The Booker Prize winner get bragging rights to one of the most prestigious literary awards in the English-speaking world. And, like the Nobel Prize for Literature recipient, the Booker Prize winner (and the winners of its sister awards, the Man Booker International Prize and Special Prizes) also gets a substantial cash payout.
The Booker Prize for Fiction is a literary prize awarded each year for the best novel originally written in English and published in the UK in the eligibility year of the prize, regardless of the nationality of its author. (The eligibility year currently runs from 1st October to 30th September.) The novel must be an original work in English (not a translation) and must not be self-published. Prior to 2014, eligibility for the award was restricted to citizens of the Commonwealth of Nations, Ireland, or Zimbabwe.
From 1969-2001 the prize was sponsored by British food wholesalers Booker McConnell Ltd, and from 2002 until May 2019 by investment management firm Man Group. It was formally known as the Man Booker Prize from 2002 until Man ceased its sponsorship.
The Booker Prize for Fiction promotes the finest in literary fiction by rewarding the very best novel of the year. The prize is the world’s most important literary award and has the power to transform the fortunes of authors and publishers.
Here are the Booker Prize winner books since the 1969, creation of the award:
by Douglas Stuart
The star of this story is Agnes Bain, a spirited woman who takes care to appear and behave with taste, until she gets too much drink in her. Shuggie Bain is the protagonist, he’s the one who changes, but Shuggie seems to lose sight of himself when focusing his sharp perceptions onto others, and much of what we get about him is from what others say. And of all the characters, Agnes is by far the most vivid, complex and alluring.
Stuart really captures the neighborhood culture of Scotland 1982-1992, the class structure, and the protestant/catholic divide. He also conveys a lot about the sibling dynamics, and how each of them deals with the power and the storm that is their mom. For Agnes is the storm, and she is the water on which her children – especially, Shuggie – navigate.
The story, while clearly fictional, has a number of parallels with the author’s own life – he was brought up in Glasgow, his mother was an alcoholic single parent with two older children, and the historical setting in a Glasgow ravaged by Thatcherism matches.
The Testaments (The Handmaid’s Tale #2)
by Margaret Atwood
In the stunning and much anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, and the Booker Prize Winner of 2019, Margaret Atwood sheds light on the dystopia she created all those years ago and which resonates on televisions even today.
Welcome back to Gilead, which has been running as its own theocratic dictatorship for over fifteen years. Life has been interesting, though the almighty power of the Commanders seems to have developed cracks—just don’t tell them that.
Agnes is a girl who has lived her entire life under Gilead, knowing no different. She is a ‘child of the state’ and has now reached the age when she will need to be partnered off to become a subservient wife. She has her own ideas, but knows that she must work within the rules of Gilead. Daisy also has lived her entire life knowing nothing before Gilead, but on the other side of the border. She lives in Canada, where her parents have been fighting to free people from under the thumb of Gilead, protesting and helping those who are courageous enough to make it out.
When terrorism strikes on the streets of Toronto, Daisy must make a decision that will surely change her life and many around her. These two girls are inextricably tied to a third woman, Aunt Lydia. The Founding Aunt of Gilead, Lydia tells her own story about living in Gilead and helping to found some of its pillars. As pressure mounts to locate the long-lost Baby Nicole, the people of Gilead turn to their leaders who are determined to exact revenge on those who caused such grief.
Agnes, Lydia, and Daisy are at the heart of this, though their agendas are all their own. Brilliantly concocted, Atwood does what she promised, providing a great peek behind the curtain into the inner workings of Gilead, while drawing some parallels to current circumstances where leaders stand, sensing they are above the law.
Girl, Woman, Other
by Bernardine Evaristo
Girl, Woman, Other is a perfectly titled novel. This novel is made up of twelve interconnected chapters that focus on a certain woman, eleven of them black, one not knowing she had black genes. It jointly became the Booker Prize Winner with The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Evaristo managed to cover a wide spectrum of British black women – women from different generations, with different sexual orientations, and gender identity. Some of them are ardent feminists – some had been feminists before it was trendy; others just want to fit in with the middle class. Some seek and find a career and financial success – many of those people reject, to a certain extent, their origins and become players in the “establishment”. Few are artistic, some are pragmatic, some are erudite, some had obtained top-class education, and others had left school early. Some know what they want, others fumble through life, making it up as they go along. The intergenerational conflict is present throughout. Of course, racism, a-la Great Britain, is featured throughout.
It also covers single motherhood, domestic abuse, drug-taking, and rape.
by Anna Burns
United Kingdom / Northern Ireland
The plot revolves around a paramilitary older man called the Milkman stalking the 18 year old main character. Set in Belfast during the troubles there are no names given or locations. Maybe boyfriend, wee sisters, McSomebody, real milkman, first sister, tablets girl are just some of the colorful characters.
The story centres on a girl whose mother wants her married and having children. She is seeing a maybe boyfriend when suddenly the milkman starts stalking her. Then the rumour mill starts of her being his mistress and even her mother believes the rumors. Overlaying that is her eccentricity of jogging and reading while walking to the chagrin of her family and friends.
The brother in laws both the nasty one and the nice one set off events. The first brother-in-law feeding the rumours. The other brother-in-law concerned about her eccentricity and a fanatical addiction to jogging and exercise. The rules and codes the community live by such as not going to the hospital to avoid the potential stigma of being an informer, the names that are suitable for children, flags, emblems are not something a normal community would think about but with a divided community such as this one it is at times a matter of survival.
Memorable parts of the story stay with you such as the massacre of the dogs by the soldiers, the cats head, the rules of the renouncers and the adoration of all the local elderly women for the real milkman. The gossip, family politics intermingled with the troubles and day to day life of survival are at times funny, tragic and poignant.
Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders
In this Man Booker Prize Winner piece of historical fiction, a blend of fact and fiction, Saunders writes of 1862, the American Civil War has been raging for less than year, now intensifying to unbearable proportions with the rising tide of the dead. Amidst this background, Lincoln is facing his very own personally traumatic and testing times. After having already lost a son earlier, his gravely ill 11 year old son, Willie, dies and is laid to rest in Georgetown cemetery with a devastated Lincoln visiting.
From here, Saunders spins an emotionally powerful, wildly imaginative, heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful tour de force. The bardo is a Tibetan Buddhist term referring to the time period, ‘transition’, between death and rebirth, with time spent there determined by the kind of life lived and the nature of the death. Willie is in his bardo, where nothing will ever be the same again, trapped there by the love of his father.
by Paul Beatty
The Sellout is a satire about race in modern America. The novel begins with our nameless black narrator sitting before the Supreme Court. We soon discover (through oneiric but lucid prose) that he is being charged with owning a slave and segregating a school. Before you have a chance to do a double-take the narrator brings you back to his childhood. We discover that he grew up in the town formerly known as Dickens but the town is now disappearing, it barely even appears on maps anymore.
Overwhelmed by a literal lack of place our narrator attempts to bring Dickens back from the ashes. In order to achieve this, he ’employs’ one of Dickens’ oldest residents and last remaining Little Rascal, Hominy, as his slave, a job that he is more than willing to do (he even insists on calling our narrator ‘massa’). He will stop at nothing to bring Dickens back.
A Brief History of Seven Killings
by Marlon James
A Brief History of Seven Killings is about the Jamaican underworld. Based on the assassination attempt on Bob Marley in 1976, the story centers around the lives of a variety of characters who have been involved in or direct witnesses to the assassination attempt; several gang members and leaders, a dead Jamaican politician, CIA officials operating in Jamaica, a journalist trying to get an exclusive interview with Marley, a local woman who just knows that “Midnight Ravers” is a song Marley wrote about her. The setting in the second part of the book spills over to the US, but was clearly connected with the events of the first part of the book.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
by Richard Flanagan
This Man Booker Prize Winner book, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is the story of Dorrigo, a young surgeon at the outbreak of WW2. He has a fiancée Ella, and although it’s not at all loveless it is to be a strategic marriage that allows him to enter the upper levels of society. However, he’s also in a torrid romance with his uncle’s much younger wife, Amy, whom he rashly promises to return for after the war. The core of the novel is his horrific experience in a Japanese POW camp, forced to work on the infamous Burma Railway, and how that shaped his later life. His role as commanding officer, where he exercised what he thought was just basic decency in the face of unimaginable horror, disease and death, is seen as something heroic after his return to Australia. So Dorrigo, who feels as though his soul died in the camp, and is now filling his hollow life with (among other things) compulsive philandering, unwillingly becomes a revered figure, though he never feels he is up to the part, or worthy of his fame.
by Eleanor Catton
Canada / New Zealand
At over 800 pages, with 20 main characters and a convoluted yet original narrative structure, Elanor Catton’s second novel The Luminaries simply cannot be taken lightly. Set in the New Zealand goldfields in the mid 1860’s, it’s a mesmerizing blend of Murder mystery, history, love story and drama, with finely crafted characters, complex relationships, surprising plot twists and a fine old fashion writing quality.
When Scottish born Walter Moody arrives shocked and nauseous in the gold town of Hokitikta he inadvertently interrupts a meeting of 12 local men. The group has gathered to discuss a series of inexplicable events with the disappearance of a wealthy man, an attempted suicide of a local whore and the discovery of a fortune at the home of an alcoholic who is now dead. When these men choose to reveal these event’s to Moody the stage is set for a consuming and elaborate whodunnit that will hold you in it’s interest till the final page.
Bring Up The Bodies (Thomas Cromwell #2)
by Hilary Mantel
Bring Up the Bodies is a historical novel by Hilary Mantel and sequel to her Booker Prize Winner Wolf Hall. It is the second part of a planned trilogy charting the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, the powerful minister in the court of King Henry VIII. It is to be followed by The Mirror and the Light.
Bring Up the Bodies begins not long after the conclusion of Wolf Hall. The King and Thomas Cromwell, who is now Master Secretary to the King’s Privy Council, are the guests of the Seymour family at their manor house, Wolf Hall. The King shares private moments with Jane Seymour, and begins to fall in love with her. His present queen, Anne Boleyn, has failed to give him a male heir. Their relationship is a stormy one, sometimes loving and sometimes characterized by angry quarrels.
At length, the King tells Cromwell privately, “I cannot live as I have.” Cromwell understands this to mean that the King has tired of a wife who gives him neither peace nor a son and wants his marriage to her ended. Cromwell promises the King he will find a legal way to make this happen.
The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes
“The Sense of an Ending” is the story of a retired aged man looking at childhood friendships and a significant college girlfriend against the back drop of his middle aged divorce. At each turn he finds more to wonder about. His current perspective is markedly different from that of his youthful outlook.
Most perplexing to X is the fate of the most promising of his friends. The easy answers from his youth no longer tell the entire story of events much less the reasons behind his and others’ actions. He’s able to step back from judgment and blame but sometimes that makes events even more inexplicable.
The positive outcome is that he’s able to forgive himself and others. That’s true maturity and worth going through some angst for. There’s a really great ending that explodes just as you think you’ve figured things out.
The Finkler Question
by Howard Jacobson
The Finkler Question is a unique honest view of antisemitism as it relates to otherness, hatred, jealousy and love. It was a little slow- very interior reading which is why I gave it four stars, even so, struggle through the slowness, it’s worth it.
Jacobson explores the relationship of three friends in London, Julian Treslove, a Jew-want-to-be former BBC radio producer, Sam Finkler, a popular Jewish television personality and their former teacher Libor Sevcik. Each is a basic type exaggerated into a humorous multidimensional caricature interacting with each other, their children, wives, and lovers. Confronted with the worse aspects of humanity each chooses a different response taking the reader into one of the core social questions of our times.
At the beginning of the book, Treslove is attacked and robbed and convinced that he was incorrectly labeled a Jew by his attacker. This begins the whole “Finkler Question” centering around Treslove’s obsessive love/hate relationship with Jews.
This book is a remarkable funny unflinching exploration of the Jewish experience with the wisdom and humanity of maturity as reflected in exclusion and belonging.
Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell #1)
by Hilary Mantel
WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel is a magnificent novel, a fictionalized biography of Thomas Cromwell. Except for early scenes involving Thomas’s youthful break with his family, the novel’s present spans from 1500 to Thomas More’s beheading in 1535.
Son of a Putney blacksmith, Cromwell in this novel makes good in the service of his cardinal, his king, his church. He survived the disgrace of his mentor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, becoming one of Henry VIII’s most powerful ministers, a member of his inner circle. As Wolsey’s secretary and legal advisor, he oversaw the dissolution of the monasteries. As Henry’s confidante and minister, he supported the king’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, the break with the pope, Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.
The structure of the novel is a delicacy, a story told not always chronologically. The prose is a delight, the author’s grasp of language and of history, prodigious.
The White Tiger
by Aravind Adiga
The White Tiger, The Man Booker Prize winner of 2008, has unsettled critics and readers alike. It is a provocative book as it paints an unflattering portrait of India as a society racked by corruption and servitude, exposing the country’s dark side. This grim world is far removed from the glossy images of Bollywood stars and technology entrepreneurs.
The entire novel is narrated through seven letters by Balram Halwai, an exceedingly charming, egotistical admitted murderer, to the Premier of China, who will soon be visiting India.
Balram is an Indian man from an impoverished background, born into the ‘darkness’ of rural India. His family is from the Halwai caste, a caste that indicates sweet-makers. His village is dominated and oppressed by four landlords. Balram gets a break when he goes to work for one of the landlords, and then ends up moving to Delhi via a job as driver to Mr Ashok, the landlord’s son. From behind the wheel of their Honda City car, Balram’s new world is a revelation; crime, corruption, greed, adultery, prostitution and alcohol abuse.
by Anne Enright
In The Gathering (the Man Booker Prize winner for Fiction 2007), Anne Enright tells the story of a bitter and bruised family in bitter and bruised prose. I was sucked in for the ride – even though I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to go.
Veronica Hagerty narrates the story about her Irish Catholic family of twelve children. She is particularly concerned with a disturbing event that occurred one summer when she and two of her siblings, Liam and Kitty, are sent to live with their grandmother. Liam never quite recovers from the events of that summer and some thirty years later has killed himself. Veronica, whose life is picture perfect on the outside, is deeply troubled on the inside. The novel is a sort of journey (though not quite a linear one) through Veronica’s imbittered and coarse memories straight on to dealing with the now of Liam’s death, wake, and funeral.
The Inheritance of Loss
by Kiran Desai
The Inheritance of Loss is the second novel by Indian author Kiran Desai. It was first published in 2006. It became the Man Booker Prize winner for that year including a number of awards, the National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award in 2007, and the 2006 Crossword Book Award.
The story is centered on two main characters: Biju and Sai. Biju is an undocumented Indian immigrant living in the United States, son of a cook who works for Sai’s grandfather. Sai is a girl living in mountainous Kalimpong with her maternal grandfather Jemubhai, the cook and a dog named Mutt.
Kiran Desai switches the narration between both points of view. The action of the novel takes place in 1986. The novel follows the journey of Biju, an undocumented immigrant in the US who is trying to make a new life; and Sai, an Anglicised Indian girl living with her grandfather in India.
by John Banville
Max Morden returns to the scene of a childhood event that has haunted him ever since. He is melancholy after the death of his wife and wants to make sense of his life. He turns to alcohol for solace.
The book flits between the long ago summer and episodes in his life with his wife. As it slowly unfolds we see the wooing and wedding of his wife and her fatal diagnosis and descent into death. Simultaneously we see the events of the boyhood summer and the beginnings of a first romance, together with infidelity and intrigue amongst the grownups – events that he does not fully understand.
The return to the house where much of the tempestuous summer occurred rakes up old ghosts but sheds not a lot of light.
The Line of Beauty
by Allan Hollinghurst
The Line of Beauty beat Cloud Atlas to become the Booker Prize winner in 2004. If it was deemed a more deserving recipient than David Mitchell’s magnum opus, I thought to myself, it must be worth reading. And it is very good indeed.
The story begins in 1983. Our protagonist Nick Guest moves into the Notting Hill home of Gerald Fedden MP, having befriended his son Toby at Oxford. He is given the job of keeping on eye on Catherine, Toby’s unstable sister, and quickly becomes a member of the family. Coming from a much humbler background, Nick is thrilled at his induction to high society, attending lavish parties and holidaying with the Feddens at their French manoir. He also indulges in London’s gay scene, losing his virginity to a Jamaican council worker and lusting after Wani Ouradi, a wealthy Lebanese associate. As the decade moves on, Nick’s fortunes become entwined with that of the Feddens, and there is a nagging feeling that there may be a price to pay for this life of decadence and debauchery.
Vernon God Little
by DBC Pierre
Vernon God Little is a book of how the rest of the world perceives America. It reads like what is wrong with the society – the intrusive media, the TV centric materialistic lifestyle, the attention seekers, the gossip mongers and the complete apathy towards sanctity of human life.
Vernon Gregory Little is a 15 year old live victim of a school shoot out whom people with ambition are out to get. Narrated in first person, we know he is innocent and part of a dysfunctional neighborhood. Almost the entire book is on how fate seems to be against him before he finds God. The first half of the book, Vernon almost dares you to like him – under all the cussing with swear words in every sentence, some with 2.
Life of Pi
by Yann Martel
Life of Pi is a tale of survival on the open Pacific Ocean. It’s a tale of survival on the Earth. It’s a tale about the nature of truth, religion and stories. It is absolutely heart-breaking, then your heart is healed, then it’s broken again and you just want to let it stay that way.
Piscine Molitor Patel grew up in Pondicherry, India. His father was a zookeeper and kept a great many animals at the Pondicherry Zoo – until a change in government has his family packing their bags for the Big Move to Winnipeg, Canada. All the animals have to be sold or traded off, and homes have been found for them in zoos in India and America, among other places. In 1977, those bound for the US join them on the Japanese cargo ship, the Tsimtsum, which, somewhere in the Pacific, sinks.
The only survivors are Pi, a urangutan named Orange Juice, a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger. The lifeboat they share is not just cramped, it’s a case of who’ll be dinner first. Pi not only has to survive the Pacific, he has to survive a hyena and a Bengal tiger.
True History of the Kelly Gang
by Peter Carey
This fascinating novel from Man Booker prize winner Peter Carey explores the story of the deadly Kelly Gang from the perspective of one of the Kellys. The Kelly gang has an interesting role in Australian history as a band of renegades that were treated like shit by society and forced (or not depending on how you view it) to take to a life of brigandry to survive. They were brutally hunted down by the Aussie government but the hunt took years and cost many lives. The book is exciting and very well-written.
The Blind Assassin
by Margaret Atwood
A fascinating, bold blend of genres, with some uneven pacing, in the first Booker Prize winner book of Atwood. The story blends a Canadian early twentieth century family chronicle with pulp science fiction in a clandestine romance setting.
In the novel within the unnamed female narrator, presumably Iris’ younger sister Laura, tells the story of her secret love affair with the communist agitator Alex. During their clandestine meetings Alex makes up scifi stories for his lover about the people of the planet Zycron ‘in another dimension of space and time’. As the main novel develops you realize that the scifi story mirrors the life of the main protagonists as well as the present social and politial situation.
by J. M. Coetzee
Professor David Lurie is forced to resign when his affair with a student comes to light. His resignation and the humiliations he gets to swallow as a parent burn chinks in his cynical armour and self-image. By volunteering in a veterinary clinic, his indifference to man and animal gradually gives way to empathy. Disgrace deals with the human inability to communicate effectively and with the uncertain relations between black and white in post-apartheid South Africa. Coetzee writes soberly and compactly. He aptly records the wry horror of raw physical and psychological violence.
Disgrace hits like a sledgehammer, but results in a catharsis that one doesn’t forget lightly. A staggering book.
by Ian McEwan
Molly Lane has died after a rapid descent into dementia. We meet three of her lovers and her husband outside the crematorium. Their fates are entwined, but the novel focuses on the characters and choices of two of the lovers. Clive, a famous composer, is struggling to finish a symphony to commemorate the millennium. Vernon is a newspaper editor whose mandate is to increase the circulation of his paper in a tabloid era. To say anything more would spoil the plot, although the ending itself seems both too contrived and too neat. The situation and the professions of the characters–the third lover is a politician facing a career-threatening scandal–offer ample opportunity for witty satire of contemporary society. But this novel is also both a character study and a very black comedy.
McEwan creates two fully-realized characters who earn the reader’s empathy even when they behave badly. These are men confronting their own mortality and the role of their work in the world, but their narrative is profoundly comic, perhaps because of their exaggerated sense of their own importance and the absurdity of their end. McEwan’s prose is masterful. Particularly lovely are the passages in which Clive ponders the creation of his symphony, the role of music, and the emotions of a composer the first time he hears his music performed.
The God of Small Things
by Arundhati Roy
The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is a lyrical, mysterious tale of misunderstanding and pain, echoing through the years. At its dark heart, it demonstrates how small things can have multiple and major consequences, meaning that everything can change in a single day. “Anything can happen to anyone. It’s best to be prepared.” – and these fears trigger tragedy.
It is set in Kerala (southern India) in 1969 (when twins Rahel (girl) and Estha (boy) are aged 7) and 23 years later, when the twins return to the family home. As the narrative switches periods, hints become clearer and eventually become facts: you know bad things will happen, but it’s not initially clear who will be the perpetrators. There is beauty, but always brooding menace of nastiness to come, or echoes of trauma long ago.
by Graham Swift
Jack, a Butcher and propper up of the bar at his local (alongside his mates Raysy, Lenny, Vic and Vince, Jack’s unofficially adopted son) dies. He wants his ashes scattered off Margate. His widow, Amy, passes the batton/urn to Jack’s mates, who all have a soft spot for Amy. They set off from Bermondsey to Margate in Vince’s flash car (he’s a second hand car dealer and mechanic)for this purpose.
The story of their pilgrimage is endearingly human, sometimes tense, often funny, almost always full of emotion. Each of the main characters tells their stories throughout the book – a chapter here, a chapter there, until the reader has built up a picture of their lives and how they interact, or otherwise, with each other.
The Ghost Road
by Pat Barker
In the third book of the trilogy, we leave the rear to move to the heart of the battle, in the last days before the end of the war, when seemed that everything was over. The author describes life in the trenches, using raw language for the last lethal battles and cynicism – through her heroes – for the quietest moments that give the opportunity to challenge what they are doing.
At the same time, something very interesting, psychiatrist Rivers remembers his journey to the South Pacific where he was hosted by a tribe of headhunters, and so he was able to study their culture that seems to revolve around death. This is what gives a lot of food for thought. Despite our evolution, are we modern humans still in the same class as the most primitive tribes? Is war a result of a culture of death worship similar to the most aggressive tribes?
How Late It Was, How Late
by James Kelman
How Late it Was, How Late is about a Glaswegian man who, having gone out and got drunk and ended up getting a beating from the police, wakes up in a police cell to discover that he’s gone blind. It’s written entirely in the Scots dialect and in a stream of consciousness style with no breaks for different chapters. It’s mostly first person, as told by the unfortunate Glaswegian, Sammy, but Sammy gets confused and sometimes switches to third person. It could not be praised for its readability.
It’s a strange version of the unreliable narrator too. It’s an intense and visceral novel and, as awful as Sammy can be. He makes terrible decisions but he’s not an intrinsically evil character and is more of an unfortunate underdog. It’s hard to not like him.
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
by Roddy Doyle
Patrick “Paddy” Clarke is a 10-year-old boy growing up in 1960s Ireland who has good and bad times with his friends, loves and hates his little brother (and has no use for his baby sisters because they don’t do anything worthwhile yet), tells lies to his friends and his teachers in order to gain their appreciation and respect, and who wants nothing more than to understand (and fix) the problems that begin to erupt between his parents. As an oldest child he feels it his position to protect his younger brother, Francis (aka ‘Sinbad’), and his mother; he believes that if he sits up at night listening to his parents fight he can somehow protect them all.
The story is a touching and heartbreaking coming-of-age tale. Roddy Doyle manages to capture a 10-year-old boy’s perspective on life perfectly. Paddy is precocious and shows his smarts as often as possible, thinking if he can just impress his parents they won’t fight with each other. The narrative is written in an inner dialogue manner, as an adult looking back with clarity. In retrospect actions are more important than they ever ultimately could be and things, such as a favorite hot water bottle, are more vivid as an adult than anything else.
by Barry Unsworth
The“sacred hunger” of the title is the desire to expand empire and profits and to accumulate vast wealth no matter the cost to personal integrity or the well-being of others. Set in the mid 18th century, this Booker Prize winner (1992) novel is a chronicle of the slave trade.
Hoping to recoup disastrous financial losses, businessman William Kemp’s last desperate throw of the dice is his newly built ship Liverpool Merchant, destined for the slave trade. Kemp is optimistic that he can turn such a profit in one voyage, his troubles will all be over. Captain Saul Thurso agrees. He prides himself on never having failed his employers, and hopes to make this, his last voyage, most profitable for himself as well as Kemp.
Matthew Paris, recently released from prison having served a sentence for challenging church beliefs , signs on to his uncle’s newly built slave ship as ship’s doctor. At the start of the voyage, Paris has no particular feelings about the trade one way or the other. But as the story and the voyage, first to Africa to acquire slaves then on toward the Caribbean to sell them unfolds in harrowing detail, Paris is revolted by the inhumanity and suffering. He plays a key role in the mutiny that follows a horrific command by the captain.
The English Patient
by Michael Ondaatje
Canada / Sri Lanka
The English Patient is an illuminating novel written by Michael Ondaatje, who tells the story of four damaged lives tangled together at the end of World War II. The story involves characters like: the melancholy, childlike nurse Hana; the emotionally and physically maimed thief, Caravaggio; the pensive and wary Indian bomb-disposal expert, Kip; and the burnt and broken English patient, a mysterious wounded soul without a name.
The story revolves around several major themes such as: war and the paradigm shift that takes place as cultures and people recover from such; love and the depths one will go to to acquire it; and the illusive but essential search for self-identity.
The themes stretch across all aspects of human nature, but it is the development of self that receives the most attention. Ondaatje brings you into a transformative exploration of identity through multiple layering of meaning in each description. The author does this by drawing you far into the fantasy by luscious, sensuous elucidations. This book is not merely a thing to be read on an intellectual level. The book is to be sensed and physically processed, as you filter through smokey comprehension and hazy daydreams.
The Famished Road
by Ben Okri
The Famished Road is not so dark a book. It is scary in its way, surely, loaded as it is with its cast of frighteners, but it can also be oddly reassuring in its vivid depiction of the afterlife. Heaven may indeed be a place where nothing ever happens, yes, but as intimated by Okri it is also beautiful, in a Daliesque way, without strife and full of high joy.
Azaro, short for Lazarus, another abiku, and his mum and dad, live in an unnamed city in a modern African state. The community is ensnared in grinding poverty. There has been virtually no education among those in the community. The residents are without the richness of language that might allow them to talk through their problems. Instead there is much acting out, violence, aggression, theft.
Azaro travels back and forth between the spirit world and reality. There is never any doubt in the reader’s mind as to which is which. There might be moments of periodic ambiguity, but Okri always cures these before too long.
by A. S. Byatt
Possession is a Man Booker Prize Winner and a highly celebrated novel by A.S. Byatt that contains two story threads. The first story could be categorized as historical fiction. We learn about the relationship of fictional poets Christabel LaMotte and R.H. Ashe through old journal entries, letters, and their “poetry” (the poems were actually created by Byatt, since the two authors never actually existed). Ashe was married, and LaMotte was in a relationship with a woman. But we come to find out that the two poets had a romantic affair.
The second part of the story is a contemporary romance slash literary detective novel. Maud & Roland are literary scholars. Maud’s life’s work has been dedicated to the study of her ancestor, LaMotte, and Roland, naturally, is an Ashe expert. Roland accidentally stumbles upon a letter from Ashe to LaMotte, and this sets off Maud & Roland’s journey to the unraveling of the romance between the two historical poets. And, of course, a romance of their own.
The Remains of the Day
by Kazuo Ishiguro
United Kingdom / Japan
An exquisite novel featuring one of the most fascinating unreliable narrators in all of fiction.
Mr James Stevens, an English butler setting out towards the west country, is the most wonderful man, one could possibly have an encounter with. His loyalty to the perished, service to the prominent and sense of dignity that elevates others’ as well, command of utmost awe and regards.
Mr Stevens, during a well earned motoring trip, here reflects upon several scattered events that forming a pattern, trace back to the past of his honorable service in House Darlington which stood formidably in the face of two world wars.
Believing his service aided to the humanity itself, Mr Stevens always tried to do his job to the best of his ability and in return of such acquired professional excellence, he willigly sacrificed opportunities that brought often possibility of love and affection along.
Oscar and Lucinda
by Peter Carey
The story alternates between the misfit priest Oscar and the equally outcast Lucinda. Together they have a gambling addiction which draws them together. Through a series of coincidences, Lucinda builds a glass church and Oscar tries to drag to up the Australian coast, which leads to a grisly climax.
Oscar and Lucinda is a lot of fun. Carey develops the story at a quick pace and the events fold out nicely. Some parts are funny, some are thrilling.
by Penelope Lively
Utterly compelling historical novel that plays with time and perspective in fascinating ways. Claudia Hampton sets out to tell the history of the world. And she does exactly that. Only it’s her own private world she describes, with all its secrets. Lively does a masterful job of shifting perspectives on various scenes, telling it first from one character’s perspective, then another’s, and on shifting and jumbling Claudia’s sense of time, because as an old woman looking back on her life, she sees the past not as chronology but as a jumbled up mess of stories and moods. Still there is a strong story arc here, along with a vivid sense of place.
The Old Devils
by Kingsley Amis
The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis was first published in 1986 and it’s a Booker Prize winner of that year. Alun and Rhiannon Weaver are returning to Wales from London; Alun is an ageing minor TV presenter who has become famous for presenting programmmes about Wales on TV, especially about the famous Welsh poet Brydan. He also likes sex and drinking, well, all the characters in the book like drinking, in fact that’s what they spend most of their time doing.
Alun & Rhiannon are returning to their hometown where they quickly meet up with many couples that they used to know (and drink with) such as Gwen & Malcolm Cellan-Davies, Muriel & Peter Thomas, Dorothy & Percy Morgan and Charlie & Sophie. It turns out that Peter and Rhiannon used to date and there was an incident from their past that Peter finds it difficult to forget. Alun quickly starts having casual sex with many of his old flames, which seems to consist of most of the wives mentioned above, whilst he’s trying to write a book about Wales, which is just an excuse to travel around Wales getting drunk with his friends.
The Bone People
by Keri Hulme
This creatively written novel by Keri Hulme, The Booker Prize winner of 1985, focuses on three protagonists in present day New Zealand: the Maori man Joe Gillayley, widowed only a year before, tormented, loving, impulsive, often on the edge of violence; his foster son Simon, European, mute, orphaned, an antisocial outcast who often triggers Joe’s rage; and Kerewin Holmes (note the similarity with the author’s own name, no coincidence, one supposes), part Maori, estranged from her family, a loner, multi-talented but drifting. Each of the three has a troubled and mysterious past, all trying to reach out to each other but fearful of entanglements.
Hotel du Lac
by Anita Brookner
Edith Hope, a successful romance writer, has made some mistakes, two of them actually; she is having an affair with a married man, and she walked out on her wedding to another man at the last minute. So her friends suggest that she take a change of scenery, another way of saying, get out of town for awhile. So she gets away to Switzerland, and the luxurious Hotel du Lac. But it’s later in the story when the reader is told the reason for her trip.
What Edith finds when she gets to the hotel is a group of very eccentric inmates. But this group helps her find the bearings for her own life’s course, helps her decide between love and security, because at this point in her life she knows she can’t have both. This story is her journey through the icebergs of her life and the Hotel du Lac.
Life & Times of Michael K
by J. M. Coetzee
Michael born with a hare lip and institutionalized during his youth quits his job as a gardener to look after his dying mother. South Africa is in a civil war in which society is breaking down.
Michael loses his job as a gardener to look after his dying mother. The description of her stay at the hospital is horrific. She has worked as a cleaner for years where she goes back to stay with Michael in poor condition. She remembers a place she grew up which she associates with happy memories. Michael and her the embark on a journey to this rural farm.
Michael takes his mother to where she remembers is home in a rural town near Prince Albert. She dies during the journey and then he struggles to survive on a remote farm living off barely any food and growing pumpkins. Then he begins to live like a wild animal and builds himself a cave and tries to make sense of the world. One of roving soldiers and death around every corner.
The story is one of a simple man trying to lead a life in a society gone mad. A moving story. There’s something powerful yet elusive about this short novel by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee. As in his other Booker Prize Winner novel, Disgrace , this fictional world is simultaneously familiar and nightmarish.
by Thomas Keneally
Schindler’s Ark (released in America as Schindler’s List) is a Booker Prize winner historical fiction novel published in 1982 by Australian novelist Thomas Keneally, which was later adapted into the highly successful movie Schindler’s List directed by Steven Spielberg.
Schindler was an industrialist who was obviously interested in making as much profit as possible from his contracts with the Nazi government. He had the Jews of the Cracow ghetto at his disposal for his labor force and used them in several of his factories. Most manufacturers worked their people to near death and then had them shipped off to the death camps, But Oskar Schindler was different although the book never really tells us why he took his pro-Jewish attitude. Pro-Jewish may be the wrong term for Schindler’s activities on behalf of his workers but he daily faced serious trouble with the authorities for his protection of his employees.
He wined and dined, bribed, charmed, and greased the skids of the higher-ups in order to keep his Schindlerjuden (Schindler’s Jews) safe, although many of them had no particular skills. And He covered for them and was twice arrested for a very short period of time when his activities were questioned. He had friends in high places and called on them when the Cracow ghetto was being liquidated as the Russian Army was drawing near.
He enticed them into allowing him to open another factory, the reason for its existence rather vague, and moving his work force further west and hopefully out of harm’s way. And this is where The List came into being; a list that meant life or certain death for the remaining residents of the ghetto, a list of people who would accompany Schindler to his new factory. He and his Jewish accountant connived to add names of people who did not currently work for him to the list which far exceeded the number approved by the authorities. And he succeeded. It is said that he saved more Jews from the gas chambers than any single individual during WWII.
by Salman Rushdie
United Kingdom / India
Midnight’s Children is a 1980 novel by Salman Rushdie and The Booker Prize Winner of 1981; it deals with India’s transition from British colonialism to independence and the partition of British India. It is considered an example of postcolonial, postmodern, and magical realist literature.
The story is told by its chief protagonist, Saleem Sinai, and is set in the context of actual historical events. The style of preserving history with fictional accounts is self-reflexive.
Rites of Passage
by William Golding
William Golding’s Rites of Passage makes for a strange, haunting read. A ship bound for the New World, sometime in the 19th century. Witty observations, as the narrator weaves his journal. A self conscious narrator — he wants to impress his reader. But then something happens. A violation so horrible that the narrator can scarcely put it into words. Shame, is perhaps the word to sum up this crime of violating the innocent.
As with William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” the action takes place in isolation — far away from the bigger picture of society. The ship is a microcosm, a world within a world. The narrator and his fellow travellers try to keep to the rules that they know. The sensible rules, the ages old English rules, the rules that work — but out on the creaking ship, on the vast ocean, something primal, something feral stirs.
by Penelope Fitzgerald
Offshore is a melancholy book about a bunch of misfits living out their miserable existences on houseboats on a stretch of the river Thames. The strength of the book – and here Fitzgerald excels – is in portraying a world with all its idiosyncracies and peculiarities. This is the swinging 60s, but there is not much swinging taking place here; instead, we get to know a few truly memorable characters who try to make the best they can despite the odds being stacked against them.
The Sea, The Sea
by Iris Murdoch
Ireland / United Kingdom
The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch, is her 20th novel, and The Booker Prize Winner in 1978. The author famously was an academic; a professor of Philosophy at Oxford University, who also wrote novels with a philosophical focus.
The novel is in the form of a journal. The viewpoint character throughout is a famous actor and director, Charles Arrowby. The impression we gain immediately is that he is a solitary, rather arrogant and egotistical individual. In the novel he has decided to retire to “Shruff End” a dilapidated and creaky old house on a rocky promontory next to the sea. He tells us that he has decided to get away from London life once and for all, and to follow his dream of living in seclusion, much to the bewilderment and scepticism of all his theatre friends.
by Paul Scott
Staying On is Paul Scott’s follow-up to the Raj Quartet. Tusker and Lucy Smalley have elected to stay behind after the British Raj is disassembled and Scott picks up their story in 1972, when they are living in the lodge of the Smith hotel, without any other British citizens around them. They have a loyal servant, Ibrahim, who treats them much as they were treated when they were members of the Raj, and is probably the main reason they can still navigate life in India.
by David Storey
This book tells the story of Colin Saville, a miner’s son of Storey’s age from a village in South Yorkshire, starting with his parents’ arrival in the village in the late 1920s and ending in the 1950s. Storey recreates the life of the village and the poverty and drudgery of its residents in vivid detail.
Colin’s opportunities to escape the village and the pit depend on gaining entry to the grammar school in the nearby city. He passes this exam, and gains access to a world of which his parents have little or no experience, but he cannot entirely escape the shackles of family obligations and expectations, and he struggles to relate to his richer friends. Opting to train as a teacher instead of taking an extra year at school and aiming for a university place, he soon becomes disillusioned with life teaching those that fail the exam.
Heat and Dust
by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
United Kingdom / Germany
An eloquent and beautifully poised novella comparing and contrasting the experiences of two English women in India. The unnamed narrator travels to India to investigate and tell the story of her father’s first wife, a bored housewife who has an affair with a local prince. Their two stories are alternated and have many parallels, as well as contrasts between colonial and independent India. It is easy to see why this book is The Booker Prize Winner.
by Nadine Gordimer
The 1974 Booker Prize was the first to be awarded to two novels jointly; and Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist is the first of the two Booker Prize Winner of that year. The novel’s title is interesting, in that Mehring, Gordimer’s white South African farm owner protagonist, would almost certainly not consider himself to be a conservationist, in the environmental sense.
At times boorish and misogynistic, Mehring is absolutely opposed to any changes in the status quo of apartheid South African political organisation and attempts to keep everything on his farm running smoothly by keeping firm control over his Black workforce. Mehring can be said to be Gordimer’s personification of what was fundamentally wrong with the South African state at the time that she wrote the novel; a privileged businessman, who owns and runs a farm which he only visits at weekends, yet expects to be able to keep it fully under control.
by Stanley Middleton
In 1974 the Booker Prize was shared between Nadine Gordimer for The Conservationist and Stanley Middleton for Holiday.
Having recently separated from his wife Meg, school master Edwin Fisher decides to spend a week in an English seaside holiday resort. Bealthorp is a place Edwin knows well, a place he holidayed with his parents when he was a child. Now, in his thirties, his marriage in trouble, following the devastating loss of their son, Fisher has a lot to come to terms with.
Fisher’s thoughts frequently return to the past, to the holidays of his childhood, and his relationship with Meg. Through his reminiscences we gradually come to understand the intricacies of the Fisher’s marriage and the trauma they suffered when their son died. Fisher spends the first couple of days of his holiday indulging in old routines. Walks along the sea front the purchase of a newspaper and back to the hotel for a meal, Edwin seems to be merely killing time.
The Siege of Krishnapur
by J.G. Farrell
United Kingdom / Ireland
J.G. Farrell’s novel of the Indian Mutiny as seen from the inside; the story concerns the British trapped in a siege of their compound by their own former Indian Army members or sepoys. As the entitled representatives of the decades-old British Raj, their defense is secondary to the sheer stunned disbelief that the native population should ever even consider rising up.
The author weaves a few parallel threads here, making his little instant-dystopia the direct result of the injustice of autocracy and colonialism. And it is the perfect model for the historical situation in miniature.
by John Berger
The curiously-named G. by John Berger is The Booker Prize Winner of 1972 as well as the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
It is the story of a man and also the story of Italy: revolutionary and bourgeois, passionate and petty, glorious and maddening, chaotic and unchanging. The book is decidedly left-wing in tone, as one would expect from the author, but it is not a political treatise. There are many wonderful set-piece descriptions of events of both historical and personal significance. The story of the boy growing up is particularly well written and enjoyable. He is something of a libertine as an adult; Berger is one of very few writers who can write about it well and without embarrassment, capturing its mixture of tenderness, yearning, selfishness and animalism.
In a Free State (short story)
by V. S. Naipaul
United Kingdom / Trinidad and Tobago
In A Free State is a collection of two short stories and a novella, with two even shorter stories bookending them. Though each story takes place on a different continent (North America, Europe, and Africa) and have vastly different facts, they are tied together by themes of displacement and dependency; each tells the stories of the relationships that are formed and which sustain and ruin the characters in their immigrated-to homes, during eras that were as filled with upheavals as were the individual lives of the characters.
by J. G. Farrell
United Kingdom / Ireland
Troubles is the first novel in the Anglo-Irish writer JG Farrell’s Empire Trilogy: three tangentially connected works that highlight different facets of British colonialism. Farrell died young, as he drowned at the age of 44, but this 1970 book got some semi-recent attention when it became the Lost Man Booker Prize winner in 2010, which was established to retroactively honor a book that missed out on being eligible for the Booker due to a rule change that year.
Troubles is the story of Ireland 1919 to 1921, the Irish and the Anglo-Irish and the British, and how they ultimately can’t all live together under the terms of the past. It is seen through the eyes of a shell-shocked British veteran, the Major, come to the Majestic Hotel in County Wexford to disabuse a young woman of the notion they may be affianced. He doesn’t recall more than polite conversations during leave.
The Elected Member
by Bernice Rubens
This Booker Prize winner novel about a close-knit but dysfunctional Jewish family is set in the East End of London in the 1960s. Norman Zweck, the golden son of a rabbi and his late wife, whose promising career as a barrister has been derailed by drug use and mental illness brought on by his mother’s incessant demands and his personal failings, is slowly becoming unhinged — again. He spends his days in his parents’ old bedroom, locked away from his father and younger sister, popping amphetamine pills in a futile attempt to keep his demons at bay. His father and younger unmarried sister Bella, who deeply love Norman but fear his ever more worrisome outbursts, work together to place him in a mental institution, in a last ditch effort to get him back to his old self.
As he recuperates in the institution, the three members of the family, and Norman’s estranged sister Esther, reflect on how they reached this critical point. Past actions, indiscretions, and tragic decisions haunt each of them, but none more than Norman. The Zuckers attempt to reconcile their differences once and for all, as Norman descends further into madness and as his father’s health begins to fail.
Something to Answer For
by P. H. Newby
The first Booker Prize Winner, this novel takes place during the 1956 Suez Canal crisis and centers on Jack Townrow, a British man who makes his living as a corrupt Fund Distributor. A disturbing, but beautifully written book. The unreliable narrator that tells this story often leaves you confused – about his identity, his motives and the true course of events that revolve around the Suez crisis. The book needs concentration, otherwise the narrative slips away. The reader is taken into a world where reality, history, motives and relationships all bend and distort and the result is a read that has few anchors – just like the narrator’s life.
*The Booker rules say the prize must not be divided, but the judges insisted they “couldn’t separate” the two works.