The 2021 International Booker Prize Shortlist!

Well, it only seems actually *was* only a few weeks ago that the longlist for this year’s International Booker Prize was announced, and while I was despairing a little at the time regarding my chances of getting through a decent number of the selected books, I’ve actually done fairly well, with only one book to go.  That means that I’ve been waiting for the shortlist announcement with particular interest, ready to see just what the judges would make of it (especially given the, let’s say, ‘unusual’ nature of the longlist…).

In any case, the final six have now been announced, and, as is always the case, I’m sure it elicited a healthy mix of agreement and astonishment.  I’ll fill you in on my reaction below, but first, let’s take a look at this year’s heroic half-dozen 😉


David Diop (France) & Anna Moschovakis
– At Night All Blood is Black (Pushkin Press)

Mariana Enriquez (Argentina) & Megan McDowell
– The Dangers of Smoking in Bed (Granta Books)

Benjamin Labatut (Chile) & Adrian Nathan West
– When We Cease to Understand the World (Pushkin Press)

Olga Ravn (Denmark) & Martin Aitken
– The Employees (Lolli Editions)

Maria Stepanova (Russia) & Sasha Dugdale
– In Memory of Memory (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Éric Vuillard (France) & Mark Polizzotti
– The War of the Poor (Picador)

Well, this is why we can’t have nice things – because you break them…

Joking aside, when I got up this morning (the announcement was set for a time allowing for the maximum global audience – so naturally it was 2 a.m. Melbourne time), my first impulse was just to turn around and go back to bed.  I wasn’t overly enthused about the longlist, but I did think the judges would make a better fist of the shortlist.  I really shouldn’t think.

Let’s look at the list in a bit more detail, then.  In terms of omissions, I was sad to see Andrzej Tichý’s Wretchedness (tr. Nicola Smalley) miss out, and it would have been great fun to see more readers scratching their heads as they made their way through Can Xue’s I Live in the Slums (tr. Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping).  Perhaps slightly more surprising was the cutting of Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail (tr. Elizabeth Jaquette) as a lot of readers were wondering whether Fitzcarraldo might have two books on the shortlist.  I’m not overly surprised to see any of the others fall by the wayside, with Judith Schalansky’s An Inventory of Losses (tr. Jackie Smith) perhaps the other big-name casualty.

Having considered the unlucky seven, it’s time to turn our attention to the fortunate six (in at least one case, *very* fortunate).  Firstly, congratulations are due to Pushkin Press on having both their longlisters make the next stage, a decision which didn’t surprise me in the least.  The selection of In Memory of Memory was another fairly predictable decision, and even if I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the book when I reviewed it, it actually rose in my estimation while I was making my way through the other contenders, and Maria Stepanova’s (white-jacketed…) story of her family history, and memory in general, seems to be building up the kind of momentum that’ll be hard to stop.

Moving on to the remaining shortlisters, I wasn’t as surprised by the selection of Olga Ravn’s The Employees as you might expect, given my rather lukewarm review.  It’s a book that’s got a lot of love online over the past few weeks, and I was fully expecting it to make the cut.  Somewhat more surprising, though, was the inclusion of Mariana Enriquez’s The Dangers of Smoking in Bed.  General opinion seemed to be that this early book wasn’t quite up there with her later (but released first in English) collection Things We Lost in the Fire.  Still, this wouldn’t exactly be the first case of ‘right author, wrong book’, and having only tried it in Spanish so far, I’m hoping to read it again in English before it’s time to pick a winner.

Which, of course, leaves one book – that’s if you consider it a book.  My review of Éric Vuillard’s The War of the Poor won’t be out for a while yet (my second set of longlist reviews will appear in May), but I can sum up my reactions fairly accurately in a couple of points.  One – yeah, I quite enjoyed it (well, for the thirty-five minutes it took me to read it).  Two – this should never have got within a million miles of the longlist, let alone the shortlist, and the judges are just deliberately trolling us.

Anyway, that’s quite enough on the official judges’ verdict – I’ve got to get back to working on our Shadow Shortlist (with capital letters and everything).  We’ll be giving ourselves an extra two weeks or so to ensure everyone has the opportunity to read most, or all, of the longlisted books, so watch out for that announcement – and don’t forget that our shortlist may have nothing to do with the official one save for the thirteen books we’re choosing from…

…I wonder, dear reader, which shortlist, Official or Shadow, will be more to your liking?  You’ll find out soon 😉

13 thoughts on “The 2021 International Booker Prize Shortlist!

  1. Loved your post, Tony! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the shortlist. Nice to see Pushkin Press get two books into the shortlist. I need to read Maria Stepanova’s book now. Can’t wait to see the Shadow shortlist!


    1. Vishy – Well, we’ll get around to it in due course 🙂 As mentioned, I had my criticisms of ‘In Memory of Memory’, but it’s probably one of the stronger books on the list…


  2. I enjoyed your thoughts on the short list. I must admit I’ve been intrigued by the Vuillard work (didn’t one of the judges descrbie it as a work of blazing imagination, or something to that effect?); I definitely look forward to your review of that one!


    1. Janakay – Yes, well the judges say lots of things; whether you should believe them all is another matter entirely 😉


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