Four debut novels have made the shortlist for the 2020 Booker Prize — but there was no room for two-time winner Hilary Mantel’s celebrated work The Mirror And The Light.
Diane Cook, Avni Doshi, Brandon Taylor and Scottish-American Douglas Stuart are all finalists, with Tsitsi Dangarembga and Maaza Mengiste completing the shortlist.
However, Mantel’s longlisted work, her conclusion to the Wolf Hall trilogy, did not make the final six.
The author won the prize in 2009 and then again in 2012 for the first two books in the series, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies.
Former biochemist Taylor’s Real Life is a coming-of-age novel following the life of a gay, black doctoral student. Shuggie Bain, by ex-fashion designer Stuart, is a story of addiction and poverty set in Eighties Glasgow.
The New Wilderness by Cook is a tale of survival in nature, while Burnt Sugar by Doshi follows the story of a troubled relationship between an Indian woman and her mother.
Mengiste’s The Shadow King is set in Thirties Ethiopia and draws on the author’s own family history, while Zimbabwean writer Dangarembga’s book This Mournable Body explores themes of colonialism and capitalism.
She was recently arrested in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare during a peaceful protest against government corruption. She is due in court on Friday.
The final six, picked from the 13-strong longlist, was revealed this lunchtime by chairman of the judges Margaret Busby at a virtual press conference.
She said: “The shortlist of six came together unexpectedly, voices and characters resonating with us all even when very different.”
Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, added: “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.”
The panel also includes author Lee Child, author and critic Sameer Rahim, writer and broadcaster Lemn Sissay and Emily Wilson, classicist and translator. The winner of the £50,000 prize will be announced on November 17.
Brandon Taylor (USA) Real Life (Originals, Daunt Books Publishing)
Diane Cook (USA) The New Wilderness (Oneworld Publications)
Douglas Stuart (Scotland/ USA) Shuggie Bain (Picador, Pan Macmillan)
Avni Doshi (USA) Burnt Sugar (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House)
Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia/USA) The Shadow King (Canongate Books)
Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe) This Mournable Body (Faber & Faber)
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In line with the commitment made by publishers to put diversity high on the agenda, this year’s judges have chosen what must be the most diverse Booker shortlist in its 51-year history, with four of the six novels being debuts to boot, and not an Englishman, or woman, in sight.
They’re certainly an interesting and varied bunch, not all of whom started out as novelists. Brandon Taylor is a former biochemist from Alabama. Douglas Stuart is a Scottish-born ex-fashion designer. Diane Cook is a former radio producer. Avni Doshi trained as an art historian. Tsitsi Dangarembga is a Zimbabwean film maker and playwright, while Maaza Mengiste is the first Ethiopian writer to be shortlisted for the prize.
Given the current climate, it was almost inevitable that big-hitters such as Martin Amis and Sebastian Barry wouldn’t have made the longlist, but it is a surprise that the judges omitted Hilary Mantel from the shortlist.
Did the judges decide she didn’t need yet another gong? And while sales of her books did wonders for booksellers during the Covid slump, conversely, debut authors were worst hit, since their novels are hard to sell at the best of times. Perhaps this year’s shortlist will help change that.