‘Booker Prize Shortlist: 2020’

2020 was a pretty good year for the shortlist but there were howlers left off the longlist – namely Colum McCann and his stunning Apeirogon as well twice-winning Hilary Mantel and the final book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & The Light. But once the controversy of those ommisions settled down, did the Booker judges, according to my tastes, get it right in awarding the prize to Douglas Stuart and Shuggie Bain?

The 2020 shortlist:
Diane Cook: The New Wilderness
Tsitsi Dangarembga: This Mournable Body 
Avni Doshi: Burnt Sugar
Maaza Mengiste: The Shadow King
Douglas Stuart:  Shuggie Bain
Brandon Taylor: Real Life

Bottom of the pile was Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga. Tense, charged, challenging, Tambudzai’s slow breakdown of personal hope and dreams is no easy read. It’s not particulalry enjoyable either – there’s a sense of inevitable disconnect, written in a style that creates a veil, a do-not-cross barrier that results in an uninvolved distancing. (50%) 

A tad better was Avni Doshi. Burnt Sugar is a tale of memory and forgetfulness for both mother (Tara) and married daughter Antara. A caustic tale of mothers and daughters set in India, it’s a surprisingly cold, distant first novel lacking a compelling voice. (52%)

The next two are neck and neck – albeit very different.

Ethiopian/American Maaza Mengiste writes of the the invading Italian army of Benito Mussolini occupying 1935 Ethiopia (then Abyssinia). It’s an extraordinary story as Mengiste explores what it means to be at war, a primitive war that is fought with antiquated weaponry and surprise hand-to-hand combat in unwelcoming terrain in sweltering heat. Personal struggles of identity, ideas of family and parenthood with its sense of need and belonging –  Ethiopian and Italian – all come under her gaze. (60%)

A gentle, nuanced narrative of a single discomforting weekend in the life of Wallace, a lonely, gay, black biomedical graduate student, Real Life is elegant yet strangely distant. In its difficult intimacy and Wallace’s arm’s length interaction with friends and colleagues, a veil, an impassable barrier is created denying empathic access to the complexities of raw emotion and momentary candour. (60%)

It took me a while to get into it – three attempts to get beyond the first few pages – before settling into The New Wilderness. Urgent, prescient, imaginative, Diane Cook’s engrossing debut novel sees a world ravaged by climate change and overpopulation. But it’s not a didactic polemic – The New Wilderness is a humane and moving lament of our contempt for nature and, simultaneously, a moving portrayal of motherhood. (65%).

Douglas Stuart’s towering debut, Shuggie Bain, is a haunting, fictionalised reflection on his own childhood growing up gay and supporting an alcoholic mother. With an impoverished, rough and ready Glasgow setting, Shuggie Bain is raw, unflinching and uncompromising in its truths, yet in its honesty and intensity, it is also heartbreakingly emotive. At 80%, it resoundingly stands heads and shoulders above the other five books on the shortlist. My only question is would it have beaten Apeirogon?

So, yes, as far as I am concerned, the judges of the 2020 Booker Prize got it 100% right in its selection from the shortlist.

‘The Shadow King’ by Maaza Mengiste

shadow kingTo be in the presence of our emperor is to stand before the sun. You must respect his power to give you life and burn you alive. But when that particular emperor has fled the country and settled in Bath, England whilst the invading Italian army of Benito Mussolini occupies 1935 Ethiopia, morale needs to be boosted. So arrives Minim, an illiterate peasant, soft-spoken man with the strange name that [literally] means Nothing, but who has an uncanny resemblance to Haile Selassie.

With troops male and female, wealthy and poor, having responded to the emperor’s call for armed resistance and taken to the vast, untamed landscape, so Minim is presented on a white steed, uniform perfect, buttons polished, a red umbrella in place to protect the shadow king from the blazing sun. Flanked by two proud female warriors, reaction is electric and immediate among the people – word travels quickly and widely. The emperor is back.

But all that is to come – it’s more than halfway through Maaza Mengiste’s engrossing second novel before the shadow king appears. That particular idea is first mooted by Hirut, a young orphaned female servant from the home of Kidane and Aster. Hundreds of kilometres from their comfortable Addis Ababa compound, Kidane heads his own private army of farmers, servants and stragglers against the invading forces. Or at least he thinks he does. Aster proves to be no shrinking violet, refusing to accept her expected position behind the front lines. She gains strength as the narrative unfolds. From hapless mother grieving her young dead son to an all-powerful warrior queen with Hirut following in her wake, Aster takes no prisoners. The Shadow King is as much the celebration of the role of female warriors in the Ethiopian resistance – and not just as nurses, cooks and buriers of the dead – as it is about the invasion by a wannabe European superpower looking to make up for the defeat in the 1890s of the first Italian invasion of Abyssinia.

Juxtaposed with the unfolding narrative of life in the isolated camps of the resistance and the power struggles between Kidane, Aster, Hirut and other members of the private army is that of Ettore Navarra, a member of the invading forces and the official photographer of his regiment. The building of Italy’s new empire is to be recorded for posterity. Navarra has his own personal struggles to contend with – not least the order from Rome for all Jewish personnel in the military to be returned to Italy.

It’s an extraordinary story as Mengiste explores what it means to be at war, a primitive war that is fought with antiquated weaponry and surprise hand-to-hand combat in unwelcoming terrain in sweltering heat. But this is no ordinary story of war. Fractured narratives switch from violent clashes to Haile Selassie listening to Aida whilst preparing to flee; from the sensitive Navarra forced to whip a captured prisoner to within an inch of the man’s life to a vindictive and jealous Aster keeping Hirut in her lowly place. On the way, Mengiste explores personal struggles of identity, ideas of family and parenthood with its sense of need and belonging –  from the emperor and all of his children (that is to say, all Ethiopia) and the paternalism of the Italian commander-in-chief towards his men to Kidane’s loss of his son, Hirut’s loss of her parents and Navarra, as an only child, separated by a great distance from his.

Lyrical and profound, it’s a novel of power and strength – even if, on occasions, it slips into overly-lyrical descriptions (particularly early in the novel) which result, at times, in a sense of literary fatigue and boredom. But with chorus-like interpolations adding to the mix, The Shadow King is original and, overall, propulsive as it gathers steam. In Hirut, we find a fierce young woman of charisma and single-minded determination balanced by the soul-searching uncertainty of Navarra. The novel is littered with strong yet complicated three-dimensional characters. Whilst there is no question about the morality of colonial invasion, Mengiste avoids the simple demarcation of African = good, European = bad. Kidane may lead his men for greater glory, but he is privileged and a rapist: Colonel Fucelli is deeply cruel but cares nothing for Rome’s anti-semitism.

Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, The Shadow King lost out to Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart.