Updated: The Booker Prize. Part Two 1990 – 2012


By Niall McArdle

The Booker Prize is never without controversy. In 2001 A.L. Kennedy (who had been on the jury in 1996) dismissed the selection process as corrupt, saying the winner was determined by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is.”

With only a short time to go until this year’s winner is announced, we continue our trawl through past winners.

How many of these have you read?



A.S. Byatt Possession

The 1990s started promisingly enough when AS Byatt won the Booker for her meta-fictional historical novel Possession, which has nothing to with this sort of possession


FamishedRoadBen Okri  The Famished Road 


Okri’s The Famished Road beat out novels by Roddy Doyle and William Trevor, as well as Martin Amis, which possibly pleased Kingsley.

“Sorry you lost, son”

1992 (jointly won)



The English Patient is about cuckoldry and war and the desert. Sacred Hunger is about the slave trade. Unsworth wrote historical fiction; no meta postmodern magical realism for him, thank you very much, and even that didn’t please everybody. Some people, like James Wood of The New Yorker, think historical fiction is  “a somewhat gimcrack genre not exactly jammed with greatness.” Meow!

Barry Unsworth
Barry Unsworth, gimcracked, not jammed with greatness, but still a winner. Fuck you, James Wood.

Ondaatje’sThe English Patient is also historical (ish). Not everyone liked it:


200px-Paddy_clarke_ha_ha_first_editionRoddy Doyle Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha

Everyone thought Doyle just wrote funny books where people swear a lot. No, he also writes sensitive coming of age stories (people swear just a little). Interestingly, another sweary novel, Trainspotting, had been on the longlist but was pulled when two of the judges objected because they found it offensive.

I just won the fuckin' Booker.
I just won the fuckin’ Booker.

JamesKelmanHowLateJames Kelman How late it was, how late

images (9)
Rabbi Julia Neuberger

Only a year after Trainspotting was pulled from the longlist, was Kelman’s win recompense? Some think this is because there is a definite anti-Scottish bias to Booker. In his acceptance speech, Kelman countered the criticism and decried its basis as suspect. “A fine line can exist between elitism and racism,” he said. “On matters concerning language and culture, the distinction can sometimes cease to exist altogether.”

In other words:

Get tae fuck!
Get tae fuck!


GhostRoadPat Barker The Ghost Road

Barker’s novel about shell-shocked WW1 soldiers beat out novels by Mr. Booker of Bookers Salman Rushdie and that gimcracked fellow Barry Unsworth.


LastOrdersGraham Swift Last Orders

Old friends scatter the ashes of an old friend. They also drink a lot of beer.

The Booker judges liked the idea of beer-drinking pals more than books about a historical murder in Canada, India after independence, and boyhood memories of Derry.


200px-ThegodofsmallthingsArundhati Roy The God of Small Things

imagesFor the second year in a row the Booker went to a novel set in India. This was Roy’s debut novel. It got reviews like “at once so morally strenuous and so imaginatively supple.” It became a huge bestseller. She has written much non-fiction but no more novels.



Ian McEwan Amsterdam

Amsterdam is the story of a strange euthanasia pact between two friends, a composer and a newspaper editor, whose relationship spins into disaster. An example of how you can win a Booker, dazzle the critics, but still annoy Amazon readers. Amazon reviewers called it dull, over-rated, nasty, disappointing,

“hellcat59” said what!


J.M. Coetzee Disgrace

Disgrace explores the downfall of one man and dramatizes with unforgettable, almost unbearable vividness the plight of South Africa caught in the chaotic aftermath of the overthrow of Apartheid. His second Booker win. A 2006 poll of “literary luminaries” by The Observer newspaper named the work as the “greatest novel of the last 25 years” of British, Irish or Commonwealth origin in years between 1980 and 2005. And Amazon people liked it too.



Margaret Atwood The Blind Assassin

It has a science-fiction story within another novel within the novel. How meta is that?

Margaret Atwood

The novel was nominated for several awards and confirmed Atwood’s status as Canada’s best writer. The previous holders of that title were these two:

Mordecai Richler and Robertson Davies
Mordecai Richler and Alice Munro



Peter Carey The True History of the Kelly Gang

If all you knew about Ned Kelly was Mick Jagger with a dodgy-looking beard and a dodgy accent Carey’s novel will set you straight. The book’s American publisher heralded the book as a “great American novel”, even though the novel takes place entirely within Australia. The claim that this book is an “American novel” appears to be based on the fact that Carey, an Australian, has lived in New York for many years. He is generally liked by American critics, but occasionally has had run-ins with them:



Yann Martel Life of Pi

A boy and a tiger are stuck in a lifeboat. There’s a lot of hallucinating. That’s about it. It was praised by critics and sold millions of copies. It wasn’t a favourite with the bookies to win the Booker, though, until a page on the Booker Prize website announced it as the winner a week before the decision. Barack Obama is a big fan.

I've sold ten million copies of "Life of Pi"
Yann Martel


DBC Pierre (left)
DBC Pierre (left)


"See this? This is a work af art."
“See this? This is a work af art.”

"Can you believe it?"
“Can you believe it?”


Aravind Adiga The White Tiger

Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel


Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question

The first comic novel to win the Booker since The Old Devils.  In his acceptance speech, Jacobson claimed he was going to spend his £50,000 prize money on a handbag for his wife, asking, “Have you seen the price of handbags?” Among the runners-up were Emma Donoghue and Peter Carey. Jacobson was once described as “the English Philip Roth“; he replied that he preferred to think of himself as “the Jewish Jane Austen.”

Howard Jacobson, self-described as "the Jewish Jane Austen"
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a bagel.”


"Fuck off, Martin Amis"
“Fuck off, Martin Amis”


Hilary Mantel Bring Up The Bodies

Kate Middleton
Kate Middleton

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