A flatlay of the four Penguin-published Booker shortlisted titles against a background of tinsel

Our 2021 Booker shortlisted titles. Image: Vicky Ibbotson/Penguin

This year’s Booker Prize shortlist has been announced, with four of the six-strong shortlist being published by Penguin Random House imprints.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead; Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men; Bewilderment by Richard Powers and The Promise by Damon Galgut are all in with a chance of winning the most prestigious award in publishing and the £50,000 prize.

The judges read the 158 books judged for the prize between January and June, when both the UK and the US were in lockdown due to the pandemic. The resulting shortlist, judge Maya Jasanoff said, reflected "a present moment that seems to generate one thing after another that few of us could have anticipated", and where the lines between fiction and reality seemed increasingly blurred. The books on this year's shortlist, Jasanoff said, shared certain qualities: they were immersive, global, transporting and dealt with matters of life and death, something that was "poignantly pertinent in the present, catastrophic moment."

Mohamed, who was born in Somaliland but moved to the UK when she was five, is the only British author shortlisted who is published by Penguin. Shipstead and Powers are both American, while Galgut is from South Africa. They are shortlisted alongside Sri Lankan Tamil novelist Anuk Arudpragasam for his book A Passage North and Patricia Lockwood, the American novelist who wrote No-one is Talking About This.

This year’s shortlisting is the third for Galgut, whose fifth novel The Good Doctor (2003) and seventh, In a Strange Room (2010) were both recognised by the Booker Prize shortlist. The Promise, which tells the story of relations between a white South African family and the Black woman who has worked for them, is Galgut’s ninth novel. Speaking about the novel in August, Galgut told Penguin.co.uk that it concerned "the burning question at the centre of South African life: who owns the land?"

Powers’ previous novel, the Pulitzer prize-winning The Overstory, was Booker-shortlisted. Bewilderment, which is released later this month, looks away from the trees that dominated Powers’ 2018 novel and towards the stars, instead, with astrobiologist narrator Theo Byrne attempting to connect with his nine-year-old son in the wake of his wife’s death.

In The Fortune Men, Mohamed takes the reader to mid-century Cardiff, where real Somali seaman Mahmood Mattan was wrongly imprisoned and executed for murder. Inspired by a newspaper photograph from the time, Mohamed has restored dignity in her retelling of Mattan’s story. "I happened to be reading The Daily Mail in 2004 when they published a double-page spread on the Mahmood Mattan case, with a photo of him looking forlorn in jail splashed across its usually hostile pages," Mohamed told Penguin.co.uk in May. "It struck my imagination enough that I spoke to my father about this mysterious Somali man who had been executed in Britain long before I imagined any Somali community living here."

Shipstead was also inspired by historical events for her third novel, Great Circle, looking to the ambition and adventures taken by Amelia Earhart, the infamous female pilot whose disappearance in 1937 has remained one of aviation’s great mysteries. Shipstead’s character Marian Graves was inspired by Earhart, in her novel which dovetails Grave’s narrative with that of Hadley Baxter, an actress tasked with playing her. "Part of the reason I included the point of view of Hadley – a modern movie star playing Marian Graves in a biopic and trying to piece together Marian’s life decades after her disappearance – was that I wanted a lens on the essential unknowability of other people, a way to get at how much of a life is lost when it ends," Shipstead wrote in May, in a piece about the book for Penguin.co.uk.

Each shortlisted author will win £2,500 and a specially bound copy of their book. The winner, who will take home £50,000, will be announced in a ceremony on November 3.  

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