Next Story

Reader's guide to the 2021 Booker Longlist

The novels in the run in for this year’s literary prize meditate on how people grapple with the past

By Rabeea Saleem |
PUBLISHED August 22, 2021

The Booker Prize long list is one of the highly anticipated literary events of the year. The thirteen titles nominated for the coveted prize, referred to as the Booker Dozen, were chosen from 158 novels, all published in the UK or Ireland between October 1 2020 and September 30 2021. The Booker Prize for Fiction is open to works by writers of any nationality, written in English and published in the UK or Ireland.

The jury this year consisted of chair Maya Jasanoff, the historian; writer and editor Horatia Harrod; actor Natascha McElhone; novelist and professor Chigozie Obioma and writer and former Archbishop Rowan Williams.

Maya Jasanoff, chair of the 2021 judges had this to say about the novels on the longlist:

“Many of them consider how people grapple with the past — whether personal experiences of grief or dislocation or the historical legacies of enslavement, apartheid, and civil war. Many examine intimate relationships placed under stress, and through them meditate on ideas of freedom and obligation, or on what makes us human. It’s particularly resonant during the pandemic to note that all of these books have important things to say about the nature of community, from the tiny and secluded to the unmeasurable expanse of cyberspace.”

Five novelists have been recognised by the prize before: Damon Galgut, Kazuo Ishiguro, Mary Lawson,Richard Powers and Sunjeev Sahota.

Following the Booker’s 2014 decision to include US authors as eligible for the prize, the longlist each year reignites the debate whether this will lead to more inclusivity or homogeneity in publishing. This year’s list consists of five British authors alongside four Americans and writers hailing from Canada and South Africa.

The shortlist of six will be announced on September 14 of this year, and the winner, who will take home £50,000, will be announced on November 2.

So what can you expect from this year’s longlist? Read on to find out.


A Passage North – Anuk Arudpragasam

Following his critically acclaimed debut, The Story of a Brief Marriage, the Sri Lankan Tamil writer is back with another politically astute novel. His latest work of fiction is a sombre, discursive meditation on the collective amnesia of a nation. The story revolves around Krishan who takes on a journey from Colombo to the war-torn Northern Province for the funeral of his grandmother’s carer, a woman who never psychologically recovered after losing both of her sons to the country’s thirty-year long, bloody civil war. A stunning work of fiction on the generational trauma of war.


Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro

Having won the Booker prize in 1989 with the celebrated The Remains of the Day which was also adapted in an award winning movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, this is Ishiguro's fourth time being nominated for the prize. Klara and the Sun is set in a world where parents buy androids called Artificial Friends to provide companionship to their children. Klara, one such “friend” is brought home to Josie who is a chronically ill girl. The plot and tone of this book most closely resembles the writer’s seminal work, Never Let Me Go. With the same ingenious combination of naivety coupled with astute observations about human fragility, both books push the envelope of the science fiction genre.

The Promise – Damon Galgut

Previously shortlisted for In a Strange Room, the South African writer marks his return to the Booker longlist with his most political work to date.The Promise revolves around a white bigoted South African family who turn back on their promise of making their black servant a legal owner of the house which she lives in. This provocative, multi-generational family saga begins in the 1980s and ends in 2018, deftly charting the legacy of apartheid.


Second Place – Rachel Cusk

Hot on the heels of her critically acclaimed trilogy The Outline which pushed the boundaries of fiction, Cusk marks her return with this domestic novel. The author’s note credits Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan's 1932 memoir about D.H. Lawrence stay at her artist’s colony in Taos, New Mexico, as an inspiration. This fictionalized memoir is about the fraught relationship between a woman and the famed artist she has invited to use her guest house in the remote coastal landscape where she lives with her family. While the story is weighed down by over-stylized, dense prose, this slim novella ultimately is about midlife ennui and the double edged sword of fame in the creative realm.


The Sweetness of Water – Nathan Harris

One of the breakout debuts of the year, this propulsive novel is set during the twilight years of the Civil War era. With penetrating insight, Harris paints a vivid, nuanced portrayal of rural Georgia in the American South during a time of great political upheaval. The plot centers on two brothers who have been recently freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and their families. The novel features a cast of well-etched out characters and sensitive depiction of complex interpersonal relationships.


An Island – Karen Jennings

The dark horse of the long list, this novel by a South African writer struggled to find a publisher, finally finding a home at a tiny indie publishing house with a print-run of only 500 copies. This is the story, a young refugee who washes up unconscious on the beach of a small island inhabited by no one but Samuel, an old lighthouse keeper who has exiled himself from a cruel world. Their interactions ignite memories of the troubled past of Samuel’s country and the suffering he witnessed. An Island delivers a vivid, thought-provoking story that reflects on racism, colonialism and its reverberations through generations. The book is already garnering comparisons to the works of another South African literary great, J M Coetzee.


A Town Called Solace – Mary Lawson

The Canadian author was previously longlisted for The Other Side of the Bridge. The story of this novel revolves around three characters, each dealing with loss in their own way. Echoing the works of Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Strout, this novel is about small town lives, incorporating themes of familial love, loss and togetherness.



No One is Talking About This – Patricia Lockwood

One of the most hyped debut novels of this year, it captures the internet zeitgeist in all its chaotic glory. Described as part Twitter-novel and part autofiction, the book follows a social media celebrity who is “extremely online” and struggles with managing her offline struggles with real life issues and her online stardom. While the fragmentary prose is polarising, the ironic, raunchy humor and pertinent observations about the vapidity of social media makes this novel stand out.


The Fortune Men – Nadifa Mohamed

Mahmood Mattan, a young Somali seaman living in Cardiff, was the father of three kids and a petty thief. Ever since his Welsh wife left him, he has been getting into trouble, but when a shopkeeper is brutally killed in Cardiff's Tiger Bay in 1952, he does not expect to be accused of the crime. He was wrongfully convicted and executed for a murder he did not commit in an appalling case of racial profiling. British-Somali author fictionalised retelling of the real life story of Mahmood Mattan is a stunning literary feat. Brimming with soul and grace, this book depicts the deplorable history of racism and bigotry.


Bewilderment – Richard Powers

This novel marks the third entry on the Booker longlist for the Pulitzer prize-winning US writer. Astrobiologist Theo Byrne, 45, looks for life in outer space while his 9-year-old son, Robin, is determined to protect endangered animals on Earth. Recently bereaved, the father son duo are coping with losing Robin’s mother in an accident. As the grieving son’s behaviour grows problematic, in a bid to keep him off psychoactive drugs, Theo agrees to put his son on an experimental neurological therapy. Meanwhile, ecological and political disasters rage on in the outside world. Bewilderment is a poignant,timely reflection on how to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the perils of the outside world and one’s own mind.


China Room – Sunjeev Sahota

Not a stranger to the Booker, Sahota was shortlisted in 2015 for The Year of the Runaways.

The dual narrative of China Room follows Mehar, a child bride in rural Punjab during pre- Partition time who spends most of his time sequestered in the “china room” with her two sister in-laws and her great grandson who in 1999 comes back to Punjab from London to battle his addiction with heroin in a secluded farm, where Mehar used to reside. Sahota masterfully evokes the sense of place and time in lush prose in this multigenerational novel that explores individual agency, oppression and liberation.


Great Circle – Maggie Shipstead

A doorstop of a book at more than 600 pages, this glorious feminist epic spans a century. Marian was a daredevil female aviator in the mid 90s who embarked on her dream trip of flying across the globe, over the North and South Poles.On the last leg of her journey, both Marian and her navigator vanished. A century later, Hadley Baxter, a disillusioned actress, agrees to essay the role of Marian in a film that centers on Marian's disappearance in Antarctica. From aviation to Hollywood, the worlds created by Shipstead are meticulously researched and vibrantly evoked. This is an exhilarating novel about two women,separated by a century but united in their quest to find their own places in a society that demands subservience.


Light Perpetual – Francis Spufford

On November 25th, 1944, a crowded Woolworths branch in New Cross was hit by a German V2 rocket, which exploded and destroyed the store and the immediate surrounding area killing 168 people, including 15 children under the age of 11. Inspired by that real life incident, this is the story of five 20th century lives – the lives that five London children might have had, if they hadn't been killed. We follow the lives of these five “children” at 15 years intervals and get a snapshot view of the transformative years of London’s postwar history in this book about redemption and hope.