Opinion: International Booker prize 2024: six expert reviews of shortlisted books

By Helen Vassallo, Anne Whitehead, Edward Sugden, Hyunseon Lee, Lucyl Harrison, Rafael Mendes Silva Posted : May 14, 2024, 08:56 Updated : May 21, 2024, 14:43
International Booker Prize shortlisted books Courtesy of International Booker Prize
International Booker Prize shortlisted books. Courtesy of International Booker Prize

SEOUL, May 14 (AJU PRESS) - From a longlist of 12, six novels have been shortlisted for the 2023 International Booker prize. Our academics review the finalists ahead of the announcement of the winner on May 21.

Not a River by Selva Almada, translated by Annie McDermott

In Not a River, the final instalment in Selva Almada's "trilogy of men," past and present collide in a nightmarish sleepwalk towards inevitable violence. Two men take Tilo, the son of their friend Eusebio, on a fishing trip along the very river where Eusebio lost his life some years earlier. They row to "the island," a closed community that does not trust outsiders. The heat bears down on them as ghosts of both past and present reel them in, and the intimacy of their fishing trip takes a macabre turn as the islanders and the river decide their fate.

In this lean, tense novella, Almada perfects the pared-down style that, as Annie McDermott acknowledges in her excellent translator's note, is bordering on poetry. Almada takes us to the heart of rural Argentina and uncovers the prejudices, vendettas and settling of scores that characterize her literary work.

Mater 2-10 by Hwang Sok-yong, translated by Sora Kim-Russell and Josephine Bae Youngjae

Starting in 1920s Seoul, at the dawn of modern technology, this realistic and dramatic tale of railroad workers was originally published twice weekly in an online journal, keeping readers engaged and eager for the next instalment. It has been republished as a 467-page book, which slowly unfolds not just the story of Jino's family, but the 100-year history of the Korean Peninsula.

In this sprawling epic, Hwang Sok-yong has created another classic that delves deep into the history of the Korean people in North and South Korea. Readers will learn about the peninsula's history, from Japanese occupation through the separation of North and South, through the everyday experiences of three generations of a family of railway workers.

Mater 2-10 is a sad and heartbreaking saga about the need to heal. It is also a deft translation, which captures Hwang Sok-yong's signature unpretentious, unadorned Korean prose.

What I'd Rather Not Think About by Jente Posthuma, translated by Sarah Timmer Harvey

Discussing Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, the protagonist of Jente Posthuma's What I'd Rather Not Think About observes : "After everything I’d heard, I was expecting a dense, sappy story but was surprised by the novel's light tone." This description could refer equally to Posthuma's own novel, which also focuses on depression and suicide, and which handles its subject matter with wry humor.

We know the novel's protagonist as Two because she is the younger of twins, and her older brother as One. Two's grief following her brother's suicide causes her to reflect on their relationship through a series of fragmented thoughts, across which recurring images surface: the Twin Towers, the reality TV show Survivor and the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.

I found the novel powerful in its probing of the complicated relations between intimacy and distance, love and leaving – themes that rely as much on what is unsaid, as on what is told.

Crooked Plow, by Itamar Vieira Junior, translated by Johnny Lorenz

Crooked Plow, set in Bahia's hinterlands, examines the struggle for land and the exploitation of quilombolas, descendants of Afro-Brazilian enslaved people who escaped from captivity.

The novel starts with a defining moment in the lives of siblings Bibiana and Belonísia: playing with a knife, one of them ends up mute. Without revealing who cannot speak, Bibiana narrates the first part, recounting the arrival of her family to the Água Negra farm.

In the second part, Belonísia narrates her harrowing journey after marrying an abusive man. However, her story takes a turn when Água Negra's women reclaim agency, while Bibiana returns home politicized and married to Severo, who organizes worker's rights.

Santa Rita Pescadora, an encantada or spiritual entity of the Jarê (an Afro-Brazilian religion practiced in Bahia), narrates the final part, unravelling the violence endured by quilombolas during the slavery period, corononelismo and large-scale corporate agriculture.

In Crooked Plow, Vieira Júnior crafts a rich, multi-voiced novel that does not shy away from portraying the present-day legacies of Brazil’s colonial past.

Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Michael Hofmann

In Jenny Erpenbeck's Kairos, a character asks whether a human being is "a container to be filled by time with whatever it happens to have handy" or if there can be life beyond history. The novel dramatizes this question throughout.

The book is set in the last years of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) (1949-90) as western capitalism erodes a collapsing socialism. Against this context, two lovers, the ageing writer Hans and the late teenage Katharina, live out a doomed affair, having met on a bus one rainy evening.

The mundane deceptions of infidelity that make up the book – Hans and Katharina meet in cafes, watch films, listen to music, go shopping, take secret holidays – are freighted with history and emotional intensity as the plot plunges towards its ending, where the links between politics and the personal become tragically clear.

For some, the spiraling, fracturing and intensifying effects this tragic view has on the characters, the plot and the style, might be too much. For others, it might accurately depict the nightmarish dislocations of Europe in the 20th century.

The Details by Ia Genberg, translated by Kira Josefsson

The Details, originally published as Detaljerna in Swedish, is clearly the readers' favorite to win the International Booker Prize. Ratings and reviews across Storygraph, Goodreads, Bookstagram and BookTok, are falling in love with all 151 pages of Joseffson's immaculate translation and Genberg's charm.

This viral novella opens with an unnamed woman, bedridden and in the throes of a burning fever which renews her interest in a half-forgotten book (The New York Trilogy by the late Paul Auster) that is inscribed with a handwritten message from a past lover.

Though it is resistant to a chronological order, the book travels along the tectonic plates of pre-internet life in the 90s, and shifts us into a new air of change at the turn of the millennium. In four chapters named after Johanna, Niki, Alejandro and Birgitte – relationships which have shaken the narrator's existence – we are transported to a past that is captured as vividly as the state of the soul itself.

The Details is a perfectly written, quiet COVID novel which cleverly disguises the pandemic, offering a genius form of exposure therapy to readers who haven't felt ready to read COVID novels. Genberg and Joseffson are honey and gold in the book's final chapter which stays with you. This beautiful little book and its highly perceptive feel for the small details of an entire life is a wonderful addition to the genre's best coronavirus fiction.


Helen Vassallo is an associate professor of French and Translation at University of Exeter in the U.K.

Anne Whitehead is a professor of Modern & Contemporary Literature at Newcastle University.

Edward Sugden is a senior lecturer in American Studies at King's College London.

Hyunseon Lee is a professorial research associate at Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, and Centre for Creative Industries, Media and Screen Studies, SOAS at University of London.

Lucyl Harrison is a PhD Candidate, School of Humanities at University of Hull in the U.K.

Rafael Mendes Silva is a PhD Candidate, Latin American Studies at Trinity College Dublin.

This article was republished under a Creative Commons license with The Conversation. The views and opinions in this article are solely those of the authors.

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