#2021InternationalBooker: the shadow panel’s shortlist

After the official International Booker Prize shortlist last month, we on the shadow panel are ready to reveal our shortlist. We’ve scored our reading, crunched the numbers, and this is what rose to the top for us:

  • At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated from French by Anna Moschovakis (Pushkin Press).
  • When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West (Pushkin Press).
  • The Employees by Olga Ravn, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken (Lolli Editions).
  • Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Fitzcarraldo Editions).
  • In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale (Fitzcarraldo Editions).
  • Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý, translated from Swedish by Nichola Smalley (And Other Stories).

For the first time, our group shortlist matches my personal top six – so, as you can imagine, I’m especially happy with this selection. The International Booker winner will be announced on Wednesday 2 June, and we’ll have our shadow winner by then as well.

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker Prize here.

#2021InternationalBooker: The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez

This is Mariana Enríquez’ second story collection to appear in English translation by Megan McDowell (though it was her first to be published in the original Spanish). I would have loved Things We Lost in the Fire to be longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize (as it was then), so I was pleased to see that this collection had made it.

Enríquez tells tales of urban horror, with vivid unsettling images such as the dead baby that returns as a ghost in ‘Angelita Unearthed’, though not necessarily as the kind of spirit that the protagonist anticipates. Then there’s ‘The Well’, in which a woman tries to excise the fears that have blighted her life by returning to a witch she visited as a child. There’s a real sense of nightmare about it. 

My favourite piece in the book is the novella ‘Kids Who Come Back’. This is the story of Mechi, who works at the archive for lost children in Buenos Aires. Mechi’s life (and other people’s) is turned upside down when missing children start to reappear – though all is not as it seems. After reading this, I’m really looking forward to Enríquez’ novel Our Share of Night, which is being published in McDowell’s translation next year. 

Published by Granta Books.

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker Prize here.

Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor

In the past, I’ve described Jon McGregor as a writer who brings out the strangeness in the everyday. Thinking about it, he also writes powerfully about trauma. Both of these aspects come together in his new novel – though at first glance, Lean Fall Stand may seem something of a departure for him, not least because part of it is set in the Antarctic.

In the first third, three men are on a research expedition: newcomers Thomas Myers and Luke Adebayo, and veteran field technician Robert ‘Doc’ Wright. When we meet them, they’re in trouble, separated and disoriented. Caught in a snowstorm, Thomas observes that what he’s heard from other people couldn’t prepare him for the reality:

He had heard this described as like being inside a jet engine. As though people knew what being inside a jet engine was like. People said these things, but the words didn’t always fit. 

This is the first example of a key theme in Lean Fall Stand: the difficulty of capturing experience in language. Nevertheless, McGregor’s prose often evokes a visceral reaction in me. Towards the end of the Antarctic section, Doc’s viewpoint breaks apart, and it’s harrowing stuff:

He was the assistant. General. The technical general assistant. He was required to assist. He was required to take action. He had the experience required. He moved towards the radio. He went over on his weak right foot and hit the floor hard. He floored the numb faceness of his raw. No. Rawed the rub. The rum. The nub. 

What’s happened here is that Doc has had a stroke. The second part of the novel is told mainly from the viewpoint of Doc’s wife Anna, who finds herself forced to adapt to a new way of living. This is reflected in the prose: at first, pieces of calm language from the hospital lodge themselves in the narration (“It’s Robert. It’s your husband. A bit of a stroke. We need you to.”) Later, the repetitive routines of care start to take over:

She had to get some food into him before his blood sugar dropped too low. She had to leave him in the armchair while she went down to the kitchen, and she had to make him promise not to move. She had to listen out for any crashes or noises whilst she sliced an apple, and spread toast, and made tea. She had to ignore the phone while she ran the breakfast tray upstairs. She had to cut the toast into small pieces so he could eat it.

We also see the laborious process of Doc’s recovery. The stroke has taken away both of the couple’s old lives: Anna, an academic, is ostensibly being “kept in the loop” of her old job, but it’s not hard to see that she’s being pushed outside of it. Doc is now Robert full-time, gone from being the person who tells others how to handle the Antarctic, to someone who’s no longer in control of even the basics. 

Robert’s attempts to regain speech are particularly significant, because he’s the only person who could explain what happened out there. Thomas didn’t make it back from the Antarctic, so there has to be an inquest, which needs Robert’s testimony. 

In the final part of Lean Fall Stand, Robert attends a speech therapy group (much of this is seen from the group leader’s viewpoint, to whom Robert can only be the person in front of her, not the person he was). At this group, Robert is able to rebuild his experiences into a story and an identity that he can assert for himself. 

Lean Fall Stand is an appropriately jagged novel, in terms of its language and its structure. Not every thread gets a full ending, but then this book is all about imperfect recollections and lives made patchwork. It’s another fine piece of work by one of my essential writers. 

Published by Fourth Estate.

Read more of my reviews of Jon McGregor’s work here.

#2021InternationalBooker: The Perfect Nine by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

I was looking forward to this, my first time reading Ngũgĩ, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a version of the Gĩkũyũ people’s myth of origin: the story of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi and their ten daughters (the tenth, Warigia, makes them a Perfect Nine). 

In Ngũgĩ’s telling (translated from Gĩkũyũ by the author) , 99 suitors arrive seeking the hand of one of the Perfect Nine. Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi set them a quest: to go up the mountain in search of a hair from an ogre’s tongue, which will give Warigia the ability to walk. Not all of the men will return, but the Perfect Nine (minus Warigia) go with them, and are at least as capable, if not more so. 

The Perfect Nine is written in verse, with rhythms of oral storytelling, and plenty of wonder and adventure. I enjoyed reading it very much.

Published by Harvill Secker.

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker Prize here.

#2021InternationalBooker: the official shortlist

The shortlist for this year’s International Booker Prize was announced on Thursday:

  • At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated from French by Anna Moschovakis (Pushkin Press).
  • The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell (Granta Books).
  • When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West (Pushkin Press).
  • The Employees by Olga Ravn, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken (Lolli Editions).
  • In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale (Fitzcarraldo Editions).
  • The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti (Picador).

This is one of those occasions where the shortlist comes from a slightly different parallel reading universe as far as I’m concerned. At the time of writing this post, I have read (though not reviewed) all of the shortlisted books except When We Cease to Understand the World. I’ve heard great things about that book and expect to rate it highly… Most of the others would make by own personal shortlist… But I don’t rate The War of the Poor so highly. Just that one book makes such a difference.

Anyway, this is part of what makes reading along with the prize so enjoyable. The shadow panel will be announcing our own shortlist later. In the meantime, I’ll continue to post reviews and read the last couple of books I have left.

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker Prize here.

#2021InternationalBooker: Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý

With some books, the voice is key, and here’s one of them. The narrator of Wretchedness is a cellist living in Malmö. As the novel begins, he’s waiting by the canal for a couple of friends and colleagues, a guitarist and composer. He is approached by a homeless man who wants a smoke. As the cellist speaks to this man, he is reminded of his own past, the poverty he escaped. He realises that, if life had turned out differently, he could have been this guy. 

The book then switches back and forth between the cellist’s past and present, contrasting the hard realities of his earlier life with his more abstract thoughts on music, in a torrent of language. Here he is, for example, discovering the freeing power of the radio:

…I listened and thought and listened and soon learnt to recognise the sounds I liked, the ones that sounded different to the ones I was used to, but also words and sounds that in different ways related to the life I recognised, the pain and the rage and the shame and the hate and the madness, like when I, at Eleonora’s place, got to hear Godflesh and Slayer for the first time, and at that point, as I listened, it was like my life got better, like it really, properly, got noticeably better just cos some guy had stood there yelling in a studio…

translation from swedish by nichola smalley

The dense, chapter-long paragraphs of Wretchedness suggest that maybe this man can’t outrun his past after all, because it’s so inextricably mixed up with his present thoughts. Whatever the case, this book is a vivid and powerful journey for the reader.

Published by And Other Stories.

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker Prize here.

#2021InternationalBooker: The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard

This slim volume (under 100 pages) introduced me to an unfamiliar name from history: Thomas Müntzer, a preacher who became a leading figure in the German Peasants’ War of 1525. He opposed both the Roman Catholic Church and Martin Luther, and he went from questioning the prevailing theology to encouraging more general revolt against the ruling authorities. 

There’s a real sense in Vuillard’s prose of dynamic and open-ended societal change. For example, I loved this passage describing the effects of the printing press:

Fifty years earlier, a molten substance had flowed from Mainz over the rest of Europe, flowed between the hills of every town, between the letters of every name, in the gutters, between every twist and turn of thought; and every letter, every fragment of an idea, every punctuation mark had found itself cast in a bit of metal. 

Translation from french by mark polizzotti

Vuillard places Müntzer in a line of popular rebels and preachers, including Wat Tyler and Jan Hus. The restlessness of rebellion is reflected in the way Vuillard writes and structures his book (and, of course, Polizzotti’s translation). Ultimately, The War of the Poor may be a little too slight to really shine for me, but it certainly has powerful moments. 

Published by Picador.

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker Prize here.

#2021InternationalBooker: Summer Brother by Jaap Robben

I enjoyed Jaap Robben’s earlier novel, You Have Me to Love. Like that book, Summer Brother (translated from Dutch by David Doherty) is narrated by a boy who has to adapt to a new family situation. In this case it’s 13-year-old Brian Chevalier, who lives in a caravan with his divorced father Maurice. Life isn’t easy: Maurice will do what it takes to get by, which leads to frequent absences, a certain reputation, and pressure from the landlords to settle his debts.

Brian has a severely disabled brother, Lucien, who lives in an institution. At the start of the novel, Maurice is asked if he’ll take Lucien home for the summer while the institution is being renovated. He’s not keen at first, but soon changes his mind on learning that he’ll be paid for the trouble.

Brian then has to learn to live with and care for his brother, who’s unable to speak. There’s always a risk that a character like Lucien will exist for the edification of others, rather than being allowed their own dignity. I think Robben largely avoids this, though Summer Brother is definitely Brian’s story rather than Lucien’s.

Something I particularly like is the way that Brian can’t process or articulate the emotional changes he’s going through. We see him become more compassionate towards Lucien as he spends more time with him, and Brian even starts to have a crush on Selma, a girl living at the institution. But Brian doesn’t explain the changes it his feelings, if he even notices them all. In that way, Robben puts Brian in a position analogous to Lucien’s, of not being able to express his innermost thoughts. It’s quite touching to see Brian grow so close to Lucien.

Published by World Editions.

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker Prize here.

#2021InternationalBooker: the shadow panel’s view on the longlist

Last week saw the announcement of the 2021 International Booker Prize longlist, and after a particularly long wait this year, it was both a relief and a pleasure to finally see the list unveiled. It’s important to start off this response to that announcement, then, by acknowledging the hard work of this year’s judges. Thanks to them, we have a manageable overview of the best translated fiction published in the UK over the past year, and we look forward to getting to know more about these writers and books over the coming months.

If we examine the make-up of the list, we see that the geographical and gender split is fairly par for the course. Seven of the featured writers are women, while five of the longlisted authors hail from outside Europe. Many would prefer to see fewer European books chosen, but this ratio is unsurprising when you look at how many of the books published in the UK originally appeared in Europe.  It’s perhaps more suprising that only one title from Asia was selected, with nothing from Japan or the South Asia region, but there is a book from Africa on the longlist, which is a fairly rare occurrence for the prize.

In terms of the publishers, the longlist, as seems to be the case most years now, reflects the efforts of a host of wonderful small presses to broaden the UK’s literary horizons.  Fitzcarraldo Editions and Pushkin Press lead the way with two inclusions each, and stalwarts of translated fiction prize lists such as And Other Stories, Granta Books, MacLehose Press and Peirene Press also made the cut. It’s particularly pleasing to see newcomers Lolli Editions and World Editions rewarded for their efforts over the past year.

Of course, with a limited number of spots available, it’s inevitable that some publishers will miss out. The big surprise here is the absence of Charco Press, with several potential longlisters going unrewarded. Unfortunately, other independent presses, including Istros Books, Tilted Axis Press, Honford Star and Europa Editions, also failed to make the list. We remain hopeful that future years will see their turn in the spotlight arrive.

Looking at the books selected, one fairly striking feature emerges. The Booker Prizes pride themselves for championing the finest in fiction, yet this year’s panel seems almost to have gone out of its way to question what fiction is. As was the case in 2019, one of Fitzcarraldo Editions’ white-covered titles has made the cut, and several other inclusions appear to be pushing the boundaries of the Booker guidelines. We observe this move with interest, but also with caution, lest the prize begin to drift away from its core premise – fiction.

As a result, perhaps, of this focus, the make-up of the longlist is rather different to what many readers would have expected. When discussing possible longlisters before the announcement, books such as Andrés Neuman’s Fracture, Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults, Jon Fosse’s I is Another and Luis Sagasti’s A Musical Offering were frequently mentioned, with Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs thought most likely to appear on the list. While we did consider calling in one or more of these books, it was felt that given the judges’ deliberate shift away from the higher-profile works, we would respect their decision and focus instead on their selections. We trust this decision will be justified.

In any case, with the longlist now public, there’s a simple task ahead of us. It’s time to read the world, or at least that part of it the official judges have chosen to explore. We’ll be taking our time, though, so don’t expect the shadow judges to reveal their shortlist when the official panel does; it’s likely that we’ll give ourselves a few extra weeks to ensure we cover as much as possible. And, of course, there’s one more way in which our path may diverge from theirs. While we’re following in the official judges’ footsteps for the first stage of the journey, once we get to crafting a shortlist, we’ll be setting out on our own, regardless of what they may decide. Let’s see whether this year’s voyage of discovery will be smooth sailing or entail some rather bumpy roads. As always, the joy will lie in the journey, not the destination…

#2021InternationalBooker: the longlist

The International Booker Prize longlist for 2021 was announced on Tuesday, and here it is:

  • I Live in the Slums by Can Xue, translated from Chinese by Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping (Yale University Press).
  • At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated from French by Anna Moschovakis (Pushkin Press).
  • The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated from Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway (Peirene Press).
  • The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell (Granta Books).
  • When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West (Pushkin Press).
  • The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, translated from Gikuyu by the author (Harvill Secker).
  • The Employees by Olga Ravn, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken (Lolli Editions).
  • Summer Brother by Jaap Robben, translated from Dutch by David Doherty (World Editions).
  • An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky, translated from German by Jackie Smith (MacLehose Press).
  • Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Fitzcarraldo Editions).
  • In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale (Fitzcarraldo Editions).
  • Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichy, translated from Swedish by Nichola Smalley (And Other Stories).
  • The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti (Picador).

We’ll have an official response from the Shadow Panel in a few days. For now, I’ve linked above to the books I’ve already reviewed, and will add more as I read my way through the list. This is always something I look forward to, and I’m interested to see what I’ll find this year.

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