Avni Doshi’s tale of a relationship, where filial resentment at a mother’s choice of an ashram and a free-love advocating guru over a more hands-on parenting still bubbles even as the mother’s mental faculties fade, has been shortlisted among four debut novels for the prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction 2020.
The Dubai-based Indian-origin author’s ‘Burnt Sugar’ is among the six books to make the final cut for the £50,000 literary prize to be announced in London in November. She joins a select group of Global Indian authors to make the Booker cut, including Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai and Aravind Adiga.
This year’s shortlist is completed by Diane Cook for ‘The New Wilderness’, Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga for the third novel in her trilogy – ‘This Mournable Body’, Maaza Mengiste for ‘The Shadow King’, Douglas Stuart for ‘Shuggie Bain’ and Brandon Taylor for ‘Real Life’.
According to the organisers, the fact that Doshi, Cook, Stuart and Taylor are all debut novelists might help explain why they can tackle these weighty subjects with such seeming fearlessness. Their inclusion is also an incontrovertible statement that this is a list chosen explicitly for the quality of the books themselves and in which a career or previous reputation holds no sway.
Literary heavyweight and past winner, Hilary Mantel, lost out in the final countdown for her last instalment in a series set in King Henry VIII's 16th century England 'The Mirror and the Light'.
Gaby Wood, Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation, notes: “Every year, judging the Booker Prize is an act of discovery. What’s out there, how can we widen the net, how do these books seem when compared to one another, how do they fare when reread? These are questions judges always ask themselves, and each other.
“This year there has perhaps been more discovery than usual, both in the sense that debut novels are in the majority, and due to the fact that the judges themselves were surprised to find that was the case.”
Doshi famously wrote eight drafts of her debut novel, ‘Burnt Sugar’, before it was first published in India under the title ‘Girl in White Cotton’ and more recently in the UK.
There are a number of parallels between her life and the book: it’s set in Pune, where her family is from; both she and her character experienced postpartum depression, although she gave birth after submitting the novel; and she wrote about Alzheimer’s disease after her grandmother was diagnosed with the illness, explaining that she made sense of it through writing the novel.
Margaret Busby, literary critic and chair of the 2020 judges, said: “The novels on this year's shortlist range in setting from an unusual child growing up in working class Glasgow in the 1980s, to a woman coping with a post-colonial nightmare in Zimbabwe.
“Along the way we meet a man struggling with racism on a university campus, join a trek in the wilderness after an environmental disaster, eavesdrop on a woman coping with her ageing mother as they travel across India and in an exploration of female power discover how ordinary people rose up in 1930s Ethiopia to defend their country against invading Italians. It’s a wondrous and enriching variety of stories, and hugely exciting as well.”
The 2020 winner will be announced on November 17 in an event broadcast from London’s Roundhouse in collaboration with BBC Arts. In light of the pandemic, the newly formatted event is being conceptualised to creatively engage readers across the world with the shortlisted books, authors and the overall winner.
by Nadia Hatink