Eight debut novelists came up against veterans Hilary Mantel and Tsitsi Dangarembga when Britain unveiled a US-dominated longlist of finalists Tuesday for its revered Booker Prize.
One of the world’s most celebrated literary competitions tore up the rule book last year by splitting the fiction award between Canada’s Margaret Atwood and Anglo-Nigerian author Bernardine Evaristo.
It courted controversy on this occasion by pitting nine Americans or dual-US citizens against just three Britons and Zimbabwe’s Dangarembga.
“There are voices from minorities often unheard, stories that are fresh, bold and absorbing,” judges’ panel chair Margaret Busby said.
“Unplanned, our final selection encompasses both seasoned favourites and debut talents — a truly satisfying outcome.”
– ‘Year of seismic change’ –
The title of best work of English-language fiction published in the United Kingdom and Ireland has launched careers and caused countless arguments since its creation in 1969.
Past laureates have ranged from contemporary giants such as Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes to Kazuo Ishiguro and Roddy Doyle.
This year’s 13-title longlist — to be whittled down to a shortlist of six on September 15 before the winner is unveiled in November — features nine female authors.
“In this year of seismic change, visibility for new books published in the UK has been drastically low,” the Booker Prize Foundation’s literary director Gaby Wood said.
“So, however unintended the ratio, it´s especially heartening to know that some authors who have launched their careers in the midst of COVID-19 may now have a chance to reach the readers they deserve.”
The five-judge panel picked through 162 novels either published or scheduled for release in the 12 months ending on September 30.
Britain was represented by Mantel — nominated for “The Mirror & The Light” — and debutants Sophie Ward and Gabriel Krauze.
Mantel won the Booker in 2009 for “Wolf Hall” and in 2012 for “Bring Up the Bodies”.
The panel said her latest entry “completes a tragic arc in which Thomas Cromwell is finally brought down by the police state he designed”.
Mantel’s “masterful exhibition of sly dialogue and exquisite description brings the Tudor world alive,” the panel of judges said.
– ‘Sweep of history’ –
Irish-American US National Book Award winner Colum McCann was nominated for “Apeirogon” about two Israeli and Palestinian fathers coming together over shared grief at losing their sons. He was longlisted for “TransAtlantic” in 2013.
The panel called “Apeirogon” “a moving reflection on what it might mean to make peace between two warring sides.”
Dangarembga’s nomination for “This Mournable Body” is her first in a distinguished career that has spanned four decades and featured plays and films.
Her new book “drew an immediate reaction like a sharp intake of breath from all of us on the panel,” the judges said.
“The breakdown of the protagonist and the breakdown of a country are inextricably linked in this arresting novel from a mercurial writer.”
Panel chair Busby said the longlist features “novels carried by the sweep of history”.
The works “represent a moment of cultural change, or the pressures an individual faces in pre- and post-dystopian society,” she said.
Organisers said the 2020 winner will receive £50,000 ($64,000 / 55,000 euros) “and can expect international recognition”.