BookerTalk

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

Kazuo Ishiguro

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.

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

Richard Flanagan

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.

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

Hilary Mantel

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.

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 

Michael Ondaatje

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.

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.

Disgrace

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.

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.

Milkman 

Anna Burns

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. 

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.

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

Iris Murdoch

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.

We are all such shocking poseurs, so good at inflating the importance of what we think we value.

Life of Pi

Yann Martel

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.

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.

Moon Tiger

Penelope Lively

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.

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.”

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