South African literature still has a chance of snatching the 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction, with Damon Galgut’s The Promise making it on to the shortlist of six announced in London on Tuesday September 14.
This is the third time he has been shortlisted.
Sadly, Karen Jennings, the other South African writer who was on the longlist of 13 for her novel The Island, did not make the cut.
The other five books on the shortlist are: A Passage North, by Sri Lankan Tamil writer Anuk Arudpragasam; No One is Talking about This, by American writer and poet Patricia Lockwood; The Fortune Men by British Somali novelist Nadifa Mohamed; Bewilderment by American novelist Richard Powers; and Great Circle by American writer Maggie Shipstead.
Maya Jasanoff, chair of the 2021 judging panel, said: “With so many ambitious and intelligent books before us, the judges engaged in rich discussion not only about the qualities of any given title, but often the purpose of fiction itself. We are pleased to present a shortlist that delivers as wide a range of original stories as it does voices and styles.”
And Gaby Wood, director of the Booker Prize Foundation, said: “(The judges) also proved that the best literature is elastic: both because so many different things can be seen in it, and because – as one of the judges said – the best of fiction can make you feel as though your mind, or heart, are a little bit larger for having read it.”
The Promise (Chatto & Windus), which spans a period of 40 years, is about the white Swart family who live on a smallholding outside Pretoria and is trying to come to terms with the new South Africa. It is based around four family funerals, and describes how the family unravels over a promise made to their long-time domestic worker.
Galgut told a Booker Q& A: “I do feel qualified to say a few things about white South Africa by now. The Swart family is a kind of amalgamation of everything I grew up with in Pretoria, I guess. They’re a mix of English and Afrikaans, and a hodge-podge of creeds and beliefs too. Not unusual for this part of the world. But what makes them ‘representative’ isn’t their characters, it’s the times they’re living through. The book is structured around four funerals, each in a different decade, with a different president in power and a different spirit reigning over the land. Although most of that material is background, it conjures a sense of time passing and of the larger country changing too.”
The Passage North (Granta) is an attempt to come to terms with life in the wake of devastation of Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war. It tells the story of Krishan who makes the long train journey from the capital Colombo into the war-torn Northern Province to attend a family funeral. This is Arudpragasam’s second novel.
No One is Talking About This (Bloomsbury Circus/ Jonathan Ball) is described as “a delightfully profane love letter to the infinite scroll, and a meditation on love, language, and the human connection.
It is about a social media guru who travels the world, her existence overwhelmed by the internet. And then two urgent messages from her mother pierce her virtual bubble.
Lockwood told a Booker Q & A: “The internet – in the form of social media, at least – is much more like fiction than it is anything else.”
The Fortune Men (Viking) is a gripping novel, based on fact, about a petty thief in Cardiff, Wales. In 1952 he became the last man to be hanged there, after being wrongfully convicted of murder. Mahmood Mattan, a Somali seaman, isn’t too worried when he is arrested for the murder of a local shopkeeper – after all, this is Britain which is a country of justice. But eventually it dawns on him that innocence may not be enough.
His conviction was quashed 45 years later, in February 1998 – a true Pyrrhic victory.
Mohamed told a Booker Q & A: “I knew I wanted to make the line between fact and fiction inperceptible.” This is her third novel. She becomes the first British Somali to be shortlisted for the Booker.
Bewilderment (Hutchinson Heinmann) tells the story of an astrobiologist, Theo Byrne, and his troubled son, nine-year-old Robin, who is about to be expelled from school for smashing a metal Thermos into his friend’s face. His father believes the only thing to do is take Robin to other planets, while helping him to save this one.
Powers told a Booker Q & A: “The astrobiology and neuroscience in Bewilderment – two fields undergoing rapid and dramatic revolutions – are really ways into much older and more intimate human passions.”
This book is Powers’s 13th novel and the second to be shortlisted for the Booker prize.
Great Circle (Transworld) is the story of a daredevil woman pilot who delivers Spitfires in World War II and in 1950 sets off on an ultimately doomed north-south circumnavigation of the Earth. And it is the story of a spoiled young actress who is chosen to play her in a Hollywood biopic.
In a Booker Q & A, Shipstead said: “I’m sadly incapable of planning my books. I wish I could, but instead I just have to leap and then hope I’m able to resolve all the problems I create.” Great Circle is her third novel.
The winner of the 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction will be announced in London on November 3.