Four debut novels make 2020 Booker Prize shortlist, with Hilary Mantel's book surprisingly omitted

(Clockwise from top left) Avni Doshi, Diane Cook, Brandon Taylor, Douglas Stuart, Tsitsi Dangarembga and Maaza Mengiste make up the six-strong shortlist.
(Clockwise from top left) Avni Doshi, Diane Cook, Brandon Taylor, Douglas Stuart, Tsitsi Dangarembga and Maaza Mengiste make up the six-strong shortlist.PHOTOS: THEBOOKERPRIZES.COM

LONDON (NYTIMES, AFP)  – Debut novelists dominated the shortlist for this year’s Booker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards, the judges announced on Tuesday (Sept 15), while star authors like Hilary Mantel and Anne Tyler did not make the list. 

Four of the six shortlisted books are from first-time writers, three of whom are American, while the fourth holds dual Scottish and American nationality. Four of the shortlisted books are by women. 

The nominated debuts include Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, a violent tale of a child growing up in 1980s Scotland; and Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, about a Black gay graduate student navigating campus life. 

Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, set in a dystopian future in which almost all of the natural world has been destroyed; and Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar, about an artist’s struggles to cope with her ageing mother, are the other two debuts on the list. 

The number of debuts “was a surprise,” said Sameer Rahim, an author and one of the judges, in a news conference in London announcing the shortlist. But he said it was “a red herring” to focus on that issue, because lots of the authors had previous writing experience. 

The judges also read the majority of the submitted books on PDFs, few of which contained biographical information, Rahim added, so they didn’t know which were by debut novelists. “You don’t have time to Google the authors,” he said. 

In previous years, the Booker shortlist has been dominated by literary heavyweights, with works by Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and Elif Shafak all on last year’s list. In 2018, a group of high-profile authors demanded – unsuccessfully – that the Man Booker Foundation bar US authors from being eligible.

This year’s longlist, revealed in July, had included Mantel’s The Mirror And The Light, the conclusion to her acclaimed trilogy about Thomas Cromwell; and Tyler’s Redhead By The Side Of The Road. Neither book made the cut. 

“As good as it was, there were six that were better,” said detective novelist Lee Child, one of the judges, when asked about Mantel’s omission in the news conference. Mantel won the Booker Prize for the first two parts of her Cromwell trilogy; in 2009, for Wolf Hall, and in 2012, for Bring Up the Bodies. 

The Booker Prize, given to the 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.

The competition tore up the rule book last year by splitting the fiction award between Canada’s Margaret Atwood and Anglo-Nigerian author Bernardine Evaristo. It has already courted controversy this year by pitting nine Americans or dual-US citizens against just three Britons, and now for overlooking Mantel’s The Mirror And The Light.


This year, two of the books on the shortlist are by established authors – Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King and Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body – and both works have received acclaim. 

Namwali Serpell, in a review for The New York Times, called Mengiste’s book about Ethiopian women in the second Italo-Ethiopian War a “lyrical, remarkable new novel”. 

This Mournable Body, about a woman struggling to find employment in Zimbabwe, has been equally praised. Alexandra Fuller, writing in The Times, called it “a masterpiece” looking at how women try “to imagine and work their way out of a narrative that has already been decided for them”. 

Dangarembga is perhaps the best known name on the list because of her political struggles. In July, she was arrested in Zimbabwe for taking part in anticorruption protests. The shortlist was chosen from a longlist of 13 books. Originally, 162 books were submitted for the prize. They were read by five judges, including Child and Lemn Sissay, a British poet.

“The shortlist of six came together unexpectedly,” Margaret Busby, a publisher and the chairwoman of the judges, said in a news release. “We are delighted to help disseminate these chronicles of creative humanity to a global audience,” she added. 

The winning title will be unveiled at a ceremony in London on Nov. 17. Its author will receive 50,000 pounds, or about $64,000.