Recommendations From the 2022 International Booker Prize Shortlist
By Niina Bailey, Oisin Harris, Toby Smollet and Kate Williams
To commemorate the 2022 International Booker Prize, we have three recommendations from the shortlist. This annual prize is given to a book translated from another language into English and published in the UK or Ireland. The International Prize is a mirror to the Booker Prize, which awards books originally written in English. This year’s shortlist consists of six books, all translated from a different language. The books are Heaven by Mieko Kawakami, Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro, A New Name: Septology Ⅵ-Ⅶ by Jon Fosse, Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk and Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung. The winner will be announced on 26 May.
Heaven by Mieko Kawakami.
Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd. Published by Europa Editions in 2021.
Told through the perspective of a 14-year-old boy who is horrifically bullied at school for his lazy eye, the story opens when he finds a note from his classmate, Kojima, asking to be friends. She too is bullied for her unkempt appearance, so they form a secret friendship founded on their shared plight.
This is a short book at under 200 pages, yet despite its simplicity, it deals with profound ideas and does not shy away from complex themes. Kojima’s philosophical ramblings on the meaning of suffering are inspired by Nietzsche’s ideas on nihilism, violence and power. In fact, Kawakami began her writing career as a poet, which is clearly reflected in her ability to convey so much in so few words.
The cruel and violent descriptions can be difficult to read. However, the author takes an empathetic view towards the teenagers’ suffering, giving serious consideration to their thoughts and feelings which are so often dismissed as melodramatic or indulgent juvenile concerns. This is not a romanticised coming-of-age story, but a realistic account of the psychological impact of bullying on these characters at a tender age.
Heaven was first published in Japan in 2009 and translated into English in 2021. This is Kawakami’s second book to appear in English translation, after Breasts and Eggs, published in 2020.
Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro.
Translated by Frances Riddle. Published by Charco Press, 2021.
When Elena’s daughter, Rita, is found on a rainy afternoon dead hanging from the local church’s belfry, Elena, an elderly widow and Parkinson’s sufferer, knows the police are wrong in treating it as a suicide: she knows her daughter would never go to church on rainy days.
Piñeiro lets us tag along with Elena as she sets out for a trek across Buenos Aires, taking her a whole day due to Parkinson’s. During Elena’s quest for justice, we are also granted slices of life narrating the fraught relationship between mother and daughter, as well as a crucial past incident of unalterable ramifications. An encounter with a mysterious third lady at the book’s climax serves to frame the denouement so beautifully executed by Piñeiro.
A novel by a lauded crime author, this is no whodunit but rather a book whose themes touch on the experiences of motherhood and the much-contested abortion laws in Argentina. It is a tale all about what Elena and others don’t know; one doesn’t know how to be a mother and the other doesn’t know how to become one to her own mother. The one person who did know how to be a mother, Elena that is, loses her memory and control of her body that was so tied up with the life and choices of her daughter, Rita. To fathom what another body wants, to comprehend the limits of what another body can endure and who can or cannot care for someone’s life are all questions this novel poses and reveals no easy answers to.
Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung.
Translated by Anton Hur. Published by Honford Star in 2021.
Cursed Bunny opens with Head, the tale of a woman who finds a misshapen head, formed from her excrement, emerging from her toilet. The head calls her “Mother” and becomes a constant haunting presence for the protagonist, impossible to ignore in its search to gain a full body.
If this seems grotesque, it does because it is. The book itself consists of ten short stories, primarily horror, with a variety of tone, genre and humour that makes the label overly simplistic. These stories, occasionally veering into something resembling fables (think Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado), ultimately concern themselves with the lives of marginalised people, and so the presence of fear and the grotesque shouldn’t be surprising – a life in the margins is rarely wholesome.
The ten separate stories never suffer from the issue that afflicts many short stories of feeling unsatisfying and incomplete, as if they come from worlds drawn in pencil. These stories are immersive, and one of the most impressive aspects of Cursed Bunny is Bora Chung’s ability to create engaging and relatable characters that feel real in a very short space of time.