The Best of the Booker winners

I’ve never met Joslyn except through her blog Chronic Bibliophilia. Her home is in Massachusetts, USA. Mine is in Wales, UK. Thousands of miles separate us physically but we are united by one thing – our interest in the novels that win what’s considered one of the most prestigious prizes in the literary world: The Booker Prize. Over the last few years each of us has been reading through the list of winners.

Which of these are our favourites – we asked each other that question and came up with vastly different answers. Here we chat about the progress we’ve made and pick our top 3 titles from the winners we’ve read so far.

Joslyn’s Top 3 Booker winners

JosylnJoslyn @Chronic Bibliophilia

Born and raised in the US, my lifelong bibliophila was initially heavily biased towards American works, a bias imposed by convenience rather than ideology. As I child, I aspired to read all of the Newbery Medal winners – awarded annually for the most distinguished American children’s book. Though that project didn’t survive adolescence, in my early adulthood I found myself formulating a similar goal – to read all of the Pulitzer Prize Winners for Fiction. Again, this was a prestigious list of feted works by Americans. When I actually completed the Pulitzer project in 2012, I felt compelled to expand my reading horizons and to take on a new challenge. Two UK-led prizes – the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker Prize – shimmered in front of me like irresistible bait. I was hooked. Within a few years, I finished these prize lists, as well.

To my mind the Booker’s Prize list is one list that is particularly fraught with inconsistencies – stocked equally with exquisite masterpieces and near misses. Though there are a number of award winners which were quickly read and forgotten, however, some of the finest works on this list remain among the top books I’ve read. 

Booker top 3

Selecting the creme de la creme was a painful process, but eventually I arrived at what, for now at least, are my top three Booker Prize winners – “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, “Possession” by A.S. Byatt, and “The Bone People” by Keri Hulme.

“Life of Pi” by Yann Martel

In “Life of Pi”, Yann Martel spins an engaging story, an epic reminiscent of the Odyssey for its magic and mystery. Pi, a young Indian boy, is lost at sea after the cargo ship upon which he, his family, and their zoo animals, were attempting to emigrate, sinks. Pi valiantly finds his way to the one and only lifeboat, but soon he realizes that he is not alone. Far from bringing him comfort, his newly discovered companions put him in even graver danger. This story is full of bigger-than-life events and, as a reader, I willingly suspended disbelief early on, finding myself taking for granted the possibilities (and impossibilities) laid out throughout the tale.

“The Bone People” by Keri Hulme

1985’s winner, “The Bone People”, also has its mystical moments as it explores the intersection of a dwindling Maori culture and the crush of modernity. Kerewin is a misanthrope, shut off in an odd cottage of her own making, eschewing any interaction with the outside world. Her peace, self-torturous though it seems, is interrupted when a young mute boy finds his way into her home and gradually into her steely heart. Keri Hulme has written what I suspect is a partly autobiographical story of isolation, culture, and the definition of family. The main characters are troubling and troubled, finding themselves and each other in a complicated world. The storytelling is beautiful, painful, and heart-stopping

“Possession” by A.S. Byatt

The book nerd and researcher in me was immediately tantalized by this book. “Possession” tells the story of two literary scholars who discover and dissect letters between two tragic latter-day poets. It is part mystery, part scholarship, part romance, crafted in intricate and dazzling measure, woven like a centuries-old tapestry full of impossible detail and discovery. Byatt explores the interplay between passion and ambition, desire and drive. I was astounded by how good this book was. The experience was visceral, the story deeply moving.

About Chronic Bibliophilia

For as far back as I can remember, reading has been more than a past time for me. Reading is breakfast; it is a hot shower; it is sleep on the perfect pillow. Sure, I could go a day without it. But why on earth would I? Chronic Bibliophilia chronicles my journey as I endeavor to become a ridiculously well-read human being. This blog provides reflections, reviews, and recommendations from a reading list focused on supporting and highlighting the voices that continue to face suppression. I believe that this project has changed not just what I read, but how I read and how I think. I hope you’ll join me on my literary odyssey. Click here to visit Chronic Bibliophilia and to sign up to follow the blog.

Karen @BookerTalk.com 

BookerTalkI’m from Wales which for those of you who are geographically challenged, is a country within the UK. I’m one of those people that helps keep the publishing industry afloat since I simply cannot resist buying books. I’ve  been like this ever since I was a child, saving up my pocket money just so I could by the latest Enid Blyton. Naturally my tastes have evolved since then … My adventures in the world of the Booker prize started just over five years ago. I’m not exactly sure what triggered the idea – probably I’d just heard something on the radio about the latest winner – but I started to think about the whole question of why some novels are deemed ‘better’ than others. Maybe, I thought, if I read all the winners of one of the most prestigious literary prizes, I might find the answer. Although I’ve now read 39 of the winners the answer is still proving elusive.

Reaction to Joslyn’s choices

It’s been fascinating to see how different Joslyn’s choices are from my own. I enjoyed Life of Pi, far more than I expected to given that relies on magical realism which not my favourite technique. I didn’t rate it as highly as Joslyn does however – it’s  currently ranked at number 13 on my list of the Booker titles I’ve read. Possession trails a long way behind at number 31 in my list. I appreciated A. S Byatt’s ability to weave the Victorian era and the contemporary period stories together but looking back at my review I see that I didn’t find the characters very convincing and the poetry I found tedious. The Bone People, is currently ranking at number 28 in my list. I would have ranked it higher if Keri Hulme hadn’t gone and introduced a set of mystical creatures right towards the end. It spoiled what was otherwise an intriguing novel that kept me engaged even if sometimes I wasn’t sure what I was reading.

Karen’s Top 3 Booker winners

Favourite top 3 Booker winners copy

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

The winner in 2012, this is the follow up to her 2009 Booker winning novel Wolf Hall, a novel which broke the mold in terms of historical fiction. Mantel was by no means the first author to write a fictionalised biography of Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s right hand man. What made Wolf Hall novel so distinctive was how Mantel went behind the mask of Cromwell’s actions and into his head, revealing the complexity of his character and what it takes to navigate the treacherous waters of the King’s court. Bring Up the Bodies takes us further by  showing how Cromwell has to decide if he is willing to do whatever is necessary to serve the King even if that means putting integrity and honesty to one side.

It’s a stunning novel from a writer at the top of her game.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Given the fact this is a novel set against a backdrop of the notorious death railway in Burma, I was expecting it to be an uncomfortable read. But this is a novel that ranges far beyond savagery and survival to ask profound questions about culpability and forgiveness. Its central character is an army surgeon who is damaged by his experience as a prisoner of war. Rather than make the Japanese camp commanders a one dimensional portrait of evil, Flanagan gives them a voice that recognises their helplessness to act according to their own sense of humanity in the face of orders from their Emperor. It’s a haunting story that well deserved to win the prize in 2014

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

This novel, the Booker winner in 1992, is a beautifully paced tale of four people who are physically, emotionally and mentally damaged by war. One is a man burned beyond recognition during the North African campaign of World War 2; a Canadian Army nurse who is traumatised by what she has witnessed in the conflict, a Sikh British Army sapper and a thief. They come together in the bomb-damaged ruins of an Italian monastery, hoping to heal their wounds and repair emotional scars. What I loved about this novel was how Ondaatje wraps multiple themes, of identity and nationality, of belonging and isolation, into a relatively short book.

Joslyn’s reaction to Karen’s choices

I, too, found Mantel’s Booker winners riveting. Both works are weighty and complex, but remarkably approachable – no small feat for a collective 1000 pages set in the 1500s. Haunting is exactly the right word to describe The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This book is chilling and devastating in a way that I did find a bit uncomfortable, but appropriately so. Flanagan tells his story in raw detail, offering the reader no quarter and no chance to avoid its intended impact. A brutal read, but an absolutely worthy one. I am a fan of Ondaatje’s works, though I preferred his In the Skin of a Lion, which explores many of the same themes. Where The English Patient fell a bit short for me was in its ability to elicit emotion; the narrative was cast in a ‘romantic’ haze that felt a bit …lacking. In spite of that criticism, Ondaatje’s beautiful and deliberate storytelling are on full display in this novel.

What do you think of our choices?

If you’ve read any of the six titles we picked, what did you think of them? Would you rate them as highly as we did? Are there other Booker winners that you would put in your list of top 3?

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on March 22, 2017, in Bookends, Booker Prize and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.

  1. What a nice idea of post! Alas, I have only read 5.
    1. Wolf Hall
    2. Bring Up the Bodies
    3. The Life of Pi

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  2. Oh this is a great post. Thx for both viewpoints on favorites. I would pick Life of Pi and Remains of the Day as my favorite winners. Also I liked The God of Small Things, and would like to read Moon Tiger and many others. I have read The English Patient and Bring Up the Bodies, but while good reads, I liked the two others I listed a bit better.

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  3. Narrow Road to the Deep North was a brilliant book and Richard Flanagan has elevated himself to a literary hero of mine (I’m Australian, but not biased, I swear). Life of Pi was fabu, and Possession. Wolf Hall was nearly the undoing of me (although I could appreciate it’s mastery) so Bring Up the Bodies was a non starter!

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  4. I love how you said the prize has been “fraught with inconsistencies”! I thought I was the only one who felt that way. I’ve gone from reading books I loved to books I thought shouldn’t even have made the long list. By far, Possession is one of my favorite books ever read. I feel like rereading it now!

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  5. Very interesting. I found Possession incredibly turgid and absolutely loved Hilary Mantel. She’s an extraordinary writer. It’s a cliche but she does take you into a different world. I also loved her book on the French revolution A Place of Greater Safety.

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  6. Wonderful post, Karen! I really enjoyed reading it and learning more about both of you, your projects, and your differing opinions. Of the 6 chosen, I’ve only read Life of Pi, but I loved that one, so I was happy to see it on Joslyn’s list. I was also happy to see Ondaatje on yours – two Canadians!

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  7. I’ve read 29/30, not a lot from the first decade or so and not the last two. I’ve read all six that you both list and agree they are great. I really couldn’t name three, but I would add Remains of the day as a memorable one, and I have to mention an Aussie so let’s say Oscar and Lucinda. Owzat?

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  8. I am impressed that I have actually read four of these six choices! (Possession, Life of Pi, Bring Up the Bodies, and The English Patient). I enjoyed all of them, but Possession is the one I actually own and have reread. I can completely understand that it’s not to everyone’s taste, but for me it was a nerdy Victorian lit fan’s treat.

    The other book I would put on my list is The Remains of the Day. And I have to put in a word for a couple of favorite authors who were shortlisted but never won – Robertson Davies and Jane Gardam.

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  9. How fun this was! so hard to narrow it down to just three. I don’t think I could do it!

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  10. Remains of the Day is fabulous – what a wonderfully understated unreliable narrator we have in Mr Stevens.

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  11. What a lovely idea! Mine are The Sea, The Sea, Midnight’s Children and Possession. Child of the 80s that I am.

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    • I enjoyed The Sea, The Sea far more than I expected to given my previous history with Ms Murdoch. I struggled to the end of Midnight’s Children – thought several times about giving up on it and then Rushdie would do something that hooked me back in

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  12. Me too, HeavenAli, I have given up on the Booker too. I have been building a collection of first edition Booker winners for years, but I’ve stopped at 2014.

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  13. Great post. I have rather given up on the Booker. The last three haven’t appealed – by 2013 I only had six or seven old winners to read from the entire list of winners since 1969. However my top three would be:

    1. Staying on – Paul Scott
    2. Bring up the Bodies – Hillary Mantel
    3. The Gathering- Anne Enright.

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    • I love Staying On -actually I saw in the Books that made the Blogger feature that you chose The Raj Quartet. So have I!
      As for the booker, the winners for the last two years haven’t appealed to me either so I stopped counting them for my project though I do have copies. I just dont feel compelled to read them now

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  14. Great post! I enjoyed seeing the differing choices! I own Possession but haven’t read it yet, and I was completely thrilled to see The Narrow Road to the Deep North. That would be in my #1 spot for sure!
    I’ll have to look through to see the other 2 I would put in the top 3 though! (great project!)

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  15. Enjoyable post, Karen. Interesting to see your differing views, how you’re both getting on with the list and what drew you to it in the first place. I liberated myself from the Booker when I left bookselling: never my favourite prize, I’m afraid. Out of the ones I’ve read I enjoyed Oscar and Lucinda the most by far.

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  16. Fun post. My top three off the top of my head would be Bring up the Bodies, The White Tiger, and The God of Small Things.

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  17. My top 3 would be

    1 Midnight’s children (1981)
    2 Remains of the Day (1989)
    3 Possession (1990)

    Of others you mention, of the 22 I have read Bring up The Bodies is 5th (just behind Sense of an Ending), Life of Pi 10th but Road to the Deep North down in 18th.

    I haven’t read The English Patient or The Bone People.

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