The International Booker Prize 2023 longlist has been announced. It features work from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America, including three writers whose work appears in English for the first time, and books translated from 11 languages.
This Year’s Judges
The panel of judges is chaired by the prize-winning French-Moroccan novelist, Leïla Slimani. The panel also includes Uilleam Blacker, one of Britain’s leading literary translators from Ukraine; Tan Twan Eng, the Booker-shortlisted Malaysian novelist; Parul Sehgal, staff writer and critic at the New Yorker; and Frederick Studemann, Literary Editor of the Financial Times.
The 2023 judges are looking for the best work of international fiction translated into English, selected from entries published in the UK or Ireland between May 1, 2022 and April 30, 2023. The books, authors and translators the prize celebrates, offer readers a window into the world and the opportunity to experience the lives of people from different cultures.
The shortlist of six books will be announced on Tuesday, April 18. The winning title will be announced at a ceremony in London on May 23, 2023.
The list includes one of my favourite authors, Maryse Condé, who was nominated back in 2015 when the prize was for a lifetime of work, I have read eight of her novels and there are more to explore, including her latest below.
The novels that made the list traverse elements of Korean fairy tale, French horror, Caribbean gospel, Indian melodrama, Scandinavian saga – and East Germany’s answer to Trainspotting.
Listed below is a short description of the book and then the judges comment:
Boulder by Eva Baltasar (Spain), translated by Julia Sanches (Queer love and Motherhood, Intense)
Eva Baltasar demonstrates her pre-eminence as a chronicler of queer voices navigating a hostile world – in prose as brittle and beautiful as an ancient saga.
Working as a cook on a merchant ship, a woman comes to know and love Samsa, who gives her the nickname ‘Boulder’. When the couple decide to move to Reykjavik together, Samsa announces that she wants to have a child. She is already 40 and can’t bear to let the opportunity pass her by.
Boulder is less enthused but doesn’t know how to say no – and so finds herself dragged along on a journey that feels as thankless as it is alien. With motherhood changing Samsa into a stranger, Boulder must decide where her priorities lie, and whether her yearning for freedom will trump her yearning for love.
“Boulder is a sensuous, sexy, intense book. Baltasar condenses the sensations and experiences of a dozen more ordinary novels into just over one hundred pages of exhilarating prose. An incisive story of queer love and motherhood that slices open the dilemmas of exchanging independence for intimacy. “
Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan (South Korea), translated by Chi-Young Kim (Epic Adventure-Satire -Fairytale)
An adventure-satire of epic proportions, which sheds new light on the changes Korea experienced in its rapid transition from pre-modern to post-modern society.
Set in a remote village in South Korea, Whale follows the lives of three linked characters: Geumbok, an extremely ambitious woman who has been chasing an indescribable thrill ever since she first saw a whale crest in the ocean; her mute daughter, Chunhui, who communicates with elephants; and a one-eyed woman who controls honeybees with a whistle. A fiction that brims with surprises and wicked humour, from one of the most original voices in South Korea.
“A carnivalesque fairytale that celebrates independence and enterprise, a picaresque quest through Korea’s landscapes and history, Whale is a riot of a book. Cheon Myeong-Kwan’s vivid characters are foolish but wise, awful but endearing, and always irrepressible. This is a hymn to restlessness and self-transformation.”
The Gospel According to the New World by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe/France), translated by Richard Philcox (Literary fiction -Caribbean influence)
A miracle baby is rumoured to be the child of God. Award-winning Caribbean author Maryse Condé follows his journey in search of his origins and mission.
Baby Pascal is strikingly beautiful, brown in complexion, with grey-green eyes like the sea. But where does he come from? Is he really the child of God? So goes the rumour, and many signs throughout his life will cause this theory to gain ground.
From journey to journey and from one community to another, Pascal sets off in search of his origins, trying to understand the meaning of his mission. Will he be able to change the fate of humanity? And what will the New World Gospel reveal?
“Maryse Condé is one of the greatest Francophone authors and the great voice of the Caribbean. In this book she proves again what a gifted storyteller she is. The narration is lively and fluid, and we feel carried away by this story as we do by the fables of our childhood. She takes liberties, finding references in the Bible as well as in Caribbean myths. The book borrows from the tradition of magic realism and draws us into a world full of colour and life. This is a book that succeeds in mixing humour with poetry, and depth with lightness.”
Standing Heavy by GauZ’ (Ivory Coast), translated by Frank Wynne (French) (Immigrant story – shifting perspectives – Paris)
A unique insight into everything that passes under a security guard’s gaze, which also serves as a searingly witty deconstruction of colonial legacies and capitalist consumption.
Amidst the political bickering of the inhabitants of the Residence for Students from Côte d’Ivoire and the ever-changing landscape of French immigration policy, two generations of Ivoirians attempt to make their way as undocumented workers, taking shifts as security guards at a flour mill. This sharply satirical yet poignant tale draws on the author’s own experiences as an undocumented student in Paris.
“A sharp and satirical take on the legacies of French colonial history and life in Paris today. Told in a fast-paced, and fluently translated, style of shifting perspectives, Standing Heavy carries us through the decades – from the youthful optimism of the decolonisation of the 1960s to the banal realities of daily shift work on the margins of contemporary consumer society – to deliver a fresh perspective on France that is critical, funny and human.”
Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov (Bulgaria), translated by Angela Rodel (Alzheimers -Memory-Humour)
A ‘clinic for the past’ offers a promising treatment for Alzheimer’s sufferers: each floor reproduces a decade in minute detail, transporting patients back in time.
An unnamed narrator is tasked with collecting the flotsam and jetsam of the past, from 1960s furniture and 1940s shirt buttons to scents, and even afternoon light. But as the rooms become more convincing, an increasing number of healthy people seek out the clinic as a ‘time shelter’, hoping to escape the horrors of modern life – a development that results in an unexpected conundrum when the past begins to invade the present.
Intricately crafted, and eloquently translated by Angela Rodel, Time Shelter cements Georgi Gospodinov’s reputation as one of the indispensable writers of our times, and a major voice in international literature.
“A wide-ranging, thought-provoking, macabre and humorous novel about nationality, identity and ageing, and about the healing and destructive power of memory. It asks the question: what is our place in 20th century history, when that history seems to be constantly shifting? ‘Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be,’ they say, and this book shows us – in moving, funny and disturbing ways – how and why.”
Is Mother Dead by Vigdis Hjorth (Norway), translated by Charlotte Barslund (Dark suspense – Mother-daughter rship)
‘To mother is to murder, or close enough,’ thinks Johanna, as she looks at the spelling of the two words in Norwegian.
Recently widowed, Johanna is back in Oslo after a long absence to prepare for a retrospective of her art. The subject of her work is motherhood and some of her more controversial paintings have brought about a dramatic rift between parent and child.
This new proximity, after decades of acrimonious absence, set both women on edge. Before too long, Johanna finds her mother stalking her thoughts, and herself stalking her mother’s house.
“This is a dark, chilling book. One of its tricks is to rely on a narrator who is an anti-heroine, and who can be annoying because of her narcissism and her malice. That’s what makes her real and what makes us care about her. This novel provides a very fine and cruel understanding of family relationships: the violence of the mother-daughter dynamic, which reminds us of Marguerite Duras; the impossibility of getting to know each other within the same family; family life as a prison of secrets and silence. Vigdis Hjorth manages to create a lot of suspense – a thriller-like tension – and what is amazing is that you never really know whose side you are on.”
Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv by Andrey Kurkov (Ukraine), translated by Reuben Woolley (Russian) (Black humour – magic realism – borderland city)
Shot through with Kurkov’s unique brand of black humour and vodka-fuelled magic realism, Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv is an affectionate portrait of one of the world’s most intriguing cities.
Strange things are afoot in the cosmopolitan city of Lviv, western Ukraine. Seagulls are circling and the air smells salty, though Lviv is a long way from the sea. A ragtag group gathers round a grave – among them an ex-KGB officer and an ageing hippy he used to spy on. Before long, Captain Ryabtsev and Alik Olisevych team up to discover the source of the ‘anomalies’.
Meanwhile, Taras – who makes a living driving kidney-stone patients over cobblestones in his ancient Opel Vectra – is courting Darka, who works nights at a bureau de change despite being allergic to money. The young lovers don’t know it, but their fate depends on two lonely old men, relics of another era, who will stop at nothing to save their city.
“The escapades of Kurkov’s loveable eccentrics provide a frame for an intriguing portrait of Lviv in the 2000s, a melancholy borderland city that finds itself recalling a troubled past as it sits on the cusp of an uncertain future. This is a book full of magic that is always grounded, cosiness that is always on the edge of being unsettled, and dark humour that is always affectionate.”
The Birthday Party by Laurent Mauvignier (France), translated by Daniel Levin Becker (Literary Horror – the marginalised – rural France)
This gripping tale of the violent irruptions of the past into the present, from a major contemporary French writer, is a deft unravelling of the stories we hide from others – and from ourselves.
Buried deep in rural France, little remains of the isolated hamlet of the Three Lone Girls, save a few houses and a curiously assembled quartet: Patrice Bergogne, inheritor of his family’s farm; his wife, Marion; their daughter, Ida; and their neighbour, Christine, an artist.
While Patrice plans a surprise for his wife’s fortieth birthday, inexplicable events start to disrupt the hamlet’s quiet existence: anonymous, menacing letters, an unfamiliar car rolling up the driveway. And as night falls, strangers stalk the houses, unleashing a nightmarish chain of events.
“This impressive and fascinating book reconciles two primal feelings: empathy and dread. It is a very scary book, rooted in the traditions of horror. It is as scary as when we listened to stories about ogres and wolves as children. The writing is formidable. The slow rhythm of the sentences creates tension as much as the situation itself. Mauvignier also describes brilliantly an abandoned rural France where there is a sense of marginalisation and humiliation.”
While We Were Dreaming by Clemens Meyer (Germany), translated by Katy Derbyshire (reunification – shattered dreams – hope)
Startlingly raw and deeply moving, this extraordinary debut novel from one of Germany’s most ambitious writers is full of passion, hope and despair.
Rico, Mark, Paul and Daniel were 13 when the Berlin Wall fell in autumn 1989. Growing up in Leipzig at the time of reunification, they dream of a better life somewhere beyond the brewery quarter. Every night they roam the streets, partying, rioting, running away from their fears, their parents and the future, fighting to exist, killing time. They drink, steal cars, feel wrecked, play it cool, longing for real love and true freedom.
“As walls fall and political systems collapse, a group of youngsters in Leipzig are pitched into a helter-skelter world of partying, violence, drugs, crime and techno music. Energetic, blunt and hard-charging, While We Were Dreaming skillfully captures with pathos and anger the sense of what happens when all the certainties of the grown-up world evaporate and the future is up for grabs. The story of German unification as it did not appear on your TV screen.”
Pyre by Perumal Murugan (India), translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan (Tamil) (Love -Social discrimination – Caste)
Young love is pitted against social discrimination in Perumal Murugan’s powerful and compelling novel, set in the rural Tamil Nadu of 1980s.
Saroja and Kumaresan are in love. And in danger. After a whirlwind romance they marry in a small southern Indian town, before returning to Kumaresan’s family village. But the newlyweds are harbouring a dangerous secret: they belong to different castes, and if the villagers find out they will be in grave peril.
Faced with venom from her mother-in-law, and pointed questions from her new neighbours, Saroja struggles to adjust to a lonely and uncomfortable life. Kumaresan throws himself into building a business, hoping to scrape together enough money for them to start over somewhere new. But as vicious whispers encircle the couple, will their love be enough to keep them safe?
“An intercaste couple elopes, setting in motion a story of terrifying foreboding. Perumal Murugan is a great anatomist of power and, in particular, of the deep, deforming rot of caste hatred and violence. With flashes of fable, his novel tells a story specific and universal: how flammable are fear and the distrust of others.”
Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel (Mexico/France), translated by Rosalind Harvey (Parenting – freedom – relationship compromises)
Guadalupe Nettel’s gripping and insightful fourth novel explores one of life’s most consequential decisions – whether or not to have children.
Alina and Laura are independent and career-driven women in their mid-thirties, neither of whom have built their future around the prospect of a family. Laura has taken the drastic decision to be sterilised, but as time goes by Alina becomes drawn to the idea of becoming a mother.
When complications arise in Alina’s pregnancy and Laura becomes attached to her neighbour’s son, both women are forced to reckon with the complexity of their emotions, in Nettel’s sensitive and surgically precise exploration of maternal ambivalence.
“Two best friends share an aversion to ‘the human shackles’ of motherhood, only to discover that life has other plans. With a twisty, enveloping plot, the novel poses some of the knottiest questions about freedom, disability, and dependence – all in language so blunt it burns.”
A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding by Amanda Svensson (Sweden), translated by Nichola Smalley (Family saga – cult – changelings)
This joyful family saga about free will, forgiveness, and interconnection poses a question: are we free to create our own destinies or are we just part of a system beyond our control?
In October 1989, a set of triplets is born, and it is at this moment their father chooses to reveal his affair. Pandemonium ensues.
Over two decades later, Sebastian is recruited to join a mysterious organisation, where he meets Laura Kadinsky, a patient whose inability to see the world in three dimensions is not the only intriguing thing about her. Meanwhile, Clara has travelled to Easter Island to join a doomsday cult, and the third triplet, Matilda, is in Sweden, trying to escape from the colour blue.
Then, something happens that forces the triplets to reunite. Their mother calls with worrying news: their father has gone missing and she has something to tell them, a 25-year secret that will change all their lives.
“When a set of adult triplets learn that one of them might have been switched in the hospital after their birth, each of them become convinced that they are the changeling. Amanda Svensson’s raucous, sprawling debut takes on the enigmas of our origins, riddles of human consciousness and animal cognition, doomsday cults, and the most bedeviling of mysteries – the minds and choices of our closest intimates.”
Ninth Building by Zou Jingzhi (China), translated by Jeremy Tiang (Cultural Revolution – interconnected stories – shared humanity)
A fascinating collection of vignettes based on the author’s life in China during the Cultural Revolution.
Revisiting his experiences as a boy in Beijing and then as a teenager exiled to the countryside, Zou captures a side of the Cultural Revolution that is seldom talked about – the sheer tedium and waste of young life under the regime, as well as the gallows humour that accompanies such desperate situations.
“A kaleidoscopic and understated collection of interlocking tales of life in an apartment building under the Cultural Revolution – the daily tedium of its inhabitants, lit by brief and tenuous moments of shared humanity.”