Diane Cook, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Avni Doshi, Maaza Mengiste, Douglas Stuart and Brandon Taylor have been shortlisted for this year's Booker Prize, in a selection packed with independent presses but featuring the notable absence of two-time winner Hilary Mantel.
This year's finalists for the £50,000 award were revealed at a virtual press conference by literary director Gaby Wood and chair of judges Margaret Busby who presided over a judging panel including Lee Child and Lemn Sissay.
The list features very healthy representation for independent publishers with Daunt Books scooping a nomination for its newly founded Originals imprint, alongside Oneworld, Faber & Faber and Canongate (all part of the Independent Alliance), while larger imprints Picador and Hamish Hamilton are also in the mix.
However, notably there is no place on the list for favourite Mantel, whose final book in her Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & The Light (Fourth Estate), could have seen her make history as the only three-time winner of the prize. Both her previous instalments have taken the award.
Of the six shortlisted writers, three are from the US: Diane Cook, Avni Doshi and Brandon Taylor. Another two, Scottish author Douglas Stuart and Ethiopia-born Maaza Mengiste, now live in the US. The sixth author, Tsitsi Dangarembga, hails from Zimbabwe; the writer is facing court charges after being arrested in a peaceful Harare protest.
Cook is shortlisted for The New Wilderness (Oneworld), a debut novel about a mother’s battle to save her daughter in a world ravaged by climate change. Cook, a former producer for “This American Life” based in Brooklyn, released her debut short story collection Man v Nature (Transworld) in 2015 and is currently adapting the novel into a screenplay with Warner Bros planning a TV series.
Also picked was This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber), the third novel in a trilogy that began with Nervous Conditions (Ayebia Clarke) and follows main character Tambudzai, living in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare and anxious about her prospects after leaving a stagnant job. The author is a filmmaker, playwright, and director of the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa Trust.
Judges also chose Doshi's debut Burnt Sugar (Hamish Hamilton), a love story and tale of betrayal about a mother and daughter. Based in Dubai, she wrote eight drafts of the novel before it was first published in India under the title Girl in White Cotton, winning the 2013 Tibor Jones South Asia Prize.
Also in the running is The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Canongate), set in Ethiopia in 1935, which explores female power and what it means to be a woman at war. Mengiste, the first writer from Ethiopia to make the shortlist, is a professor in the MFA in Creative Writing & Literary Translation programme at Queens College, City University of New York.
Stuart makes the final six for debut Shuggie Bain (Picador), a Glasgow-based tale set in 1981 about a young boy dealing with his mother's alcohol addiction. Stuart was born and raised in Glasgow himself and, after graduating from the Royal College of Art in London, moved to New York City for a career in fashion design.
There is also a nod for Real Life by Taylor (Daunt Books), which centres on a biochemistry student who, over the course of a weekend, has to grapple with past trauma and the future. Taylor, senior editor of Electric Literature's Recommended Reading and a staff writer at Literary Hub, lives in the US.
Busby said: “The novels on this year's shortlist range in setting from an unusual child growing up in working-class Glasgow in the 1980s, to a woman coping with a post-colonial nightmare in Zimbabwe. Along the way we meet a man struggling with racism on a university campus, join a trek in the wilderness after an environmental disaster, eavesdrop on a woman coping with her ageing mother as they travel across India and in an exploration of female power, and discover how ordinary people rose up in 1930s Ethiopia to defend their country against invading Italians. It’s a wondrous and enriching variety of stories, and hugely exciting as well.”
Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, said: “Every year, judging the Booker Prize is an act of discovery. What’s out there, how can we widen the net, how do these books seem when compared to one another, how do they fare when re-read? These are questions judges always ask themselves, and each other.
“This year there has perhaps been more discovery than usual, both in the sense that debut novels are in the majority, and due to the fact that the judges themselves were surprised to find that was the case. Why were they surprised? They were focusing on the books. No one wins the Booker Prize because of who they are. A book wins because of what it does. What has transpired is a testament to the judges’ faith in—among other things—first fictions: they have found these writers to have much to say, and found them to have said it in a way that became even richer on a second reading.”
The Bookseller books editor Alice O'Keeffe commented: “My first reaction is, wow! Even for a prize that thrives on controversy, the omission of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light from the Booker shortlist today is a big shock. She is, for my money, among the greatest novelists writing today. But this year’s judges, as is their prerogative, have clearly favoured new voices over established names as no fewer than four of the shortlisted books are debuts, which I think might be a record (at least during my tenure as books editor). There’s plenty for booksellers to handsell since many of these writers will be largely unknown to UK readers - that’s both a challenge and an opportunity. Congratulations to all.”
Shuggie Bain is the bestseller of the shortlist through Nielsen BookScan's UK TCM thus far, selling 6,574 copies, with Real Life next at 4,810 copies. The Shadow King has sold 4,577 copies, Burnt Sugar 4,125, and This Mournable Body, 1,697. The New Wilderness has sold just 903 copies through the TCM thus far.
By contrast, the Mantel Cromwell novels have sold 2.1 million copies, for £17.8m, via Nielsen BookScan's TCM.
Because of Covid-19's impact in the publishing industry, the Booker Prize Foundation is waiving this year's £5,000 contribution towards marketing and public events made by publishers of each of the shortlisted books. Nor will there will be the normal additional £5,000 contribution from the winning publisher.
Mark Damazer, chair of the Booker Prize Foundation, said: “The Booker Prize Foundation values its long-term relationship with publishers and we want to support them in this obviously difficult period. We hope the waiving of the contribution will be particularly helpful for the four publishers from the Independent Alliance on the shortlist this year. Four Culture will continue to promote the prize with all its customary vigour and we look forward to working with all six publishers to reach readers across the world.”
This year's winner will be revealed on on 17th November from Camden arts venue The Roundhouse after the traditional Guildhall dinner was axed because of the pandemic.