road to Treblinka, an extermination camp. It’s fair to say these revelations are moving, sad, even distressing, with intimate accounts of how holocaust atrocities affected not only Ben but his extended family members for the rest of their lives.
“Thematically Wichtel has investigated how secrets and silence can damage families. She makes it clear that not being told the truth created more damage than the reality she was being shielded from ever could.
There are a million reasons why we don’t talk about the truth and one of those is because the mother cries.
“There is hope too, loving family bonds and resolve to offset the secrets but the story remains honest, honouring her father, rather than all tied up like a fictional story.
✚ “Driving to Treblinka is a fresh take on what we all thought we knew about the Holocaust. Its impact is in the study of the power of truth – the manipulation of truth – and the layers of degradation that remain secret. Yet after all these years, those affected still hope for a different view of the world.” – Sonya
✚ “A page-turner that moves, educates, and captivates via the study of the social repercussions of events, – how people react and change in response to an event, and how that effect ripples down through families. When these investigations are undertaken honestly the result is as this book is, heart wrenchingly affecting.” – Rachel
✚ “I really enjoyed this book and was emotionally invested throughout. It is a harrowing, eye-opening account of how trauma is passed down through generations. It investigates what is required to counter this persecution. I have not cried over a book in many years, but this was heartbreaking.” – Jo
✚ “The theme of remembrance resonated from this book for me. At the heart of it, we all want to be remembered and loved. Yet our histories extend beyond our own lives and what we carry forward affects how we act and how we are remembered.” – Becks
✚ “When you didn’t think there were any more war stories to be heard, something like this surprises you. It demonstrated that the byproduct of one person’s experience lasts longer than they do.” – Jodie
Chosen by Jo
On an unnamed island, people’s memories are slowly deleted by the controlling authority, the Memory Police.
✚ “Censorship and authoritarian surveillance are at the thematic heart of this novel. Items that represent art, cultural identity and independent thought are slowly “disappeared” and the population of the unnamed island are forced to forget items and all memories associated with them. Whether the Memory Police have thought control or are simply the enforcers of the rules is unclear but just their existence instills dread and fear in the reader. There are many words that accurately describe the book: Orwellian, dystopian, existential, science fiction.
“Of course there is a resistance, people who do not forget. They hide in friend’s basements or feign docility whenever the Memory Police pass. The unnamed narrator of the book has such a boarder – a book editor named R. He spends his time assessing the narrator’s half written manuscript and reintroducing her to items that no longer exist.
“The manuscript runs a parallel story of censorship, of a typist with no voice who is held hostage and afraid to escape when given the opportunity. Just as the typist’s experience seems to come to life in this book, the author Yoko Ogawa warns us that the contents of her book can be found in real life: tyranny, passivity as a survival instinct, but also opportunity for resistance.
“Written in 1994 and translated into English in 2019, the novel has a timeless quality that had us bookclubbers drawing references to totalitarian states of many ages from deep in the past to modern day. Of added comparison was the current state of the world, living with Covid and the ‘acceptable’ level of control required to manage it.
But as things got thinner, more full of holes, our hearts got thinner, too, diluted somehow. I suppose that kept things in balance.
✚ “For something so unique and different, The Memory Police was surprisingly easy to read. I haven’t read anything like this before and enjoyed the storyline. Once I researched it I found I liked it even more – it’s such a tragic tale! The simplistic style of writing allowed me the room to process the story and themes themselves rather than spending time trying to interpret the text.” – Jo
✚ “I loved The Memory Police for its relevance. This is not a book written purely for entertainment value, it has an important message about the danger of tyranny and how elimination of free thought is the surest way to suck the life out of people. Its Kafkaesque style produced many parallels to the Covid world in which we are living today and there were layers and layers of close-to-home meaning. For something written 25 years ago to be so relevant today is a sure sign of class.” – Rachel
✚ I liked The Memory Police a lot, which is surprising to me in that I don’t normally enjoy ‘odd’ books such as this. I liken the reading of it to studying a Salvador Dali painting. Strange, a little uncomfortable, intriguing. The book was literary surrealism, painted beautifully. I found the writing style easy to read, and the imagery clear in my head. I felt drawn in by the characters. I liked them. I knew them; even though they were nameless. So yes, it was a thumbs up from me. Weird, uncomfortable but beautiful too.” – Sonya
✚ “Though initially intriguing, The Memory Police became repetitive for me. The island’s residents would love something, it would disappear, they would learn to live without it, the Memory Police would take some kind of action related to the “disappeared” item and then the cycle would start again. Overall I felt there were too many unanswered questions to make it memorable.”– Jodie
✚ “The Memory Police was written in 1994, yet its focus on the effects of thought control seem to be extremely topical right now. The author reminds us that free thinkers are always the first ones silenced but they must have their voice to fight against power hungry leaders. – Becks