Image: Penguin

Image: Penguin

Avni Doshi's searing debut novel Burnt Sugar has been shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, it was announced today.

Burnt Sugar, which tells the poignant story of a toxic relationship between a daughter and her neglectful mother, is among six books in the final running for the leading award for literary fiction in the English language.

The other books vying for the £50,000 prize are The New Wilderness by Diane Cook, This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga, The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, and Real Life by Brandon Taylor.

“I’m absolutely thrilled to be included on the shortlist, and so grateful that Burnt Sugar will reach more readers,” said Doshi shortly after hearing the news.

First published in India last year under the title Girl in White Cotton, the American author’s first novel is described as a “love story and a story about betrayal. But not between lovers – between mother and daughter”.

Visceral, angry and gorgeously written, it follows Antara, a 30-year-old with a new baby forced to care for her dementia-crippled mother, Tara, after a lifetime of neglect. As Antara looks back on their relationship, she tells how the wilful and impulsive Tara once ran out on her marriage to join an ashram and pursue life as the guru's favourite mistress, with her young daughter in tow.

Fast-forward three decades, and Tara's mind is beginning to wilt, leaving Antara to care for a mother who never cared for her in what becomes a devastating meditation on the meaning of motherhood.

Already a critical success, the book has earned rapturous praise not just for its taut, elegant prose and "searing truths", but for illustrator Holly Ovenden's groundbreaking cover design, which we wrote about in August.

"As the title indicates, this is a novel that often leaves a bitter taste in the mouth," said one of this year's judges, Sameer Rahim. "That is a deliberate and often bracing effect: the author bravely pushes the limits of the reader’s sympathy. It is a compelling book, beautifully written and with startling imagery—emotionally wrenching and poignant in equal measure.’ 

Judging this year's winner is a star-studded panel chaired by editor, critic and former publisher Margaret Busby. Alongside author and critic Rahim, Jack Reacher mastermind Lee Child; writer and broadcaster Lemn Sissay; and classicist and translator Emily Wilson will together decide which author deserves the £50,000 prize.

"As judges we read 162 books, many of them conveying important, sometimes uncannily similar and prescient messages," said Busby. "The novels on this year's shortlist range in setting from an unusual child growing up in working-class Glasgow in the 1980s, to a woman coping with a post-colonial nightmare in Zimbabwe."

She added: "Along the way we meet a man struggling with racism on a university campus, join a trek in the wilderness after an environmental disaster, eavesdrop on a woman coping with her ageing mother as they travel across India and in an exploration of female power to discover how ordinary people rose up in 1930s Ethiopia to defend their country against invading Italians. It’s a wondrous and enriching variety of stories, and hugely exciting as well."

The winner will be announced on Tuesday 17 November in an event broadcast from London’s Roundhouse in collaboration with BBC Arts. 

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