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Booker Prize 2021 shortlist - what reading groups think

The Booker Prize is the leading literary award in the English speaking world, and has brought recognition, reward and readership to outstanding fiction for over five decades.

Each year, the prize is awarded to what is, in the opinion of the judges, the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK and Ireland. It is a prize that transforms the winner’s career.

The winner receives £50,000 as well as the £2,500 awarded to each of the six shortlisted authors. Both the winner and the shortlisted authors are guaranteed a global readership and can expect a dramatic increase in book sales.

Since the shortlist was announced in September, reading groups across the UK have been reading, discussing and reviewing the six shortlisted titles. Some of their reviews are shared below.

A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam

“This book is essentially a series of Krishan’s reflections as he journeys across Sri Lanka to attend the funeral of his grandmother’s care giver. It’s a very slow, contemplative story about trauma and loss. Loss of youth, independence, love as well as the long lasting effects of trauma. Lyrically descriptive and deeply introspective, it certainly divided our group.
Our views ranged from mesmerising, meandering and intriguing, to disappointing, laboured and repetitious. The book cycles between poetic descriptions and imagery to graphic portrayal of war and death. Written in the third person every encounter is filtered by Krishan’s thoughts.
Half of our group were captivated by Arudprgasam’s long illustrative sentences and expressive vocabulary. Intrigued by Krishan’s scrutiny of his surroundings, his relationships, his desires and his attempts to understand his place in his world, reading became almost mediative. For others the book was over analytical and overly introverted and in parts verbose. Offering no real plot or resolution to even the minor questions it quickly became frustrating. It certainly divided the room and gave us lots to talk about.

“We did all agree however that Arudpragasam’s writing is extremely perceptive of human behaviour, and that he quite clearly expresses a love for family and for the land of his birth. We were engrossed by his explorations of the culture, customers and history of Sri Lanka a country we knew little about.”

The Promise by Damon Galgut

St Barbara’s Book Group originally grew out of a church bible study group. At some point in every discussion we would inevitably find ourselves talking about and recommending books we’d read, so we decided we really should form a spinoff book group and did! We have enjoyed looking at a variety of books together from classics to contemporary, family dramas to thrillers, and even children’s books. For many it has provided the encouragement to get back into reading, a habit which for many of us had become sidelined in our busy lives.

“Our book group enjoyed reading The Promise, seeing it as a good reflection of family relationships. Though we initially thought it might be annoying, and it took some of us a while to work out what was happening, we quite liked the way the narrative jumped around from different perspectives, often switching rapidly between third person to first person and different points of view. It also plays with the apparent truth eg. naming a character Bob but saying it is not his name, or saying that a cat is present and then saying it is not. Sometimes it is probably deliberately ambiguous, being unclear if something is a character’s thought, spoken out loud or a perspective of the narrator. We thought these narrative devices were well done, adding something different and interesting. One person in our group read the book intensively in three days and felt she enjoyed it more as a consequence, as she was so immersed in it.

“Each section of the book is set at a specific point in time and linked with historic events, which helps to root the fictional events in history and draw parallels between the two. We see the characters’ delight in resignations, hope in the new era of Mandela and frustrations at corruption and when things go awry. Linked to these events the Swart family seem stereotypical and not far removed from a lived reality of a lot of people in South Africa. We gain a greater insight into these historical events from seeing the characters’ reactions to them. We also get the feeling from the characters, as well as people we know personally from South Africa, that so much is still being grappled with in the story of South Africa, with events that aren’t fully formed into history yet. In the earlier part of the novel there are also links to significant South African sporting events, with rugby and football matches mirroring the hopes and dreams of the country.

“On the whole we found the narrative devices used were a fascinating method of telling an interesting story about a family and of South Africa and we think The Promise might win!
It made us consider our own families, that people grow up and change but family still see them/us as they/we were in our youth. The siblings don’t connect or communicate properly to move the relationships on. Funerals, as well as weddings, are often where family come together at irregular intervals, fall out and rake over past hurts, going back to past events, rather than seeing them as different, being gracious and listening and allowing people to move on. It made some of us concerned for our own children, currently growing up in a close knit, intertwined group and wonder what their relationships will look in the future.”

Read the group’s full review on their blog.

No One Is talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Preschool Parents’ book Club is a daytime book club for the parents of school aged children who like to relax (when given the chance!) with a good book. This unique book club was set up 8 years ago by librarian and mother of two, Stella Chevalier, to reduce parental isolation and support parent readers, giving them an attainable book club to join, support their reading for pleasure, their well-being and parental literacy – many were unable to join or maintain evening book clubs with juggling the needs of children. Since COVID forced us to meet online, we now meet once a month, but in two different spaces- Online/virtual meeting on a Friday evening and in real time the next day, Saturday morning in the children’s library, at Wallington Library, South London. This allows us more ways to connect, and has allowed group members to still join meetings even if living far away/on holiday or even in one instance, in hospital! Two choices of books are often on offer: one a ‘normal’ sized book club book and a shorter book (such as a ‘Quick Read’ or a short story) differentiating the book choice allowing members to choose their following months’ read depending on their needs. Both books are then discussed at the following month’s meeting so everyone can talk about something that they have read.

“We thought it apt that our book club discussed No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, using various online apps from locations in South London, the South Coast and Istanbul.

Part 1 sets the scene in the page scrolling life of the protagonist. Reading this stream of consciousness you travel, like Alice, in with them to their virtual Wonderland-like life online, sucked in and immersed into this real-virtual existance. Lockwood’s writing aptly described the feeling of a virtual life, feeling both part of it yet distanced and numb until the real world comes knocking in Part 2…the real world where life…real life pulses but still rubs up against the virtual one. One scene stuck out in the hospital watching Jason Momoa pictures.. every second of life and what living really means whilst the virtual world continues its various discussions…
This is a very cleverly crafted book that deserves to be noticed, not just by the Booker judges but by everyone as this is the life we are all living in now. No one Is Talking About This should be renamed #EveryoneShouldBeTalkingAboutThis.

Outstanding. 5/5
A few gave 4/5 but explained that they didn’t use social media much, so following Part 1 was awkward, however the quality of the book overall would still have made a 5/5.
So overall a 5/5 from the Preschool Parents’ Book Club

The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed

Reviews to come – watch this space!

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Beer and Books was born out of lightbulb moment New Year’s Eve 2018 whilst sat having a beer in the Cap and Collar, a micro pub based in the heart of Saltaire. A love of books and beer brought us together and now we are group of around 16 people who have a very lively discussion and plenty of laughs!

“A few of our reading group members had recently read ‘The Overstory’ but mostly we were entering Bewilderment without encountering Power’s epic writing style previously. We thought that Bewilderment tackled many heavy topics simultaneously but had the opportunity to delve deeper into all of them. The bereavement Theo is processing, the slow demise of the environment, navigating life with a neuro divergent child and his challenging career felt a lot to cover in a modest 280 pages and we were left wanting more. The chapters are short and are often written with a view of escapism as Theo talks to Robin, his son, about different planets and what life is like on them. This style highlights the reality of the environmental issues in our present and contributes to Robins existential feelings about the current environmental and social state of the world which we found relatable. On a whole we enjoyed Robin and found him to be the most realised and well rounded character and that their father son relationship was drawn with such sensitivity, though we all agreed Robin deserved much more from Theo.

Whilst the genre is science fiction if feels set in the unsettlingly near future of the world as we know it. We would recommend this book to readers who have an interest in environmental sciences. It is clear the author set out to achieve something with this novel and sadly overall we felt we struggled to connect. It certainly divided the group and led to a very interesting discussion. The major theme of ecological self destruction mixed with astronomy, family dynamics and neuroscience left us frankly a little bewildered."

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

“This distinctive and cleverly-written book generated a lot of discussion. All of us had enjoyed the book (to a greater or lesser extent) and one of the prime reasons was the richness and power of its descriptive language which, at times, was poetical and utterly beautiful. Wide-ranging in its settings, there was a strong sense of place throughout the novel which was skillfully achieved by Shipstead although the quick changes in location sometimes made it hard for the reader to keep up. Despite this, the juxtapositions of the setting descriptions were enjoyed for themselves, an example being the sweaty fug of the jazz clubs contrasted with the cool landscapes. The detailed and realistic descriptions of early aviation history which are threaded throughout the narrative provided a constant source of fascination and interest, and had us all reaching for Google to establish which names in the book were real characters in aviation and which were fictional. Similarly, the descriptions of life in wartime Britain were well-researched and highly detailed in ways that are unusual in novels set in this period. The depth of research which Shipstead clearly undertook in order to write this novel was acknowledged and admired by us all. The cast of characters and the complexities of the plot are extensive and some found it hard to keep track of the characters, their stories and how they related to each other; the chapter headings describing the dates and locations were appreciated here. The main themes we considered were those of gender, power and money which are all threads throughout the narrative particularly those of gender and women’s place in society at different times. Allied to this was the consideration of the highly descriptive sex scenes which we felt added little, if anything, to the narrative.”

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