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?