By: Neeraj Krishna
FOUR debut novelists were on Tuesday (15) shortlisted alongside Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga and Ethiopian-American Maaza Mengiste for the Booker Prize for best English-language fiction, to be awarded in November.
Indian-American Avni Doshi’s first novel Burnt Sugar will compete with fellow US debutants Diane Cook (The New Wilderness) and Brandon Taylor (Real Life), and Scotland’s Douglas Stuart (Shuggie Bain), for one of the world’s most celebrated literary awards.
Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body, the final part in a trilogy, and The Shadow King by Mengiste make up the six-strong shortlist of four women and two men.
It was whittled down by a panel of five judges from a US-dominated longlist of 13 finalists, which had included veteran Hilary Mantel.
Published in India last year as Girl in White Cotton, Doshi’s Burnt Sugar book explores a “complex and unusual” relationship between a daughter and mother, whose memory is on the wane.
“This is a love story and it is a story about betrayal. But not between lovers – between mother and daughter,” the Booker panel of judges had noted while picking it initially for the longlist. “Sharp as a blade and laced with caustic wit, Avni Doshi tests the limits of what we can know for certain about those we are closest to, and by extension, about ourselves.”
They added that it “examines a mother-daughter relationship with honest, unflinching realism — sometimes emotionally wrenching but also cathartic, written with poignancy and memorability”.
Currently based in Dubai, 38-year-old Doshi – who did her masters’ in History of Art from the University College London – said Burnt Sugar took seven years and eight drafts to be completed.
“The earlier drafts of the novel were inspired by my mother’s family, particularly their connection to the Osho Ashram in Pune, India,” she told Penguin.co.uk. “Later drafts of the book were more focused on the theme of memory, which I explored in depth through the lens of Alzheimer’s disease, which my grandmother has been diagnosed with.”
Dangarembga’s final volume in her trilogy that started with Nervous Conditions chronicles the journey of a young girl from Zimbabwe sinking into poverty.
Meanwhile Mengiste is the first Ethiopian author to make the Booker’s shortlist, for her story of the uprising against the Italian invasion in the 1930s.
Cook’s The New Wilderness is a dystopian fiction set in a city made inhospitable by the climate crisis.
She is currently developing a screenplay based on the novel after Warner Bros bought the rights to adapt it into a television series.
Stuart’s Shuggie Bain is set in a working-class Scottish family struggling with alcoholism and poverty in the 1980s, while Taylor’s debut follows an introverted man’s experience of racism as he arrives at an American university.
“The shortlist of six came together unexpectedly, voices and characters resonating with us all even when very different,” Margaret Busby, chair of the 2020 judges, said in a statement.
“It’s a wondrous and enriching variety of stories, and hugely exciting as well,” she added, noting they ranged in setting from 1980s Glasgow and post-colonial Zimbabwe to 1930s Ethiopia and modern-day India.
The list, however, has already courted controversy this year by pitting nine Americans or dual-US citizens against just three Britons, and now for overlooking Mantel’s The Mirror And The Light — the last in her Cromwell trilogy.
Judge Lee Child, one of the world’s best-selling detective novelists, said the panel thought it was “absolutely wonderful” and “one for the ages”, but added: “There were books that were better, that’s all I can say personally.”
The winner will be announced on November 17 and receive £50,000 in prize money.