three International Booker Prize 2021 reviews

I never end up paying as much attention to the International Booker as I want to, because of its unfortunate schedule overlap with the Women’s Prize. But because I’m not giving the Women’s Prize my full attention this year, I decided to take a break from that one over the last couple of weeks and dabble in the Booker. (It’s a little ironic that this is the year that I’ve been giving the International Booker any of my attention, because on the whole, I’m not a huge fan of the 2021 longlist: it’s a very white and European list and there’s a really perplexing number of titles that feel more nonfiction than fiction.) But I picked out five titles that appealed to me, and in a fortuitous twist of fate, my library had them all, so I’ve been reading through them: The Pear Field, The War of the Poor, Minor Detail, At Night All Blood is Black, and The Dangers of Smoking in Bed. I’ve read the first three and have library holds on the last two, so, here are my thoughts on the three I’ve read so far, all of which I enjoyed and any of which I’d be happy to see shortlisted, though I think Minor Detail is the only one that stands a real chance:





Minor Detail by Adania Shibli
translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jacquette
★★★★☆
New Directions, 2020

Minor Detail is a novella in two parts: the first centers on the rape and murder of a Palestinian woman by Israeli soldiers a year after the War of 1948, and the second takes place in the present day, when a young woman comes across an article about this murder and becomes obsessed with it. This book is tiny but packs a pretty big punch — Shibli’s economy of language is seriously impressive, as is the brilliantly executed structure. An understated yet tremendously effective and intense read. 





The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard
translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti
★★★★☆
Picador, 2020


This book is slim and perplexing and if I were more invested in the International Booker this year surely I’d take more umbrage at its inclusion (I wouldn’t say I found it groundbreaking, and I honestly don’t fully understand how it was eligible), so on that level I do understand this book’s largely negative reception. But, however you’d classify it and whatever it did or didn’t do to earn its spot on the longlist, I honestly really enjoyed it.

The War of the Poor focuses on Thomas Müntzer, a controversial theologian at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, and I’d say that having some kind of interest in that period of history is a baseline requirement to getting anything out of this. This book reads, as some have noted, like a Wikipedia entry on Müntzer’s life and death and all the revolts in between, but I also think that comparison minimizes its efficacy. I think Vuillard’s writing is riveting and this is a much more thematically coherent project than its Wikipedia counterpart, and I also enjoyed the meta commentary on the ways in which we engage with history. I found it to be sharp, engaging, topical, and poignant — certainly worth a read if its summary sounds appealing. 





The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili
translated from the Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway
★★★★☆
Peirene Press, 2020


The Pear Field is a book which almost demands to be read in one sitting, and I don’t mean that as a compliment; this is one of those books that names every minor character who’s as much as mentioned one single time, and it’s so much to keep track of that it’s a more efficient use of your time as a reader to read it all at once rather than coming back to it and having to figure out who everyone is all over again. That said, that was really my only complaint in a book that I otherwise quite enjoyed.

The Pear Field follows Lela, an eighteen-year-old girl who works at a boarding school for poor, intellectually disabled, and/or unwanted children, who becomes obsessed with the idea of an American family adopting Irakli, a nine-year-old student she’s quite protective over. This book is a stark and gritty portrait of a group of students on the fringes of Georgian society; I found it moving and eye-opening but skillfully not emotionally manipulative, given its difficult subject matter. Definitely worth reading.

Huge trigger warnings for sexual assault of a minor.


What are your thoughts on the International Booker longlist? What are you hoping to see shortlisted?

16 thoughts on “three International Booker Prize 2021 reviews

  1. Oh sure, the year I decided not to follow this prize, is the year that you do… I don’t know, for whatever reason Minor Detail doesn’t appeal to me, despite hearing about it everywhere. The other two do, I read Vuillard’s last book and really liked it. Although I don’t know why they would be on a fiction prize longlist LOL. I hadn’t heard anything at all about the Pear Field, but it sounds really good.

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    • We’re ships passing in the night!!!

      Tbh I do think you’d like Minor Detail, it’s a much more interesting book than the summary suggests. The Pear Field too, and they’re both super quick reads.

      I know, I’m SO stumped re: Vuillard’s eligibility. I mean, it’s a good book! I liked it! But it is… literally not fiction, however you choose to define that word. How did so many nonfiction titles slip through this year?!

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  2. It’s interesting to read you because Vuillard’s previous books are also on the border of fiction/non fiction. He loves history and adds some fiction in it. I don’t know about this one, I’ve read just a couple of the past ones (in French). I liked one somehow but hated the other one – he was writing about Bastille Day but chose to use words from that era (late 18th Century) we don’t use anymore so I actually didn’t understand half of it…. I found it very pretentious. To me he does believe the art of writing is superior to the story so every time I’ve read one of his book, I can picture him writing and choosing each word, saying it out loud, giving himself a pat on the shoulder and I don’t like it LOL. As Faulkner said, I should only be immersed into the story and totally forget the author.

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  3. The Pear Field sounds interesting and I would absolutely love to read something that was originally written in Georgian!! I can’t even think of another book I know in that category. The story sounds interesting too, albeit brutal.

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    • Oooh hello I’ve missed chatting with you! Unless I’m forgetting something I think it was my first-ever book translated from Georgian as well, and it really whet my appetite to read more from that region. So if you find any others let me know! (Also, not to be an ignorant American, but did you know Georgian script looked like this, because I DID NOT and I love it: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/13978792.Nana_Ekvtimishvili)

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      • I’ve missed chatting with you too!! I’ve really been a bad blogger/blog friend this past year, because, well, look around us. (Also did I tell you I moved back to the US immediately pre-covid? Because I did, so like, you can imagine.) but I love checking in with you and you always find such fascinating stuff!

        I’ll be on the lookout now if I can find any Georgian translated stuff. Actually I was just realizing the other day that my translated women reading is sucking this year – not the books themselves because there’s only been 2 of them and I don’t really have more on the horizon. I’d been trying so hard to be diligent about reading more in that area once you started me on thinking about it but everything’s falling apart now!

        The two I’ve read were Erika Fatland’s The Border and Sovietistan, about her travels in the countries bordering Russia and the -stans, and in The Border she writes a lot about how much she loves Georgia. Which was really cool to learn about and kind of fascinating, since I think the only other book I’ve read actually set there is Stalin’s early biography. So, yikes. You might really like her books actually, especially The Border, it was just so lovely and rich and descriptive and funny and also very geopolitically and historically aware without beating you over the head with all of it. If you come across anything else good in that region let me know!!

        Off to check this script now 🙂

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      • Oh no it has been ENTIRELY mutual, I’ve been spending so much less time blogging this past year and I’ve let some of my friendships suffer for it! I’ve also been reading your reviews, I just suck at commenting.

        Omg, no, I had NO idea you were back in the U.S. Ahhhh how are you finding that?! Which part of the country are you in??

        I’ve been majorly dropping the ball on translated lit as well this year, I didn’t read a single translated novel until this month when I binged these three. I think I’ll have to go full speed ahead during Women in Translation Month make up for lost time.

        Ooh I’ve heard good things about The Border, I’ll definitely check that one out! I don’t know if you watch any booktube but Jennifer at Insert Literary Pun Here made this video about Central and Eastern European nonfiction, I watched it when she posted it a few months ago and it seems relevant to this conversation! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QtIXFIqtek

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      • Omg THANK YOU for that link, I could not be more excited for talk about Central and Eastern European nonfiction… it’s not exactly the most popular corner of book blogging 😂

        Yeah, we have to just cut ourselves some slack I guess, there was only so much I could handle mentally, emotionally, and time-wise this last year while in this ultraweird state plus post-move and the surrealness that’s been. If you come across any good translated women nonfic recs, let me know…I have I think two on my list that I might try to do that month and one other from the library now but it’s also translated from Norwegian which means kind of a monotone theme and I like to try to showcase a mix since there’s so much out there, I’ve just been horrible at finding it lately.

        I came back to NYC! Yet again, incredible timing, since as you know just a few months later we were the fucking epicenter. I mean just…not to make an entire global pandemic all about me but how did I even orchestrate such extraordinary timing after so many years away. I truly impressed myself there.

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      • Not in the slightest but maybe we should change that!!! (I say having read probably a total of 5 Central/Eastern European books in my life… very eager to rectify that though.)

        Looking through my shelves I really haven’t been reading much nonfiction in translation recently but I’ll definitely let you know if I stumble across anything good between now and Women in Translation Month. I think the last one I read was But You Did Not Come Back and that was on your recommendation.

        It’s SO true, it’s been quite the year. I can’t even imagine having to adjust to a move on top of everything else that’s been happening. God, NYC too… are you in Manhattan?? Though I guess anywhere in NYC would have been fucking terrifying last March. Very glad you and your husband are okay but it’s true, that is about the worst timing possible–almost impressively bad timing?! You should write a memoir about it.

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      • Well, you’ve still read more than most people in that area!! I absolutely love stuff from the region, it’s just so different.

        From her list in the video, by the way, I can emphatically, BEYOND emphatically recommend Kapka Kassabova’s Border – it was an instant life favorite for me. (It was written in English though, she’s Bulgarian but has lived a long time in Scotland). The Polish one she mentioned by Anna Janko is one of the two I already had on my list and wanted to read for WITMonth this year. So funny. I can second her recommendation for Bloodlands too, it was extraordinary and I say that even having read too many WWII-era books about this region. It was such an outstanding and compelling history. I added the one Czech memoir to my list, I’d never heard of it! And I think the Milosz essays too, I’ve really liked his poetry that I’ve read. Thanks again for that tip!!!

        I’m in Astoria in Queens, it’s across the river from Midtown. It was a fucking mess last year, people here were a nightmare about Covid restrictions although have gotten on better behavior in the meantime. Like I saw footage from within Manhattan and couldn’t believe how emptied out and sparsely populated everything looked. The party was fucking here, I guess! We also got specifically called out and reprimanded over the summer for the huge outdoor parties that were happening outside restaurants and on the streets, although a friend thinks that was people who don’t live in Astoria and just came here to party and be pains in the ass. Great. Thank you. It’s just been a lot.

        I agree, impressively bad timing! I mean I would love to write a memoir but the last year would be the dullest part by far. Basically just “Then I followed instructions and spent many months in my apartment and did not leave Queens for three months.”

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  4. The Pear Field sounds appealing! I’d been meaning to read Minor Detail already so was happy to see it land on the International Booker list, though I never seem to follow the prize well in-season either. Perhaps this summer. I’ve also been especially curious about At Night All Blood is Black and The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, so I hope you’ll have good experiences with both of those as well!

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    • I’d love to hear your thoughts on any and all of these! I’ve only read one chapter of At Night… so far but I LOVED it so I’m really looking forward to reading more.

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    • Hi Debbie, did you mean my Women’s Prize Complete Longlist spreadsheet? (Have I made another public spreadsheet that I’m not remembering?) Anyway, I’ve just gone ahead and deleted the empty white columns on the right, so it should be all set for you to print now. But if it’s still not working, you should be able to highlight the cells that you want to include before selecting File–Print and it should just print the selected area. Hope that helps!

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