Baillie Gifford prize reveals ‘outstanding storytelling’ on 2021 shortlist

With subjects ranging from postwar Germany to the fall of Robert Maxwell and the Sackler family, judges praise ‘exciting and invigorating’ finalists

The shortlist for the Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction moves from life in Germany after the fall of the Third Reich to places humans have abandoned, and from the mystery of Robert Maxwell to the secrets of the Sackler family.

Worth £50,000, the Baillie Gifford is the UK’s most prestigious award for non-fiction, and has been won in the past by major names including Kate Summerscale, Jonathan Coe and Philip Hoare. Andrew Holgate, chair of this year’s judges, said that each of the six titles in the running for this year’s award was “an enveloping read”.

“There’s attack here, deep learning, challenge, keen analysis and revelation, but above all, there is outstanding storytelling, and deep pleasure to be had in reading all six of the books on this list,” said Holgate.

Cal Flyn is shortlisted for Islands of Abandonment, in which she examines the places left behind when humans have gone, from fortress islands to exclusion zones, asking if our damage to nature can be undone. Islands of Abandonment sits alongside Harald Jähner’s Aftermath, an exploration of life in Germany in the decade after the second world war. Translated by Shaun Whiteside, Aftermath has already won awards and hit the bestseller charts in Germany.

Two biographies make the cut this year: John Preston’s Fall, which explores what went so wrong for Robert Maxwell, the media tycoon who disappeared from his yacht and was found dead in the water in 1991, and Patrick Radden Keefe’s investigation into the Sackler dynasty, Empire of Pain. The Sackler family, one of the richest in the world and famous for their philanthropy, were also responsible for making and marketing OxyContin, the painkiller that was the catalyst for the American opioid crisis.

The shortlist is completed with poet and novelist Kei Miller’s Things I Have Withheld, a collection of essays examining everyday acts of racism and prejudice through our bodies, and the histories our bodies inherit, alongside Lea Ypi’s memoir Free, an account of growing up in Albania after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever been on a judging panel on which I’ve felt so invigorated and excited by the shortlist,” said Holgate, who is joined on the judging panel by novelist Sara Collins, historians Kathryn Hughes and Dominic Sandbrook, writer Dr Helen Czerski, and author and presenter Johny Pitts. The judges will announce their winner on 16 November.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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