International Booker Prize 2023: our experts review the six shortlisted books

By The Conversation via Reuters Connect

International Booker Prize 2023: our experts review the six shortlisted books
From a longlist of 12, six novels have been shortlisted for the 2023 International Booker Prize. Our academics review the finalists ahead of the announcement of the winner on May 23.

The Gospel According to the New World by Maryse Condé, translated by Richard Philcox

The Gospel According to the New World starts with the birth of a boy in an “overseas department”, “surrounded by water on all sides”. Pascal, a child of mixed heritage, is born and subsequently abandoned on Easter Sunday. Rumours immediately start spreading that he might be the son of God.

What follows is Pascal’s journey to himself. He travels the earth looking for his biological father and grapples with questions about his own purpose – a journey that closely mirrors that of Jesus in the New Testament.

The novel, translated from French to English by Condé’s husband Richard Philcox, is full of wit, humour and allusion.

It engages with questions of belief, philosophy and politics, and brings together a range of captivating characters from across the New World as Pascal grapples with his reputation as a new Messiah. I was unsure of what to expect, but I found Condé’s novel charming and full of heart.

Reviewed by Leighan Renaud

Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan, translated by Chi-Young Kim

Set largely in the remote village of Pyeongdae, the dreamlike story of Whale is punctuated by satirical references to historical events that mark the seismic social shifts that transformed South Korea into a modern state in the 20th century.

Rather than focus explicitly on these episodes – the Korean War, US occupation and military dictatorships, for instance – Whale tells its grand national narrative on a smaller human scale.

The rags to riches journey of protagonist Geumbok is reminiscent of a Dickensian epic. Her ambition and gradual acquisition of material luxury are indicative of Korea’s shift towards capitalism. Her daughter meanwhile, the mute Chunhui, has a deep spiritual connection with the natural environment and this is used to fondly recall the traditions of the past.

Whale provides an unflinching look at two contrasting portraits of national identity in the era of Korean modernisation – equally valid, yet highly oppositional.

Reviewed by Gemma Ballard

Boulder by Eva Baltasar, translated by Julia Sanches

Boulder is a gripping, discomfiting novel of potent language and uncompromising moral certitude. With a poetic intensity that oscillates between the fiercely carnal and a stark abstraction, Eva Baltasar immerses the reader in the consciousness of her protagonist, “Boulder”. She’s nicknamed, by her girlfriend, after “those large, solitary rocks in southern Patagonia, pieces of world left over after creation, isolated and exposed to every element”.

This is a rich and surprising novel about desire, freedom and domesticity, which follows the merchant ship cook Boulder as she struggles to navigate the new terrain of a settled life with a partner intent on having a child.

In densely metaphorical prose, Baltasar handles romance with an unsentimental boldness. This is a love “that grows like brambles, strangles the furniture, and girds the walls”. Boulder picks apart the piety of motherhood and delivers a heroine whose wildness leaves her always giddily yearning for escape.

Reviewed by Kaye Mitchell

Standing Heavy by GauZ’, translated by Frank Wynne

GauZ’ has penned a razor-like examination of consumerism from the standpoint of a security guard in the Champs-Elysées branch of a famous chain of perfume retailers.

Standing Heavy offers a refreshing and often caustic take on the cultural and economic consequences of an encounter between western consumerism and capitalism and the acute African sense of observation and derision. Using the story and observations of an undocumented Ivorian migrant in Paris, it digs into the rich, complex and often fraught relationship between France and its former African colonies.

With the sharpness of an Ivorian coupé-décalé song, GauZ’ offers evocative glimpses into the life of African migrants in France, from the first generation who could set up their own businesses to the later wave, most of whom have been denied legal immigrant status.

This second generation has to make ends meet through low paid, tedious and racially profiled jobs – such as security guards in shops or emptied factories like the Grand Moulins de Paris in the novel.

Standing Heavy delivers a powerful invitation to reflect upon the multiple meanings of “postcolonial France” and the Franco-African relationship, 60 years after the “end of Empire”.

Reviewed by Berny Sèbe

Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov, translated by Angela Rodel

Gospodinov’s Time Shelter has the power to take our mind to times and places, uncertain that we will find our way back.

It is a philosophical exploration about memory and nostalgia, about forgetting and trying to hold on to our pasts while making sense of our present and future. Above all, it is about time – in its fragments and in its perpetuity. The narrative is so unembellished and laced with scathing humour that it has a jarring effect, further facilitated by uneven segments and breaks – much like our thoughts, some fleeting, some resilient.

The novel has just two characters, the unnamed narrator and their time travelling friend Gustine. This sparsity reflects the aridity of a demented mind. Together, they create rooms for Alzheimer’s patients. Rooms in which a chunk of their familiar time and memory is preserved to provide them with shelter in a rapidly erasing memory world.

Eventually, nostalgia grips Europe and nations hold referendums to return to the comfort of the past. Gospodinov’s deft brewing of European history, utopian ideals and the reality of neurological disorders will continue the conversation on human fragility beyond the pages of the book.

Reviewed by Sukla Chatterjee

Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey

Part way through Still Born there’s a scene in which a character has a panic attack in a medical scanner: “I think I’m going to explode in here.”

This same sensation animates Rosalind Harvey’s delicate but enthrallingly tense translation of Guadalupe Nettel’s fourth novel: an exploration of maternity, loss and refusal.

Alina and Laura are old friends whose relationship is based on eschewing procreation as the be all and end all. It’s a perspective that gets increasingly complicated through pregnancy, birth, loss, a growing intimacy with the troubled son of a neighbour, unexpected resilience, the “birthing” process of writing a thesis and gradual drifting apart with a mother.

The novel asks challenging questions about care for terminally ill children and substitute motherhood. Laura and Alina’s bond is a constant core. At one point the prospect of the death of a child is described as “so unacceptable that we have chosen not to name it”.

Still Born explores those aspects of motherhood that have often gone untold in uncompromising writing that feels throughout as though it’s being narrated in confidence to a close friend.

Reviewed by Colin Herd

The winner of the International Booker Prize 2023 will be announced May 23 2023.

By Lecturer in Caribbean Literatures and Cultures, Department of English, University of Bristol; Associate Professor in colonial and post-colonial studies, University of Birmingham; Lecturer in Creative Writing, University of Glasgow; Lecturer in East Asian Studies, School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield; Senior Lecturer, English and American Studies, & Director of the Centre for New Writing, University of Manchester; Lecturer in Anglophone Literatures and Cultures, University of Aberdeen.


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