The Booker Prize 2020: Reviews and Predictions

Tuesday, November 17, 2020 - 6:47pm

The six novels shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. The £50,000 prize is set to be announced Nov. 19.

The six novels shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. The £50,000 prize is set to be announced Nov. 19. Buy this photo
The Booker Prizes Committee

The Booker Prize has long established itself as an authority in the literary community. The elitists of the fiction world look to the prize in determining what to read and how to form their own opinions. Talk of its winner reverberates through all of contemporary literature — the winner of the prize sees a significant increase in sales that cannot be explained by critics and their readers alone.

While the winner will receive the greatest spoils, any book nominated for the prize is worthy of a look (depending on which of our writers you ask). This year Daily Arts has read and provided our takes on all books nominated for the short and longlist for the award. We’ve selected the nominee we would like to see win, chosen the nominee we would actually bet our money on and given our input on how the rest of the books stand against their competition.

Full reviews for each of the books can be found on The Michigan Daily website.

THE SHORTLIST

The six novels shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. The prize is set to be announced Nov. 19.

The six novels shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. The prize is set to be announced Nov. 19. Buy this photo
The Booker Prizes Committee

PREDICTED WINNER: Maaza Mengiste, ‘The Shadow King’

We at the Daily have placed our bets behind Mengiste's newest novel, “The Shadow King'” to win this year's Booker Prize. Covering a lightly fictionalized Second Italo-Ethiopian War, Mengiste documents Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia and the people’s resistance. She includes multiple perspectives, creating a decadent, layered story about violence, women and wartime.

Mengiste pulls heavily from Greek storytelling influences, even including a Greek chorus in her tale of epic fights. She effectively rebrands and reframes a 1930s conflict into a Homeric myth, complete with capricious higher powers, irresponsible kings and fighting women. Usually, World War II-adjacent literature and media focus on the grittiness of war, the trenches, and the broken men. Mengiste takes a different approach to make the war feel real. She dulls the everyday traumas, mythologizing to make the novel read like a bad memory. Though softened by time, the war is still a jagged edge: painful, sharp and traumatic. 

Mengiste’s technical skill and reinvention of the war genre make her a favorite to win. Her lyrical prose and consistent storytelling leave nothing to be desired, fortifying her already lofty chances of becoming the 2020 Booker Prize Winner.

— Elizabeth Yoon, Daily Arts Writer

Read our full review for “The Shadow King” here.

OUR WINNER: Diane Cook, ‘The New Wilderness’

Diane Cook’s “The New Wilderness” is a beautiful tale of survival, motherhood and human nature that has a fighting chance of winning this year’s Booker Prize. The novel explores a dystopian reality where the overcrowded City can no longer sustain its inhabitants and only a lucky few are able to escape by joining a survival study in the Wilderness State. 

Cook masterfully examines group dynamics, mother-daughter relationships and power struggles in her debut novel. “The New Wilderness” feels both timely and timeless, warning of the effects of overcrowding and pollution while exploring classic themes of man in nature and the subtleties of human interaction. For a beautifully written, well-researched and utterly engrossing novel, author Diane Cook deserves the 2020 Booker Prize.

— Emma Doettling, Daily Arts Writer

Read our full review for “The New Wilderness” here.

Tsitsi Dangarembga, ‘This Mournable Body’

Seen as a staple author in contemporary literature, Tsitsi Dangarembga is widely known for her 1988 novel “Nervous Conditions.” The novel functions as the first installment in the trilogy that “This Mournable Body,” this year’s 2020 nominee, bookends. To say that Dangarembga is an unskilled writer or undeserving of celebration would be in bad faith — the writer-activist has written groundbreaking works and was recently arrested while bravely protesting against Zimbabwe's autocratic crack-down. 

Admittedly, I read this book as a standalone from the remainder of the trilogy (as it was nominated for the Booker Prize). Still, “This Mournable Body” feels immensely weak against the rest of Dangarembga’s profile. 

Centered on the character of previous novels, Tambudzai, “This Mournable Body” dissects issues of war trauma, gender and a feeling of hopelessness that pervades both the novel’s characters and setting. Yet, the writing of the novel feels both probable and uninspiring. Dangarembga flits nonchalantly through imprecise metaphors (of hyenas, vines) and disposable characters, wrapping the book in a sense of confusion. Moments of tangible action, which should lock down readers’ attention for at least a page, feel distantly abstract. Even the moments that reveal the greatness of Dangarembga’s intentions — the profundity of her message that is most visible when one recounts the novel's plot as a whole — feel diluted. Easy to speed read, “This Mournable Body” is a nominee that seems too safe and too unremarkable for the 2020 Booker Prize.

— John Decker, Managing Arts Editor

Read our full review for “This Mournable Body” here.

Douglas Stuart, ‘Shuggie Bain’

“Shuggie Bain” is a novel that is quick to overwhelm the reader with its vivid and frequent depictions of tragedy, though in an unsustainable fashion. The reader immediately becomes emotionally invested in the broken family dynamics of alcoholic mother Agnes and her young son Shuggie Bain. However, just as Agnes’s processing of events is numbed by her incessant drinking and Shuggie’s by a childlike lack of understanding, the reader must, too, prevent themselves from being vulnerable and taking in the full force of the family’s misfortunes. Stuart does not give the reader a chance to come up for air between each chapter’s perils, so they have no choice but to distance themselves from each emotionally taxing misstep that they vicariously live through.

Perhaps if the committee selecting the Booker Prize winner is particularly mentally strong and willing to undergo the struggles Agnes and Shuggie face without shielding their eyes in the process, they will find “Shuggie Bain” moving and worthy of the prize. But if their reading of the novel resembles mine, then Stuart’s relentless creation of traumatizing obstacles for its protagonists will leave them needing a break rather than giving praise.

— Andrew Pluta, Daily Book Review Editor

Read our full review for “Shuggie Bain” here.

Avni Doshi, ‘Burnt Sugar’

“Burnt Sugar” is unlike anything I’ve read before. Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, debut author Avni Doshi unpacks a volatile mother-daughter relationship that often does more harm than good. It’s a story that exposes our ugly emotions — our biases and flaws — and the threads of love that still persist in our tangled network of relationships. The novel lives and breathes its setting — Pune, India — and gives unfamiliar readers a new perspective on the bustling subcontinent. “Burnt Sugar” is a fantastic, quick and captivating read for anyone, but especially for those of Indian heritage. 

Will “Burnt Sugar” win the 2020 Booker Prize? Unlikely. Does it deserve to? I think so, but as the daughter of Indian immigrants, I’m biased. The novel is unique in its piercing and unapologetic words. It makes us confront and pick apart our own relationships until we’re unsettled by our dependency on others. Yet, accessibility to Indian culture is a roadblock that could cost the novel a shot at the prize. Read “Burnt Sugar” for the thrill, but don’t expect it to shock the world.

— Trina Pal, Daily Arts Writer

Read our full review for “Burnt Sugar” here.

Brandon Taylor, ‘Real Life’

“Real Life” is a fascinating character study that dissects trauma as it relates to race, sexuality and mental health. We follow Wallace, a Black, queer PhD candidate at a predominately white university, as he navigates a number of difficult social situations that force him to confront his own neuroses. The incredibly rich narration Taylor presents through Wallace makes the novel’s slow pacing more than worthwhile. Wallace’s psychological development is allowed to unfold naturally; Taylor’s guiding hand is nearly invisible for the entirety of the novel, letting Wallace’s character speak for itself. This book’s likelihood of winning depends on the selection committee’s priorities. If they seek an experimental, groundbreaking story this year, “Real Life” won’t fit the bill. No narrative technique or device in this novel will blow readers away. However, what the novel does within its scope, it does extremely well. Taylor is modest in his aims, but greatly exceeds expectations, creating a gut-wrenching story that would certainly make for a fantastic Booker Prize winner.

— Sejjad Alkhalby, Daily Arts Writer

Read our full review for “Real Life” here.

 

THE LONGLIST

Gabriel Krauze, ‘Who They Was’

In the realm of Booker Prize nominees, “Who They Was” is like the scrappy, rag-tag small town team that somehow made it to the Regional Championship. You just want it to win, even if the odds are stacked against it.

The novel is rough around the edges — it does not fool the reader into accepting a tidy story tied up with a bow. This is a work of honesty more than it is a work of mastery, but Gabriel Krauze offers up skillfully layered narration and emotional depth rarely seen in a debut novel.

An unrelenting work of autofiction, “Who They Was” grips the reader in its tone of fragile apathy towards a violent way of life. The story is narrated by Snoopz, a young man living a dual life as a criminal and a university student — torn between two opposing paths.

Krauze compares each person’s life to a gigantic column, “you can’t ever see all the way around it in one go, so people only ever get to see the side that’s in their immediate view.” Yet this novel somehow captures every side of life all at once — we can’t wait to see what Krauze does next.

— Julian Wray, Daily Arts Writer

Read our full review for “Who They Was” here.

Hillary Mantel, ‘The Mirror and The Light’

Hilary Mantel, two-time winner of the Booker Prize, brings her critically acclaimed Wolf Hall series to an end that’s almost as decisive as the execution that kicks off the final installment of the series. “The Mirror and the Light,” more than anything, is the culmination of an 11-year character study of Thomas Cromwell, one of the closest confidantes of Henry VIII, a king best known for his six marriages that sparked the English Reformation. The novel covers Cromwell’s final years, before he was beheaded in 1540 for spurious charges of treason against the king. 

Though “The Mirror” is the third book in Mantel’s series, the strength of its well-developed and fleshed out characters help this novel stand on its own. Cromwell’s hopes and fears are palpable, as Mantel’s focus constantly circles back around to the litany of enemies he’s made on his climb to the top. The resulting profound sense of unease not only unseats the reader, it also plunges them deeper into the experience. Mantel capitalizes on the dread that the knowledge of history brings, and spends the novel building this tension up. She weaponizes the stress resulting from waiting for the other shoe to drop, and peppers the experience with heartfelt moments between the reader and Cromwell, endearing him further before his untimely death. Though “The Mirror and the Light” may not have made the shortlist for the Booker Prize this year, the legacy of Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy will certainly remain.

— Tate Lafrenier, Daily Arts Writer

Read our full review for “The Mirror and the Light” here.

Colum McCann, ‘Apeirogon’

“Apeirogon”' by Colum McCann is a literary feat of storytelling. Its story, based on the true tale of an Israeli father and a Palestinian father, both of whom violently lose their daughters, sneaks up on you. Very little of the novel is chronological narration; instead, McCann offers the reader small pieces of information until the picture is complete, and then he continues to fill it in. His masterful prose is poetic in style and flexible for the innovative format of the book — over one thousand “chapters,” most less than one page long. He combines meticulous research with lyrical language in a way that seeps every page in raw emotion — a difficult task for a book that is over 450 pages. McCann does not shy away from the length, or the distinctive storytelling style; instead, he embraces it. He uses the freedom that his chosen format gives him to tell a story in a new way, not chronologically, but emotionally. He reconstructs the experience of grief and mirrors the emotions of the fathers, by telling the story in such a scattershot way. Deeply moving, emotionally exhausting and literarily accomplished, “Apeirogon” captures the soul of its characters within its pages — and perhaps within the heart of the reader, as well.

— Emilia Ferrante, Daily Arts Writer

Read our full review for “Apeirogon” here.

Kiley Reid, ‘Such a Fun Age’

Kiley Reid’s debut novel “Such a Fun Age” is predictably included on the 2020 Booker Prize longlist. It received almost immediate recognition upon its publication — a trend that hasn’t faltered yet. 

“Such a Fun Age” explores the transactional relationship between a white blogger, Alix, and her Black babysitter, Emira. The book opens with a family emergency that prompts Alix to call for Emira’s service late one night and ends with a security guard accusing Emira of kidnapping Alix’s daughter. The effects of this incident stir different anxieties in both the women as well as larger discussions of race, privilege and class. 

Despite Reid’s ability to genuinely portray the broken systems that drive the character’s actions, while simultaneously challenging the reader’s own biases, the story is undermined by the emotional distance perpetrated by the overlapping narratives and artificial dialogue. These imperfections slow the pace of the novel and emphasize its abrupt ending. The novel provokes significant discussion, but its issues of progression keep it from being Booker Prize quality.

— Lilly Pearce, Daily Arts Writer

Read our full review for “Such a Fun Age” here.

Anne Tyler, ‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’

“Redhead by the Side of the Road,” Ann Tyler’s newest heartwarming novel, is a longlisted finalist for the Booker Prize this November. Drearily set in Baltimore, Tyler tells the story of Micah Mortimer, a fastidious man in his early forties forced to grapple with unexpected events and unrealized emotions. I could go on and on about Micah’s character and how Ann Tyler depicts his struggle to perceive those around him. 

“Redhead” was an enjoyable read and a relaxing diversion from the steady supply of books exploring themes of war, race and cruelty. Due to Tyler’s skillful characterization and fluid prose, “Redhead” is rightfully deserving of its nomination to the longlist. Yet as a result of its tranquil nature, I don’t think “Redhead” has even a remote shot at the Booker Prize. 

If the prize were determined by quality of writing alone, however, “Redhead” could be a legitimate contender. I’d go as far as to say Tyler’s prose is reminiscent of Hemingway, but the plot is too self-contained and parochial to win a prize originally meant to promote the best fiction of the British Commonwealth. Look to shortlisted books with a broader scope and a more enduring message for stronger contenders.

— Sam Mathisson, For The Daily

Read our full review for “Redhead by the Side of the Road” here.

Sophie Ward, ‘Love and Other Thought Experiments’

This novel had so much potential, which is why its bizarre unraveling felt like a sort of betrayal, like I had been cheated. Ward introduces the novel as an emotional story about the relationship between two partners, Rachel and Eliza, as they decide to embark on the journey of raising a child together. One night, Rachel wakes up in hysterics after having a nightmare in which an ant crawled into her eye and took up residence in her brain. She is convinced that this was not just a dream — that there is literally an ant inside of her skull. Eliza is dubious, but also wants to be supportive, though this night marks the beginnings of strain in their relationship. With that, I was initially very excited to read this novel, as it promised interconnected narratives, Murakami-esque surrealism and lesbians in love — all things that I typically cannot get enough of in literature. 

However, this novel revealed itself to actually be an unpleasant smorgasbord of several wildly different texts it was trying to be. Picture “Sophie’s World,” “Cloud Atlas” and some arbitrary science fiction novel about artificial intelligence put into a blender, except there are still huge chunks that weren’t blended properly and give you an off-putting jolt when you accidentally bite into one. At its core, “Love and Other Thought Experiments” attempts to be a commentary about love and the interdependence of human existence, but the random interjections of philosophy and artificial intelligence feel jarringly out of place, diluting the novel’s resulting effect to merely feeling frustrating and overly pretentious. The rapid and abrupt changes in perspectives between each chapter gave this novel an untethered feeling that ultimately made it difficult to connect and empathize with any single character. The characters felt static and the dialogue was stilted and awkward.

— Jo Chang, Senior Arts Editor

Read our full review for “Love and Other Thought Experiments” here.

C Pam Zhang, ‘How Much of These Hills is Gold’

C Pam Zhang’s debut novel “How Much of These Hills is Gold” follows two orphaned siblings after their father’s death. Displaced and homeless, Sam and Lucy must get along as they traverse across the hostile American West. This  novel’s greatest tool is Zhang’s divergence from traditional, John Wayne American Westerns. Zhang overlays complex questions of gender expression, race and belonging to tell a fresher, more inclusive Western. She focuses on human experience, deftly depicting frustrated siblings alone against an unforgivable Western terrain.

But despite Zhang’s solid storytelling, “How Much of These Hills is Gold” is unlikely to be the 2020 Booker Prize Winner. 

Weighed down by its own chapters, “How Much of These Hills is Gold” picks an indulgent conclusion disjoined with the story’s complex interrogations about belonging. The final chapters revel in angst and female suffering, tonally different and seemingly imported from another story. The final result undermines the novel’s core questions. Who gets to belong in America? Can you love a sibling you don't understand? As of the novel’s conclusion, we don’t yet know.

— Elizabeth Yoon, Daily Arts Writer

Read our full review for “How Much of These Hills is Gold” here.


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