21 literary prize winners from 2021 to read over summer

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The Promise by Damon Galgut

Winner of the 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction

A taut and menacing novel that charts the crash and burn of an Afrikaans family, the Swarts. Punctuated by funerals that bring the ever-diminishing family together, each of the four parts opens with a death and a new decade. The characterisations are razor sharp, the dialogue dramatic, the action gripping. As we traverse the decades, Damon interweaves the story of a disappointed nation from apartheid to Jacob Zuma.


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At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop (translated by Anna Moschovakis)

Winner of the 2021 International Booker Prize

Alfa and Mademba are two of the many Senegalese soldiers fighting in the Great War. Together they climb dutifully out of their trenches to attack France’s German enemies whenever the whistle blows, until Mademba is wounded, and dies in a shell hole with his belly torn open. Without his more-than-brother, Alfa is alone and lost amidst the savagery of the conflict. He devotes himself to the war, to violence and death, but soon begins to frighten even his own comrades in arms. How far will Alfa go to make amends to his dead friend?


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The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

Winner of the 2021 Stella Prize

The Bass Rock is a novel that weaves together the lives of three women across four centuries. It’s about the legacy of male violence and the ways in which these traumas ripple and reverberate across time and place. Each woman’s choices are circumscribed, in ways big and small, by the men in their lives. But in sisterhood there is the hope of survival and new life.


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The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey

Winner of the 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award

Erica Marsden’s son, an artist, has been imprisoned for homicidal negligence. In a state of grief, Erica cuts off all ties to family and friends, and retreats to a quiet hamlet on the south-east coast near the prison where he is serving his sentence. There, in a rundown shack, she obsesses over creating a labyrinth by the ocean. To build it, Erica will need the help of strangers. And that will require her to trust, and to reckon with her past.


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Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos

Winner of the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2021

When Lucky moves to Australia in a flow of post-war migration, he takes over a Greek-Australian café – one of those iconic features of Australia’s mid-century dining landscape. As we get to know Lucky and the community around him, a picture emerges of family, love, survival and identity. Andrew Pippos brings these characters to life in a way few first-time authors could and has created a charming, familiar delight of a novel, full of hope, fortune and fate.


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Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Winner of the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction

This is a highly unusual and original novel centred on a figure named Piranesi who lives in the House. He makes a careful record of his life, until he begins to receive messages from someone who obviously lives in the House with him. Beautifully crafted, Piranesi becomes an exploration of the meaning behind our words.


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Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin

Winner of the National Book Award for Translated Literature 2021

It’s winter in Sokcho, a tourist town on the border between South and North Korea. The cold slows everything down. Bodies are red and raw, the fish turn venomous, beyond the beach guns point out from the North’s watchtowers. A young French Korean woman works as a receptionist in a tired guesthouse. One evening, an unexpected guest arrives - a French cartoonist determined to find inspiration in this desolate landscape. A novel about shared identities and divided selves, vision and blindness, intimacy and alienation.


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The Night Watchman by Louise Erdich

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2021

Based on the extraordinary life of National Book Award-winning author Louise Erdrich’s grandfather who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from rural North Dakota all the way to Washington, D.C., this powerful novel explores themes of love and death with lightness and gravity and unfolds with the elegant prose, sly humour, and depth of feeling of a master.


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The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay

Winner of the Victorian Prize for Literature 2021

Hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, and allergic to bullshit, Jean is not your usual grandma. She’s never been good at getting on with other humans. Instead, she surrounds herself with animals, working as a guide in an outback wildlife park. As disturbing news arrives of a pandemic sweeping the country, Jean realises this is no ordinary flu: its chief symptom is that its victims begin to understand the language of animals – first mammals, then birds and insects, too.


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Luster by Raven Leilani

Winner of the International Dylan Thomas Prize 2021

Meet Edie. Edie is not okay. She’s messing up in her dead-end admin job in her all white office, is sleeping with all the wrong men, and has failed at the only thing that meant anything to her, painting. No one seems to care that she doesn’t really know what she’s doing with her life beyond looking for her next hook-up. And then she meets Eric, a white, middle-aged archivist with a suburban family, including a wife who has sort-of-agreed to an open marriage and an adopted black daughter who doesn’t have a single person in her life who can show her how to do her hair.


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Sterling Karat Gold by Isabel Waidner

Winner of the Goldsmiths Prize 2021

Aspiring writer Sterling is arrested one morning, without having done anything wrong. Plunged into a terrifying and nonsensical world, Sterling - with the help of their three best friends - must defy bullfighters, football legends, spaceships, and Google Earth tourists in order to exonerate themselves and to hold the powers that be to account.


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Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson

Winner of the Australian Literature Society (ALS) Gold Medal 2021

A multi-generational story of music, life, unfulfilled possibilities and the connection to family and land, all set in a fictional but all too recognisable regional Australian town. Skilfully written, interweaving systemic racism, fear and violence with determination, endurance and community, this uplifting song of a book is both essential and inspiring.


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The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Winner of the Walter Scott Prize 2021

With The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion and courage.


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Hell of a Book by Jason Mott

Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction 2021

A Black author sets out on a cross-country publicity tour to promote his bestselling novel. That storyline drives Hell of a Book and is the scaffolding of something much larger and urgent. For while this heartbreaking and magical book entertains and is at once about family, love of parents and children, art and money, it’s also about the nation’s reckoning with a tragic police shooting playing over and over again on the news. And with what it can mean to be Black in America.


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Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

Winner of the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction

The Sackler name adorns the walls of many storied institutions. They are one of the richest families in the world, known for their lavish donations in the arts and the sciences. The source of the family fortune was vague, however, until it emerged that the Sacklers were responsible for making and marketing Oxycontin, a blockbuster painkiller that was a catalyst for the opioid crisis-an international epidemic of drug addiction which has killed nearly half a million people.


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English Pastoral: An Inheritance by James Rebanks

Winner of the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing 2021

James Rebanks’s grandfather taught him to work the land the old way. Their family farm in the Lake District hills was part of an ancient landscape: a patchwork of crops and meadows, of pastures grazed with livestock, and hedgerows teeming with wildlife. And yet, by the time James inherited the farm, it was barely recognisable. This is a book about what it means to have love and pride in a place, and how, against all the odds, it may still be possible to build a new pastoral: not a utopia, but somewhere decent for us all.


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Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake

Winner of the Wainwright Prize for Conservation Writing 2021

The more we learn about fungi, the less makes sense without them. They can change our minds, heal our bodies and even help us avoid environmental disaster; they are metabolic masters, earth-makers and key players in most of nature’s processes. In Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake takes us on a mind-altering journey into their spectacular world, and reveals how these extraordinary organisms transform our understanding of our planet and life itself.


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We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker

Winner of the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger Award 2021

Thirty years ago, Vincent King became a killer. Now, he’s been released from prison and is back in his hometown of Cape Haven, California. Not everyone is pleased to see him. Like Star Radley, his ex-girlfriend, and sister of the girl he killed. Duchess Radley, Star’s thirteen-year-old daughter, is part-carer, part-protector to her younger brother, Robin - and to her deeply troubled mother. But in trying to protect Star, Duchess inadvertently sets off a chain of events that will have tragic consequences not only for her family, but also the whole town.


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Consolation by Garry Disher

Winner of the Ned Kelly Award for Crime Fiction 2021

In Consolation, Tiverton’s only police officer Constable Paul Hirschhausen is dealing with a snowdropper. Someone is stealing women’s underwear, and Hirsch knows how that kind of crime can escalate. Then two calls come in: a teacher who thinks a child may be in danger at home. A father on the rampage over at the primary school.


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Tell Me Why: The Story of My Life and My Music by Archie Roach

Winner of the 2021 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous Writing

In this intimate, moving and often shocking memoir, Archie’s story is an extraordinary odyssey through love and heartbreak, family and community, survival and renewal - and the healing power of music. Overcoming enormous odds to find his story and his people, Archie voices the joy, pain and hope he found on his path through song to become the legendary singer-songwriter and storyteller that he is today - beloved by fans worldwide.


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The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott

Winner of the 2021 Age Book of the Year

Ren lives alone on the remote frontier of a country devastated by a coup. High on the forested slopes, she survives by hunting and trading-and forgetting. But when a young soldier comes to the mountains in search of a local myth, Ren is inexorably drawn into her impossible mission. As their lives entwine, unravel and erupt-as myths merge with reality-both Ren and the soldier are forced to confront what they regret, what they love, and what they fear.


Explore the full collection of 2021 literary prize winners here.

The Promise

The Promise

Damon Galgut

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