A closer look at the 2021 Booker Prize shortlist

These six remarkable books are in the running for the best English language literary novels this week

The 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction Shortlist. Photo: The Booker Prizes
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It's Booker Prize time again this week, but good luck trying to pick a winner from this year's crop of the best English language literary novels. The lack of a standout favourite from these six remarkable books has nothing to do with quality, however, and everything to do with how tremendously distinct these tales are.

From luxuriant epics to historical dramas, contemporary satires to family sagas, all literary life is here – let The National be your guide to the book that will suit your reading tastes.

'No One Is Talking About This' by Patricia Lockwood: The satire of contemporary life

What is social media doing to us? American writer Patricia Lockwood’s debut explores all the absurdities, trivialities and toxicities of online life as her famous protagonist tours the world, talking to her fans about "the new slipstream of information". Structured as a series of wry observations formatted much like Twitter posts themselves, Lockwood gradually moves from a piercingly exact description of social media (her protagonist opines on the fashionable way to laugh) towards a kind of reality her narrator is not prepared for: actual grief and tragedy.

The way Lockwood chronicles her character’s journey of redemption without making her a total ogre is remarkable, and she makes some fascinating points about how incessant online discourse can take on a character of its own. What Lockwood has achieved is the opposite of social media homogeneity though; a singular, funny and often groundbreaking novel for our times.

'The Promise' by Damon Galgut: The satisfying family saga

Galgut has been shortlisted for the Booker twice previously, and it would be no surprise if The Promise went one better and won. Certainly, it marries his usual concerns – the effect of apartheid on generations of South African life – with a more expansive vision this time; the decline of a white family over 40 years.

Each 10-year period in The Promise is marked by a death of a significant family member – and frequently appalling behaviour – but there’s also the sense that Galgut is having fun with the literary form here. The Promise can be funny, it can be barbed, it can go off on weird tangents and it can address the reader’s prejudices directly. But for all these tricksy techniques it’s also incredibly, page-turningly readable.

'Bewilderment' by Richard Powers: The eco-conscious climate crisis novel

We made Richard Powers’s Bewilderment one of The National’s books of the month for September – just before it made the shortlist – and re-reading it for this Booker round-up, we’re even more convinced that it’s the most timely and important novel on this list.

As astrobiologist Theo and his son aged 9 try to cope with the death of their much-loved partner and mother, Robin becomes increasingly troubled by the fate of the creatures on planet Earth. Theo’s only means of succour for his boy is to transport him to the worlds he imagines in his research, and it works beautifully. A counterpoint to the crushing anxieties of existence in the 21st century, like the act of reading itself, it’s a hymn to the power of the imagination.

'Great Circle' by Maggie Shipstead: The huge, century spanning epic

This time last year, we were sent a proof of a curious book; a massive, century-spanning tale of a daredevil aviator who goes missing on a Pole to Pole aerial expedition in the 1950s, and the faded Hollywood star who is cast to play her in a biopic decades later. It was intriguing enough to make The National's pick of 2021 back in January.

But, we admit, it’s so entertaining and eager to please (and move) that it didn't immediately strike us as Booker Prize-winning material. Actually, the way Shipstead marshals the spread of 20th-century history and the ridiculousness of modern day Los Angeles is something special; there's nothing wrong, after all, in celebrating a rich, compulsively readable epic full of brilliantly drawn characters.

'The Fortune Men' by Nadifa Mohamed: The true-life historical drama

While she was studying for her history and politics degree, Somali-British writer Mohamed came across a picture of a Somali sailor imprisoned in 1950s Cardiff. It transpired that her father knew Mahmood Mattan, but not much more was understood about his death by hanging in that prison.

The sad story of a man wrongly found guilty of the murder of a shopkeeper, mainly because of the colour of his skin, stuck with Mohamed. Her third book fictionalises his tragic circumstances, drawing a complex and nuanced picture of a charismatic man who never realised the danger he was in. But it also brings to life in wonderful detail the cosmopolitan docklands that contributed so much to an energetic Welsh city full of possibility and energy.

'A Passage North' by Anuk Arudpragasam: The post-war trauma tale

War and conflict are, by their very nature, dramatic tropes for literary fiction. It’s what happens in the quietness after the guns have stopped, which is less explored in novels, which is why Arudpragasam’s latest novel is so interesting.

A telephone call informs his Tamil narrator, Krishan, that his grandmother’s caretaker has died under strange circumstances, impelling Krishan to return to Sri Lanka’s Northern Province for the funeral. He has been in Delhi, far away from the civil war but laden with survivor’s guilt, and so all the old traumas resurface as soon as he goes back home.

Arudpragasam said recently that he didn’t want to write about the violence itself but the effect of not being able to forget it, even if it wasn’t experienced first-hand. All of which makes A Passage North a serious but profound novel about finding your own kind of peace.

Updated: November 02, 2021, 3:37 AM