Rachel Cusk’s singular novel stands out on wide-ranging Booker longlist

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<span>Photograph: Canadian Press/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Canadian Press/Rex/Shutterstock

This is a longlist light on debuts and surprises, heavy on historical fiction, with an impressive geographical reach and an interest in the weight of the past. The biggest names look to the future, however: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun shows us, through its narrator’s artificial eyes, a tired, fragile world in which inequality is ever-deepening and humans are at risk of becoming defunct. As ever, the Nobel laureate is exploring the messy mysteries of emotion, memory and what it is to be human: the book makes a fascinating companion piece to his 2005 novel Never Let Me Go. And it’s no surprise to see Richard Powers here, previously shortlisted for The Overstory; it’s not out until September, but Bewilderment, an investigation of climate grief and the prospect of life on other planets, told through the story of a father and his troubled son, will be a strong contender.

Elsewhere, recent political history and national trauma come to the fore. This is the third Booker listing for Damon Galgut; The Promise follows a white South African family in the decades before and after the end of apartheid, weighing broken promises on a national and individual level. Anuk Arudpragasam is a hugely promising young Sri Lankan author: in his second novel, A Passage North, a young man reflects on the horrors of the civil war. There’s a more fable-like treatment of political violence in one of the surprise inclusions, An Island; South African Karen Jennings’s small-press parable centres on an isolated lighthouse keeper who has suffered under colonialism and dictatorship in an unnamed African country. Debut novel The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris has been a smash in the US: a revisionist take on civil war history, with a sweeping treatment of forbidden gay love and the aftermath of slavery.

Set in the 50s, Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men is an important act of historical spotlighting, fictionalising a shameful episode in British history when a Somali sailor was wrongfully hanged for murder, while Sunjeev Sahota’s China Room connects a young man’s experience of deprivation and addiction in England at the turn of the millennium with rural poverty in India 70 years before. Only on his third novel, but already with a second Booker nomination, Sahota is a significant voice.

Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual beautifully traces the inner lives of a group of working-class Londoners against postwar changes in British society. American Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle, meanwhile, is a soaring crowd-pleaser of a historical novel: a century-spanning epic of early female aviation and adventure. Also much loved by readers is Mary Lawson’s A Town Called Solace, a tale of smalltown secrets and lies in 1970s Canada.

The past year has seen many sharp novels from younger female authors investigating how the internet influences minds, relationships and working lives, but the only example here is Patricia Lockwood’s virtuoso debut No One Is Talking About This: savagely funny on social media addiction and then truly tragic on family pain. Notable by its absence, however, is the year’s most anticipated novel: Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, which is heavily embargoed until its September publication date but continues her exploration of modern love and purpose. It’s noteworthy, too, that though fiction is increasingly engaged with the urgent subject of global warming, on this longlist only Richard Powers explicitly tackles the climate crisis.

Perhaps the most singular book on the list is Rachel Cusk’s Second Place, which takes its inspiration from a historical source – a memoir detailing a woman’s painful encounter with DH Lawrence – to create a psychodrama that is both timeless and up-to-the-minute. Mercilessly anatomising privilege, creativity and ambition, male-female relationships and lockdowns Covid-driven and emotional, Cusk is brutally funny and honest about shame, ego and our sense of self. The novel is truly one of a kind.

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