For the finale of the 2021 London Literature Festival and on Halloween no less, the Southbank Centre hosted an author discussion of this year’s Booker Prize shortlisted novels ahead of the winner being announced on the 3rd of November. After introducing the 2021 theme for the final time, taken from the Sally Rooney novel of the same name, Conversations with Friends, each of the shortlisted authors read aloud from their work after being questioned by the effervescent literary journalist Alex Clark, who was so at ease amongst these literary heavyweights.
The first author to read aloud was Anuk Arudpragasam, whose novel Passage North tells the story of Krishan, who makes a journey across Sri Lanka in the midst of its civil war. Arudpragasam tells this story beautifully to the audience, describing his book as a study of the different types of yearning when living in absence and as a response to the dissonance surrounding the Sri Lankan civil war which spanned some thirty years. Passage North brings the reality of what it means to witness such violence in your own country to a vast readership, and through Arudpragasam’s own academic training as a doctor of philosophy, the writing of this is intricately articulated making it worthy of being on the shortlist.
Following up from Arudpragasam is South African novelist and playwright Damon Galgut, who has previously been shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003 and 2010, but this time presents us with The Promise. Rather than Passage North’s singular narrative, The Promise centres the character of Salome, but is told across the span of five different funerals within the same family and by different family members in the time of South African apartheid. The Promise’s cinematic narrative of changing from one perspective to the other is what makes the themes within the novel of promises appear with great depth for the reader to delve into, no matter whether it is to do with the family’s own promises, or as Galgut says, ‘the promise of South Africa in 1994’ which draws the audience in to his enigmatic reading.
Image credit: David Parry / 2020 Booker Prize Press Image
Lifting the mood shortly after is poet and essayist turned novelist Patricia Lockwood, discussing her smash debut novel Nobody is Talking About This, also shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction. Lockwood discussed her book of ‘two halves’, which follows an unnamed narrator as she navigates her life within an online portal and focuses on the desperate hope many bring to their online lives. Lockwood’s book is worthy of the praise it received from host Alex Clark, as it succinctly balances a feeling of dystopian intensity with a lighter, more hopeful tone that things can indeed change.
Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men is somewhat less optimistic than Lockwood’s novel, following the real-life events of a Somali man named Mahmood Mattan in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay in 1952, who is wrongfully imprisoned and executed for the murder of a white shopkeeper. Mohamed reflects on how her own father met Mattan in Hull when he moved to the UK and despite not knowing anything about Tiger Bay, said that when carrying out her research for this tragic story, the Somali community in Cardiff, many of whom had been there since the mid-19th century, were all supportive of her writing. The theme Mohamed seemed keen on reiterating throughout her novel, and in her writing in general, is that of anti-authoritarianism and questioning oppressive structures that seek to keep people and communities in the places they have been for decades.
Focusing on something of a smaller scale was Richard Powers’ Bewilderment, which depicts a father navigating his young son’s neurodivergence whilst grieving for his wife who died in a car crash. It is one of stark emotion set against a backdrop of the climate emergency, which serves as a bonding cause for the father-son duo as they struggle to communicate otherwise in the midst of their grief. Powers’ discussed how the novel does bear similar themes to his 2019 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Overstory, in that he wanted to create a world based on private meaning and hone in on a specific relationship and its expressions. One final thing Powers seems keen to assert as his reading comes to a close, is that life is something we should stop ‘correcting’ - he wants to let people be people, which is what his narrator strives to do for his son, Robin.
Finally, rounding the author readings out is the author of Great Circle, Maggie Shipstead. This novel focuses on the parallel lives of a fearless female aviator, Marienne, and an actress, Hadley, who portrays her on screen decades later and is left to piece Marienne’s life together from clues that are left behind. Shipstead deliberately uses separate sequences for each of her two protagonists so as to let her readers construct both of their lives as they proceed with the novel, creating a truly immersive and thought-provoking experience for them. She talks about being inspired by a statue of Jean Batten, a New Zealand aviator, which quotes her as saying she was ‘destined to be a wanderer’. Shipstead wanted to take that same idea of wandering within the golden age of flight and apply it to a different historical context to explore wandering as a state of mind as well as a physical action, creating a stunning novel in the process.
As the event came to a close, all authors spoke of literature in an age of division, prompted by audience questions, and agreed that only a good story can change people’s minds and that whilst there is truth in cacophony, sometimes it is an absence of voice that can be just as powerful in these narratives.
Written and edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor