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Goldsmiths Prize shortlist 2021

For me, October means the Goldsmiths Prize. Last year was the first time I’d managed to read the whole shortlist, and it was such an adventure. I was looking forward to this year’s shortlist, and it turns out to be full of books that I want to read:

  • Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett (Jonathan Cape)
  • Assembly by Natasha Brown (Hamish Hamilton)
  • A Shock by Keith Ridgway (Picador)
  • This One Sky Day by Leone Ross (Faber & Faber)
  • Sterling Karat Gold by Isabel Waidner (Peninsula Press)
  • little scratch by Rebecca Watson (Faber & Faber)

As of this post, I have read two: I loved Keith Ridgway’s previous novel, Hawthorn & Child, so I was always going to read A Shock. It didn’t disappoint, and I’m glad it has been recognised here. I hadn’t got along with Isabel Waidner’s work previously, but I anticipated that Sterling Karat Gold might make this prize and/or the Republic of Consciousness. So I decided to get ahead, and I really enjoyed it.

Of the other four nominees, the only author I’ve read is Leone Ross. Her short story ‘The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant’ left a deep impression on me, so I’m looking forward to reading a full-length novel of hers. I know Claire-Louise Bennett’s name from the reputation of her previous book Pond. Assembly and little scratch are debut works that I’ve heard very good things about. It’s all looking positive to me.

As always, I will link to my reviews of the books in the list above as I post them.

#2021InternationalBooker: and the winner is…

There was never any chance that the International Booker Prize judges would choose the same winner as the shadow panel this year, because we went for Minor Detail, which didn’t make it to the official shortlist (though it should have, if you ask me).

However, I’m pleased because the jury chose my favourite book from the official shortlist, which is…

At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop (tr. Anna Moschovakis)

Congratulations to the winners!

#2021InternationalBooker: the shadow panel’s winner

The official winner of this year’s International Booker Prize will be announced later today. Before then, it’s time to announce the shadow panel’s winner. We choose a winner from our own shadow shortlist, so sometimes it matches the official result, and sometimes… Well, read on.

This was our tenth year of shadowing the International Booker (and its predecessor, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), but it was also a year of some firsts. We were able to meet virtually via Zoom for the first time – no mean feat when we have members in the UK, Australia, India and USA. We also introduced a ‘Eurovision-style’ scoring system for the shadow shortlist, where each panel member ranked the titles and gave them 10 points, 7, 5, 3, 2 and 1. After adding up the scores, we can now reveal the results:

In 6th place, with 25 points… Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý (tr. Nichola Smalley).

In 5th place, with 31 points… At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop (tr. Anna Moschovakis).

In 4th place, with 37 points… The Employees by Olga Ravn (tr. Martin Aitken).

In 3rd place, with 39 points… When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut (tr. Adrian Nathan West).

In 2nd place, with 52 points… In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova (tr. Sasha Dugdale).

Which means our shadow winner, with a grand total of 68 points, is…

Minor Detail by Adania Shibli (tr. Elisabeth Jaquette)

This is only the second time in shadow panel history that our winner hasn’t appeared on the official shortlist. It’s also another strong showing for Fitzcarraldo Editions, who have published four of our five shadow winners since 2017, and took the top two slots this year.

Congratulations to the shadow winners, and thanks to my fellow shadow panellists: Tony, Stu, Bellezza, Vivek, Frances, Areeb, Barbara and Oisin. It’s been another fun year – I wonder what the official jury will have chosen?

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

Pew by Catherine Lacey: Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize

Today’s post is part of a blog tour covering the shortlist for this year’s Dylan Thomas Prize (the winner of which will be announced on Thursday). I’m reviewing Pew, the third novel by Catherine Lacey. I’ve previously written about her debut, Nobody Is Ever Missing; like that earlier book, Pew focuses on a protagonist who’s elusive even to themself. 

Lacey’s narrator is an individual with no memory or identifiable characteristics. They’re dubbed Pew because they are found in the church of a small American town. The townsfolk welcome Pew at first, but Pew’s reluctance to say anything unnerves them, and their attitudes change. There will be a Forgiveness Festival in town at the end of the week, and the reader has reason to suspect that this may not be as wholesome as it sounds… 

With Pew staying silent, conversations are one-sided. Pew becomes an empty presence, and the town’s inhabitants fill the void with their own stories. The novel explores questions of what makes a person, and how individuals and communities relate to each other. Underneath it all is the figure of Pew, who might be looking for a place to belong, or might not need one after all. Lacey’s book is enigmatic, thought-provoking, and a pleasure to read. 

Published by Granta Books.

#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 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: 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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