Booker Prize 2020: Four debuts make shortlist as Hilary Mantel misses out

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Image caption,
This year's nominees are (clockwise from top left): Tsitsi Dangarembga, Avni Doshi, Maaza Mengiste, Douglas Stuart, Diane Cook and Brandon Taylor

Four debut novels have been included on the shortlist for this year's Booker Prize, but two-time winner Hilary Mantel has missed out.

Mantel had been tipped for a record third win for The Mirror and the Light.

Both previous titles in her trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, had won.

This year's nominees are Diane Cook, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Avni Doshi, Maaza Mengiste, Douglas Stuart and Brandon Taylor. All are based outside the UK.

The Booker Prize, the UK's most prestigious literary award, is open to any novel written in English by an author of any nationality.

Commenting on Mantel's omission, judge Lee Child said: "We thought it was an absolutely wonderful novel, no question about it... but there were books that were better, that's all I can say personally."

Image source, Els Zweerink
Image caption,
Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light was the final instalment in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy

The topics covered by the six nominees are wide-ranging, including stories about climate change, the hardship of life in Zimbabwe, dementia, and the women soldiers of 1935 Ethiopia.

"The shortlist of six came together unexpectedly, voices and characters resonating with us all even when very different," said Margaret Busby, chair of this year's judges. "We are delighted to help disseminate these chronicles of creative humanity to a global audience."

The 2020 shortlist:

  • Diane Cook - The New Wilderness
  • Tsitsi Dangarembga - This Mournable Body
  • Avni Doshi - Burnt Sugar
  • Maaza Mengiste -The Shadow King
  • Douglas Stuart - Shuggie Bain
  • Brandon Taylor - Real Life

The winner will be announced on 17 November.

Last year saw Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo share the £50,000 prize, breaking the Booker's own 1992 rule of awarding it to only one author.

'Impressive debuts and new and diverse voices'

By Rebecca Jones, BBC arts correspondent

Let's talk about what IS on the list before discussing what is not.

With promotional literary events postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic and 600 books published on a single day in September, prizes like the Booker provide much-needed attention, especially for first-time novelists.

This shortlist rewards four impressive debuts and introduces readers to new and diverse voices, from as far afield as India, Ethiopia and Scotland - although five of the six authors were either born or now live in America.

The subjects covered are broad-ranging. Climate change, dementia, racism and homophobia all feature. Heavy-going? Occasionally yes, but these six novels all provide their own rewards.

It is, undoubtedly, a fresh and exciting list.

But I am surprised there was no room for Hilary Mantel. While The Mirror and the Light might not be the best book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, it is still a tour de force and the ending stays with you long after you have finished the final page.

And I am astonished my personal favourite, Apeirogon by Colum McCann, did not make the cut. Hugely ambitious, it expands the very notion of the novel. I loved it. Read it anyway.

Here's some more information about this year's nominees and their books:

Diane Cook - The New Wilderness

Image source, Katherine Rondina

Debut US novelist Diane Cook lives in Brooklyn and has established herself as an accomplished short-story writer. She is a former producer for the radio show This American Life.

Her first novel tells the story of Bea and her five-year-old daughter, Agnes, who is wasting away in the smog and pollution of the metropolis they call home. To survive is to escape as they join a group of nomadic hunter gatherers. They slowly learn how to survive but the process creates an unexpected, troubling shift in their relationship.

Cook is currently writing a screenplay based on the novel and Warner Bros Television has also acquired the rights to develop it as a television series.

Tsitsi Dangarembga - This Mournable Body

Image source, Hannah Mentz

Tsitsi Dangarembga is a filmmaker and playwright. She was recently arrested in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, during a peaceful protest against government corruption. She is due to be in court on 18 September. English PEN and PEN International are calling for the immediate dropping of all charges.

This Mournable Body is the third book in a trilogy following Nervous Conditions (1988) - winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize - and The Book of Not (2006).

Returning to the protagonist of her first novel, Dangarembga tells the story of one young girl living in a run-down hostel in Harare. She's left her dead-end job and is struggling to forge a new life for herself but at every turn is thwarted, which drives her to breaking point.

Avni Doshi - Burnt Sugar

Image source, Sharon Haridas

Avni Doshi is a debut novelist who was born in New Jersey and is currently based in Dubai.

Burnt Sugar tells the story of the shifting power dynamics in a mother-daughter relationship when the parent, who previously enjoyed a wild life, is forced to let her child look after her as she gets older.

It's both a love story and a story about betrayal, as well as a look at the nature of false memory and how it affects our closest relationships.

Maaza Mengiste - The Shadow King

Image source, Booker

Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and now lives in New York. Her first novel was Beneath the Lion's Gaze, which was named one of The Guardian's 10 best contemporary African books.

The Shadow King is about an orphan girl named Hirut living in Ethiopia in 1935 amid the threat of invasion by Mussolini.

When the Ethiopian emperor goes into exile, Hirut disguises a peasant as him while she becomes his guard - only to find herself having to fight her own personal, unexpected war.

Douglas Stuart - Shuggie Bain

Image source, Clive Smith

Douglas Stuart grew up in Glasgow and now lives in New York, which he first made home in order to start his career in fashion design. He says the 1994 Booker winner How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman changed his life as it was one of the first times he saw his people and dialect on the page.

For his first move into novel writing, Stuart has taken that inspiration to write a story set in a poverty-stricken Glasgow. Here we follow Agnes Bain, who is descending into despair and alcoholism after the breakdown of her marriage.

All but one of her children have been driven away by her deterioration, and that child Shuggie struggles to support his mother while suffering huge personal problems of his own.

Brandon Taylor - Real Life

Image source, Bill Adams

Brandon Taylor hails from Alabama. He is the senior editor of Electric Literature's Recommended Reading and a staff writer at Literary Hub.

For his debut novel, Taylor tells the story of the biochemistry student Wallace, who after weeks of tireless lab work has to deal with its destruction by a torrid storm.

But weather disasters are shown to be the least of Wallace's troubles. He's isolated himself from his friends as a defence mechanism against his painful past. But now he finds that history coming back to haunt him.

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