Category Archives: Book Reviews
As a run up to the 50th anniversary of the Booker Prize, the team at the Sunday Times’ Culture magazine, asked whether the judges had always made the right decision. The article is available here.
Their conclusion? A resounding no.
Out of the 49 years when the prize has been awarded, the Culture team agreed with only 12 of the winning titles. In all remaining 37 years, they believe the Booker judges overlooked a far superior novel.
They were in agreement on:
1973: The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G Farrell, describing it as a book that is “brilliantly imagined, surprisingly funny”
1980: Rites of Passage by William Golding “complex dissection of society”
1981: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie “Rushdie has never written a better novel … it is sumptuous, exuberant and funny.”
1988: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey ” a wonderful feat of storytelling”
1989: Remains of the Day by Kazou Ishiguro “a subtle classic … moving and perceptive”
1996: Last Orders by Graham Swift ” a quietly authentic triumph”
1997: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy “totally engrossing”
1999: Disgrace by J. M Coetzee – Culture calls this his masterpiece
2004: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. The Culture team had little to say other than they thought the Booker judges were ‘spot on’ in their decision
2008: White Tiger by Arvind Adiga, the right choice among a list of strong contenders
2012: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Culture thought this was curiously flat and leaden but they didn’t have an alternative
2017: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders “a worthy winner’ though there were a number of other books that would have been just as deserving.
Some of these are among my favourites from the Booker Prize so I’m not going to disagree with the Culture journalists. Disgrace is uncomfortable reading but it’s a very powerful novel about post apartheid South Africa. The God of Small Things is a book full of glorious characters and Remains of the Day is just perfection.
I’m also in agreement with some of their alternative winners: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which they say should have won in 2013, is indeed a far superior book to the actual winner Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (I thought it readable but not special). Similarly Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson knocks spots off the 1985 winner The Bone People by Keri Hulme though Winterson never even made it to the shortlist. How the judges managed to choose The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis over Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a complete mystery to me. I enjoyed the Amis but Atwood’s novel stands out as a truly imaginative venture into a dark dystopian world.
But there are also many years where the Culture team’s preference is for a book I don’t believe did deserve to win the Booker.
Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn instead of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall seems a very strange choice for example. Ditto David Lodge’s Changing Places is an enjoyable read but doesn’t stand out as remarkable so I wouldn’t rate it higher than the actual winner, Heat and Dust by Ruth Jhabvala.
The choice that really made my eyebrows arch was 2014 which, according to Culture, should have been won by Anthony Doerr’s All the Light we Cannot See instead of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I couldn’t even finish Doerr’s novel; it was far too heavily laden with adjectives and contained many anachronistic Americans whereas Flanagan’s novel was beautifully written and engrossing from start to finish.
I suspect this is one of those exercises where you could get a different result for every group of people you asked to participate. Each of us will have our favourites as well as titles that we struggled to understand what it was even doing on the short or long list (Ben Okri’s The Famished Road falls into that category for me).
Over at Goodreads, there is a group called The Mookse and the Gripes which whose members do their own rankings and then combine the results. Their league table from this collective effort puts Remains of the Day in top position out of all the Booker winners. Midnight’s Children comes in at number 2 and then there is a surprise for the third slot – Troubles by J. G Farrell which is a book I thoroughly enjoyed though didn’t think as good as his other Booker winner The Seige of Krishnapur.
If you want to make up your own mind on whether the winners were worthy of the prestige conferred by Booker Prize success, take a look at the reviews published at Shiny New Books as their way of marking the Booker anniversary. The posts are published by decade – here is the most recent. By the time you’ll have got through all that reading, the longlist for this year’s award will be announced (actual announcement day is July 24th).
To mark the Booker anniversary this year I’m going to do two things:
- finish reading the list of winners. It’s taken me far longer than I expected to read all the winners but I’m nearly there.
- run my own ‘did it deserve the prize?’ series of posts. I’ll do these decade by decade starting next week and asking you all to join in with your own thoughts. I’ll give you a hint as to what some of my choices could be – take a look at a post I wrote last year where I selected my top 3 Booker titles of all time.
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