NEW YORK – A barbed political satire about the fall of an African dictator, told from the perspective of talking animals. A mordantly comic novel about the inescapable horrors of racism in America. A bleak but slyly funny story that explores the trauma of Sri Lanka’s civil wars.
These potent satirical novels are among the six finalists for the Booker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards.
This year’s shortlisted novels, announced at a news conference on Tuesday, included authors from five countries and four continents, and encompassed a diverse range of prose styles and subject matters, from quiet, introspective literary fiction to fantasy and magical realism.
Several of the novels recognised by judges this year deploy humour, myth and allegory to tackle painful chapters of history. In her novel Glory, Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo obliquely tackles the downfall of autocrat Robert Mugabe, through a narrative featuring a cast of animals – horses, donkeys, dogs, goats, chickens and a crocodile.
The Seven Moons Of Maali Almeida, a mythic story by Sri Lankan novelist Shehan Karunatilaka, follows a photographer who wakes up dead, in an underworld where he encounters victims of political violence.
And in his novel The Trees, Percival Everett lampoons the stain of racism in America, with a story about a pair of black detectives who investigate a series of murders that echoes the lynching of Emmett Till.
“One of the great powers of language is to make you laugh, even in the middle of terrible things,” Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum and the chair of this year’s judges, said during a news conference on Tuesday.
The other authors on the shortlist are Irish writer Claire Keegan for Small Things Like These, a slim novel about the unmarried women and their children who suffered in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries; English fantasy writer Alan Garner for Treacle Walker, a dreamlike story about a boy who has magical visions; and American novelist Elizabeth Strout for Oh William!, about a grieving woman who helps her ex-husband investigate his troubled family history.
Founded in 1969, the Booker Prize is one of the most coveted literary prizes in the world. Previous winners include acclaimed writers like V.S. Naipaul, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and Hilary Mantel. It can cement a writer’s reputation or launch a literary career, as it did for debut novelists like Douglas Stuart and Aravind Adiga.
This year’s judges – who included critic Shahidha Bari, historian Helen Castor, and writers M. John Harrison and Alain Mabanckou – made their selections from 169 novels that were published between Oct 1, 2021 and Sept 30, 2022 and submitted by publishers. The winner, who will receive a prize of £50,000 (S$80,800) will be announced at a ceremony in London on Oct 17.
While the prize was previously open only to writers from Britain, Ireland, the Commonwealth and Zimbabwe, the judges changed the rules in 2014, extending eligibility to all English-language novelists whose work is released in Britain or Ireland.
The change prompted concerns that American writers would dominate among the nominees and winners. Since the prize parameters were expanded, two American authors, Paul Beatty and George Saunders, have won, while 18 Americans have been shortlisted, accounting for more than a third of all finalists.
This year, that pattern continued. Americans accounted for six of the 13 novelists on the longlist, among them Karen Joy Fowler, Leila Mottley, Hernan Diaz and Selby Wynn Schwartz. Two of the six shortlisted writers, Strout and Everett, are American.
Announcing the finalists on Tuesday, the judges emphasised that the shortlist does not reflect a referendum on the state of British fiction, and that nationality is not a consideration when judges make their selections.
Rather, the wide range of nationalities and literary styles among the finalists highlights the richness and the diversity of English-language literature from across the globe, Mr MacGregor said.
He said: “There’s a lot of understandable nervousness in the world at large about the dominance of English, the tyranny of this one language.”
He noted that the finalists this year underscore how varied English prose can be and how it is always evolving. “The prize is a moment for everyone to pause and to marvel at what English as a language can actually do, what is possible in English, what can be thought and felt, what can be endured and dreamt in the hands of a great writer.” NYTIMES