When 2020’s Booker shortlist was first announced, media coverage largely focused on its “diversity”. The primary lens through which these six books were viewed was its “giant-killing” character: Mantel and Amis, for example, had been expelled from the inner sanctum of the prize – one which many had already decided was Mantel’s to lose – in favour of debut novelists and “little-known” names. But hidden only barely behind this headline was, in the summer of Black Lives Matter, the shortlist’s Booker-unusual heterogeneity: two African women, the Ethiopian-American Maaza Mengiste and the Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga, were accompanied by Avni Doshi, an American-Indian based in Dubai, and Brandon Taylor, an African-American gay man. The two white authors were both US-based: Douglas Stuart, an ex-pat Scot, and Diane Cook, a former producer of This American Life. Not one of these books is written by a novelist currently working in the UK. On the one hand, given the heavily American slant of the authors, this was proof that those concerns of some years ago – that the Booker would drift away from its “Commonwealth” roots and begin to reward authors eligible for prizes elsewhere – were not necessarily misplaced (although this isn’t the same as them mattering); on the other, it was hard to remember a Booker shortlist that had offered so varied and exciting an array of voices.
What this coverage missed, however, was how cohesive a shortlist these six novels in fact make. The events of all but one take place within about seventy years of each other; that odd-one-out, Cook’s The New Wilderness, is also the only novel that does not adopt a rigorously realist approach. All of these novels hinge on parent-child relationships; all investigate the impacts of trauma; almost all exhibit a tight grain, focusing on quotidian detail and sometimes exhausting list-making. Ultimately, most of these novels also don’t add up to the sum of their parts, or don’t quite meet their potential. Three are of a quality that might, in this reader’s view, commend them as a winner of the prize. But almost every one of these books is in one way or another a flawed attempt by a talented author to address the violence of our times. Only one book even of the shortlist’s best three, I think, escapes the traps into which the others fall.
I’ll get to which of these novels I think uniquely meets its mark, but let me start with a good example of one which doesn’t, and why: Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, a novel which traces the life of its titular Glaswegian youth from poverty-stricken childhood on a 1980s housing estate to a poverty-stricken tenement in the 1990s. Stuart has been clear that the novel is semi-autobiographical: like Shuggie’s, Stuart’s own mother experienced alcoholism; her addiction destroyed her relationships, her body and her mind. Shuggie’s mother is Agnes, who stumbles from ill-advised affair to ill-advised affair, and who – we are shown – was subject to abuse from her own parents. Stuart renders Thatcher’s Glasgow as an unremittingly grim place, with even those moments of something approaching consolation that are grasped by his characters ultimately feeling empty or disappointing. In this, Shuggie’s milieu mirrors how he feels about life with his mother: “the stretches of sobriety were fleeting and unpredictable and not to be fully enjoyed” (p. 219). Shuggie Bain is not a novel to have fun with.
It is, though, hugely successful in its feat of misery-building: whenever a moment seems to have happened that might herald better times ahead, Stuart swipes it away again. “At first the gaffer, a sinewy pragmatic man, had given the well-practice speeches,” we read about the first employment of Shuggie’s elder brother, which it is hoped will provide the family with an income and teach him a skill. “As the apprentice went on, and Leek kept staring through him, the speeches slowly filled with bitter bile” (p. 147). Amid these unremitting degradations, Agnes keeps going – “everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high” (p. 268) – and this gruelling endurance is encouraged, too, in the reader. Within this context, there are many memorable episodes and lines – at times Shuggie Bain reads more immediately and truly than any other novel on this list. But it does tend to meander, and its wider purpose feels opaque. Economic inequalities of the sort experienced by the Bains remain rife; alcoholism still destroys families; children are still exploited. But Shuggie Bain is – as these quotations may have shown – too sunk in the direct experience of Shuggie necessarily to read outwards beyond it. Still, a novel can reserve the right to aim only to create empathy in the reader for its main character. The issue here is that the protagonist of Shuggie Bain is really Agnes – and yet the novel can’t quite bring itself into sufficient proximity to her. She remains closed off from us throughout, distant and mysterious. The book struggles, then, to bridge several of its gaps. It could have done with some tighter editing: a trimming of its sometimes leaden prose might have helped its purpose peek more proudly out.
Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar, on the other hand, performs some similar tricks but much more supply – and therefore successfully. Its protagonist, Antara, is an Indian woman living in Pune with her American husband; as her mother, the tellingly named Tara, succumbs to dementia and becomes more and more dependent upon her daughter, Antara must reckon with their troubled past and fraught relationship. Like Agnes, Tara is the pivotal character of the novel; but, unlike Stuart, Doshi provides us through flashbacks with just enough access to her life to understand its impacts. Tara was forced into a controlling marriage, and squeezed into an uncomfortable domestic shape by a commanding mother-in-law; she spent the rest of her life – and all of Antara’s itinerant childhood – trying to escape from other people’s control (she “always ran from anything that felt like oppression” (p. 52). This results in an almost deliberately dysfunctional life for the both of them, and Antara is brought up first in an ashram and then at a convent school. Neither of these cultish environments encouraged her to develop a self. As Tara grew older and more bitter, she too took to blocking off Antara’s paths and permitted self-expressions. As Antara in turn grows older, and begins to reckon with the prospect of her own motherhood, we see in economical detail how the consequences of parental abuse can travel through generations.
Perhaps Burnt Sugar works so well because all of its characters, not just the mother figure, are distant and attenuated: at one point, Antara muses that “she cannot remember what I felt for Ma at that time because the feeling lacked a familiar name” (p. 112) – in other words, she is unable to express her emotions, and cannot therefore fully experience them. This is not an usual feeling for Antara: the novel ends with her literally shut out from her own family, waiting to be let back in. Self-discovery is threatening to her: at one point, she ceases to see a therapist “because she asked too many questions” (p. 178). This is a novel, in other words, about the inability to connect – and it succeeds beautifully in creating a hugely compelling narrative which nevertheless exhibits the coolness its characters feel. Antara’s husband – a gently abusive presence himself, more from ignorance than intent, but no less damagingly – “tells everyone there were no jarring charges when [she] moved into his flat, that [her] life merged seamlessly with his” (p. 21). This is a novel about people learning how to live in a way that has weight.
If it sounds as if Burnt Sugar might be the solitary success of this shortlist that I proposed earlier, it isn’t, quite: it is beautifully written and wrought, if by its end a little on the nose; yet it cannot fail but to leave the reader locked out by novel’s end, like its protagonist. It is, though, a very good book – which alas Mengiste’s The Shadow King never quite manages to be. Baggily structured and written in a curiously prolix style, in its better moments it reminds me, and comes with the endorsement, of Aminatta Forna – but without the passion, the fire, that fills that writer’s prose. The story of an orphan, Hirut, who is taken in as a maid by an aristocratic family in 1930s Ethiopia, the novel seeks to provide an alternative narrative of Mussolini’s invasion of Haile Selassie’s kingdom of 1935. Hirut’s master/guardian is one of Selassie’s leading generals, but as the war becomes one of partisan attrition in the peaks and dips of Ethiophia’s Highlands, it is the women who have fled the towns and villages that become more and more central to the story – and critical to the conflict, or at least the survival of the Ethiopian nation as embodied in its people (the Emperor, after all, flees to Bath to listen to classical music on his phonograph). The binaries of war, however, are broken down when Hirut encounters an Italian war photographer, Ettore.
Few of these strands are fully fleshed-out, however: Selassi gets some interludes which feel almost like satire or parody, except they are imbued with what one assumes is meant to be emotional significance; Ettore and Hirut’s relationship – if that’s what it is – is under-developed and swamped by events; the eponymous Shadow King – a sort of guerrilla figurehead almost conjured into existence by the women of the war – doesn’t appear until half-way through the book. There is a lot going on: Hirut’s interactions with her adoptive guardians, theirs with each other; the war, but also the culture that predates and survives it; the Italians get some chapters in an attempt to depict events from their perspective; there’s a frame narrative which shunts the action forwards to 1974, the year before Selassie’s death. If Burnt Sugar is a novel about people who feel little, The Shadow King is one about people who do too much. This is part of the novel’s project – its women achieve more than is imagined for them, and in the face of obstacles worse than they might have feared. But it asks a lot of the novel’s spine, and it bows to accommodate the weight.
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body – which takes its title from an essay by Teju Cole, in which he shows how Western society’s reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attack of 2015 emphasised the manner in which it under-values suffering in the global south, but also how societies are more capable of damaging themselves than any external enemy – is also a book in which much happens. But its characters – in particular the protaginist Tambudzai, who has previously appeared in Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not – are much more clearly and confidently drawn, and they therefore carry the burden of the eventful plot through which they move. The setting here is Harare of the late-1990s, and the reader finds Tambudzai close to rock-botton within it, living in a hostel and out of work, the economy of post-independence Zimbabwe has not proven to be good for her – or for many of her contemporaries. This is simultaneously a novel of the Western tradition and thoroughly done with it, aware of the damage it does to people like Tambudzai.
This Mournable Body is therefore a novel suffused with righteous anger – but also the frustrated selfishness it can encourage. In an early scene, she refuses to help a woman she knows from the hostel, beset by a crowd because of the way she is dresse, mostly so the crowd will never know of the conditions they share; throughout, she openly expresses emotions often coded as ugly in the novels of the Western bourgeoisie, such as envy and bitterness. She imagines that everyone has it better (“You had not believed there was such a thing on this earth as a European without money” [p. 164]); but then – particularly in the case of Zimbabwe’s white elite – she is not exactly wrong. Indeed, Tambudzai is only in the straits she is in because she could not stand to bend to the unspoken rules of the post-colonial economy: at the PR agency where she worked, her copywriting was routinely claimed by her white colleagues, and she resigned in protest. Harare, however, wears her down. When she reconnects with on her co-workers, she learns that their new firm’s clients “are from Sweden, Denmark, some from Germany. Places like that” (p. 242). Zimbabwe, in other words, still does not work for Zimbabweans. But this time, Tambudzai signs up.
Dangarembga writes some very funny scenes about the tourist company Tambudzai joins – they specialist in “ghetto safaris”, touring rich Westerners around poverty-stricken neighbourhoods and villages, but in an entirely sanitised way that allows the travellers to feel worldly without risk. The novel’s dialogue is often fizzing with dark humour. No one emerges well from such close proximity to the compromises of Mugabe-era Zimbabwe; and yet the novel’s ending is hopeful in its return to Tambudzai’s ancestral home, its recommitment to heritage and community – even in the face of all that assails it. Dangarembga paints a picture of a complicit society – one which, in her words during a recent interview of the LRB Bookshop podcast, allowed guerillas to become their government, and which now faces those consequences. But she also shows how, in the context of a world which still seeks to oppress its people, Zimbabwe can reclaim itself by reimagining itself. “Your education is not only in your head anymore,” we read at the very end of the novel. In this moment, colonial education becomes of utility to the educated, rather than merely the educator. Tambudzai is compromised – but also contains the potential to move beyond the one-way exchange that has placed in such subordination. This is a powerful ending, and the novel is a powerful embodiment of the theme, and I can see it taking the prize for its temerity and tenderness.
This Mournable Body, then, is one of the three best novels on the shortlist. It is a picaresque, an episodic litany, and this may not be to every reader’s tastes (mine included). But it is very smart, and builds a world and a cast of characters which feel not just extremely real – but urgent. Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, too, aims for urgency – its vision of a relatively near-future, in which the planet is a blasted heath and its environment ruined by human activity, is created expressly to shock the reader, to scare us into action. It reads a little like Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, both in that it is modishly dystopian and a little like a novel treatment for a movie which does not yet exist. In this it is extremely well turned: it is probably the most readable novel on the shortlist, and easily the most tightly, intelligently plotted. All of its characters – even this novel’s central mother-daughter relationship of Bea and Agnes – are, however, more like casting-call sketches than fully realised human beings: the cynical alpha male, the thoughtful professor, the regretful female collaborator. In part, this might be deliberate – the novel centres on a group of people who have opted to leave the poisoned, polluted City to live primitive lives in nature’s last bailiwick, the Wilderness State; primitive lives lead, perhaps, to primordial types, the very notion of character breaking down as bourgeois reality disintegrates. Certainly the opening scene of Bea giving birth to a baby already dead, burying it and then walking away from the grave as if little has happened suggests that the hard-scrabble stuff of mere survival alters her perceptions of what can be coped with. Similarly, the cynical alpha male, Carl, predicts that the thoughtful professor’s style of consensual leadership “won’t last forever” – in other words, mores change as circumstances do. But the novel doesn’t quite make – and certainly does not sell – its putative case that this requires a different approach to characterisation, and besides I’d be troubled by the idea that somehow humans without the trappings of Western civilisation are not-quite-humans. The apocalypse may come and go, but interiority needs closer attention than this.
The novel’s world-building, too, feels less fleshed-out than it might have been. The literary readers that the Booker attracts will perhaps feel this less keenly, but for a reader who even dabbles in the science fictional there will be too many gaps in this future for it quite to convince. Human civilisation has retreated into a huge City, for example, which has taken over almost all land and in which people live in endless high-rises, supported by barren industrial landscapes which harvest resources and play host to servers. How did this happen? We’re not told. Why do only children seem to sicken from the pollution? This is unclear. How has there not been political instability brought about by these clearly intolerable conditions, particularly given the rumours of the Private Lands where the elite live in luxury? We don’t know. Likewise, the mechanics of the Wilderness State – which is surrounded by a road and kept in pristine, edenic purity by a network of Rangers with whom Bea’s group must periodically check in – feel decidedly uncertain, not least in how it – and only it – has been spared the ecological devastation clearly in place elsewhere, or how a region traversible by foot and ringable by road can also contain the range of landscapes the group hike through and over. In other words, both characters and setting serve the specific story Cook has designed them to tell – but in the absence of cromulence in its underpinnings that story can, whatever the virtues of its purpose, feel rather thin.
This question of texture brings us to what I think is not just the best book on this shortlist, but possibly the best I’ve read all year: Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. The story of a gay African-American from the gritty end of the deep South, it is a campus novel with many layers, in which the protagonist is quietly, but viciously, excluded from the campus. Every one of this novel’s interactions is slick with fraught social tension, tiny micro-aggressions and entirely unspoken, always unacknowledged and sometimes (though rarely) unintended injustices. Taylor manages to conjure these moments in which nothing and yet everything is said, and does so magnetically. He limits himself to only a few set-pieces – a lake-side night-time party, a dinner at a friend’s house, a meeting in the laboratory where the novel’s protagonist, Wallace, works away at his thesis – and yet pours so much significance into these moments that they reveal the volume that events truly contain, however placid their surface. A characteristic formulation might be: “She hates him because he works, but he works only so that people might not hate him” (p. 98); in other words it is impossible in the world of Real Life to do right. Wallace himself is beaten out of shape by the ways in which his background of poverty, his race and his sexuality not just lock him out of the society to which he strives to belong, but actively encourage or cue people to attack him; we learn later on that he is the victim of childhood sexual abuse. As in Burnt Sugar, the sins of one generation pay dividends in the next.
Wallace is a repressed character, one who rarely acts on the dark observations some part of him is constantly making (on one of the few occasions he does, disaster ensues). “When I left it behind me,” he confesses late in the novel, “when I got up the money to go to school and get away, I sealed it all behind me, because when you go to another place you don’t have to carry the past with you” (p. 201). But, of course, you do; and, likewise, every present will beset you with further obstacles, different kinds of violence. To learn to deal with one kind is to learn to accept there will be others. Instead, Wallace is for much of the novel caught between knowing he is a victim, understanding the impacts of injustice, but incapable of doing anything about it. Like Burnt Sugar, Real Life deliberately keeps the reader at arm’s-length; unlike that otherwise excellent novel, Taylor’s turns this into a positive, into part of the effect – the message – of the novel. Taylor has written an acutely elegant, if also deeply discomfiting, depiction of the Catch-22 in which so many are trapped:
He could say any of the thing he has wanted to say since he came here, about how they treat him, about how they look at him, about what it feels like when the only people who look like him are the janitors, and they regard him with suspicion. He could say one million things, but he knows that none would matter. (p. 255)
Real Life is beautifully written in its furious restraint. In how it expresses itself, the novel captures something true about the ways in which many people are forced to express themselves. Every part of Taylor’s novelistic project, then – its prose, its structure, its characterisation, its setting – complement and conspire with the others. Some readers have accused its remarkably crisp prose of betraying its roots in an MFA programme, of reading superficially or obnoxiously; all this misses the novel’s point, and the manner in which it refines the vulgarities of the society to which Wallace so desperately seeks admission. It is the debut novel of a writer already praised for his short fiction, but it is preternaturally mature and alive to what the novel can do. I can’t think of a foot it puts wrong, once on admits its project – from complicating the cliché of the strong, silent Black man to rejecting the common frameworks of the “queer” novel, even the tropes it brushes past are eschewed and transformed in the course of its pages. If ultimately the 2020 Booker shortlist is rather less diverse in its subject matter as it is in the backgrounds of its authors, or if many of these books unbalance themselves in one or another, Real Life is as deserving a Booker winner as any novel that has ever won the prize. And, yes, it is better than the Mantel.