Man Booker at 50: The ones that got away

It’s not always the case (or often?) that judges and readers are all in agreement on longlists, let alone the shortlists or eventual winners of literary prizes.

Here we look at a few of those shortlisted books and authors that our reviewers feel should have won. Let us know if you agree, and do tell us which books missed out on winning in a particular year for you!


1980 Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess

Reviewed by Rob Spence

Anthony Burgess was quite sure about which book should win the 1980 Booker: Earthly Powers, his own sprawling novel about the life and times of the fictional novelist Kenneth Toomey. Burgess refused to attend the ceremony unless he was guaranteed victory. The guarantee was not forthcoming, and the award was given to William Golding for his Rites of Passage.

Burgess, always confident in his own ability, had some reason for his disappointment. Earthly Powers had, unusually, been almost universally well-received by the critics on publication. The novel was praised for its sweeping account of the twentieth century, with Toomey (a figure partly based on Somerset Maugham) present at some historic moments, and also intimately involved with the rise to the Papacy of Carlo Campanati, a character whose outlook is clearly modelled on Pope John XXIII.

Toomey’s first person narration allows Burgess to comment on some key twentieth-century events including the First World War, the rise of fascism, the Holocaust, post-war decolonisation and the me generation of the sixties. Toomey’s status as a gay man adds another layer to the complex interweaving of public and personal histories that the novel presents.
The opening sentence is surely one of the most arresting in modern literature:

“It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”

In that startling introduction, some of the chief threads of the novel are introduced, paving the way for what is essentially a flashback autobiography. The novel unfolds over eighty-two chapters, taking Toomey from youthful Edwardian gentility to his vigorous old age through a series of improbable, but not impossible adventures. The novel, perhaps more than any other by Burgess except A Clockwork Orange, deals head-on with the clash of good and evil, particularly in the opposition of Toomey’s vision of fallen man and Campanati’s optimistic belief in the redeeming power of Christ.

The winner of the Booker the following year, Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was a novel in the same mould: a saga of epic proportions, with a central character who witnesses the major events. Burgess remained stoic about his failure, and turned to writing his twenty-sixth novel.

Rob Spence’s home on the web is robspence.org.uk or find him on Twitter @spencro


1973, 1974, 1990, 1996, 1998 – Beryl Bainbridge

Reviewed by Annabel

Only Margaret Atwood has now surpassed the late, great Beryl Bainbridge in Booker Prize shortlistings, also amassing five, but Atwood went on to win with The Blind Assassin.

Bainbridge had been known as ‘the Booker Bridesmaid’ for her five shortlistings without a win. After her death in 2010, the Booker Committee decided to make a posthumous award for the ‘Best of Beryl’. Her five nominated novels were put to the public vote, and her last shortlisted novel, Master Georgie won. At the time I voted for Every Man For Himself (1996), her Titanic novel, as I was yet to discover the dark comedic joys of The Bottle Factory Outing (1974) – which I read after the Best of Beryl Booker; that’s the one I would vote for now. Let us have a quick look at all five:

The Dressmaker (1973) was inspired by a relationship Beryl had had with a soldier while she was a teenager, and two of the other characters were based on her aunts. This is a dark psychological drama about family strife, and it’s compelling reading, uncomfortable even, knowing it is so autobiographical, when you read about sisters Nellie and Margo bringing up their niece Rita, who has an affair with a GI.

The Bottle Factory Outing (1974) is rather different. A full-on black comedy informed by Beryl’s experience working as a cellar girl in a bottling factory after her divorce in 1959. Brenda and Freda are young women, chalk and cheese, light and dark, who share an awful bedsit. They work at an Italian wine bottling factory, where Freda yearns for Vittorio and Brenda wants to stay out of the clutches of Rossi. The factory outing to Windsor turns into pure farce, and for the first time shows Beryl’s ability to keep the comedy flowing, whereas before she’d just added it in little touches here and there.

An Awfully Big Adventure (1990) shows Beryl at her most romantic in a novel based upon her own experiences working at the Liverpool Playhouse in her youth. Set in the early 1950s, it looks at sexual politics seen through the eyes of Stella who goes to work at the theatre and falls for an older leading man, then takes up with the replacement Captain Hook when he is injured. This being Beryl, love never runs smoothly, and there is comedy and tragedy aplenty in this much-loved novel, with a production of Peter Pan at its heart.

Every Man for Himself (1996) – Forget Kate and Leo! Having turned to writing historical novels after, so she said, running out of her own life dramas to plunder, Bainbridge presents a searing portrait of the upper classes on board RMS Titanic. This is seen through the eyes of a rich young American, Morgan, who having worked for the ship’s designers, has privileged access around the ship. Long before the ship hits the iceberg – which doesn’t happen until the latter quarter of the book, we find out about a fire in the coal bunker as the rich young things cavort in the ballroom. Bainbridge squeezes so much detail into under 200 pages while building up the drama, it’s masterful.

Master Georgie (1998) is Bainbridge’s sad tale of George Hardy, a surgeon who volunteers to work in the Crimean battlefields. His story, however, is told by those who accompany him, Myrtle, his adopted sister who adores him, Pompey Jones, a young rascal and photographer’s assistant who runs errands for George, and provides sexual tension all round, and Dr Potter, a geologist, and George’s brother-in-law. It’s unbelievable that soldiers and volunteers would take their families to war with them, but it happened. This is a complicated and hard-hitting novel with many levels, full of tragedy, and as always with Beryl, told in her special, no words wasted, style.

Of these five superb novels, maybe An Awfully Big Adventure and Every Man for Himself are the most straight-forwardly accessible, but once you’ve read any of Beryl’s novels, you’ll want to come back for more – and there are such riches in store for you. We should all be glad that the Booker committee finally recognised just how brilliant she was.

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.


2005 – A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry

Reviewed by Harriet

The 2005 Booker Prize shortlist was a strong one – in addition to the winner, John Banville for The Sea, there were novels by Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ali Smith, and Zadie Smith – and there was Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. Admittedly it must have been a tough choice, but if I’d had a say the winner would certainly have been Barry’s exceptional novel.

And all those boys of Europe born in those times, and thereabouts those times, Russian, French, Belgian, Serbian, Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh,Italian, Prussian, German, Austrian, Turkish – and Canadian, Australian, American, Zulu, Gurkha, Cossack and all the rest – their fate was written in a ferocious chapter of the book of life, certainly. Those millions of mothers and their million gallons of mothers’ milk, millions of instances of small-talk and baby-talk, beatings and kisses, ganseys and shoes, piled up in history in great ruined heaps, with a loud and broken music, human stories told for nothing, for ashes, for death’s amusement, flung on the mighty scrapheap of souls, all those million boys in all their humours to be milled by the mill-stones of a coming war.

It is one of those boys, Willie Dunne, born in Dublin in 1896, whose short life forms the subject of the novel. As a child, he worships his father , a high up official in the police force; he expects to join the police himself, but he never grows tall enough to qualify. He becomes a builder instead, which he finds he enjoys, and he falls in love with a young girl, Gretta, who he hopes to marry. But then war is declared, and he quickly decides to join up, largely to compensate his father for his failure to become a policeman.  Soon he is in the trenches, where he quickly loses his early enthusiasm for the war. In any case, he is fighting for a country not his own, though England has promised to allow Home Rule for Ireland if enough of her young men volunteer to fight.

Willie has never been clear in his own mind about political issues, and his confusion deepens when he goes back to Dublin on leave and is called upon, together with other Irish soldiers, to fire on his fellow countrymen, the Easter Weeks rebels, who are rioting in support of Home Rule. Back in the trenches he writes to his father, expressing some of his confusion, but when he returns again to Dublin his father hardly speaks to him, and he discovers that Gretta has married another man. Broken in spirit, he returns to the front, where he dies from a sniper’s bullet just before a letter arrives from his father offering him forgiveness.

Barry is widely celebrated  for his lyrical writing, and here it is made to serve the purpose of demonstrating not just the horrors of war but also the increasingly desperate confusion of a young man whose personal conflict is between love of family and love for his country. The critic Fintan O’Toole has characterised Barry’s work as exemplifying ‘the ambiguity of belonging’, embodying ‘the fundamental opposition of Irish history – native on one side, foreigner on the other’. Nowhere is this more beautifully and tragically expressed than in A Long Long Way.

Harriet is one of the Editors of Shiny New Books


2006 – The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Reviewed by Laura Tisdall

Sarah Waters wasn’t in contention for the Golden Booker, because – to my consistent amazement – she’s never actually won the Booker Prize. She’s been shortlisted three times: for Fingersmith (2002), The Night Watch (2006) and The Little Stranger (2009). When asked in a 2012 interview which of these three novels she wished had won, she picked The Night Watch.

And I have to agree with Waters: The Night Watch is an incredible novel, and while I haven’t read Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, which actually won in 2006, it’s difficult for me to think of anything that could match it. For those who haven’t read it, The Night Watch, set in London, focuses on four central characters and tracks their lives backwards through the Second World War and its aftermath – starting in 1947, then jumping back to 1944, then finishing in 1941.

So why should The Night Watch have won the Booker in 2006?

Firstly, there’s the way that Waters manages its structure – so effortlessly that, when talking about The Night Watch, I often forget that it’s told backwards. But this decision is nonetheless essential to the project she has at hand. I read The Night Watch a number of times in my very early twenties, but I found that it now posed different – though not necessarily more significant – questions for me when I picked it up to re-read earlier this year. The Night Watch painstakingly tracks the delicate balance of a number of relationships – both opposite-sex and same-sex – making the reader think about how it’s possible to find lasting love with another person that isn’t either corrupted by its own backstory, and/or isn’t thrown out of whack by the changing commitments of the individuals involved. By having so many prominent lesbian characters, the novel moves away from tired tropes about gender (‘men always cheat/can’t commit’; ‘women are needy/too emotionally involved’) to explore these ideas on a more fundamental level.

Incidentally, the novel’s representation of lesbianism is hugely refreshing. Admittedly, Waters has a low bar to clear, given limited, cliched representations of lesbians in fiction. However, as other reviewers have noted, the portrayal of Kay, in particular, who ‘wants a wife’, who dresses in a traditionally masculine way and clearly longs to return to her war work as an ambulance driver, which allowed her to play a ‘man’s role’, explores an aspect of lesbian identity that is rarely visible in mainstream fiction.

Finally, the structural cleverness of The Night Watch is used to huge effect by Waters to magnify the novel’s emotional impact. The last few lines of the 1944 section have always stayed with me. I think this kind of structural experimentation is too often written off by professional reviewers as ‘plotty’ while experimental prose is praised as literary, but what Waters pulls off here is deceptively difficult – and none of the scaffolding is visible. Just brilliant.

 Laura Tisdall is a writer and historian. Her blog can be found here.


2012 The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Wan Eng

Reviewed by Lizzy Siddal

I nominate The Garden of Evening Mists for The One that Should Have Won and Would Have Done in Any Other Year.  It was Tan Twan Eng’s misfortune that his superb historical novel, partly set during the Japanese Occupation of Malaysia was pitched against Bring Up the Bodies.  Not that I am unhappy about Hilary Mantel’s win; I’m just sorry that publication dates placed the two novels in competition. I suspect it was a closer competition than many assume.  For Tan Twan Eng emerged victorious in the rematch that was the 2013 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

The Garden of Evening Mists presents as the memoir of Teoh Yung Lin.  A diagnosis of aphrasia means she will eventually lose her capability for language, and she detemines to record her memories while she still can.

Hers is an eventful life. Forced into a Japanese slave labour camp at the age of 17, she becomes the sole survivor. Her sister, a lover of Japanese gardens, is not so fortunate. Yung Lin, therefore, decides to put aside her hatred of the Japanese and apprentice herself to Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the Emperor, in order to learn the principles of Japanese garden design. Her ambition is to build a memorial garden for her lost sister. Her apprenticeship brings her to Yuguri, the garden of evening mists, a place that becomes a refuge at different stages of her life. Past and present overlap in a non-chronological narrative, which demands attention. Yung Ling’s memories flit hither and thither, resting on and examining key moments before moving onto the next. The unexpected outcome of this is the slow revelation of hidden connections with the light of truth finally shining on exactly what happened in the camp so many years previously.

Yung Lin’s memories are full of the brutal realities of life in Malaysia in the mid-20th century: the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, associated war crimes, the post-war communist insurgency. Her incarceration at the hands of the Japanese is the defining moment of her life.  Show me a Guest of the Emperor who ever recovered, she says at one point. Yet the full detail of her experience is revealed only towards the end of the novel when we know that she has not been entirely destroyed by it.

The focus on the garden, the spiritual meaning of its features, and the relationship that develops between Yung Ling and Aritomo, despite the wounds of the past, emphasise themes of atonement and reconciliation. Coupled with exquisite writing, this novel reestablishes a degree of harmony in a world that at times loses all sense of such.

Lizzy Siddal blogs at Lizzy’s Literary Life

5 thoughts on “Man Booker at 50: The ones that got away

  1. Fun post! The ones I’d throw into the ring are Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark in 1981 (though I imagine it didn’t stand a chance against Salman Rushdie) and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor in 1971.

    • I’d second Mrs Palfrey. The other one I’d have added if I had time to re-read it was The Van by Roddy Doyle the most gentle and rib-tickling comedy as two middle-aged men try to get a chip van going.

  2. The Garden of Evening Mists is brilliant: it won the sister prize, the Man Asian Prize in the year it was a runner up in the Booker. Tan Twan Eng’s other novel, The Gift of Rain is also very much worth seeking out. A big-budget film of Evening Mists is in production right now, with a distinguished Anglo-Asian cast, including John Hannah, Hiroshi Abe and Angelica Lee.

    • This is a book I have moved to my bedside pile – I hope to read it soon. The film could be good.

  3. Pingback: The Golden Booker Prize | Shiny New Books

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