10 Stellar Booker Prize Winners
What’s your favourite Booker Prize winner of all time?
I’ve been asked that question many times over since I embarked on my Booker Prize project. Now I’ve finished the project, I thought the time had come to try and come up with an answer.
It wasn’t easy. The genres, styles and themes among the 50 winners are so different I couldn’t see how I could possibly weigh one up against another. There’s also the issue that it’s several years since I read some of the winners so I can only vaguely remember the story and the characters.
But that gave me an inkling of how to identify my favourites. I could use memory and recall as my test.
And so the question I asked myself was this: Which books spontaneously rise to mind when I think about my most enjoyable Booker Prize titles?
The ten books I’ve selected are that I think of as in the premiere league of Booker winners. They are the books that were not only delightful when I first read them, they’ve stayed with me ever since. I don’t recall all the details of the plots or the characters’s names. What I do remember is the emotional reaction they provoked: from joy and laughter to sadness and
The Remains of the Day
This is a beguiling yet painful portrait of a man who in a sense is a tragic figure. Kazuo Ishiguro beautifully paints a picture of Stevens, the devoted head butler at Darlington Hall. He is a man so relentless in his pursuit of “dignity” that he denies his own feelings and capacity for any close personal relationship. As a consequence, he misses the one opportunity he has for happiness.
- Won Booker Prize in 1989
- Favourite quote:
But what is the sense in forever speculating what might have happened had such and such a moment turned out differently? One could presumably drive oneself to distraction in this way.
The Narrow Road To The Deep North
In this haunting novel, Flanagan takes us into one of the bleakest and harshest episodes in World War 2 – the forced- labour construction of the Thailand-Burma death railway.
His protagonist is a surgeon who battles and fails to save the lives of his fellow prisoners of war. His courage makes him a legendary figure in Australia when he returns home yet he feels himself to be a coward and a fraud. Flanagan astutely avoids a simplistic good versus evil depiction of characters on opposite sides of a war, showing instead that human nature is never uni-dimensional.
- Won Booker Prize in 2014
- Favourite quote:
He felt shame and he felt loss and he felt his life had only ever been shame and loss, it was as though the light was now going, his mother was calling out ‘Boy! Boy!’ But he could not find her, he was returning to hell and it was a hell he could never escape.
Bring Up The Bodies
I thought it would be hard to equal the stupendous Wolf Hall, the first of Mantel’s “Thomas Cromwell” trilogy. But Mantel rose to the occasion with another novel that takes us even deeper into the murky world of a man who rose from blacksmith’s son to become King Henry VIII’s right hand man.
Cromwell has to juggle the needs of a King who has tired of his second wife and her inability to produce the required heir, with the necessity of safeguarding the nation and protecting his own career. His solution is Machiavellian and bloody.
This is historical fiction at its most breathtaking; a novel that makes history gripping and personal.
- Won Booker Prize in 2012
- Favourite quote:
What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales. Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.”
The English Patient
If ever a novel divided opinion, it is The English Patient. I thought this book about four people who are physically, emotionally and mentally damaged by war, was outstanding. But other readers disliked the disjoined nature of the narrative and thought the prose was “flat’. That was a long way from my own experience. My review described it as “a tale of healing and renewal, of nationality and identity, and of belonging and isolation told through beautifully constructed prose.“
- Won Booker Prize in 1992
- Favourite quote:
She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.
J M Coetzee
J M Coetzee’s second Booker Prize winning novel examines the issues that beset the new South Africa, a country only recently released from the oppression of apartheid.
The theme of exploitation is shown through a predatory university professor who loses his job when he embarks on an affair with one of his students. He’s already feeling out of synch with the new way of life but that sense of dislocation is exacerbated when he and his daughter are subjected to a savage attack at her smallholding.
The professor is a loathsome character but Coetzee shows a way in which it’s possible to sympathise even with an unsympathetic human being.
- Won the Booker Prize in 1999
- Favourite quote
But the truth, he knows, is otherwise. His pleasure in living has been snuffed out. Like a leaf on a stream, like a puffball on a breeze, he has begun to float towards his end. He sees it quite clearly, and it fills him with (the word will not go away) despair.
I was very irritated by Milkman initially. None of the characters had a recognisable name – they were all known by labels like “third brother-in-law”, “tablets girl”, “nuclear boy” and “maybe-boyfriend”. It felt like an unnecessary artifice. But gradually the book wormed its way into my affection and I ended up feeling this was one of the most deserving winners of the prize in recent years.
It’s set in an un-named city (though it’s obviously Belfast) where paramilitary forces rule the streets and mete out summary justice to suspected informers. An 18 year-old-girl unwittingly becomes the target for the affections of one of the big cheeses in the paramilitary operation. He treats her like his property, putting her beyond the pale in her community.
It’s a very powerful novel about a city in turmoil and a population fearful they will make just one wrong comment or take one false step.
- Won Booker Prize in 2018
- Favourite quote
People always said you’d better be careful. Though how, when things are out of your hands, when things were never really in your hands, when things are stacked against you, does a person – the little person down here on the earth – be that?
The Siege of Krishnapur
J. G. Farrell
The first of two Booker Prizes awarded to the Irish author J G Farrell, is based on the real experiences of British subjects during the Indian rebellion of 1857. Farrell shows both the physical and mental traumas suffered by the British colonists who tried to defend their Residency against rebel Indian soldiers. He doesn’t hold back on any details about appalling insects, dwindling rations, the stink of decay and cholera and intolerable heat. And yet the novel is written with such tremendous wit that at times it’s hilarious.
- Won Booker Prize in 1973
- Favourite quote
We look on past ages with condescension, as a mere preparation for us….but what if we are a mere after-glow of them?”
The Sea, The Sea
I’d had a few false starts with Irish Murdoch before taking The Sea The Sea off my bookshelves. The experiences had left me feeling she was too damn difficult and obscure. This novel was therefore a revelation – there was a Murdoch novel I could enjoy!. I did more than enjoy it, I revelled in the ridiculous central figure of Charles Arrowby, an esteemed London theatre director who “kidnaps” a former girlfriend because he is convinced she is unhappy in her marriage. He’s as deluded about her as he is is about his dolphin-like swimming skills and his gastronomic abilities.
- Winner of Booker Prize in 1978
- Favourite quote:
We are all such shocking poseurs, so good at inflating the importance of what we think we value.
Life of Pi
An unusual choice since I am not a fan of magical realism or fantasy. But this adventure tale, despite the preposterous nature of its plot, won me over in ways that I could never have foretold.
Martel takes a 16-year-old Indian boy and shipwrecks him in the Pacific. He ends up in a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a seasick Bengal tiger. From this predicament, Martel weaves a tale that asks questions about identity and faith and ends by challenging readers to think whether they believe what they have read.
- Won Booker Prize in 2001
- Favourite quote
I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.
Lively took a risk with this novel by making her central character such an opinionated, selfish, competitive, headstrong woman. But it works brilliantly as does her start, stop, rewind, fast forward approach to the narrative.
Her protagonist is an elderly woman who lies dying in a hospital. She is no ordinary woman but an esteemed war journalist during World War II who went on to become a published historian. Now lying on her bed she decides to construct in her head a history of the world and at the same time her own history. It’s one laden with poignancy.
- Winner of Booker Prize in 1987
- Favourite quote:
We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. More than that, we speak volumes – our language is the language of everything we have read. Shakespeare and the Authorised Version surface in supermarkets, on buses, chatter on radio and television. I find this miraculous. I never cease to wonder at it. That words are more durable than anything, that they blow with the wind, hibernate and reawaken, shelter parasitic on the most unlikely hosts, survive and survive and survive.”
52 thoughts on “10 Stellar Booker Prize Winners”
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Thanks, I had no idea that Milkman was that good.
I see so many levels here: between The Life of Pi for instance, and Hilary Mantel’s book, we are really in very different worlds. Quality wise, though I did enjoy both
Aha – found it! Yay Murdoch! She really isn’t as difficult and obscure as people make out.
Ohh Yes, The Life of Pi and The Remains of the Day … are my favorites on your list! Wonderful stories / so sad but Oh so good. I agree with you completely. Those are tops!
Sadly, I’ve only read Remains of the Day, but all the other books on your list are ones I’ve wanted to read. Thanks for the recommendations!
I have only read The remains of the day, and I loved it.
Thank you for the list, I like to see which books you highlight after completing your challenge!
At least you have read one of the very best!
What a great post! I’ve read 3 of these: Life of Pi, Remains of the Day and The English Patient. All 3 are among my most memorable reads. Four more have been patiently awaiting their turn and the Farrell is a new one to me. I’ve avoided Milkman and Narrow Road … You’ve convinced me I should tackle them too. The next Booker on my list though is The Luminaries.
I took Luminaries with me on a very long trip to Japan – kept me entertained though I completely failed to understand that each chapter was linked to a sign of the zodiac. If you figure that out, do let me know !
I will! I was already aware of that element of the book so I’ll be on the look out for it!
I have only read the Life of Pi and Disgrace from this list though several of them lie unread on my shelves. This list is a good reminder of what I could enjoy if I’d only pull them off the shelves. 😍
I doubt I would have got to some of these if I hadn’t been prodded into action by the project. I’d probably have thought they might be dreary 🙂
Impossible to choose I suppose but The True History of the Kelly Gang was great, and Possession is another I think counts as a classic. The one surprising omission though from your list was Midnight’s Children?
The Peter Carey was a cleverly written book I thought. Midnight’s Children I’m afraid comes way down my list of books I enjoyed. I appreciated it technically but can’t say I loved reading it at all…
Might be worth a re-read at some point – it didn’t win the Booker of Booker’s for nothing!
I almost abandoned it more than once so I don’t think I can face having another go. I’m just going to have to be a lone voice in finding this book not to my taste 🙂
I agree it’s not an easy read – but not many classics are I suppose. I actually found it harder to read the second time than the first – not sure why!
You read it twice! Oh boy, I admire your stamina
With about three decades in-between!!
Weirdly, I’ve heard of all of these but never read any (I didn’t even get past the violent first page of Wolf Hall, how wimpish was that?). I do have an Ishiguro or three and a Murdoch waiting, so there’s hope for me yet. Good thumbnail descriptions, very appetising some of them! 🙂
Wolf Hall did start rather brutally – such a memorable scene and so vividly described.
Great list. I have read a few and put some more on my TBR now.
I’d be happy to read all of them again though need a little time to elapse first so I can catch up on my other books
I nearly gave up on Wolf Hall – until another blogger encouraged me to persevere. I’m so glad I did! Will look forward to the second book. Great post. 💙
Oh dear. Shockingly, I haven’t read any of these, though the Murdoch and Lively appeal most!
Now you do surprise me that you’ve not read either of those. Maybe I’m wrong but I thought you were a Lively fan. No?
I do like Lively but I’ve read mostly her children’s books and non-fiction!
I’ve not read any of those – to be honest I didn’t even know she had written children’s fiction 🙂
I haven’t read all of them so as someone, I can’t remember who, one said “comparisons are odious“ but for me ‘Milkman’ was a work of genius.
I almost gave up on it because it was so odd at the beginning – what a narrow escape that was. Think what I would have missed
So pleased to see The Remains of the Day because, as well as being a wonderful book, the film adaptation of it is a favourite of mine.
Oh me too, we’ve watched it countless times and it never feels anything less than wonderful
When I watch it I always hope it will end differently and they get together.
I end up almost shouting at him in the scene where he is outside her door and hears her crying – I just want him to open the damn door…
Oh yes, me too!
I loved the Ishiguro, too. I’d include Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda on my list
The Carey is high up in the next category of “good but not knockout” if only for the one scene where he is floating along the river in his glass palace. What an image!
What a sense of achievement, well done on completing the project and thanks for sharing your favourites in this way. I remember first coming across the prize when I moved to England and finding lots of the winners on my Aunt’s bookshelves thus becoming a keen follower of the prize and especially of the longlist, guaranteed to offer a previous unknown gem.
I’ve discovered a few new authors from the longlist too – I really hope the judges keep selecting the lesser known names and don’t just go for the big hitters simply because they are well known names
I recently re-read The Narrow Road to the Deep North and was blown away by it all over again. The Siege of Krishnapur and Moon Tiger are unknown to me, but based on the strength of your recommendation and the way you’ve chosen this selection of books, I’ll definitely be adding them to my list.
You have two treats in store in that case Eleanor….. Given you like the Flanagan you’ll be ok with the fragmented narrative style of Moon Tiger I think
This raises the question: What is the worst novel ever to win the Booker Prize?
I know that many consider Dario Fo, the Nobel literature winner in 1997, to be the worst to win that prize. I’m wondering if the Booker ever got it totally wrong.
Brilliant question – I know which I would choose. there are four that I simply couldn’t finish but of the ones I did, I’d have to say that Saville by David Storey I found to be utterly tedious and lacking in any literary merit. I’ll be posting by 10 lest favourite books shortly
I have read five of these and of those: The Remains of the Day, The Sea The Sea, and The Siege of Krishnapur are the ones I love. I also like Paul Scott’s Staying On. Congratulations on completing your project.
I almost included Staying On – I’ve read that twice now and enjoyed it both times. I loved all of the Raj Quartet (the tv adaptation is super too)
It’s been years since I read Hilary Mantel but I really enjoyed it – this is a reminder I need to finish her Cromwell trilogy!
I’m reading the final one in the trilogy now – very slowly because I think it deserves some close attention. Every bit as good as the first two books
I agree entirely with your choices, except that I haven’t read Milkman yet.
What a treat you have in store…
Milkman astonished me with its greatness. I loved the lyrical, rhythmic prose and the anonymous lives the led in this horrible time–made more anonymous by the “wee sisters”, “third brother” labels. I agree with you on the English patient and I loved Remains of the Day. Excellent post.
It took a while for me to tune into those labels but oh boy once I did, I couldn’t get enough of the book. One I really want to re-read.
I loved it. Glad you did, too!