Booker Prize longlist focuses on nature of community.
Booker Prize longlist focuses on nature of community.
Image: 123RF / Yulia Grogoryeva

The “Booker Dozen” has been announced and it includes two South Africans. It’s also free of the controversy that has plagued the prize in the past. No graphic novels or other “foolish” choices that caused previous upsets. Inspired perhaps by last year’s masterful Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, the judges eschewed controversy in favour of a racially diverse list of truly great writers.

The 13 books longlisted for the UK’s most prestigious prize for a novel written in English were chosen from 158, all published in the UK or Ireland between October 1 2020 and September 30 2021. The shortlist of six will be announced on September 14, and the winner, who will take home £50,000 in addition to huge sales and bragging rights, will be announced on November 2.

Five previously longlisted authors, including Booker and Nobel prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro, made this year’s long list, along with previously shortlisted authors Damon Galgut, Richard Powers and Sunjeev Sahota and longlisted author Mary Lawson.

“It’s particularly resonant during the pandemic to note that all of these books have important things to say about the nature of community, from the tiny and secluded to the unmeasurable expanse of cyberspace,” said chair Maya Jasanoff. “Reading in lockdown fostered a powerful sense of connection with the books, and of shared enterprise among the judges.

“One thing that unites these books is their power to absorb the reader in an unusual story, and to do so in an artful, distinctive voice. Many of them consider how people grapple with the past — whether personal experiences of grief or dislocation or the historical legacies of enslavement, apartheid, and civil war,” Jasanoff said. “Many examine intimate relationships placed under stress, and through them meditate on ideas of freedom and obligation, or on what makes us human.”

A family saga that could only have come from SA

Damon Galgut has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Tender and brutal, The Promise has been praised as a feat of modernism and disenchantment. Haunted by an unmet promise, the Swart family loses touch after the death of their matriarch. Adrift, the lives of the three siblings move separately through SA with its complex history and present-day uncertainties. American writer Edmund White called The Promise “the most important book of the last 10 years”.

Image: Supplied
Image: Supplied

A chilling, immersive portrait of a lighthouse keeper

A surprise inclusion on the longlist is happily also by a South African. In Karen Jennings’s An Island, a refugee washes up on the beach of an island inhabited only by Samuel, an old lighthouse keeper. Unsettled, Samuel is soon swept up in memories of his former life on the mainland, where his country fell under the rule of a cruel dictator. In this new man’s presence he begins to consider to what lengths a person will go to ensure that what is theirs will not be taken from them?

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Life in the wake of devastation

A Passage North by Sri Lankan Tamil novelist Anuk Arudpragasam begins with a message from out of the blue: a telephone call informing Krishan that his grandmother’s caretaker, Rani, has died. A meditation on absence and longing, as well as an unrelenting account of the legacy of Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war, the novel is a reflection on trauma, the passage of time, and what lies between who we are and what we seek.


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The geometries of human relationships

Rachel Cusk’s Second Place is a story of a lost woman who believes she’s found the answer to her confusion in the work of a famous artist named L. She invites him to her guest house in the remote coastal landscape where she lives with her family. But as a long, dry summer sets in, his provocative presence becomes an enigma. The novel reminds us of art’s capacity to uplift — and to destroy.


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Humanity’s aptitude for survival and compassion

The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris is set in the waning days of the American Civil War. Brothers Prentiss and Landry — freed by the Emancipation Proclamation — seek refuge on the homestead of George Walker and his wife, Isabelle. The Walkers, wracked by the loss of their only son to the war, hire the brothers to work their farm. Parallel to their story runs a forbidden romance between two Confederate soldiers.


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A dystopian take of the near future

In his eighth novel, Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro explores what it means to be not quite human. Klara is an AF, an Artificial Friend, one of a series of androids bought by parents to provide companionship for their teenage children. This thrilling and magnificent book offers a look at our changing world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator, and explores the fundamental question: what does it mean to love?



The ties that connect families

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A Town Called Solace opens on a family in crisis: teenager Rose has been missing for weeks, and Rose’s younger sister Clara keeps a vigil at the window, hoping for her sibling’s return. Newcomer Liam Kane promptly moves into the house next door, which belongs to Clara’s elderly friend, Mrs Orchard, who is in hospital. As Mary Lawson’s novel unfolds, so does the mystery of what has transpired between Mrs Orchard and the newly arrived stranger.

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A love letter to endless scrolling

A woman known for her viral social media posts travels the world speaking to her adoring fans, her entire existence dominated by the internet — or what she terms “the portal”. Suddenly, two panicked texts from her mother pierce the fray. As real life collides with the increasing absurdity of the portal, the woman confronts a world that seems to contain both proof that there is goodness, and a deluge of evidence to the contrary. Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This is irreverent and sincere.


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A miscarriage of justice

Cardiff's Tiger Bay, 1952, bustles with Somali and West Indian sailors, Maltese businessmen and Jewish families. When a shopkeeper is brutally killed and all eyes fall on petty thief Mahmood Mattan, he isn’t too worried. He is secure in his innocence in a country where, he thinks, justice is served. In The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed, prejudice and the inhumanity of the state come to the fore and Mahmood begins to realise that the truth may not be enough to save him.


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A tantalising vision of the future

In Richard Powers’ Bewilderment Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist who searches for life on other planets, and the widowed father of an unusual nine-year-old. Robin is funny and loving. He thinks and feels deeply. He is also on the verge of being expelled from school, for smashing his friend’s face with a Thermos. What is Theo to do? The only thing for it is to take the boy to other planets, all the while fostering his son’s desperate campaign to help save this one.


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Characters seeking to free themselves

In rural 1929 Punjab, three women are married to three brothers in a single ceremony. The women spend their days hard at work in the family’s china room. There’s no contact with the men — except when their domineering mother-in-law summons them to a darkened chamber at night. Sunjeev Sahota’s China Room is an exploration of how systems of power define individual lives and how people resist them.


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Women whose lives are up in the air

After being rescued as infants in 1914, Marian and Jamie Graves are raised by their dissolute uncle in Montana. There, Marian commences her lifelong love affair with flight. At 14 she drops out of school and finds an unexpected patron who provides a plane and subsidises her lessons, an arrangement that will haunt her for the rest of her life. A century later, Hadley Baxter is cast to play Marian in a film about her disappearance in Antarctica. Meticulously researched, Great Circle is an epic work by Maggie Shipstead.


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Five young victims of a bomb are resurrected

November 1944. A German rocket incinerates a South London household goods store, and five young lives are atomised in an instant. But what if it were possible to resurrect them — to let them experience the extraordinary, unimaginable changes of the 20th century; to live out all the personal triumphs and disasters, the second chances and redemptions denied them? Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual is ingenious and profound, giving readers a renewed and enriched appreciation for the gift of life.



The 2021 longlist, or ‘The Booker Dozen’, of 13 novels, is:

  • A Passage North, Anuk Arudpragasam (Granta Books, Granta Publications)
  • Second Place, Rachel Cusk (Faber)
  • The Promise, Damon Galgut (Chatto & Windus, Vintage, PRH)
  • The Sweetness of Water, Nathan Harris (Tinder Press, Headline, Hachette Book Group)
  • Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)
  • An Island, Karen Jennings (Holland House Books)
  • A Town Called Solace, Mary Lawson (Chatto & Windus, Vintage, PRH)
  • No One is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood (Bloomsbury Circus, Bloomsbury Publishing)
  • The Fortune Men, Nadifa Mohamed (Viking, Penguin General, PRH)
  • Bewilderment, Richard Powers (Hutchinson Heinemann, PRH)
  • China Room, Sunjeev Sahota (Harvill Secker, Vintage, PRH)
  • Great Circle, Maggie Shipstead (Doubleday, Transworld Publishers, PRH)
  • Light Perpetual, Francis Spufford (Faber)

The original article was first published on Business Day

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