2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize. Apart from a big party to celebrate the event in July, the Booker Prize organisers are also staging a ‘Best of the Booker’ award. They’re calling it the Golden Booker Prize, an award which will “crown the best work of fiction from the last five decades of the prize, as chosen by five judges and then voted for by the public.”
Now there are a few odd things about this celebration.
One is that the first Booker Prize was awarded 49 years ago this year, not 50. So where did they get the idea this was a golden anniversary year – it’s not clear from their website but I am assuming they are taking their starting point an announcement of the inauguration of the prize or maybe the judging process itself.
Stranger still is the process they are using to determine which book/author gets the ultimate prize.
Five judges have been put in place. Each has a remit to review the prize winners from one decade and decide which of them has “best stood the test of time”. The shortlist announced on May 26 is really therefore just one person’s point of view. What a missed opportunity. A more robust process would have been for all judges to have reviewed all the winners and debated/discussed their merits before choosing a shortlist?
But what’s done is done and we have five shortlisted titles.
1970s: In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul
1980s: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
1990s: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
2000s: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
2010s: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.
Have they made the right choices? Having read all bar 4 of the Booker prize winners since it was first awarded in 1969 and all of these shortlisted titles except for Lincoln in the Bardo, I feel somewhat qualified to give an opinion.
I’m pleased to see that one of my top three Booker titles has made it to the shortlist. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje was selected by the novelist Kamila Shamsie because she felt ‘it has everything”. She specifically calls out its characterisation, intricate structure and the way it makes readers think about love and friendship. My own take on this is that it’s a beautifully paced tale of four people who are physically, emotionally and mentally damaged by war. It’s short but rich in themes and has a very strong emotional pull.
Also delighted to see Hilary Mantel on the shortlist even though I thought her later novel, Bring Up the Bodies (another of my top 3 ) was stronger than Wolf Hall. The judge for this decade, broadcaster and novelist Simon Mayo called Wolf Hall “fantastically readable and unbelievably complicated.” I’m not going to argue with that assessment – Mantel’s achievement was to take a historical figure typically portrayed as cold, distant and manipulative, and make him human. But in Bring Up the Bodies, I think we get an even stronger sense of the moral and ethical dilemmas confronted by her protagonist Thomas Cromwell as he seeks to serve his master the King. Bring Up the Bodies just missed out inclusion in the assessment for the 2000s where it would have been pitted directly against Wolf Hall. Instead it was evaluated by a different judge who perhaps didn’t have Mayo’s declared love of historical fiction.
But that flip into a new decade meant it was up against the final title in my top 3 – The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Lincoln in the Bardo was a hot tip to win the prize last year but it wasn’t universally praised – some readers and bloggers found it too fragmented. Flanagan’s novel however I thought exceptionally well constructed even though it moved across time periods and countries. Leaving this off the shortlist was a miss I thought by the judge, poet Hollie McNish.
What of the choices to represent the remaining decades?
For the 1970s the writer and editor Robert McCrum judged In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul as the best of the decade. I think he drew the short-straw by being given the 1970s since there were few, in my opinion, stand out winners. Naipaul’s book was one I read early on in my Booker Project and you can maybe gauge my reaction to it from the fact that I haven’t as yet posted a review. I recall it being a strange novel where often I wasn’t absolutely sure what was happening.
My own choice would be Iris Murdoch’s The Sea The Sea which slightly has the edge over Paul Scott’s Staying on. I never thought I would be gunning for Murdoch since I’d always thought her work difficult to penetrate but The Sea The Sea was a revelation.
As for the 1980s, I know the popular opinion in the blogosphere is that the judge Lemn Sissay made a mistake in overlooking Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I did read it though it was a struggle. I did appreciate the inventiveness of the novel but the truth is I just didn’t enjoy it so my vote would go to The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro for its superbly understated portrayal of a man who has suppressed his emotions for so long he cannot let them go even when this is to the detriment of his happiness.
So if I’d been the judges ( I expect a call from the Booker people any day now) my shortlist would be:
1970s: The Sea The Sea by Irish Murdoch
1980s: The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
1990s: The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
2000s: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (I know I said earlier that Bring up the Bodies is better but that’s in a different decade)
2010s: The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan
What would your shortlist look like?
The reading public now get a chance to make their preferences know via the public vote which is open until June 25. Vote here