Booker Prize 2020: Shortlist Thoughts and Plans

Earlier this week, the Booker Prize for Fiction announced their 2020 shortlist:

The Booker Prize 2020 | The Booker Prizes

Thanks to the reading slump that hit me hard at the end of August and carried into the first half of September, I’ve only scratched the surface of the longlist so far and thus don’t have much in the way of significant reactions. But, upon first impression, I am fairly pleased with this result!

Real Life

The one title I was really rooting for did make the cut- Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. I loved this book, and would not be at all disappointed to see it take the win, though it’s too soon for me to place my bets. The other longlist read I would’ve been happy to see place (from what I’ve read up to this point) was C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold; I’ll still have a very positive review for that one coming soon and would recommend it despite its absence here.

The Shadow King

The other book from the shortlist I’ve completed thus far is Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King; it was a 3-star read for me, but I’m not surprised to see it here. There’s always one on the shortlist, it seems, that I can appreciate without truly liking very much, and this year I think that’s this book. I think it’s an important and beautiful story that many readers are right to love, though it just didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I don’t particularly want to see it win, but that certainly wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen in 2020, we’ll leave it at that.

Shuggie Bain

Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain is one of my current reads; I’m taking it slowly as I pull out of my reading slump, but I am enjoying it so far and don’t have any reason to complain about its placement on the shortlist. I’m not sure I’m excited enough about it to want it to win, but it’s too early to say for sure (I’m about 1/3 through). But to have read nearly half the shortlist already considering how few of the longlistees I’ve gotten to at this point is very encouraging!

Actually, I’ve only read one book from the longlist so far that didn’t make the cut: Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, which I enjoyed more than I thought I would but didn’t expect to see advance. So, no real complaints about how things have turned out, based on what I’ve read to date.

Burnt Sugar

Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar is the only title on the shortlist I’m somewhat unhappy to see, and that’s only because I wasn’t initially drawn to the synopsis and thus wasn’t sure I’d take the time to read it. This is the only title of the shortlist that I’m still uncertain about getting around to- it looks like a bit of a challenge to get a copy in the US, and I’m still not particularly looking forward to reading it, despite having now seen some encouraging reviews. But I will definitely read this if it wins, and will maybe read it if it doesn’t.

The New Wilderness

I’ve not seen any rave reviews of Diane Cook’s dystopian The New Wilderness yet, so this is the biggest surprise on the shortlist for me. But I was already curious about the premise and managed to grab a copy through my library, so I’ll definitely read this one. I don’t really envision it winning, especially after Atwood’s dystopian novel took half the win last year, but I’ll have to read before forming a firmer opinion.

Speaking of surprises, I think the biggest shock of this shortlist is what isn’t included- Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light! So many readers (not excluding myself) were considering Mantel a shoo-in for the win, after her notable Booker Prize successes with the previous two books in her Cromwell series. I am still planning to read and review The Mirror and the Light regardless of it’s exclusion here, and actually I am pleased not to see it advance. It’s a very long book that would’ve impacted my motivation to continue with the shortlist right now, but moreso I’m excited by the prospect of removing the “safe” choice from the possibilities- now it seems that anything could happen, each of these six books is just as likely to win as the next. It gives the prize a bit more thrill, in a year when we really needed that, I think.

This Mournable Body

Last but certainly not least is Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body; like Mantel’s book, this is also a third-in-a-series title, though from what I hear this can be read as a standalone. I read the first book in this trilogy years ago and remember quite liking it though I’m hazy on the details now. I’m still looking forward to rereading that first volume (Nervous Conditions) and then diving into this one, and am further encouraged to see that the judges considered it shortlist material. Will they think it winner material? I can’t guess yet, but time will tell.

It’s an excitingly diverse shortlist, despite the fact that at least three of the authors are American (Avni Doshi would be the fourth, though she’s currently living in Dubai and Burnt Sugar was not originally published in the US… which isn’t to say Doshi isn’t American, but that perhaps her book is not best represented with that label.) The settings of the books take us from the US, to Ethiopia, to Scotland, to India, to Zimbabwe, and to an unspecified (but likely American) futuristic City. Four of the nominated authors are women.

Thanks to my library resuming interloan services, I do have all but Burnt Sugar on hand from this shortlist, so I expect to read at least 5 out of the 6.

I’ve also got Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road checked out (I would have cancelled the hold except it came in the same day the shortlist was announced; now that I have it, it is very short…). Additionally I purchased a copy of Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward, which I was hoping to see advance but can’t really comment on at this point, and earlier in the year I also bought Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light thanks to the Women’s Prize. I’m unlikely to read Colum McCann’s Apeirogon now, though I have a few suggested alternatives (own voices authors who haven’t been accused of sexual misconduct) on my TBR, including Susan Abulhawa’s Against the Loveless World, which I’d like to read regardless. Otherwise, I’m unlikely to read Gabriel Krauze’s Who They Was at all now, as it’s hard to get ahold of in the US and I wasn’t especially interested in it when I read the blurb, though I have heard some great things about it recently.

All told, this makes it likely that I will end up reading 10 out of 13 of the longlist titles; tracking down Burnt Sugar for shortlist completion purposes would increase the tally, but I’m undecided on that at present. (If you’ve read it, please advise!)

The winner is scheduled to be announced October 27th; I’ll prioritize reviews for any Booker titles I complete before then, but this is a difficult time of year for me to keep up with blogging so I can’t make guarantees, unfortunately. Nevertheless, it’s always great fun following the Booker prize and the reactions of other readers, so please share all your shortlist thoughts below!

The Literary Elephant

20 thoughts on “Booker Prize 2020: Shortlist Thoughts and Plans”

  1. Great post!! We share a lot of opinions on the shortlist – I was also planning to skip Burnt Sugar and Who They Was. I wasn’t aware that Colum McCann was accused of sexual misconduct, but I looked it up and…yikes. It was hard for me to get excited about Apeirogon, so now I’ll definitely not read it.

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    1. Thanks! It’s such fun to find a fellow prize reader with similar thoughts on the list! ๐Ÿ™‚
      Any other year I might have been more interested in Burnt Sugar, but I’m about at my limit for motherhood books in 2020. I really hope The New Wilderness focuses more on the dystopian climate details than the mother-daughter relationship or I may struggle with that one as well. And it really is a shame about McCann, it sounds like Apeirogon is getting a lot of love from the readers who are picking it up anyway, but I really don’t want to support that kind of behavior in any way. It’s neat that we have such exact overlap with the titles we’re planning to read though- I’ll enjoy following along with the rest of your reviews!

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  2. What a great post! I have been considering adding Nervous Conditions to my TBR, so I’ll look forward to your review on the 3rd volume to help me decide on that ๐Ÿ™‚ I was also surprised about Diane Cook’s book making to the shortlist as I haven’t read any very positive reviews either. It does seem to me that they were embarrassed about last year’s fiasco with giving Atwood a prize for her “career” (???) so tried to make a point perhaps by excluding the Mantel and adding lots of new writers. A pity, as I think she deserved it, but I am excited about how fresh and interesting this shortlist is!

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    1. Thank you! Ooh, that’s a good point about excluding Mantel because of what happened last year with Atwood. There are a good number of debuts on this year’s list and not any really huge authors, so you could be on to something there. I do feel some sympathy for Mantel because so many are saying the third book is the best in her Cromwell trilogy; I’ll probably feel more strongly about her absence here once I’ve actually read the book! I hope as I read more of the shortlist I’ll continue to feel good about the selections that did make the cut though; and I hope you’ll like Nervous Conditions if you end up picking it up! I’m eager for the reread and will definitely post some thoughts on both the 1st and 3rd Dangarembga novels when I get to them.

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    1. Thanks! The New Wilderness sounds so promising, I really hope it’ll live up to expectations. And of course I’m thrilled Real Life is on your list, I thought that was such an impressive book! I hope you’ll enjoy your shortlist readings when you get to them. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  3. I have to say I was pretty disappointed by this shortlist. Even putting the omission of Mantel aside (which I think was an awful decision – I can see the rationale for not *longlisting* her, but this just feels deliberately malicious, especially given Lee Child’s comments) they’ve managed to shortlist most of the books I was least interested in reading! I’ve not heard good things about the Cook, I don’t really want to read the Dangarembga as it’s the third in a trilogy, and like you, I don’t feel that drawn to the Doshi simply because of the subject-matter. I was kind of interested in the Stuart but am not sure I’m in the mood for a depressing novel written in dialect right now…

    Of the two I have read or am reading, I wasn’t totally won over by Real Life and am still trying to figure out why – there’s much to admire in it, and I thought the portrayal of Wallace’s interior world was great, but everyone else was so undifferentiated. I’m not very far through The Shadow King so the jury’s still out, but I don’t think it’s going to blow me away. Weirdly, although I said the Zhang and the Reid ‘weren’t Booker contenders’ when they were first longlisted, I’d actually be happier to see either/both of them on the shortlist – I think they both have a freshness and an energy that, for me, this list lacks.

    Anyway, apologies for putting this rant on your blog – I should probably have written my own post about the shortlist on my blog, but having only read 1 of the shortlisted books in full, I didn’t really feel I could. I’ve had to remind myself that I’ve never really got on with any Booker shortlists, so I shouldn’t be surprised ๐Ÿ™‚

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    1. No worries, I enjoy the conversation! ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m sorry to hear you’re disappointed with the way the shortlist turned out, though I can understand what you mean about the lack of freshness- despite there being several debuts these do all seem like heavy books and, as far as I’m aware, fairly straightforward in structure and prose. Even the dialect writing in Shuggie Bain seems mostly confined to the dialogue, at least as far as I’ve read, so I would largely agree that there’s a surprising lack of inventiveness and playfulness overall. I really would’ve been happy to see Zhang advance! And although I never expected Reid to, I really wouldn’t have minded seeing her here either. I expect I’ll feel more strongly about this turnout once I’ve made my way through more of the longlist…

      I think it would have been more shocking to me if Mantel had missed the longlist altogether, but I can agree that her exclusion at this point feels based more on optics than merit, and Lee Child’s remark felt very out of line! For a judge of the prize to say anything negative about any of the books up for the award- even an implied negative- is in such bad taste. After so much speculation that Mantel would dominate the prizes this year this really seems like a sad reception for the end of her trilogy.

      I hope The Shadow King will surprise you so that you’ll end up liking at least one of the shortlisted books! I struggled with it a bit but ultimately appreciated the read, so I’ll be very interested in your final thoughts. I adored Wallace and Real Life in general, though I think it has a very Sally Rooney vibe so I can understand it being somewhat controversial. I don’t think you’re wrong about the characters feeling undifferentiated, though that wasn’t enough to mar the experience for me. And I am also wary about the Cook- it sounds good to me in theory, but I wish I’d seen even one person really love it at this point. My thoughts on the shortlist might change entirely once I’ve actually read the books, haha. But I’m very intrigued to see which direction they’ll go for the winner!

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      1. I think you’ve nailed my issue with the shortlist – regardless of the quality of the individual books, together they feel like the kind of heavy, worthy novels that someone who doesn’t really like literary fiction thinks are ‘literary fiction’, if that makes sense! There’s nothing that has the kind of spark and inventiveness of the Zhang or Reid, or even Mantel herself (The Mirror and the Light is actually a really funny novel, surprisingly!) Even though Real Life didn’t completely click with me, I agree it deserves to be on the shortlist, but I wish the rest of the titles were more of a mix.

        I will try and give The Shadow King a fair shot. So far I like the Hirut and Selassie sections but am less keen on the various other digressions. Often, Mengiste’s writing is brilliant, but sometimes it can feel melodramatic and clichรฉd.

        Yes, bad form from Child. I suspect he thinks he’s punching up but (given he’s a super successful male commercial fiction writer) it felt like punching down.

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      2. That makes sense, and I think that’s a good analogy. Though I am happy about some of the individual titles, as a whole the list doesn’t look much like what I generally look for in literary fiction these days. Perhaps it doesn’t feel modern enough as a whole, which seems odd to say for newly published books, but it feels to me maybe like a shortlist that belongs in the Booker archive perhaps more than it belongs in this particular moment. I am glad to hear the Mirror and the Light is funny and inventive though, I do still need to read that one as soon as I get over being daunted by its size!

        That sounds very much like my experience with The Shadow King as well (and perhaps you’ve finished it by now, I’m sorry for the late reply!). I also felt that there were sections of strong writing, somewhat diluted by attention to secondary characters and a straying into cliches. But I’m glad you were liking parts of the book, at least!

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  4. I’m assuming Real Life is going to win because the Booker website had a glitch that showed Real Life as the winner. They’ve since claimed they haven’t chosen a winner yet, but then why would that web page be set up like that? What a fiasco.

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    1. Ah, there’s always something. Last year a bookshop put the ‘Booker Prize Winner!’ stickers on Atwood’s novel right after the shortlist announcement, and that did turn out to be half correct, though I think there was a whole article about it being a careless mistake. It does seem odd for a website to ‘glitch’ that way, but I think generally the judges aren’t scheduled to meet to vote on a winner until much closer to the time of the announcement, so it’s hard to speculate on what could have happened with that and why. I’d be thrilled to see Real Life win though!

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      1. I watched the live stream of the winner announcement(s) and it did look like she rather wanted to! I don’t think anyone ever has and I’m not sure what would’ve happened if she’d tried. She was clearly embarrassed and to her credit did try to keep the focus more on Evaristo. My unhappiness with her win lies entirely with the judges’ decision and presentation, I actually thought Atwood handled it as well as she could in that situation.

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