2021 Booker

⫸ There are many safety nets which we turn to in a time of ongoing global uncertainty, and one of them is the search for the truth. Opinions of experts and everyday people, the reliability of data and keeping up to date with what is happening to humanity in all corners of the globe consumes us. While effectively living in a world we only thought possible in a dystopian novel, perhaps more dystopia in our reading is not what we are after right now.

Surprisingly this year’s Booker shortlist is alternative-reality free and in fact swings the other way, relying heavily on true-to-life fact and real events as their foundations. Fortune Men details the life and death of the last man hung in Cardiff Prison after being wrongly imprisoned; A Passage North is set in the aftermath of the Sri Lankan Civil War; The Promise‘s setting and characters represent South Africa and the struggles with ending apartheid; No One Is Talking About This is autobiographical fiction detailing events in the life of the author and also studying our obsession with the internet; the collapse of the natural world, society and political reliability in America is the basis for Bewilderment; Great Circle uses famous female aviators as inspiration to create a character we thought must have been real! (But was not!!)

Rachel and Suzy both acknowledge this is one of their loves in fiction reading, for when a novel is based on fact it is educates us as well as entertains us, and the truthfulness lends veracity to the fictionalised components. Authors create a vehicle to convey their societal concerns and document moments in history. (It’s not surprising climate change and an unnamed American president feature in two of the books.) And what better way to impart the sense of an atrocity or celebrated event than to fictionalise it with great emotion and a narrative that pulls the reader into the story. It’s far more affecting than a straight non-fiction account. (ioho)

So, as we hunkered down in a stunning beachside AirB&B, checking the portal for new cases of Covid springing up around us, we discussed, debated and pondered the six very readable shortlisted books and came up with the following assesments:

The trauma of loss permeated throughout Bewilderment, in Theo’s family life, in the environment and in the social structure of America. Powers raises several causes of concern without sentimentality and formed the perfect protagonists to ponder and protect all that is wrong. It’s a domestic story on a global scale. We both thoroughly enjoyed this and would be happy if it won.

A Passage North has poetic and philosophical ruminations of trauma and survival, and its calm pacing compelled us to slow down and ponder with care the time and place the author has documented. The techniques Arudpragasam has used is notable and he should be commended for his unique structure, but we thought perhaps we were not sophisticated enough readers to appreciate it fully.

The fact that we both thought Marian Graves must have been a great aviator we had, ashamedly, never heard of goes to show how dedicated the author of Great Circle was to creating a work of extraordinary realism. The book starts on a high and continues with a great sweeping narrative never plummeting into the abyss of boredom. With developed links back to New Zealand and our own Jean Batten we felt connected to this story. Perhaps too much of an adventure story to get the nod, but we’d be pleased if it did win.

The Promise‘s powerful language addresses us directly with a mix of third and first person narratives, drawing us in to the plight of post-apartheid South Africa. Starting with a lighting bolt of realisation, we are alongside Amor, wishing she could fix everything and honour the promise. A book of extreme scope and devastating honesty should surely be one of the top contenders for the prize this year.

Nadifa Mohamed has committed to correcting a piece of history by detailing Mahmood Mattan’s story in The Fortune Men. We appreciated her even-handedness and honestly in detailing everyone’s backstory and agree this is a respectful, dignified account of a moment in history. While it’s important and should be celebrated, we thought it was more conventional than literary and we’d be surprised if it was placed ahead of others on this shortlist.

True events as seen in the portal (internet) pepper the pages of No One Is Talking About This. The author’s commentary on the degradation of American society and the environment is clear but the investigation into our fixation with the internet as a tool for validation and information gathering is what stands out. It’s cross-genre style and dark humour made the reality more biting. A truely unique book that again we are sure must we one of the top picks.

⫸ Suzy: This was a very eclectic mix of books that all had their own strengths and I wouldn’t be too mad if any of them won. My favourite was The Promise. It was so atmospheric and gripping and I took a perverse pleasure in the downfall of a generally awful family.

In regards to the others: Great Circle is an amazing story and dare I say it a page-turner; No One Is Talking About This is a worryingly accurate commentary on modern society; Bewilderment is overwhelming as any book on species extinction should be; The Fortune Men is a necessary rewrite of history to reflect the truth; A Passage North was quite meditative.

In terms of who I think the judges will pick, I’m going with No One Is Talking About This as it’s a book with a form like no other I’ve read before and has such a searing commentary on society it demands attention.

⫸ Rachel: This has been one of my most enjoyable selection of Booker Reads in years and I am so pleased to have read them all. All of them heightened my thoughts on some topic or rather and to be honest I’d like to select a four way tie – but I will not!

Although Great Circle was my best read for a read’s sake, I’ve been jostling between The Promise and No One Is Thinking About This for the top prize, and I think I’m going to choose the latter. I appreciate the author’s own genre creation and do love a good dose of absurdist humour to bring attention to important issues. I laughed, and cringed at myself for laughing, many times in this book. The fact it is autobiographical adds to its integrity.

The other two in my four way tie are Great Circle and Bewilderment. I’d be happy if any of them won. Fortune Men and A Passage North I appreciate but they weren’t my faves.

Suzy, favourites 1-6

The Promise – Damon Galgut
Great Circle –Maggie Shipstead
No One Is Talking About This – Patricia Lockwood
Bewilderment – Richard Powers
The Fortune Men – Nadifa Mohamed
A Passage North – Anuk Arudpragasam

Rachel, favourites 1-6

No One Is Talking About This – Patricia Lockwood
The Promise – Damon Galgut
Great Circle –Maggie Shipstead
Bewilderment – Richard Powers
A Passage North – Anuk Arudpragasam
The Fortune Men – Nadifa Mohamed

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