Biting Satires Dominate Booker Prize Shortlist

A barbed political satire about the fall of an African dictator, told from the perspective of talking animals. A mordantly comic novel about the inescapable horrors of racism in America. A bleak but slyly funny story that explores the trauma of Sri Lanka’s civil wars.

These potent satirical novels are among the six finalists for the Booker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards.

This year’s shortlisted novels, announced at a news conference on Tuesday, included authors from five countries and four continents, and encompassed a diverse range of prose styles and subject matters, from quiet, introspective literary fiction to fantasy and magical realism.

Several of the novels recognized by judges this year deploy humor, myth and allegory to tackle painful chapters of history. In her novel “Glory,” the Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo obliquely tackles the downfall of the autocrat Robert Mugabe, through a narrative featuring a cast of animals — horses, donkeys, dogs, goats, chickens and a crocodile.

“The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida,” a mythic story by the Sri Lankan novelist Shehan Karunatilaka, follows a photographer who wakes up dead, in an underworld where he encounters victims of political violence. And in his novel “The Trees,” Percival Everett lampoons the stain of racism in America, with a story about a pair of Black detectives who investigate a series of murders that echo the lynching of Emmett Till.

“One of the great powers of language is to make you laugh, even in the middle of terrible things,” Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum and the chair of this year’s judges, said during a news conference on Tuesday.

The other authors on the shortlist are the Irish writer Claire Keegan, for “Small Things Like These,” a slim novel about the unmarried women and their children who suffered in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries; the English fantasy writer Alan Garner, for “Treacle Walker,” a dreamlike story about a boy who has magical visions; and the American novelist Elizabeth Strout for “Oh William!,” about a grieving woman who helps her ex-husband investigate his troubled family history.

Founded in 1969, the Booker Prize is one of the most coveted literary prizes in the world. Previous winners include acclaimed writers like V.S. Naipaul, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and Hilary Mantel. It can cement a writer’s reputation, or launch a literary career, as it did for debut novelists like Douglas Stuart and Aravind Adiga.

This year’s judges — who included the critic Shahidha Bari, the historian Helen Castor, and the writers M. John Harrisonand Alain Mabanckou — made their selections from 169 novels that were published between Oct. 1, 2021 and Sept. 30, 2022 and submitted by publishers. The winner, who will receive a prize of 50,000 pounds, or about $58,000, will be announced at a ceremony in London on Oct. 17.

While the prize was previously open only to writers from Britain, Ireland, the Commonwealth and Zimbabwe, the judges changed the rules in 2014, extending eligibility to all English language novelists whose work is released in Britain or Ireland. The change prompted concerns that the prize’s identity and impact would be diluted, and that American writers would dominate among nominees and winners. Since the prize parameters were expanded, two American authors, Paul Beatty and George Saunders, have won, while 18 Americans have been shortlisted, accounting for more than a third of all finalists.

This year, that pattern continued. Americans accounted for six of the 13 novelists on the longlist, among them Karen Joy Fowler, Leila Mottley, Hernan Diaz and Selby Wynn Schwartz. Two of the six shortlisted writers, Strout and Everett, are American.

Announcing the winners on Tuesday, the judges emphasized that the shortlist does not reflect a referendum on the state of British fiction, and that nationality isn’t a consideration when judges make their selections.

Rather, the wide range of nationalities and literary styles among the finalists highlights the richness and the diversity of English-language literature from across the globe, MacGregor said.

“There’s a lot of understandable nervousness in the world at large about the dominance of English, the tyranny of this one language,” MacGregor said. He noted that the finalists this year underscore how varied English prose can be, and how it is always evolving: “The prize is a moment for everyone to pause and to marvel at what English as a language can actually do, what is possible in English, what can be thought and felt, what can be endured and dreamt in the hands of a great writer.”

Below are the six shortlisted novels:

  • NoViolet Bulawayo, “Glory”

  • Percival Everett, “The Trees”

  • Alan Garner, “Treacle Walker”

  • Shehan Karunatilaka, “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida”

  • Claire Keegan, “Small Things Like These”

  • Elizabeth Strout, “Oh William!”

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