The Booker Prize has been Britain’s most influential award since its inception in 1969. Following its original mission statement of awarding a prize to “the best novel in the opinion of the judges”, the prize has created headlines and controversy over five decades, including argument over the inclusion of American authors after 2014. But it has also, and surely most importantly, rewarded writers, brought them to increasing public attention, and ensured them both critical acclaim and higher sales.
Past Booker winners are now on both school and university curricula, enriching the traditional canon of literature that all too often focuses on male, white and (upper) middle class writing that is no longer in keeping with the times. The prize has also spawned some important spin-offs, most prominently the Man Booker International Prize, first awarded in 2005 that has, over the past few years, evolved into a prize that awards both international writers and, uniquely, their translators.
In February 2017, following on from the success of previous special anniversary prizes, the Man Booker foundation launched the Golden Man Booker Prize to celebrate the prize’s 50th anniversary. Rather than having to (re)read all 51 winners, the five appointed judges – writer Robert McCrum, poet Lemn Sissay, novelist Kamila Shamsie, broadcaster and writer Simon Mayo, and poet Hollie McNish – were each allocated one decade of prize winners and tasked with identifying what they thought was the outstanding winner of those particular years. The shortlist was announced at a special event at the Hay Festival on May 26. The winner of the Golden Booker will be announced on July 8. So who’s in the running?
For Robert McCrum, the outstanding text of the 1970s winners was V S Naipaul’s In a Free State. It tells the story of two British people, Bobby and Linda, travelling across an unnamed African country in the midst of an ethnic war that suggests the Uganda of the Idi Amin years. Despite their privileged position as members of the white colonial class, Bobby and Linda come to experience firsthand the escalating violence in the country.
McCrum, in his summary of why he chose the text, explained that it was:
Outstandingly the best novel to win the Booker Prize in the 1970s, a disturbing book about displaced people at the dangerous edge of a disrupted world that could have been written yesterday, a classic for all seasons.
Lemn Sissay chose Penelope Lively’s often overlooked 1987 winner Moon Tiger, surprisingly ignoring Booker heavyweights such as Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List (1982) or Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989).
Moon Tiger tells the story of Claudia Hampton, who recounts her colourful life as she lies dying, covering much of the 20th century in the process. Hampton is a fascinating heroine: not quite likeable, yet immensely intriguing and fascinating, and it was this that was most remarkable for Sissay.
The 1990s novel that stood out for Shamsie was Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992). Ondaatje shared the prize with Barry Unsworth’s slave narrative Sacred Hunger – one of only two cases of a divided jury in the prize’s history. Set in Florence at the end of World War II, the novel recounts the life of a badly burnt soldier, who relives his ill-fated love affair with the married Katherine Clifton for his three companions: the spy Caravaggio, who administers morphine to the patient; his nurse Hana; and the Sikh bomb disposal expert Kip.
Ondaatje’s novel, turned into an award-winning film starring Ralph Fiennes, has always been considered one of the most high-profile winners of the award. For Shamsie, this is entirely justified: it is “that rare novel which gets under your skin and insists you return to it time and again, always yielding a new surprise or delight.”
Mayo’s outstanding winner was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall of 2009, the first in a planned trilogy of Tudor novels. It charts the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII. Its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, won the Man Booker Prize in 2012, making Mantel one of only three authors – alongside Peter Carey and J M Coetzee – and to date the only woman to have won the award twice.
The final instalment of the trilogy – The Mirror and the Light – is highly anticipated and scheduled for publication in 2019. What stood out for Mayo in his choice was “its questioning of what England is” – a question that is, despite the novel’s historical setting, surely pertinent in the present.
It is the most recent Man Booker Prize winner, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo of 2017, that was the most outstanding recent novel for McNish. The novel covers a single night, set in a graveyard where a grieving Abraham Lincoln mourns the death of his young son Willie. Featuring a plethora of diverse voices, Lincoln in the Bardo explores ideas of life, death and mourning in a way that, according to McNish, was simultaneously “funny, imaginative and tragic” as well as “a piece of genius in its originality of form and structure”.
Narrowing down 51 Man Booker Prize winners from five decades to a shortlist of five is a herculean task. What makes this shortlist remarkable for me is its absence of the “big” winners, the ones that are most often associated with the prize: Ishiguro, Rushdie, Keneally, Coetzee, Martell. Maybe the judges tried to steer clear of them precisely because they have had so much coverage in the past.
2018’s shortlist is very varied – historical narratives, fictional biographies, explorations of war and genocide all feature. For the judges of each decade’s “best” winner, it was a very personal decision; as it will have been for the members of the public who have voted for their favourite of the five shortlisted texts.
What do I think will happen? I’m hesitant to say … but rather than truly judging “the best” of the Booker winners, perhaps 2018’s special award will reward that novel that still manages to best capture the public mood.