The Man Booker Prize at 50: 1979-1988

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The second decade of the prize, apart from producing the “Booker of Bookers” in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, was enlivened by some tight judging decisions.

In 1980, it was William Golding vs Anthony Burgess with Earthly Powers – and apparently Burgess refused to attend the presentation unless he was told in advance whether he had won. The decision went right to the wire with thirty minutes to go. Golding won – They rang Burgess, and he didn’t go!

In 1983, chair of the judges, Fay Weldon had to use her casting vote to decide the winner, and really couldn’t choose, changing her mind at the last moment from Rushdie’s Shame to Coetzee.

1979 – Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

Reviewed by Simon

When Penelope Fitzgerald won the 1979 Booker Prize for Offshore, she had only recently started publishing novels – but she was in her 60s. As a latecomer to the literary world, she had a rich life to look back on for incident and plot – and apparently her first five novels (this was her third) all relate at least partly to her own life. In the case of Offshore, she writes about a community of people living on houseboats on the Thames.

It’s intriguing that Fitzgerald’s writing is often based on real life, because she so often writes in a stylised and heightened way that is extremely enjoyable to read, but hardly a mirror to life. Among the residents, we have the domineering Richard (who insists that people be referred to by the names of their boats), Maurice (a friendly local prostitute, who renamed his boat Maurice to circumnavigate Richard’s diktat), and Nenna – a rather lost, lax mother who has taken her two children away from her failed marriage.

Along the way, we learn a little about how to run a houseboat (though not, perhaps, very much) – and more about the dangers that are more present when one’s home floats on water.

In the hands of other writers, this makeshift community of people who don’t fit into the rest of the world might be an inspiring tale of people coming together to battle the odds. Not so, Fitzgerald. They are just as spiky, uncertain, antagonistic, and pathetic in their new surroundings as the lives they have come from. Which is no bad thing – Fitzgerald is adept at making the reader feel a little off balance and discomforted. This is often through her archetypal disjointed conversations and disjointed relationships – nobody ever quite answering the question that is asked them, or doing anything in quite the way you might expect them to.

This is shown at its best, I think, in a wonderfully brittle, peculiar conversation between two strangers. Nenna is hunting out her estranged husband, but his landlord/roommate is being obstructive. Here’s a little bit of it…

“Well you might turn out to be a nuisance to Edward.”
She mustn’t irritate him.
“In what way?”
“Well, I didn’t care for the way you were standing there ringing the bell. Anyway, he’s out.”
“How can you tell? You’re only just coming in yourself. Do you live here?”
“Well, in a way.”
He examined her more closely. “Your hair is quite pretty.”
It had begun to rain slightly. There seemed no reason why they should not stand here for ever.
“As a matter of fact,” he said, “I do remember you. My name is Hodge. Gordon Hodge.”
Nenna shook her head. “I can’t help that.”
“I have met you several times with Edward.”
“And was I a nuisance then?”

And so it continues. Edwards appears, and nothing is truly cleared up. There are no real resolutions in the novel – it is simply a strange, off-centre snapshot of a group of people not quite getting by at life.

While I certainly enjoyed it, the reason that it’s not my favourite Fitzgerald novel is that it is perhaps slightly too disorientating. Finding the right amount of disorientation in a Fitzgerald novel means striking the balance – and perhaps different readers (and different moods) would find something a bit less confusing here. For me, Fitzgerald is at her strongest when focusing on one or two protagonists, rather than a whole milieu of people – it makes the disjointedness a bit easier to handle. I rather think The Bookshop (nominated for the Booker a year earlier, and losing to a book I can’t stand, The Sea, The Sea) would have been a worthier winner.

But Offshore is certainly an experience, and I can’t help being rather pleased that it beat V.S. Naipaul to the 1979 prize – not because I’ve read his novel Another Bend in the River, but because of his ludicrously sexist comments about women writers. And I think Fitzgerald might rather have enjoyed that too.

Simon is Editor At Large of Shiny, and blogs at Stuck in a Book

1980 – Rites of Passage by William Golding

Reviewed by Annabel

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Golding’s book divided the Booker judges initially, as it was the first part of a planned trilogy, (the other two volumes were published several years later). Could the prize be given to a part work?  Of course it could – and that has happened several times since in Booker history – viz The Ghost Road by Pat Barker and Hilary Mantel twice. The 1980 judges conveniently forgot that Paul Scott’s Staying On, the 1977 winner was itself a sequel of sorts to his Raj Quartet!

It is the early 19th century, and Edmund Talbot, an irksome young toff, is bound for Australia where he will work for the Governor of New South Wales. He vows to keep a journal for his Godfather of what happens during the long voyage, warts and all. His class, however, gives him a privileged place on board, with accommodation in one of the better ‘hutches’ as he calls them on the converted man-of-war ship. He gets into the swing of his journal by introducing us to the other passengers, key crew members and a tour of parts of the ship. He is enthralled by the idea of chronicling the sailor’s life, and is very keen to assimilate the ‘tarry language’ of the crew. He writes with gusto, only dampened by bouts of initial sea-sickness, along with many of the other passengers, availing himself of the steward’s ‘paregoric’ cure:

I have suffered again – the colic. Oh Nelson, Nelson, how did you manage to live so long and die at last not from this noisome series of convulsions but by the less painful violence of the enemy.

Golding beguiles us with light-heartedness in these initial chapters which are full of comedy, but then the story’s real drama begins.

It concerns the Reverend Colley, a lowly priest and fellow passenger, who incurs the wrath of the Captain by intruding onto the quarterdeck against the apparently clergy-hating Captain’s express orders. Talbot seeks to bolster the poor man’s confidence by having him conduct a service for the passengers, but this doesn’t really work. Later Colley is got exceedingly drunk and is assaulted by some crewmen. He retires to his bunk in shame, refusing to move until he dies. It is only when Talbot finds Colley’s own journal that he realises what has happened. There is a big cover-up in the Captain’s log, but Talbot keeps his and Colley’s journals locked up and safe with their damning accounts inside. Edmund truly grows up in his realisation of everyone’s murky parts in Colley’s fall.

The relationship between the lowly-born Lieutenant Summers, who proves to be a good man, and Talbot allows Golding to explore class themes further. Summers criticises Talbot for not initially using his position of privilege in being the bigger man in sorting out the Colley debacle, but the two men end up as friends. Rites of Passage ends before the voyage is finished as Talbot’s journal is full. This chapter of Talbot’s story is fittingly ended and is complete in itself as the judges in their wisdom decided.

Having re-read Rites of Passage for Shiny’s Booker project, I enjoyed it so much again that I must revisit the other two volumes while in the mood. I shall also watch the BBC’s 2005 adaptation of the trilogy – the well-received To the Ends of the Earth, starring a young Benedict Cumberbatch as Talbot – perfect casting!

Annabel is one of the Shiny editors.

1981 – Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Reviewed by Rob Spence

It is fair to say that, until Salman Rushdie’s novel dazzled the Booker judges in 1981 and propelled him into the astonishing career that he has had since then, magic realist fiction was not prominent in the British reading public’s consciousness. Certainly, some translated fiction of this type, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende and Italo Calvino had been enthusiastically received; and Angela Carter’s disturbing novels and stories shared something of their characteristics. But Midnight’s Children was perhaps the first English language novel to enthusiastically revel in this style, with a narrative of baroque excess and exuberant language.

The children of the title are those born on the stroke of midnight as India gained independence In 1947, coincidentally the year of Rushdie’s birth. These children are endowed with mysterious powers, and we follow one of them, Saleem Sinai, who has telepathic powers, and an extraordinary sense of smell, signified by his enormous nose. Saleem’s story parallels that of the emergent state, and Rushdie places his character at significant moments of Indian history. The novel deals with the major crises of the post-partition period, various wars, and the Emergency of Indira Gandhi’s rule. The form is based on oral narrative, as Saleem tells his life story to his future bride, Padma. This allows great flexibility since, as Rushdie says,

“An oral narrative does not go from the beginning to the middle to the end of the story. It goes in great swoops, it goes in spirals or in loops, it every so often reiterates something which happened earlier to remind you, and then takes off again, summarises itself, it frequently digresses off into something the story teller appears to have just thought of, then it comes back to the main thrust of the narrative.”

This structure allows Rushdie the space to present both a picaresque narrative, shot through with myth and folk-tale references, as well as a potted history of Indian politics and culture in the years since independence.  For the reader, the experience can be bewildering, and certainly some knowledge of Indian history is useful, especially as Rushdie sometimes challenges the official version. The novel had far-reaching and lasting influence on a new generation of Indian writers, and spawned a host of magic realist narratives in English. The award of the Booker Prize to this extraordinary novel now seems as if it marks a watershed in the development of modern English fiction.

Rob Spence’s home on the web is or find him on Twitter @spencro

1982 – Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally

From the blurb:

In this milestone of Holocaust literature, Thomas Keneally uses the actual testimony of the Schindlerjuden – Schindler’s Jews – to brilliantly portray the courage and cunning of a good man in the midst of unspeakable evil.”

“A stunning novel based on the true story of how German was profiteer and factory direktor Oskar Schindler came to save more Jews from the gas chambers than any other single person during World War II.

1983 – The Life & Times of Michael K by J M Coetzee

From the Blurb:

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“In a South Africa torn by civil war, Michael K sets out to take his mother back to her rural home. On the way there she dies, leaving him alone in an anarchic world of brutal roving armies. Imprisoned, Michael is unable to bear confinement and escapes, determined to live with dignity. Life & Times of Michael K goes to the centre of human experience – the need for an interior, spiritual life, for some connections to the world in which we live, and for purity of vision.”

Comment by Rebecca Foster

Alas, I’m 0 for 2 on South African Booker Prize winners. In May I gave J.M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K and Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist my best try in quick succession, but didn’t get past page 45 in either one.

I should know by now that Coetzee’s is just the sort of book I fail to connect with: a spare, almost dystopian allegory that’s unrooted in time or place and whose characters are symbols you hardly care about. Coetzee’s more recent The Childhood of Jesus, which I also abandoned, was similar, as was Jesse Ball’s Census. This starts off as Michael K’s quest to get his ailing mother to Prince Albert, but that’s soon derailed, and with it my interest. I did, however, like how the protagonist, generally referred to as “K,” gets caught up in Kafkaesque bureaucracy:

“Why does it matter where they are taking us? There are only two places, up the line and down the line. That is the nature of trains.”

Rebecca Foster blogs at Bookish Beck

1984 – Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

Reviewed by Jane

Hotel du Lac was the first Booker Prize winner that caught my eye. I brought a copy home from the library, and I would go back to the library to find her earlier novels and to collect all the novels that she would write subsequently. I had found a unique author, and I loved her.

This book records a short but significant portion of the life of of Edith Hope, a moderately successful romantic novelist. Her disapproving friends have banished her to a hotel by a Swiss lake while a scandal at home dies down. The season is nearly over, there are only a few other guests for her to observe and interact with, and so she has a great deal of time to work on her new novel, to consider her past and the events that led to her banishment, and to contemplate the bleak life of spinsterhood that that she will be accepted to live when when she returns home.

That may not sound like much, but in Anita Brookner’s hands it is a great deal.

The writing is elegant, with evocative descriptions of the old-fashioned hotel and lake, and with a use of language that is wonderfully subtle and precise. There is an air of melancholy, but that is leavened by some lovely flashes of humour and warmth. Edith’s observation of the lives and characters of her fellow guests is clear and insightful. Her relationship with one would be particularly significant and would lead to an understated and wonderfully rewarding conclusion.

The first time I read this book I was dazzled by the writing, and by a book that was like nothing I had read before. Now I have read it again I must concede that the setting up of the story was stronger that its playing out. I loved the conclusion – especially the very last sentence – but it I would have preferred it to have been reached rather more simply than it was.

I still love Hotel du Lac for its immaculate writing, for its drawing of human relationships, and for its timeless style. Though I can’t say it is Anita Brookner’s finest novel, and I would rather she had won the Booker with a different book, I am very glad that she did win.

Jane lives on the Cornish coast. She blogs at Beyond Eden Rock.

1985 – The Bone People by Keri Hulme

Reviewed by Lizzy Siddal

The 1985 Booker Prize Winner was a controversial choice. 33 years later it remains an unpopular winner. Is this due to the emotive nature of the content or because the writing is not up-to-scratch?

The plot revolves around a trinity of characters: Joe, the father; Simon, the son; Kerewin, the unholy yet reconciling force.   Each of these characters has major flaws. Joe is an alcoholic brute. True, he loves his son but anyone who almost batters his son to death (whatever the provocation), is a bully and a brute. Simon is a foundling child adopted by Joe. He is mute and incredibly disturbed, displaying aberrant behaviour, which cannot wholly be attributed to the physical abuse he suffers. Kerewin is also damaged goods. We are never told why but at the beginning of the book she is living in isolation, separated from her family in a purpose-built tower – a home she refers to as prison. Into her retreat stumbles an injured Simon, heralding a new, though not untroubled phase, in the lives of all three characters.

We get to know these three characters well, through short streams of consciousness interspersed into the third-person narrative. Thus it is impossible to condemn Joe even though our moral judgment may scream at us to do so. Simon, while an absolute nightmare, displays the symptoms of battered spouse syndrome. Behave badly, be abused and trigger the comfort of a loving reconciliation. Kerewin, brittle, prickly, amazonian yet with a soft centre, is drawn slowly but surely, against her will,  into the maelstrom of Joe and Simon’s relationship.  I found the interaction of these three absolutely fascinating.

That they are also metaphoric adds to the fascination. Joe is Maori, Simon is European while Kerewin, the reconciling force, is of mixed extraction (though only 8% Maori). Joe is happily married with Maori wife and child.  He loses both to flu after adopting Simon. The implication is obvious. Simon, the European, brings trouble and destruction to the indigenous population, which reacts with rage and brutality. Kerewin, the troubled mixed breed, effects reconciliation between the two. There’s a message here.  Is it that the past is done? It’s unchangeable. Move on. We must live better, even if we can’t live perfectly.

The Bone People presents many challenges. Firstly, before the damaged personalities can reconcile, they must heal. Yet that healing is effected by Maori mystics. It’s almost, but not quite, deus ex machina. Probably because of my lack of understanding of Maori symbols and rites interwoven throughout. Secondly the violence. It’s extreme. Sickening even.  I suspect this is the reason for the novel’s unpopularity in the canon of Booker winners.

Yet, there is nothing gratuitous in it for Hulme is depicting a hard-drinking, hard-hitting culture that is far removed from the civilised wrapped-in-cotton-wool Western European reality that most of us currently enjoy. For that reason, The Bone People has proved to be one of the most memorable Booker winners I have read to date.

Lizzy Siddal blogs at Lizzy’s Literary Life

1986 – The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis

Reviewed by Karen Heenan-Davies

It came as a surprise to many when The Old Devils won the Booker Prize in 1986. The literati had largely consigned Kingsley Amis to the ‘has-been’s’ bin, judging that his habitual drunkeness had robbed him of his wit and talent. The Old Devils proved them all wrong. Amis demonstrably had lost none of his flair for satire but in his advancing years he tinged it with humanity.

This is a tale about a bunch of old university mates in Wales, now largely retired who, freed from work, indulge in their favourite habit: sitting at the bar of their favourite pub, The Bible. Here they meet every day, well before lunch and as close to breakfast as possible. And there they stay, often well into the evening while their wives are at home hitting the vino.

They whinge and carp about everything, especially the ‘Disneyfication’ of Wales and those people who posture and preen their Welsh identify.  People in fact like Alun Weaver, the only member of the old gang to leave Wales. He’s made a career for himself in London as a writer and an expert on a poet called Brydan (a thinly disguised Dylan Thomas). But now after a 30 year absence he’s announced his return to his old stamping ground in South Wales intending to set up home with his wife. Cue lots of anxiety from those wives of the Old Devils who indulged in affairs with him and are either hoping for  a re-run or mortified with embarrassment about meeting him again.

Amis makes Weaver a figure of ridicule, an ageing lothario with questionable literary skills, who, in the eyes of his friends wants to turn Wales “into a charade, an act, a place full of leeks and laver-bread and chapels and wonderful old characters..”

Such carping doesn’t disguise the fact that between these men there does exist a close bond that approaches love and affection. Nor does Amis’s satire come without a degree of affection and understanding for these characters. He makes us laugh but there is a poignancy for these guys whose brains don’t want to acknowledge their best days are over though their bodies tell them otherwise. There are some wonderful cameos of the gang dealing with the infirmities that come with age. I defy anyone to read some scenes – especially one where a rotund Old Devil tries to pull on his socks – without collapsing into belly-aching laughter.

Episodes like this that show clearly how insult and ridicule can be transformed into high comic art. and how Amis, is a master of that art. Without doubt The Old Devils was one of the most enjoyable of the Booker prize winners I’ve read. And no, you don’t even need to be born in Wales to appreciate its humour.

Karen Heenan-Davies blogs at Bookertalk

1987 – Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively  (two reviews)

Reviewed by Isobel Blackthorn

The Booker Prize is awarded for literary prowess, or at least it should be, and there areoccasions when the winning book is a labour to read. Moon Tiger is not one of those books. Exquisitely told by an author at the height of her powers, Moon Tiger cannot fail to charm as Lively leads the reader through a landscape of contemporary history brought vividly to life through the mind of her protagonist.

The story is simple; historian Claudia Hampton is confined to a hospital bed, dying. Claudia is a richly textured character, charming, flawed and deeply interesting. She’s imagining she’ll write a history of the world and ponders how that work will look. Meanwhile she reflects on her past, on her brother, Gordon, her lover, Jasper, their daughter, Lisa, and her one great love, Tom.

Composed in the present tense and making full use of jump cuts, Lively allows Claudia to flit first here and then there as her personal story unravels. The heart of the narrative, Cairo, the setting of what is essentially a poignant love story, takes centre stage about a third of the way in, once all the pieces on Lively’s pared-down chessboard are in place. From then, it is impossible not to be moved by what unfolds.

Moon Tiger is a beautifully constructed novel, sensitively and economically written, the prose flowing like silk. Lively has composed a novel to savour, to read again and again; the narrative at once ponderous, intelligent, painted with a broad brush one moment, a fine-tipped brush the next.

Isobel Blackthorn is a novelist and book reviewer.

Reviewed by Gill Davies

Claudia, the dying narrator, recalls her life, floating in and out of her memories, circling round its one great love and loss. When that love is finally revealed, the effect on the reader is profoundly moving, mirroring the way in which Claudia is haunted by this time in her past, kept secret from those who came after. She is a strong, intelligent and independent woman, often impatient with events and people that don’t keep up. In her hospital room, visitors and staff come and go, caught up in daily trivia, failing to see the complex person lying before them. By contrast, she sees and reflects on them – her daughter, and through her, relationships with her husband, mother and brother, all intriguing and strange.The novel traces Claudia’s history, paralleling the events of twentieth century, from the impact of the Great War to the 1980s. As she says at the beginning, “‘I’m writing a history of the world … And in the process, my own.’” At its centre is the Second World War when Claudia as a reporter in Egypt experienced the most intense moments of her life. And both personal and global events are shattering.

It’s a gripping and powerful story, carefully structured and compelling. The narration frequently shifts between Claudia’s perspective and those of the people she is summarising, judging, hiding from. For example she sees her daughter as a disappointment, a dull housewife and mother. But Lisa has her own secret life, love and achievements about which Claudia knows nothing. The writing is wonderful, too. Claudia’s voice is strong and distinctive – “I’ve grown old with the century; there’s not much left of either of us. The century of war. All history, of course, is the history of wars, but this hundred years has excelled itself. How many million shot, maimed, burned, frozen, starved, drowned? God only knows. I trust He does; He should have kept a record…” It can be spare, witty and sharp and is always vivid and powerful: “She … sits in the cab of the truck, typing, while the desert roars around, now white, now sulphur, now rose-coloured. Jim Chambers produces a flask of whisky. The driver says this may not be blinking Piccadilly but there’ll be someone by sooner or later, they can’t be far from the fucking track and once the sandstorm dies down they can get their bearings again..” The orchestration of voices, characters and setting is brilliantly done here and throughout the novel. This must be one of the very best novels to have won the Booker and it was such a pleasure to read it again.

Reviewed by Gill Davies

1988 – Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

Reviewed by Harriet

This is, I think, one of the most remarkable books I have ever read, and I have read a few. It’s really hard to find things to say about it which even get close to giving an idea of why this should be. It’s a huge book, for one thing – huge in scope, huge in ideas – an epic. It is bursting with life and vitality. It is totally unpredictable and totally convincing. Everything about it, from the plot to the characters to the language, seems fresh and new. It is funny and it is tragic, it’s both painful and uplifting.

The novel tells the story of two bizarre, eccentric, damaged people: Oscar Hopkins, born an Evangelical, converted to Anglicanism, educated at Oxford, a compulsive gambler, tall and thin as a scarecrow, a sort of holy innocent, and Lucinda Leplastrier, an orphaned heiress who buys a glass factory, gambles obsessively, and struggles to find her way as a woman in the harsh world of mid-nineteenth-century Sydney. They meet. They hate each other. They fall in love and live together in chastity. They make a bet – Lucinda’s glass works will construct a church made entirely of glass, and Oscar will accompany it to a remote area in the outback. If it reaches its destination, she will give him her entire fortune. The last part of the book tells the story of Oscar’s journey into the heart of darkness. More I must not say – the ending took me by surprise and if you have not read it it will do the same for you.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

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A huge thank you to all our reviewers above.

Tomorrow, the third decade of Booker winners from 1989-1998.

Yesterday, the first decade.