South African writers Damon Galgut and Karen Jennings are among the 13 international authors whose novels have been longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction – Galgut for the third time.
This time it is for his novel The Promise, about the Swart family who live on a hardscrabble smallholding outside Pretoria, and whose story is told over 40 years in a series of snapshots, each one surrounding a family funeral.
At the heart of the story – and the family conflict – is a promise made to a domestic worker that she would get title to the house she lives in.
Galgut’s two previous longlisted titles were The Good Doctor (2006) and In a Strange Room (2010).
Jennings’s book is called An Island, and is about Samuel, a lighthouse keeper on an island off the southern African coast. One day a young man, probably a refugee, washes ashore and Samuel reluctantly takes him in. Their interaction forces Samuel to look back over his own life. Local author Joanne Hichens has described An Island as “a terrifying novel”.
Historian Maya Jasanoff, chair of the judging panel, said: “‘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.
“Many examine intimate relationships placed under stress, and through them meditate on ideas of freedom and obligation, or on what makes us human. “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.
“Reading in lockdown fostered a powerful sense of connection with the books, and of shared enterprise among the judges. Though we didn’t always respond in the same way to an author’s choices, every book on this list sparked long discussions amongst ourselves that led in unexpected and enlightening directions.”
The longlist was chosen from 158 novels published in the UK or Ireland between October 2020 and September 2021. The Booker is open to writers of any nationality, writing in English and published in the UK or Ireland.
Apart from Jasanoff, the judges were writer and editor Horatia Harrod, actor Natascha McElhone, twice Booker-shortlisted novelist and professor Chigozie Obioma, and writer and former archbishop Rowan Williams.
Other longlisted authors who have made the list before, other than Galgut, are Kazuo Ishiguro (won in 1989 for The Remains of the Day; shortlisted in 2005 for Never Let Me Go, in 2000 for When we were Orphans and in 1986 for An Artist of the Floating World); Mary Lawson (longlisted in 2006 for The Other Side of the Bridge); Richard Powers (shortlisted in 2018 for The Overstory and longlisted in 2014 for Orfeo); and Sunjeev Sahota (shortlisted in 2015 for The Year of the Runaways).
Two debut novelists made the list: Nathan Harris with The Sweetness of Water and Patricia Lockwood with No One is Talking About This.
The six books on the shortlist will be announced on September, and each author will wina total of £2 500 (about R51 000).
The overall winner will get their prize at an award ceremony on November 3. They win £50 000 (about R1.02million), and in the po-faced words of the judges, “can expect international recognition”.
The full list of 13 novels is: