2020 Booker

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 
The Shadow King
Real Life 
This Mournable Body
Shuggie Bain 
The New Wilderness 

Suzy (favourites in order 1-6)
The Shadow King
Shuggie Bain 
Real Life & Burnt Sugar 
This Mournable Body 
The New Wilderness 

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