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Booker Prize 2020: Read the opening lines of the longlisted novels

Booker Prize 2020: Read the opening lines of the longlisted novels
The 2020 Booker Prize longlist
Booker Prize 2020: Read the opening lines of the longlisted novels

The Booker Prize is the leading literary award in the English speaking world, and is awarded annually to the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK or Ireland.

The longlist, or ‘The Booker Dozen’, for The 2020 Booker Prize was announced in July 2020. The longlist of 13 books was chosen from 162 novels. The shortlist, which included 6 books, was announced in September 2020, and the winner was announced in November 2020. The 2020 Booker Prize winner is Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Picador, Pan Macmillan).

Scroll down to read the opening lines of the 13 books longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020.

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook (Oneworld Publications)

The baby emerged from Bea the color of a bruise. Bea burned the cord somewhere between them and uncoiled it from the girl’s slight neck and, though she knew it was useless, swept her daughter up into her hands, tapped on her soft chest, and blew a few shallow breaths into her slimy mouth.

Around her, the singular song of crickets expanded. Bea’s skin prickled from heat. Sweat dried on her back and face. The sun had crested and would, more quickly than seemed right, fall again. From where Bea knelt, she saw their Valley, its secret grasses and sage. In the distance were lonely buttes and, closer, mud mounds that looked like cairns marking the way somewhere. The Caldera stood sharp and white on the horizon.

Bea dug into the hard earth with a stick, then a stone, then hollowed and smoothed it with her hands. She scooped the placenta into it. Then the girl. The hole was shallow and her baby’s belly jutted from it. Wet from birth, the little body held on to coarse sand and tiny golden buds brittled from their stems by the heat of the sun. She sprinkled more dust onto the baby’s forehead, pulled from her deer hide bag several wilted green leaves, and laid them over the girl. She broke off craggy branches from the surrounding sage, laid them over the distended belly, the absurdly small shoulders. The baby was a misshapen mound of plant green, rust-red blood, a dull violet map of veins under wet tissue skin.

Now, the animals, who had sensed it, were converging. In the sky, a cyclone of buzzards lowered as if to check on the progress, then uplifted on a thermal. She heard the soft tread of coyotes. They wove through the bloomy sage. A mother and three skinny kits appeared under jaggedly thrown shade. Bea heard whines ease from their impassive yawns. They would wait.

Booker Prize 2020: Read the opening lines of the longlisted novels

This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber & Faber)

There is a fish in the mirror. The mirror is above the washbasin in the corner of your hostel room. The tap, cold only in the rooms, is dripping. Still in bed, you roll onto your back and stare at the ceiling. Realizing your arm has gone to sleep, you move it back and forth with your working hand until pain bursts through in a blitz of pins and needles. It is the day of the interview. You should be up. You lift your head and fall back onto the pillow. Finally, though, you are at the sink.

There, the fish stares back at you out of purplish eye sockets, its mouth gaping, cheeks drooping as though under the weight of monstrous scales. You cannot look at yourself. The dripping tap annoys you, so you tighten it before you turn it on again. A perverse action. Your gut heaves with a dull satisfaction.


It is a woman knocking at your door.

“Tambudzai,” she says. “Are you coming?”

It is one of your hostelmates, Gertrude.

“Tambudzai,” she calls again. “Breakfast?”

Footsteps tap away. You imagine her sighing, feeling at least a little low, because you did not answer.

“Isabel,” the woman calls now, turning her attention to another hostel dweller.

“Yes, Gertrude,” Isabel answers.

A crash tells you you have not paid sufficient attention. Your elbow nudged the mirror as you brushed your teeth. Or did it? You are not sure. You did not feel it. More precisely, you cannot afford definite conclusions, for certainty convicts you. You strive to obey the hostel’s rules, yet they just laugh at you. Mrs. May, the hostel matron, has reminded you frequently how you have broken the rule of age. Now the mirror has again slipped off the crooked nail in the wall and fallen into the basin below, resulting in a new crack. The next fall will shake all the pieces from the frame. You lift it out gently to keep the broken fragments in place, thinking up an excuse to tell the matron.

“Now then, what were you doing with it?” Mrs. May will demand. “You know you’re not meant to meddle with the appointments.”

The matron is fighting for you, she says. She tells you often how the board of trustees is complaining. Not about you as such, but about your age, she says. The city council will revoke the hostel’s licence if they find out women of such antiquity reside there, women who are well beyond the years allowed in the Twiss Hostel’s statutes.

Booker Prize 2020: Read the opening lines of the longlisted novels

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House) (First published in India as Girl in White Cotton by 4thEstate, HarperCollins India)

I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.

I suffered at her hands as a child, and any pain she subsequently endured appeared to me to be a kind of redemption – a rebalancing of the universe, where the rational order of cause and effect aligned.

But now, I can’t even the tally between us.

The reason is simple: my mother is forgetting, and there is nothing I can do about it. There is no way to make her remember the things she has done in the past, no way to baste her in guilt. I used to bring up instances of her cruelty, casually, over tea, and watch her face curve into a frown. Now, she mostly can’t recall what I’m talking about; her eyes are distant with perpetual cheer. Anyone witnessing this will touch my hand and whisper: Enough now. She doesn’t remember, poor thing.

The sympathy she elicits in others gives rise to something acrid in me.

I suspected something a year ago, when she began wandering around the house at night. Her maid, Kashta, would call me, frightened.

‘Your mother is looking for plastic liners,’ Kashta said on one occasion. ‘In case you wet your bed.’

I held the phone away from my ear and searched the nightstand for my glasses. Beside me, my husband was still asleep and his ear-plugs glowed neon in the dark.

Booker Prize 2020: Read the opening lines of the longlisted novels

Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze (4th Estate, HarperCollins)

And jump out the whip and I’m hitting the pavement and it’s this moment – when you jump out of the car and it’s too late to go back – when you know that you’re definitely gonna do it, even though the way the adrenaline bursts through your body makes you wish for a second that you weren’t here. And now we’re creeping up the street, she’s too far ahead of us, we got the timing wrong but we can’t run to catch up because that will alert her and she’ll turn around, so we’re creeping fast. The bally is hugging my face tight and I’ve also pulled my hood over it and I feel the adrenaline explode in the pit of my chest like a dying star and it’s like my entire body has turned into the pumping of my heart.

And I’m creeping up fast to get behind her and Gotti is right there beside me and she hasn’t heard us, not the way we’re moving, low to the ground, black cotton Nike tracksuits on so there’s no sound of clothes rustling, Nike trainers silent on the pavement. And for a few heartbeats I notice how everything on the street seems like someone’s idea of a peaceful life, sun floating overhead, bulging in the sky’s belly, washing the street below in a brightness that breaks over everything; neat rows of perfect houses, polished green bushes lining the pavement, the cool metal smell of morning, and now the woman pushes a gate open and turns off the street and she’s walking up a small path to her front door.

And we’ve fucked up the timing but we can still get her on her doorstep so we start running, still tryna be stealthy but now we really have to be quick before we lose her and we turn through the little gate – she’s almost at the door, digging into her handbag for the house key – and we run up the path and then we’re right there behind her, I can reach out and touch her hair, I can smell shampoo and softness and then expensive perfume which almost makes me feel sick, and in this moment everything I’ve ever known falls away, memory, past, future, and then the street, the morning and everything else around us disappears as if I’m forgetting the world and there is only Now, crystal sharp, on the doorstep. And before I can get my arms locked around her neck to put her to sleep, she turns around.

Booker Prize 2020: Read the opening lines of the longlisted novels

The Mirror and The Light by Hilary Mantel (4th Estate, HarperCollins)

Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away. A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner. The morning’s circumstances are new and there are no rules to guide us. The witnesses, who have knelt for the passing of the soul, stand up and put on their hats. Under the hats, their faces are stunned.

But then he turns back, to say a word of thanks to the executioner. The man has performed his office with style; and though the king is paying him well, it is important to reward good service with encouragement, as well as a purse. Having once been a poor man, he knows this from experience.

The small body lies on the scaffold where it has fallen: belly down, hands outstretched, it swims in a pool of crimson, the blood seeping between the planks. The Frenchman – they had sent for the Calais executioner – had picked up the head, swaddled it in linen, then handed it to one of the veiled women who had attended Anne in her last moments. He saw how, as she received the bundle, the woman shuddered from the nape of her neck to her feet. She held it fast though, and a head is heavier than you expect. Having been on a battlefield, he knows this from experience too.

The women have done well. Anne would have been proud of them. They will not let any man touch her; palms out, they force back those who try to help them. They slide in the gore and stoop over the narrow carcass. He hears their indrawn breath as they lift what is left of her, holding her by her clothes; they are afraid the cloth will rip and their fingers touch her cooling flesh. Each of them sidesteps the cushion on which she knelt, now sodden with her blood. From the corner of his eye he sees a presence flit away, a fugitive lean man in a leather jerkin. It is Francis Bryan, a nimble courtier, gone to tell Henry he is a free man. Trust Francis, he thinks: he is a cousin of the dead queen, but he has remembered he is also a cousin of the queen to come.

Booker Prize 2020: Read the opening lines of the longlisted novels

Apeirogon by Colum McCann (Bloomsbury Publishing)

The hills of Jerusalem are a bath of fog. Rami moves by memory through a straight stretch, and calculates the camber of an upcoming turn.

Sixty-seven years old, he bends low on the motorbike, his jacket padded, his helmet clipped tight. It is a Japanese bike, 750 cc. An agile machine for a man his age.

Rami pushes the bike hard, even in bad weather.

He takes a sharp right at the gardens where the fog lifts to reveal dark. Corpus separatum. He downshifts and whips past a military tower. The sodium lights appear fuzzy in the morning. A small flock of birds momentarily darkens the orange.

At the bottom of the hill the road dips into another curve, obscured in fog. He taps down to second, lets out the clutch, catches the corner smoothly and moves back up to third. Road Number One stands above the ruins of Qalunya: all history piled here.

He throttles at the end of the ramp, takes the inner lane, passing signs for The Old City, for Giv’at Ram. The highway is a scattershot of morning headlights.

He leans left and salmons his way out into the faster lane, towards the tunnels, the Separation Barrier, the town of Beit Jala. Two answers for one swerve: Gilo on one side, Bethlehem on the other.

Geography here is everything.

Booker Prize 2020: Read the opening lines of the longlisted novels

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Canongate Books)

She does not want to remember but she is here and memory is gathering bones. She has come by foot and by bus to Addis Ababa, across terrain she has chosen to forget for nearly forty years. She is two days early but she will wait for him, seated on the ground in this corner of the train station, the metal box on her lap, her back pressed against the wall, rigid as a sentinel. She has put on the dress she does not wear every day. Her hair is neatly braided and sleek and she has been careful to hide the long scar that puckers at the base of her neck and trails over her shoulder like a broken necklace.

In the box are his letters, le lettere, ho sepolto le mie lettere, è il mio segreto, Hirut, anche il tuo segreto. Segreto, secret, meestir. You must keep them for me until I see you again. Now go. Vattene. Hurry before they catch you.

There are newspaper clippings with dates spanning the course of the war between her country and his. She knows he has arranged them from the start, 1935, to nearly the end, 1941.

In the box are photographs of her, those he took on Fucelli’s orders and labeled in his own neat handwriting: una bella ragazza. Una soldata feroce. And those he took of his own free will, mementos scavenged from the life of the frightened young woman she was in that prison, behind that barbed-wire fence, trapped in terrifying nights that she could not free herself from.

Inside the box are the many dead that insist on resurrection.

She has traveled for five days to get to this place. She has pushed her way through checkpoints and nervous soldiers, past frightened villagers whispering of a coming revolution, and violent student protests. She has watched while a parade of young women, raising fists and rifles, marched past the bus taking her to Bahir Dar. They stared at her, an aging woman in her long drab dress, as if they did not know those who came before them. As if this were the first time a woman carried a gun. As if the ground beneath their feet had not been won by some of the greatest fighters Ethiopia had ever known, women named Aster, Nardos, Abebech, Tsedale, Aziza, Hanna, Meaza, Aynadis, Debru, Yodit, Ililta, Abeba, Kidist, Belaynesh, Meskerem, Nunu, Tigist, Tsehai, Beza, Saba, and a woman simply called the cook. Hirut murmured the names of those women as the students marched past, each utterance hurling her back in time until she was once again on ragged terrain, choking in fumes and gunpowder, suffocating in the pungent stench of poison.

Booker Prize 2020: Read the opening lines of the longlisted novels

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (Bloomsbury Circus, Bloomsbury Publishing)

That night, when Mrs. Chamberlain called, Emira could only piece together the words “. . . take Briar somewhere . . .” and “. . . pay you double.”

In a crowded apartment and across from someone screaming “That’s my song!,” Emira stood next to her girlfriends Zara, Josefa, and Shaunie. It was a Saturday night in September, and there was a little over an hour left of Shaunie’s twenty-sixth birthday. Emira turned the volume up on her phone and asked Mrs. Chamberlain to say it again.

“Is there any way you can take Briar to the grocery store for a bit?” Mrs. Chamberlain said. “I’m so sorry to call. I know it’s late.”

It was almost astonishing that Emira’s daily babysitting job (a place of pricey onesies, colorful stacking toys, baby wipes, and sectioned dinner plates) could interrupt her current nighttime state (loud music, bodycon dresses, lip liner, and red Solo cups). But here was Mrs. Chamberlain, at 10:51 p.m., waiting for Emira to say yes. Under the veil of two strong mixed drinks, the intersection of these spaces almost seemed funny, but what wasn’t funny was Emira’s current bank balance: a total of seventy-nine dollars and sixteen cents. After a night of twenty-dollar entrées, birthday shots, and collective gifts for the birthday girl, Emira Tucker could really use the cash.

“Hang on,” she said. She set her drink down on a low coffee table and stuck her middle finger into her other ear. “You want me to take Briar right now?”

On the other side of the table, Shaunie placed her head on Josefa’s shoulder and slurred, “Does this mean I’m old now? Is twenty-six old?” Josefa pushed her off and said, “Shaunie, don’t start.” Next to Emira, Zara untwisted her bra strap. She made a disgusted face in Emira’s direction and mouthed, Eww, is that your boss?

“Peter accidentally—we had an incident with a broken window and . . . I just need to get Briar out of the house.” Mrs. Chamberlain’s voice was calm and strangely articulate, as if she were delivering a baby and saying, Okay, mom, it’s time to push. “I’m so sorry to call you this late,” she said. “I just don’t want her to see the police.”

“Oh wow. Okay, but, Mrs. Chamberlain?” Emira sat down at the edge of a couch. Two girls started dancing on the other side of the armrest. The front door of Shaunie’s apartment opened to Emira’s left, and four guys came in yelling, “Ayyeee!”

Booker Prize 2020: Read the opening lines of the longlisted novels

Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Originals, Daunt Books Publishing)

It was a cool evening in late summer when Wallace, his father dead for several weeks, decided that he would meet his friends at the pier after all. The lake was dimpled with white waves. People coveted these last blustery days of summer before the weather turned cold and mercurial. The air was heavy with their good times as the white people scattered across the tiered patios, pried their mouths apart, and beamed their laughter into each other’s faces. Overhead, gulls drifted easy as anything.

Wallace stood on an upper platform looking down into the scrum, trying to find his particular group of white people, thinking also that it was still possible to turn back, that he could go home and get on with his evening. It had been a couple of years since he had gone to the lake with his friends, a period of time that embarrassed him because it seemed to demand an excuse and he did not have one. It might have had something to do with the crowds, the insistence of other people’s bodies, the way the birds circled overhead, then dive-bombed the tables to grab food or root around at their feet, as though even they were socialising. Threats from every corner. There was also the matter of the noise, the desperate braying of everyone talking over everyone else, the bad music, the children and dogs, the radios from the frats down the lakeshore, the car stereos in the streets, the shouting mass of hundreds of lives disagreeing.

The noise demanded vague and strange things from Wallace.

There, among the burgundy wooden tables nearest the lake, he saw the four of them. Or, no, more specifically, he saw Miller, who was extraordinarily tall, the easiest to spot. Then Yngve and Cole, who were merely tall, and then Vincent, who just scraped under the bar of average height. Miller, Yngve, and Cole looked like a trio of pale, upright deer, like they belonged to their own particular species, and you could be forgiven, if you were in a hurry, for thinking them related. Like Wallace and their other friends, they had all come to this Midwestern city to pursue graduate studies in biochemistry. Their class had been the first small one in quite some time, and the first in more than three decades to include a black person. In his less generous moments, Wallace thought these two things related, that a narrowing, a reduction in the number of applicants, had made his admission possible.

Wallace was on the verge of turning back – he was uncertain if the company of other people, which just a short time ago had seemed somehow necessary, was something he could bear – when Cole looked up and spotted him. Cole started to flail his arms about, as if he were trying to elongate himself to ensure that Wallace could see him, though it must have been obvious that Wallace was looking directly at them. There was no turning back after all. He waved to them.

It was Friday.

Wallace went down the half-rotten stairs and came closer to the dense algal stink of the lake. He followed the curving wall, passed the hulls of the boats, passed where the dark stones jutted out of the water, passed the long pier that stretched out into the water, with people there, too, laughing, and as he walked, he glanced out over the vast green water of the lake itself, boats skimming its surface, their sails white and sure against the wind and the low, wide sky.

It was perfect.

It was beautiful.

It was just another evening in late summer.

Booker Prize 2020: Read the opening lines of the longlisted novels

Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler (Chatto & Windus, Vintage)

You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone. At seven fifteen every morning you see him set out on his run. Along about ten or ten thirty he slaps the magnetic TECH HERMIT sign onto the roof of his Kia. The times he leaves on his calls will vary, but not a day seems to go by without several clients requiring his services. Afternoons he can be spotted working around the apartment building; he moonlights as the super. He’ll be sweeping the walk or shaking out the mat or conferring with a plumber. Monday nights, before trash day, he hauls the garbage bins to the alley; Wednesday nights, the recycling bins. At ten p.m. or so the three squinty windows behind the foundation plantings go dark. (His apartment is in the basement. It is probably not very cheery.)

He’s a tall, bony man in his early forties with not-so-good posture—head lunging slightly forward, shoulders slightly hunched. Jet-black hair, but when he neglects to shave for a day his whiskers have started coming in gray. Blue eyes, heavy eyebrows, hollows in his cheeks. A clamped-looking mouth. Unvarying outfit of jeans and a T-shirt or a sweatshirt, depending on the season, with a partially-erased-looking brown leather jacket when it’s really cold. Scuffed brown round-toed shoes that seem humble, like a schoolboy’s shoes. Even his running shoes are plain old dirty-white sneakers—none of the fluorescent stripes and gel-filled soles and such that most runners favor—and his shorts are knee-length denim cutoffs.

He has a girlfriend, but they seem to lead fairly separate lives. You see her heading toward his back door now and then with a sack of takeout; you see them setting forth on a weekend morning in the Kia, minus the TECH HERMIT sign. He doesn’t appear to have male friends. He is cordial to the tenants but no more than that. They call out a greeting when they meet up with him and he nods amiably and raises a hand, often not troubling to speak. Nobody knows if he has family.

The apartment building’s in Govans—a small, three-story brick cube east of York Road in north Baltimore, with a lake-trout joint on the right and a used-clothing store on the left. Tiny parking lot out back. Tiny plot of grass in front. An incongruous front porch—just a concrete slab stoop, really—with a splintery wooden porch swing that nobody ever sits in, and a vertical row of doorbells next to the dingy white door.

Does he ever stop to consider his life? The meaning of it, the point? Does it trouble him to think that he will probably spend his next thirty or forty years this way? Nobody knows. And it’s almost certain nobody’s ever asked him.

Booker Prize 2020: Read the opening lines of the longlisted novels

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Picador, Pan Macmillan)

The day was flat. That morning his mind had abandoned him and left his body wandering down below. The empty body went listlessly through its routine, pale and vacant-eyed under the fluorescent strip lights, as his soul floated above the aisles and thought only of tomorrow. Tomorrow was something to look forward to.

Shuggie was methodical in setting up for his shift. All the pots of oily dips and spreads were decanted into clean trays. The edges were wiped free of any splashes that would go brown quickly and ruin the illusion of freshness. The sliced hams were artfully arranged with fake parsley sprigs, and the olives were turned so that the viscous juice slid like mucus over their green skins.

Ann McGee had the brass neck to call in sick again that morning, leaving him with the thankless task of running his deli counter and her rotisserie stand all alone. No day ever started well with six dozen raw chickens, and today of all days, it was stealing the sweetness out of his daydreams.

He pushed industrial skewers through each cold, dead bird and lined them up neatly in a row. They sat there, with their stubby wings crossed over their fat little chests like so many headless babies. There was a time he would have taken pride in this orderliness. In reality, pushing the metal through the bumpy pink flesh was the easy part; the difficult part was resisting the urge to do the same to the customers. They would pore over the hot glass and study each of the carcasses in detail. They would choose only the best bird, ignorant to the fact that battery farming meant they were all identical. Shuggie would stand there, his back teeth pinching the inside of his cheek, and indulge their indecisiveness with a forced smile. Then the pantomime would really begin. “Gies three breasts, five thighs, and just wan wing the day, son.”

He prayed for strength. Why did no one want a whole chicken any more? He would lift the carcass using long prongs, careful not to touch the birds with his gloved hands, and then he would dissect the parts neatly (skin intact) using catering scissors. He felt like a fool standing there against the broiler lights. His scalp was sweating under the hairnet and his hands were not quite strong enough to artfully snap the back of the chicken with the dull blades. He hunched slightly, the better to throw his back muscles behind the pressure in his wrists, and all the time he kept smiling.

If he was very unlucky, the tongs would slip and the chicken would thud and slide its way across the gritty floor. He’d have to make an apologetic pretence of starting again, but he never wasted that dirty bird. When the women turned away he would put it back with its sisters under the hot yellow lights. He believed in hygiene well enough, but these little private victories stopped him from starting a riot. Most of the judgy, man-faced housewives who shopped here deserved it. The way they looked down on him flushed the back of his neck scarlet. On particularly low days he folded all types of his bodily discharge into the taramasalata. He sold an uncanny amount of that bourgeois shite.

Booker Prize 2020: Read the opening lines of the longlisted novels

Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward (Corsair, Little, Brown)

Rachel picked up the magazine that Eliza had left in the kitchen. The cover was a drawing of a tree with the roots embedded in a man’s head and above him a blowsy crown of leafed branches arched towards the sun. It wasn’t a typical image for Eliza’s reading matter. Rachel turned the page.

‘Thought experiments are devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things.’

That’s a lot, thought Rachel. But she liked the sound of it. It tickled her to think of stories being used by scientists. I could be a thought experiment, something Eliza has dreamed up to challenge her hardened reasoning.

‘If I were a thought experiment,’ Rachel asked Eliza as they got into bed that night, ‘What one would I be?’

‘I’m not sure you can be a thought experiment,’ Eliza said. ‘They are supposed to help you think about a problem.’

‘If you can imagine it, then it is possible.’

‘That is one theory.’

‘So,’ Rachel pushed away the book Eliza had picked up and blinked at her girlfriend. ‘Imagine me.’

Eliza smiled and shook her head. ‘This is what happens when the fanciful encounter the factual.’

‘I’m not sure which is which here. Quit stalling.’ Rachel prodded Eliza’s armpit.

‘Fine! You want to be a thought experiment? You can be a zombie! No, no, I’ve got it. You would be, yes, Hume’s Missing Shade of Blue. The colour he has never seen but can still visualise. Happy?’

Hume’s Missing Shade of Blue, thought Rachel as she laid her head on the pillow. Yes. I can be that. ‘Tell me some more.’

Booker Prize 2020: Read the opening lines of the longlisted novels

How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang (Virago, Little, Brown)

Ba dies in the night, prompting them to seek two silver dollars.

Sam’s tapping an angry beat come morning, but Lucy, before they go, feels a need to speak. Silence weighs harder on her, pushes till she gives way.

“Sorry,” she says to Ba in his bed. The sheet that tucks him is the only clean stretch in this dim and dusty shack, every surface black with coal. Ba didn’t heed the mess while living and in death his mean squint goes right past it. Past Lucy. Straight to Sam. Sam the favorite, round bundle of impatience circling the doorway in too-big boots. Sam clung to Ba’s every word while living and now won’t meet the man’s gaze. That’s when it hits Lucy: Ba really is gone.

She digs a bare toe into dirt floor, rooting for words to make Sam listen. To spread benediction over years of hurt. Dust hangs ghostly in the light from the lone window. No wind to stir it.

Something prods Lucy’s spine.

“Pow,” Sam says. Eleven to Lucy’s twelve, wood to her water as Ma liked to say, Sam is nonetheless shorter by a full foot. Looks young, deceptively soft. “Too slow. You’re dead.” Sam cocks fingers back on pudgy fists and blows on the muzzle of an imagined gun. The way Ba used to. Proper way to do things, Ba said, and when Lucy said Teacher Leigh said these new guns didn’t clog and didn’t need blowing, Ba judged the proper way was to slap her. Stars burst behind her eyes, a flint of pain sharp in her nose.

Lucy’s nose never did grow back straight. She thumbs it, thinking. Proper way, Ba said, was to let it heal itself. When he looked at Lucy’s face after the bloom of bruise faded, he nodded right quick. Like he’d planned it all along. Proper that you should have something to rememory you for sassing.

There’s dirt on Sam’s brown face, sure, and gunpowder rubbed on to look (Sam thinks) like Indian war paint, but beneath it all, Sam’s face is unblemished.

Just this once, because Ba’s fists are helpless under the blanket—and maybe she is good, is smart, thinks in some small part that riling Ba might make him rise to swing at her—Lucy does what she never does. She cocks her hands, points her fingers. Prods Sam’s chin where paint gives way to baby fat. The jaw another might call delicate, if not for Sam’s way of jutting it.

Booker Prize 2020: Read the opening lines of the longlisted novels


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Booker Prize 2020: Read the opening lines of the longlisted novels

About the author

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Chirdeep Malhotra

Dr Malhotra is Editor, Books and Features at The Dispatch. A medical practitioner, a bibliophile, he calls Jammu home. He has an interest in International Relations and World affairs. He enjoys writing, watching documentaries, and exploring the culture and local cuisines of Jammu & Kashmir.