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
Ben 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.
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!
Ondaatje’sThe English Patient is also historical (ish). Not everyone liked it:
Roddy 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.
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:
Barker’s novel about shell-shocked WW1 soldiers beat out novels by Mr. Booker of Bookers Salman Rushdie and that gimcracked fellow Barry Unsworth.
Old friends scatter the ashes of an old friend. They also drink a lot of beer.
For 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,
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?
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:
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.
Aravind Adiga The White Tiger
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.”
Hilary Mantel Bring Up The Bodies