From Olga Tokarczuk’s epic about a man who claimed to be the messiah to Geetanjali Shree’s tale of a widow finding a new lease of life, female writers take the majority of places on this year’s International Booker prize shortlist.
Of the six books now in contention for the prestigious translated fiction award, five were written by women, with three translated by women too. The International Booker goes to “the finest fiction from around the world” that has been translated into English, awarding a cash prize of £50,000, which is split equally between author and translator.
After reading 135 books, the judges chose six titles from six different languages, all of which “explore the borders and boundaries of human experience”, according to chair of judges Frank Wynne.
“As a jury we have had the pleasure of reading many extraordinary books,” said Wynne. “Choosing a shortlist from among them has been difficult and sometimes heartbreaking.”
The titles he selected alongside fellow judges Merve Emre, Petina Gappah, Viv Groskop and Jeremy Tiang “offer glimpses of literature from around the world,” he said. “But they all share a fierce and breathtaking originality that is a testament to the endless inventiveness of fiction.”
Nobel laureate Tokarczuk and her translator Jennifer Croft previously won the prize in 2018 for Flights. They are now in with a chance of a second win for the 900-page The Books of Jacob, which Wynne compared to the Bayeux tapestry, such is its magnificence – “but probably about a mile and a half longer”.
Meanwhile Tomb of Sand by Shree and her translator Daisy Rockwell is the first Hindi book to have made the shortlist in the prize’s 17-year history. The judges praised its “constantly shifting perspectives and timeframes”, calling it “loud and irresistible”.
The Books of Jacob and Tomb of Sand are up against the “gender-defying” collection of short stories Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, translated from Korean by Anton Hur and Heaven, a haunting tale of teenage violence, by Mieko Kawakami, translated from Japanese by Samuel Bett and David Boyd. The judges called Heaven “an intense, claustrophobic novel” which uses its story of school bullying to enact Nietzsche’s critique of morality. “The power of Sam Bett and David Boyd’s translation lies in its ability to communicate both Mieko Kawakami’s abstract, philosophical ideas and her harrowing human drama”, they said.
Completing the lineup are Elena Knows, Claudia Piñeiro’s part-crime novel, part-morality tale, translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle, and A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse, translated from Norwegian by Damion Searls. The judges said the final installation of Fosse’s Septology series “draws together art, death and the idea of God with a vast, gentle grace”.
As usual, the shortlist is dominated by independent publishers. Tilted Axis and Honford Star, which publish Tomb of Sand and Cursed Bunny respectively, have had books nominated for the prize for the first time this year. This year also marks the first time a translator has chaired the judging panel.
“Translation is an intimate, intricate dance that crosses borders, cultures and languages. There is little to compare to the awe and exhilaration of discovering a perfect pairing of writer and translator” said Wynne. Though he admitted that the judging process had at times been “harrowing”, he said that announcing the shortlist on the same day as his 60th birthday was “the best present I’ve had”.
The winner of the 2022 prize will be announced on 26 May.