The Booker Prize, established over half a century ago, is one of the principal awards for works of fiction. The nomination itself is a remarkable achievement, a symbol of excellence in the literary world. This year’s nominees include both seasoned writers and new authors whose works have earned striking recognition from a global audience.
For the third consecutive year, The Michigan Daily Book Review has read and evaluated each of the novels nominated for the award. In total, 13 books were listed for the award, with only six making the shortlist — the final selection under consideration for the 2021 Booker Prize. We’ve selected our predicted winner along with our personal favorites from each respective list.
Full reviews for the shortlisted novels can be found on The Michigan Daily website.
PREDICTED WINNER: Anuk Arudpragasam, “A Passage North”
Very rarely have I come across a story that has captured my attention as intensely as Anuk Arudpragasam’s “A Passage North” has. This novel is both a love letter to Sri Lanka, the author’s place of origin, as well as a testament to the terrors of war and the tenacity of the human condition.
To be transparent, there isn’t much that happens within the confines of this book, at least not in a traditional sense. It lacks the satisfaction of a thrilling adventure full of unexpected twists and turns, nor does it have a precise ending. Nevertheless, Arudpragasam more than makes up for the lack of action with his prose. This book reads like the transcription of another person’s thoughts — their stream of consciousness vulnerably written on paper, their innermost thoughts and habits intimately exposed. It’s this writing style that makes the novel such a beautiful reading experience.
What could have been too simple a story in the hands of another writer is beautifully developed in the hands of Arudpragasam. “A Passage North” is much more than a story of a journey north, and its gripping yet delicate storytelling makes it a strong contender to win the Booker Prize.
— Bella Kassa, Daily Arts Writer
Read our full review for “A Passage North” here.
OUR WINNER: Patricia Lockwood, “No One Is Talking About This”
“No One Is Talking About This” doesn’t fit neatly. It drones. But it drones in a particular, familiar way. Patricia Lockwood knows social media, and she knows how many failed attempts there have been to depict it in literature. So, naturally, she chose to write a novel about it, and more than that, she chose to write a novel in the voice of social media.
The prose itself has a short attention span, too short for a real plot. We meet the protagonist and her family in glimpses through quick, elliptic paragraphs. The effect is instant and familiar: the breeze of half-watched TikToks, the grainy hike of a long Twitter thread. And just when we’ve settled into this style, Lockwood pulls us away. There’s a family crisis, something real and present. The protagonist’s world is no longer limitless: It’s focused, centered on a sick child. There is no next post.
This isn’t always a likable novel, but it’s an unforgettable one. It has too many triple-exclamation-point moments to be taken lightly on the shortlist. “No One Is Talking About This” achieves that something greater — it makes you reconsider your own world. We won’t be surprised if it wins, and we certainly won’t be disappointed.
— Julian Wray, Daily Arts Writer
Read our full review for “No One is Talking About This” here.
Damon Galgut, “The Promise”
Acclaimed author Damon Galgut’s latest novel “The Promise” is a shortlist contender for the Booker Prize this November. Set on the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa, Galgut tells the turbulent story of three siblings — Anton, Astrid and Amor — and a binding promise never kept over the course of several decades.
“The Promise” was a fast read, with a tragicomic intensity that kept me turning the pages. A fascinating story of ruin, guilt and wasted potential, “The Promise” is not an uplifting novel. Yet within these unhappy scenes, Galgut crafts characters with incredible nuance, realistic in their flaws and relatable in their desires. Due to Galgut’s awe-inspiring prose and narrative control, “The Promise” is rightfully deserving of its nomination to the shortlist. Indeed, with the post-apartheid transformation of South Africa simmering in the background, its themes might just be expansive enough to clinch the Booker Prize. However, the novel’s lack of an enduring moral message and its limited global focus may relegate it to a second or third finish.
Even if the novel doesn’t place in the top echelon, don’t miss out on Galgut’s latest literary triumph this fall.
— Sam Mathisson, Daily Arts Writer
Read our full review for “The Promise” here.
Nadifa Mohamed, “The Fortune Men”
“The Fortune Men” is unabashedly deserving of the 2021 Booker Prize. Based on the true events of the 1952 conviction of Somali Mahmoud Hussein Mattan for the murder of a Jewish shopkeeper in Cardiff, United Kingdom, Nadifa Mohamed’s novel is a devastating narration of injustice.
Beyond Mohamed’s successful critique of the racist criminal justice system, her talents are also revealed in her complex, dynamic characters. They do not drown in the waters of such a heavy, all-consuming and agonizing storyline, but rather are beacons of humanity in the face of such inequitable tragedy.
Mohamed strikes a noteworthy balance between lyrical descriptions and realistic reactions, both of which are haunting. It’s this ability that validates her nomination. Mohamed swiftly transitions from poignant accounts of grief to painful soliloquies of disbelief — a nod to her rare ability to weave together fact and fiction while we wait to see whether the truth is enough to save our condemned.
Though Mohamed’s style is not particularly innovative, the novel’s development is engrossing and her language is striking. Whether she wins the Booker Prize or not, Mohamed is sure to have a devoted group of followers rallying behind her and her future work.
— Lilly Pearce, Daily Book Review Editor
Read our full review for “The Fortune Men” here.
Richard Powers, “Bewilderment”
On the surface, Richard Powers’s “Bewilderment” should have left me spellbound. The novel touches on topics I’m deeply fascinated by: astrobiology, psychopathology, American politics, climate change. Don’t get me wrong, I was enamored by this heart-rending tale, but not for any of the reasons I listed. Ultimately, this novel is elevated from “pretty OK” to “beautiful” by a single character dynamic. But unfortunately, the novel’s other promising elements fail to coalesce into anything substantive.
“Bewilderment” follows astrobiologist Theo Byrne as he struggles to raise his precocious and emotionally volatile nine-year-old son, Robin, following the death of his wife in a car accident. Set in the near future, the novel’s world buckles under the weight of Big Pharma, climate change and science denial. Unsurprisingly, every character is waist-deep in existential dread.
All in all, “Bewilderment” ends up being barely more than the sum of its parts, with most of its value and insight found in the bond between Theo and Robin. In spite of that, though, the story is still bogged down by abandoned story beats, flat characters and problematic implications. Richard Powers accomplishes a beautiful feat in forging a relationship between an astrobiologist and a troubled nine-year-old, but that feat is what distracts from a litany of other shortcomings.
— Tate LaFrenier, Daily Arts Writer
Read our full review for “Bewilderment” here.
Maggie Shipstead, “Great Circle”
“Great Circle” follows two parallel narratives: One is that of the fictional Marian Graves, an Earhart-esque pilot who disappeared over the Arctic in the 1950s; the other, set in modern-day, is that of Hadley Baxter, a disgraced actress trying to salvage her career by starring in a biopic about Marian.
Shipstead communicates a visceral image of the human experience. The reader witnesses the two women explore their sexualities, their traumas and their places in the world. With Marian, the reader is shown the fear cultivated by an abusive relationship; As for Hadley, the severe scrutiny women face — especially in Hollywood — is explored.
Though the novel isn’t perfect (there are certain themes that could have been further developed and explored), Maggie Shipstead’s “Great Circle” is nonetheless an achievement in showing the impossibility of depicting life. The novel is like a collection of concentric circles, periodically kaleidoscoping to put the characters’ individual narratives into a broader context. The result isn’t a discouragement from trying to understand the infinite experiences of others (or from the practice of writing book reviews). Instead, it’s a call to continue attempts at understanding, even if these attempts don’t result in an accurate picture of reality.
The expanse of the human experience that Shipstead illustrates is remarkable and makes “Great Circle” a strong contender for the Booker Prize.
— Tate LaFrenier, Daily Arts Writer
Read our full review for “Great Circle” here.
OUR FAVORITE: Mary Lawson, “A Town Called Solace”
Set in Northern Ontario in 1972, Mary Lawson’s newest novel, “A Town Called Solace,” explores the dynamic of dysfunctional families. Told through three alternating points of view that jump between timelines, Lawson connects the lives of three unlikely characters.
Seven-year-old Clara’s life is turned upside down after her older sister goes missing and her elderly friend and next-door neighbor, Mrs. Orchard, is sent to the hospital. When Liam Kane (the man who mysteriously moves into Mrs. Orchard’s house) arrives in Solace, he is confronted by the many mistakes of his past. As the novel progresses, each character grapples with loss and grief in their own way.
Lawson’s effortless writing makes for an emotional story. Lawson forces the reader to become so deeply engrossed in the lives of each character so much that they cannot help but wonder what will happen next. Although the story is underwhelming at times and not groundbreaking by any means, there is something to be said about simplicity in fiction.
Despite not making the shortlist, “A Town Called Solace” is a quiet yet beautifully written novel that everyone should read.
— Ava Seaman, Daily Arts Writer
Rachel Cusk, “Second Place”
Rachel Cusk’s “Second Place” takes an abstract approach to what it means to write a narrative. The author has framed the novel in a sort of never-ending diary entry, addressed to the unknown “Jeffers,” whose name pops up every few paragraphs. The story revolves around the “second place,” a cabin guesthouse the main character and her husband built and rent out to artists, writers, etc. She invites an artist referred to as “L” to stay because she feels eerily connected to his work. A strange series of events ensues, resulting in supposed character development.
“Second Place” is a strange novel. At the start of the novel, it is clear that the narrator feels neglected and misunderstood. The second place the couple builds is a glaring symbol of her own position: how she feels she will forever be in second place in all her relationships. The writing style is unique and clearly displays the expertise of the writer. However, it becomes frustrating at times, with the constant repetition of the perpetually unknown “Jeffers,” and how the reader only knows the main character as “M” and the artist as “L.” Art is another main element of the story, which is sometimes lost in the narrative and personality of “M,” almost painting her as quite egotistical.
Perhaps the purpose of this story is to point out the common flaws in typical female character development, or perhaps it is something entirely different.
— Zoha Khan, Daily Arts Writer
Nathan Harris, “The Sweetness of Water”
“The Sweetness of Water” by Nathan Harris takes its sweet time (about 160 pages worth) setting up Old Ox and immersing the reader in the harrowingly racist days of Reconstruction. The book focuses on the Walkers, who employ two freedmen, brothers Prentiss and Landry, to work alongside them on their family land. The novel is optimistic in its portrayal of the Walkers, maybe too much so; nevertheless, it’s a powerfully told story about a family that didn’t actively perpetuate the violent systemic racism rampant around the time of the Civil War.
Another focal point of the novel is the romance between two soldiers. The plotlines seem unrelated until the accidental discovery of the soldiers’ forbidden relationship sets into action a series of explosively harmful events.
Like its main characters, “The Sweetness of Water” is quiet on the surface. The story has deeply-cutting undertones about family. Brothers Landry and Prentiss search for their mother, but instead, find a family in the Walkers. Every time Landry or Isabelle Walker knit socks for each other, or George Walker tries to talk to his son Caleb (despite their miscommunications), it’s impossible to stay stoic; the unspoken, overwhelming care the characters have for each other is enough to move anyone to tears. Maybe that’s why the second half of this book is so devastating.
— Meera Kumar, Daily Arts Writer
Kazuo Ishiguro, “Klara and The Sun”
Kazuo Ishiguro, Nobel Prize laureate and Booker Prize winner, does not disappoint with “Klara and The Sun.” In his practiced and reserved tone, Ishiguro draws out a story of parenthood, loss and perseverance. Klara is an “AF,” an artificial friend on display in an eerily sweet version of an Apple Store. A girl, Josie, walks up to her one day and the two form a connection. But Josie is sick with a vague disease — a side effect of her genetic enhancements. She’s “lifted,” or given prodigious intelligence, as is the norm for children of upper-class families.
Josie’s prognosis is uncertain, but Klara clings to her faithfully. She’s more perceptive than most AFs, keener with emotion. She strikes a deal to sacrifice part of herself in order to save her ward. But Josie’s mother, having already lost a child, is preparing for the worst.
Part coming-of-age story, part sci-fi class critique, “Klara and The Sun” checks boxes we don’t expect from this longlist. But maybe it doesn’t push enough, or maybe it doesn’t capture that higher factor necessary for a finalist.
— Julian Wray, Daily Arts Writer
Karen Jennings, “An Island”
“He was still in the prison, within its walls. Yet despite the time he had spent there, he was left with no more than a scattering of memories. As though it had not been years at all, but only a day. One day that he had lived over and over, and was still living now.”
Whether through the literal institution, poverty, colonization, authoritarian rule or his deteriorated psyche, Samuel has always been imprisoned. In the span of just 182 pages — four days in the mind of Samuel — Karen Jennings makes this abundantly clear.
Her novel depicts Samuel late in his life, as his otherwise solitary experience as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island is interrupted by a refugee’s washing ashore. The language barrier between them interacts with Samuel’s age and trauma-eroded cognition to send the lighthouse keeper into an increasing state of paranoia and delusion throughout the novel.
Jennings’s portrayal of this mental regression is her claim to fame. The manner in which she interweaves past and present by launching Samuel on unprompted and increasingly consuming flashbacks triggered by subtle feelings or sensory experiences is nothing short of masterful. Perhaps more compelling plots or characters gave other novels shortlist stardom, but Jennings’s perfected mechanism of mental devolution more than justifies this longlist nomination.
— Andrew Pluta, Senior Arts Editor
Sunjeev Sahota, “China Room”
“China Room” is a punch to the gut.
In 1929, a 15-year-old girl named Mehar has just been married to a man she does not know and has never seen. She works all day in a cramped room with two other wives, always veiled in the presence of the men, or else undressed in total darkness. But as talk of Indian independence stirs around her, Mehar also attempts to chart her own path of resistance through the systems of oppression and control that dictate her every move.
In 1999, an 18-year-old boy, Mehar’s great-grandson, shows up suddenly on his uncle’s porch. Raised in England by immigrant parents, he returns to India in the throes of heroin withdrawal, hoping a summer spent in isolation will allow him to recover. After a lifetime of xenophobia and violence in an all-white, Thatcher-era, ex-mining town, he is suddenly confronted by his family’s long, painful history in a place he only vaguely remembers.
This is not an easy read. The dehumanizing, often violent misogyny displayed by several of the characters is hard to bear at times, no matter how necessary for the accuracy of the setting. And the story is not without flaws — both narratives seem a little too shallow, a little sped-through, with even the main characters’ decisions sometimes left unexplained.
Altogether, though, this is a worthwhile account of what it is like to grasp for self-determination in a world that wants to keep you in your place.
— Brenna Goss, Daily Arts Writer
Francis Spufford, “Light Perpetual”
“Light Perpetual” by Francis Spufford is a novel that will make its reader obsessed with time. The entire premise of the novel rests on the very real 1944 bombing of a London Woolworths and the imagined futures of five fictional children who died in the bombing. The first seven pages of the book offer phenomenal prose that sets expectations high for the artistic value of the novel. The initial philosophical wonderings are carried throughout the book: “The fabric of ordinary time is all hollow beneath, opening into void below void, gulf behind gulf.”
Spufford asks us before we even know our central characters, “Do we move in time, or does it move us?”
The book has moments of delicate and vast wisdom, sidled up next to mundanity and stacking day-by-days until you forget that the novel itself is about characters whose lives are imagined even more fundamentally than most fiction. It makes sense that it is on the longlist and not the shortlist: It can be difficult to follow at times, it can get lost in the plot and lose sight of its larger purpose, it sometimes tries to tackle too many serious subjects at once and ends up not giving them the depth they deserve.
The end result, though, is a novel that highlights the enormous impact we make on the people around us while we simultaneously fade into oblivion against the backdrop of the whole world continuing to turn. It is the kind of novel that makes you want to fall in love more than anything, that will make you remembered for generations to come. These characters — fictional in all respects, but in the reality of the book, given a life that extends decades beyond their fated death — matter both tremendously and not at all. It is a poignant and strangely comforting novel that captures the feeling of moving through time.
— Emilia Ferrante, Daily Arts Writer