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Booker Prize Shortlist Highlights Stories Dealing with Life and Death in a ‘Year for Reading’

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American writers Patricia Lockwood, Richard Powers and Maggie Shipstead have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary honors in the English-speaking world.

Lockwood, also known for her poetry, was shortlisted for her debut novel No One is Talking About This, while Pulitzer Prize winner and previous Booker nominee Powers secured a spot on the list for Bewilderment. ​​Shipstead was shortlisted for her third novel, Great Circle. The Booker Prize was opened up to writers outside of the U.K. in 2014, as long as their submissions are in English.

The winner, who will take home $69,257 (£50,000) and earn international acclaim, will be announced on Nov. 2.

Led by historian Maya Jasanoff, the judges said the global scope of the shortlisted books, in both their authors and settings, felt “transporting in a year where so many of us have been confined to our homes.”

Three of the novels deal with race. British-Somali writer Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men, reimagining the life of the British-Somali man wrongfully convicted and executed for murder in 1950s Wales, while South African writer Damon Galgut’s The Promise follows the lives of a white family in post-apartheid South Africa. Anuk Arudpragasam’s “hypnotic” novel, A Passage North, follows a Tamil survivor of the Sri Lankan civil war as he revisits the trauma endured by his grandmother’s carer.

Appropriate for fiction published during a global pandemic, each of the six “immersive stories” deals with “pertinently poignant” issues of life and death, the judges said. Bewilderment and No One is Talking About This, for example, grapple with the intersections of grief and crises in the age of technology.

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Intertwining time periods are a common stylistic theme among the shortlisted books. Shipstead’s Great Circle parallels the life of a missing female pilot in the 1950s with a 21st century actress starring in a film about the aviator. Arudpragasam’s A Passage North overlays the protagonist’s present day return to his home country with memories of a traumatic past.

During a livestream the judges from across the world, including twice Booker-shortlisted novelist Chigozie Obioma and former Archbishop Rowan Williams, described the intensity of whittling down long-listed 158 books to just six during a pandemic. “This has been a year for reading, unlike any other,” said 2021 chair Jasanoff. The “acutely introspective” nature of the shortlisted novels is “reflective of the experience of reading in lockdown,” she said.

Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro was among the long-listed nominees not to make the cut with his novel Klara and the Sun, drawing surprise among some onlookers. The British author’s The Remains of the Day won the award in 1989.

Last year’s Booker Prize winner for fiction was Douglas Stuart, for his debut novel Shuggie Bain, about a young boy growing up in poverty in 1980s Glasgow. Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl Woman Other and Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments were joint winners in 2019.

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