Judging the Booker prize: 'These books are about living under intense pressure'

In a year that saw us confined to our homes, the 2020 shortlist looks at how to preserve love and humanity in difficult times, writes judge Sameer Rahim

For the Booker judges, like everyone else, 2020 has been a year of staying in. Luckily for us, we had the company of 162 authors to keep us entertained.

Months of reading, rereading and debating over Zoom has enabled us to whittle down the set to six books. Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness follows a group of people trying to survive in a near-future blighted by environmental catastrophe. The subject matter resonated for us in an era of climate disasters, but it was the touching relationship between the mother and daughter that kept us reading. Another mother-daughter drama, this time set in India, is precisely observed in Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi. Told from a resolutely unsentimental perspective, the novel explores what happens when a difficult mother starts to fade into illness. This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga, the third in a trilogy following the protagonist Tambu’s life in Zimbabwe, is a darkly humorous take on the absurdities of life in a collapsing postcolonial state. Told in a deliberately distanced second-person, the novel matches formal daring with an acute political eye.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste takes us to the Ethiopia of the 1930s, and the fierce resistance against Mussolini’s invasion. A panoramic historical novel that includes everyone from foot-soldiers to the emperor Haile Selassie, it is a corrective to the European-centered accounts of East Africa by writers such as Evelyn Waugh. Brandon Taylor’s Real Life follows an isolated black man on a US campus coping with the micro-aggressions of his white peers. As well as its compelling protagonist, the novel stands out for its beautiful writing about scientific experiments. And finally, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is an almost photographic re-creation of working-class Glasgow in the 1980s. It’s a novel that tackles abuse and alcoholism but is never mawkish. The charismatic Agnes, mother to little Shuggie, will stay with us for a long time.

What unites these books is the idea of the individual living under intense pressure – whether personal, societal or from the state. What happens when it seems all hope is gone: can you preserve your humanity, is love still possible? No easy answers are provided to these questions, but it has been fascinating to see how the authors have, in their different ways, tackled them.

  • Sameer Rahim’s novel Asghar and Zahra (John Murray) was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott prize.

Sameer Rahim

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Two friends, both up for the Booker prize: 'We are exploring what it means to feel alien'
Brandon Taylor and C Pam Zhang, whose debuts are longlisted for this year’s Booker, talk about their close friendship, learning to write and dealing with grief

Alison Flood

06, Aug, 2020 @10:00 AM

Article image
The joys of judging the Man Booker prize
Controversy, sexism and a lot of reading – judge Sarah Churchwell works out what to do now the party is over

Sarah Churchwell

18, Oct, 2014 @7:30 AM

Article image
Judging the Booker prize: 'I'm proud of our decision'
Picking a winner is an impossible task, says Booker judge Afua Hirsch. Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo both deserved to win

Afua Hirsch

16, Oct, 2019 @11:00 AM

Article image
At last, a Booker prize longlist I want to read | Candice Carty-Williams
This list is remarkably different to past years, featuring several black authors and debut female writers. And yes, Hilary Mantel

Candice Carty-Williams

08, Aug, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze review – the double life of a London gangster
The tension between the author’s ultraviolent life on the streets and his university studies are at the heart of this autofictional Booker-longlisted debut

Matt Rowland Hill

29, Aug, 2020 @6:30 AM

Article image
Tsitsi Dangarembga: 'I am afraid. There have been abductions'
Four days after the Zimbabwean writer and film-maker made the Booker longlist, she was arrested. She talks about protest, Africa’s film industry and her hopes for her country

Claire Armitstead

14, Aug, 2020 @10:00 AM

Article image
The Man Booker International prize: a celebration of translation
The prize, together with the increased visibility of books by writers such as Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard, may be behind the rising popularity of translated fiction

Daniel Hahn

16, May, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Big cheers for small publishers
The independent publisher Oneworld has won two Man Bookers in a row … and there are small presses in the running for the Baillie Gifford and TS Eliot prizes

Alison Flood

28, Oct, 2016 @8:30 AM

Article image
What it is like to win the Booker prize, by Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, Peter Carey and more
As the Man Booker prize turns 50 and readers vote for their favourite ever recipient, novelists reveal the highs (and lows) of winning ‘the Oscar’ of the literary world

Hilary Mantel, Julian Barnes Margaret Atwood, Howard Jacobson, Anne Enright, Peter Carey, Marlon James Pat Barker, John Banville, Penelope Lively, Ben Okri and DBC Pierre

30, Jun, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Surprised by the Booker shortlist? Don't judge the books, study the judges
As a former judge, I sometimes joke that the only year I correctly picked the Man Booker winner was when I was on the panel – it’s too unpredictable

Stuart Kelly

14, Sep, 2017 @2:32 PM