Four Books From The Booker Prize 2020 Longlist

I have read four books on this year’s Booker Prize longlist so far. All four are debut novels – there are eight in total on the 13-strong longlist – and two of them have made the shortlist.

Such A Fun Age Kiley ReidSuch A Fun Age by Kiley Reid is about a young African-American woman, Emira, who is accused of abducting the white toddler she is looking after in an upmarket grocery store in Philadelphia. The toddler’s mother, Alix Chamberlain, is a wealthy white social media influencer who is at pains to show Emira how “woke” she is, lacking the self-awareness to realise that her attempts to be more progressive end up becoming the total opposite, and often result in her becoming more controlling and insecure. After the incident in the grocery store, Emira starts a relationship with Kelley Copeland, a white man who has a connection with Alix’s past. The novel is a slow-burn after the initial confrontation scene and the structure is a bit all over the place, but overall, ‘Such A Fun Age’ is subtly written with a great sense of irony and skewers “white saviour” hypocrisy very effectively.

Who Who They Was Gabriel KrauzeWho They Was by Gabriel Krauze is a work of autofiction based on the author’s experience as a member of a North London gang in the late 2000s. The main protagonist is the son of Polish immigrants living in South Kilburn who goes by the name Snoopz to his friends. He is a drug dealer who studies English Literature at Queen Mary, University of London, and eventually ends up in HMP Feltham, just as the author did. Authenticity is clearly the main selling point here, both in the slang-heavy but very readable prose and adrenalin-driven scenes depicting his life of crime, most notably the violent mugging in the heart-stopping opening chapter. It is also refreshing that the novel doesn’t fall into a wholly predictable narrative about redemption. Most importantly, ‘Who They Was’ demonstrates how autofiction can be truly effective as a distinct genre and much more than just a stylised form of memoir when used appropriately. I thought this book deserved a place on the shortlist for its innovative style, but unfortunately my views were not shared by this year’s judging panel…

Shuggie Bain Douglas StuartShuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart was one of the books I featured in my longlist predictions post in July, and the only one of the three I correctly guessed which has made it to the shortlist. It tells the story of a young boy growing up in Glasgow in the 1980s at a time when the steelworks and shipyards are in decline. The novel opens with Shuggie having left home aged 15 in the early 1990s and then looks back at formative episodes of his early childhood. His alcoholic mother, Agnes, lives with her parents, Wullie and Lizzie, and her three “weans” in a high-rise flat in the Sighthill estate. Her second husband, Hugh “Shug” Bain, is a womanising taxi driver and the father of Agnes’ youngest child, Shuggie. Shug finds a council house for the family in Pithead but it does not resemble the Thatcherite dream of upward mobility and he soon departs. Although in her 40s, Agnes is often treated by others as though she is a teenager and her alcoholism is depicted in its full horror. When Agnes’ older children are no longer around, it is left up to Shuggie to take care of her and the tenderness of their relationship is captured with realism and compassion. This is a striking debut novel which stands a good chance of winning the overall prize this year.

The New Wilderness Diane CookThe New Wilderness by Diane Cook has also made this year’s shortlist and is a dystopian novel in which Bea, Glen and their daughter Agnes escape the smog-filled City to live in the last unpolluted refuge called the Wilderness State along with 17 other volunteers as part of a study to see if humans can successfully coexist with nature. The mother-daughter dynamic between Bea and Agnes is the most interesting aspect of the novel. Agnes thrives under the new conditions whereas Bea struggles a lot with the change, despite having chosen to move there in order to protect Agnes’ health when she suffers from respiratory problems in the City. The environmental themes are intriguing, but the pace is slow and I didn’t find the supporting characters particularly interesting. I also think some of the dystopian elements are a bit too vague and not very clearly explained, which makes it harder to fully appreciate the context the characters find themselves in. Many thanks to Oneworld Publications for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.

Which books on this year’s Booker Prize longlist have you enjoyed reading?

12 Comments

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12 responses to “Four Books From The Booker Prize 2020 Longlist

  1. For the first time in many years I didn’t rush out and start reading the longlisted books. I’ve just finished Mirror and the Light and how that didn’t get shortlisted is beyond my comprehension.
    I also have Burnt Sugar and How Much of These Hills is Gold waiting to be read.

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  2. Having read the entire longlist I can only conclude that the Booker Prize no longer seeks to find the best novel of the year. That said, I am backing Maaza Mengiste The Shadow King. Set in the 1930s it outlines the Italian invasion of what was then Abyssinia (Ethiopia) when Mussolini tried a land grab, while Europe was looking the other way at the more “romantic” Spanish Civil War. Mengiste highlights the place of women in that conflict, Aster, Hirut, Faven and the Cook who for plot reasons does not get an identifiable name until the end. I have seen a review which describes this as overwritten, but I cannot agree. I did not rate Shuggie Bean as highly as an alternative title, Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan which never made it on to the longlist even, but is a novel I strongly recommend. Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body is clearly a metaphor for the fate of Zimbabwe, but i suspect if you had not read the previous two volumes of the trilogy (which i have) the reader would be hard pressed to make out what was going on. But it would not be the first trilogy to receive the prize on the third volume, so all bets are off on that one. I agree entirely with your view of The New Wilderness. Avni Doshi’s novel Burnt Sugar and Brandon Taylor’s Real Life are both debut novels but the best novels of the year? I don’t think so. If the prize is about diversity then it ticks all the boxes. But 8 first novels out of 13, with 4 out of 6 in the shortlist is nothing short of miraculous.

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  3. I thought Shuggie Bain was an absolutely extraordinary book. I have to confess it’s the only one on the shortlist I’ve read this year, but I’m rooting for it anyway just because I loved it so much!

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  4. I made false starts on three of these earlier in the year but went back to two of them: the Reid I finished and enjoyed much more than expected, the Cook I’m still working through (and finding rather plodding in the ways you discuss); the Stuart I gave up on after 100 pages … though if it wins I will go back to it someday. If not Shuggie Bain, I’d expect The Shadow King to win this year. Of the other nominees, I’m also currently reading Real Life and Love and Other Thought Experiments and liking them both.

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  5. I haven’t managed t read any of the longlist titles yet, but Shuggie Bain and Such a Fun Age are definitely on my TBR.

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  6. Pat

    Hi, well thanks to Corona….I’ve had the time to read the full short list, and write them up. I tend to agree with you about the Cook, “another pessimistic dystopian novel, with some interesting dynamics between mother and daughter” I’ve placed it sixth out of six. As some of the other comments I really enjoyed The shadow king, my favourite but would like to point out how good I thought This mournable body to be.

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