Analysis: the 2021 Booker shortlist tunes in to the worries of our age
Alex Clark weighs up the urgent concerns of the six novels in the running for Britain’s most prestigious fiction award
Prize juries are not immune to channelling the preoccupations and anxieties of the times, and this year’s Booker shortlist highlights novels centred on trauma and loss. Two of the novels open with a death and its aftermath: the South African writer Damon Galgut’s The Promise detonates the social and political landscape in the years following the end of apartheid by taking us to the heart of a white family, while Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North is a meditative examination of the emotional consequences of the Sri Lankan civil war, brought into focus by the death of an elderly woman’s carer. In Richard Powers’s Bewilderment – a second Booker shortlisting for the author of the Pulitzer prize-winning The Overstory – the loss of a man’s wife, and his struggle to care for their bereaved son, is set against the backdrop of climate emergency and the giant unknowns of the cosmos.
There are two novels that could be described as historical fiction, both of which draw on real-life inspiration in strikingly different ways. Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men is a highly accomplished retelling of the injustice visited on the Somali seaman Mahmood Mattan, who was wrongly accused of the murder of a shopkeeper in Cardiff in 1952. Meanwhile, Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle, a long, fantastical immersion into the life of a disappeared female aviator and the actor who, years later, is recreating her on screen, prompts memories of Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson; in the novel’s past and present stories, parental death looms large.
Guardian Live will host the first online event with the winner of this year’s Booker Prize on 9 November. Book tickets here