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Dull. Tedious. Contrived. My 10 Least Favourite Booker Prize Winners

Having decided on my list of 10 favourite Booker Prize winning novels, it’s time to reveal the 10 books that were the least interesting, enjoyable or memorable.

The first four are easy – they are the titles that were so lacking in appeal that I couldn’t even finish reading them. The remaining six are books that either I struggled to complete or I read to the end but wondered why I bothered.

The Famished Road

Ben Okri

This was a book so bad that I couldn’t get beyond page 80. The style of the opening paragraph was a warning sign that this book would be a challenge:

In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.

In my review of The Famished Road I commented that this paragraph read like a poor pastiche of the opening of Genesis. The book went on to introduce elements of magical realism – a style I struggle with but can read if it’s well done. Such was not the case with this book however.

Okri main character is an abiku or spirit child who lives in an unnamed city which most likely is from his home country of Nigeria. It’s a book that reflects on the country’s post-colonial experience.

The book has been called a landmark text for its use of a particular kind of African  magical realism. The African traditions it describes would have made the book interesting but the text was so over-blown and confusing, I lost all patience.

Personally, I’m amazed that the judges even finished the thing, let alone decided to give it the prize.

Sam Jordison, The Guardian

Okri’s tale is a beautifully rendered allegory, enriched by its African setting, of love powerful enough to defy even death and his minions.

Kirkus Reviews

A History of Seven Killings 

Marlon James

This book relates the story of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley (never referred to by name, only as  “the singer”) and its aftermath. I knew it was written partly in Jamaican patois but once I ‘tuned in” that didn’t present a problem.

The real difficulty was that it has a vast array of characters – the cast list at the beginning shows 75 names. Around a dozen of these jump in to tell their story. One is an American journalist, another is a kid called Bam Bam who saw his father shot in the head. There are several gangsters and a prostitute.

Since their appearances are often short, I kept forgetting who they all were. That plus the non linear narrative made the whole book far too confusing. I gave up after about 120 pages.

It would be a challenge to keep faith with so many tumultuously occupied characters even if they were not being systematically divested of sympathetic qualities; as it is, the negativity becomes a slog.

Hannah McGill, The independent

It’s like a Tarantino remake of “The Harder They Come”, but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner…epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex.’

New York Times

This book is startling in its range of voices and registers, running from the patois of the street posse to The Book of Revelation. It is a representation of political times and places, from the CIA intervention in Jamaica to the early years of crack gangs in New York and Miami.

Michael Wood, Chair of Booker Prize judges

The Finkler Question

Howard Jacobson

What a dreary book this turned out to be. So dreary I gave up on it around the 150 page mark.

The narrative revolves around Julian Treslove, a man who once worked on the kind of BBC Radio 3 programmes that attract only the dedicated few listeners. When his star faded he began working as a celebrity lookalike.

Treslove has an identity problem. He wants to be a Jew so that he can experience the sense of belonging possessed by his two closest friends who are Jewish. In essence the novel deals with his obsession with the meaning of Jewishness, politically, socially, culturally etc.

This is a novel which has one idea and constantly nibbles away at it without ever getting any further forward. I was desperate for something – anything – to happen but gave up the hope that it ever would.

… full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding. It is also beautifully written with that sophisticated and near invisible skill of the authentic writer.

Edward Docx, The Guardian

… very funny, of course, but also very clever, very sad and very subtle.

Chair of judges, Sir Andrew Motion

 G

John Berger

I had never heard of this book when I started to read it in 2018. It’s probably one of the lesser-known Booker Prize winners. It will remain an unknown to me since I found I disliked it so much I simply could not get far into the narrative.

Set in pre-First World War Europe, the novel follows the escapades of G, an offspring of an Italian merchant. Essentially he’s a Cassanova type figure whose sexual liaisons and ‘conquests’ we are meant to find interesting.

They were not. The Kirkus reviewer (see quote below) seemed to suggest that this is my fault because I am a “common reader” unable to appreciate the subtleties of the book. Sounds a bit of a harsh judgement, and bordering on elitism.

Ultimately (and ignoring the common reader whom it will defeat) it is an arresting, inordinately vital, impersonal, and remarkable work.

Kirkus Review

… if you can tolerate ambiguity and a haphazard structure there is much to enjoy in G.

Lisa, ANZLitLovers

Midnight’s Children

Salman Rushdie

I’m probably wading into controversial waters by including Salman Rushdie’s novel in my list of least favourite Booker Prize winners. It not only won the prize in 1981, it was named the “Booker of Bookers” in 1993 to mark the 25th anniversary of the prize and again in 2003 for the 40th anniversary.

The book falls into the category for me of books that I admire but do not enjoy. There was a huge amount to admire – the ingenuity of a central character with special powers born on the stroke of midnight, at the exact moment that the newly independent state of India is born. Then there’s the scale – more than 60 years in the turbulent history of India and Pakistan. And lastly, the blend of styles, comedy with history;  Christian with Islamic and Hindu references and almost an encylopaedia’s worth of facts.

It was overpowering at times and I kept losing track of where I was in the narrative.

Maybe at a different time this novel would have gelled more with me. It certainly has a large fan club since it twice topped the public poll in those Booker of Booker award.

… conveyed in Indian English prose that pulsates between the tumultuous and the fantastic. A page of Rushdie is a rich, jewel-encrusted tapestry of allusions, puns, in-jokes, asides, and the unconsidered trifles of popular culture.

The Guardian

… we can celebrate Midnight’s Children as an English novel: a brilliant and endearing one, the latest of India’s many contributions to English fiction, and the most remarkable of them all.

London Review of Books

Saville

David Storey

My review of Saville described it as a “jaw-droppingly tedious tale” that I was glad to finish.

The premise for the novel sounded promising: it’s a tale of a boy who tries to rise above his roots in a South Yorkshire mining community. It being 1930s Britain the most pressing consideration is how to keep his parents and brothers above the poverty line. Plenty of subject matter for a hard hitting novel but instead the potential was lost by over-written scenes, mediocre dialogue and scrappy characterisation.

His [Saville’s father] speech may be weighed down by unconvincing Yorkshire-isms, but Storey is still able to show us his heart. In short, he writes wonderfully far more often than he writes badly.

The Guardian

The Line Of Beauty

Alun Hollinghurst

To reach the end of The Line of Beauty you have to read a lot about sex, drugs and champagne- fuelled parties.

It’s a novel set in Britain in the 1980s; the era of Margaret Thatcher, economic euphoria and ultra confidence among the privileged governing classes. This is also the decade that saw  the emergence of the Aids/HIV crisis.

Into this world steps Nick Guest, a young homosexual who comes from a middle class background. He moves into the house of an up and coming MP, giving him the ability to mingle with aristocrats and politicians. It’s not all hedonistic fun however, this is the period when HIV/AIDS began to make its presence felt.

The first half of the novel rambles along through a series of country house parties and assignations with sexual partners in parks. It wasn’t until the second half when Nick’s ex lover is diagnosed as HIV positive, that it perked up. But it was too little, too late.

… brilliant recreation of that bigoted, nepotistic, racist, callous and mean-spirited epoch …

The Independent

If Nick’s aesthetic detachment occasionally seems to reduce the novel’s emotional stakes, it nonetheless fuels Hollinghurst’s sumptuous writing and his bravura evocation of an entire era.

The New Yorker

Offshore

Penelope Fitzgerald

An indication of how little an impression this book made upon me, is that I remember absolutely nothing about the plot. All I recall is that it features a set of characters who live in houseboats on The Thames. I have a vague feeling that at some point there is a fire on board one of these dwellings. I loved the cover artwork of the edition I had but the contents left me underwhelmed.

Fitzgerald is adept at evoking the atmosphere of late 1960s London with rich period detail but beyond this the book feels slight and inconclusive, meandering along with only the sketchiest plot.

The Guardian

One of most impressive things about Offshore stems from Fitzgerald’s ability to treat her characters with sympathy despite their failings.

Jacqui: JacquiWine’s Journal

Elected Member

Bernice Rubens

The only book by an author from Wales to have won the Booker Prize, The Elected Member is a book that began well.

Its focus is on a seemingly respectable Jewish family whose beloved son succumbs to the effects of drug addiction. There is one particularly memorable scene where he suffers delusions caused by withdrawal from the drugs and imagines there are silver creatures climbing all over his bedroom.

If the book had maintained the same quality it would not be on my list of least favourite Booker Prize winners. Unfortunately the novel went down hill and ended in a far too neat conclusion. .

The Elected Member is a worthy winner and a brave choice for the Booker prize, but not a masterpiece. It’s probably best summed up by the author herself, and her typically terse assessment of her own writing: “Better than most, not as good as some.

The Guardian

Something To Answer For

P H Newby

This was the first book to win a Booker Prize. It was up against strong competition from Iris Murdoch (The Nice and the Good) and Muriel Spark (The Public Image). I find it interesting that both those contenders are authors who are still being read today but the winner remains largely unknown.

It’s a very odd book because you don’t really know whether what you are reading can be trusted. We can say with certainty that it’s set in Port Said, a city in the throes of the Suez Crisis. But even the main character doesn’t know what’s happening to him when he travels there to attend a funeral. He’s not even sure he knows his true name.

Beyond some episodes. of black humour, I didn’t find much in this novel to keep me entertained.

It’s beautifully written, shot through with crisp, mordant wit, and Newby plays out his narrative with consummate skill to ensure it baffles and intrigues, leaving the readers hooked and thrashing about for meaning, desperate for him to reel things in.

The Guardian
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