Awards of any kind are weighted with subjectivity and competition, two qualities that can make them seem unilluminating, corrupting, or just plain useless. Yet the public is still drawn to what critics and judges deem the best of the best: We closely watch the Oscars and the Emmys, and pore over Pulitzer Prize–winning works. This week, with the announcement of the 2020 Booker Prize longlist, avid and casual readers alike have a new group of novels to dive into, before the winner is named later this year.
In the past, the Booker Prize has come under scrutiny for a lack of diversity among its nominees. This year, though, the judges have chosen to elevate several authors of color, whose books encompass a breadth of experiences and perspectives; among them are Tsitsi Dangarembga, for This Mournable Body; Kiley Reid, for Such a Fun Age; and Brandon Taylor, for Real Life. Also longlisted is the two-time winner Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light, the last novel in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy.
For those who may already be caught up on the recent selections, the Booker Prize announcement is a nudge to revisit winners of the past two years, all books featuring the voices of women. Last year’s prize was shared by Margaret Atwood, for The Testaments, her long-awaited follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale, and Bernardine Evaristo, for Girl, Woman, Other, a beautiful exploration of the intersecting lives of 12 characters, many of them Black women, over decades. And Anna Burns’s Milkman, the 2018 winner, is a stream-of-consciousness novel set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland that plays with the concept of an open secret.
Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.
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What We’re Reading
Hilary Mantel takes Thomas Cromwell down
“Mantel changes her prose style to accommodate her more haunted Cromwell. In the earlier novels, the sentences were blunt and propulsive; in this one, she slows them down, unlaces them. The language is more elegiac, almost mystical, though as precise as ever. It now has to trace the wavering edges of a once well-defined self.”
📚 Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
📚 Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
Such a Fun Age satirizes the white pursuit of wokeness
“Beneath her comedy of good intentions, [Kiley] Reid … stages a Millennial bildungsroman that is likely to resonate with 20-something postgraduates scrambling to get launched in just about any American city.”
(STAR TRIBUNE / GETTY)
Margaret Atwood bears witness
“The witnesses she portrays in her fiction aren’t saviors; they are (or hope to be) survivors, people constrained and compromised by circumstances, and especially worth listening to for that very reason. The Testaments highlights this fact by making a more loaded demand than its predecessor did—that readers place themselves in the seat of an oppressor, not one of the subjugated.”
📚 The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
(PAULA SIERRA / GETTY)
How to tell an open secret
“[Anna] Burns illustrates [the Troubles’] intense distrust, uncertainty, and paranoia, in part by omitting the names of most people and things … This unique approach to knowledge and privateness allows Burns to turn the concept of an open secret on its head.”
📚 Those Who Knew, by Idra Novey
📚 His Favorites, by Kate Walbert
Eyes on the prize
“I think highlighting good fiction is more important now than it ever has been … Narrative, after all, is perhaps the most powerful antidote we have in the face of what at first may appear to be insurmountable odds.”
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