The Man Booker Prize at 50: 1989-1998

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During the prize’s third decade, for the second time in its history, two books tied for top spot in 1992. Then, in 1993, the prize turned twenty-five. To celebrate, three previous judges met to choose a “Booker of Bookers”. They picked Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children from 1981.

In 1998, for the Prize’s thirtieth birthday, Booker produced a book celebrating those thirty years – Full of articles by those involved in the prize’s administration, booksellers, critics and commentators and more, it was packed with fascinating anecdotes and stories about the prize’s influence. This slim hardback was given away free in bookshops, and Shiny Ed Annabel treasures her copy!

1989 – The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Reviewed by David Harris

I first read The Remains of the Day twenty years ago, I think before it was filmed (changing the ending). I reread it for this review and it was some reread – I’d forgotten just how riveting it is. I went through 200 odd pages one night and the remaining 50 at a gallop next lunchtime – despite there being few ‘events’ in the story.

Yes, Stevens, butler at Darlington Hall, takes a road trip – but this is really a gentle meander giving him occasion to muse on what he’s done with his life. He has a goal of meeting Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper at the Hall who walked away twenty years before, but this doesn’t actually happen till late in the book and it is a very short episode.

While very little might seem to happen, all that does illuminates Stevens’life and character. He was invited by Mr Farraday, the new American owner of the Hall, to go out and see his “own country” – but characteristically most of what he does see arises not from intention but from missteps or random encounters with helpful strangers. It’s fascinating that Stevens is so passive. This is I think key to his character – with his philosophy of ‘dignity’, the quality that makes a “great” butler, to which he adds ideas of living vicariously (and contributing to the world) through one’s master’s doings, and of never dropping the ‘mask’ of the butler – unless alone. When he’s caught out of role (for example, reading a romance novel from the library) he makes such an extraordinary fuss, such a business of distancing himself, that you can only wonder what is going on underneath.

In fact Stevens seems to aspire to an almost mystical degree of self-effacement. It’s not surprising then that he’s so much an unreliable narrator that he actually tells us so, the version of events he gives often being unpicked later. What life, what reality, can a man like Stevens have, when his ultimate triumph is to stand in the shadows proudly serving his master even when that master stumbles morally?

Because Lord Darlington did stumble, allowing allowed himself to be used of in the murky Establishment plots of the 30s, when there was much cosying up to the Nazis. Stevens is right, of course, to point out that the (fictional) Lord Darlington wasn’t alone in this. I suspect this is an episode of English (especially) history that has been kicked into the shadows, rather as Steven suppressed any judgement on his own employer. In that sense, Stevens’ sometimes painful reckoning with his past might be taken as a rather prescient commentary on the country as a whole, as might other aspects of the book.

But that’s not all there is here. The Remains of the Dayis a subtle, mulitlayered book with a great deal else going on. In places very funny, but often deeply sad, it also tells the story of two (once) young people – Stevens and Miss Kenton – trying, at some level, to connect but either afraid, constrained or just too inexperienced to do so.

Both strands lead to bleak conclusions. There is the ultimate revelation of a man who sees all he has lived for knocked down. Lord Darlington is disgraced and dead, the Hall sold, the society of “professionals” by which Stevens set such store scattered to the winds (I lost count of the number of times he says he has ‘lost touch with’ one or another well-known gentleman’s gentleman. Are they dead? Retired? Or is he now a pariah, given the Darlington connection? Stevens is not to be trusted on such matters and we can only speculate on this as on so much else.) There is also that lack of connection.

Stevens himself is a magnificent character, at once so stiff upper lip that you wonder he doesn’t crack his toothbrushes and also sad and vulnerable. And this is an extraordinary book, with so much to give. A worthy winner of the Booker, in any year and still so readable.

David Harris blogs at Blue Book Balloon

1990 – Possession by A S Byatt

Reviewed by Rob Spence

For a bookish reader, AS Byatt’s 1990 Booker winner is bliss: a novel about the act of reading and interpreting, in which two narrative timelines intertwine, each commentating on the other, with plenty of allusions to classic texts.

The plot revolves around two academics’ pursuit of the truth about the life of their principal subject, a (fictional) nineteenth-century poet, Randolph Ash, and his relationship with the mysterious Christabel LaMotte. The narrative alternates between the contemporary literary detective work of the academics and the secret affair of the nineteenth-century lovers. Byatt’s immense scholarly knowledge is brought to the fore, as she offers snippets of the work of the two poets, written, of course, by herself. This postmodern playfulness pervades the novel, as the lives of the four protagonists converge across time.

Arguably, Possession is about the act of reading – the reading not just of texts, but of lives, too. As scholars, the two major twentieth century characters are professional readers, whose lives are constructed around the act of reading- initially, of course, it is texts that they read, but as they become embroiled in the search for the truth about the affair between their nineteenth-century counterparts, they become readers of lives. The reading that they undertake stems from their reading of texts written by the writers whose lives they are attempting to read. As we read, we too are involved in the reading of these texts, which also echo other texts, cleverly inserted by Byatt, adding to our reading of the characters’ lives. The text then, in the words of one critic, “reads itself, and other texts, and comments on the very process of all kinds of reading – in and of life, in and of literature.”

This makes for an intense, and sometimes challenging experience for the reader, though ultimately, a hugely satisfying one. Ash and LaMotte’s poems, often reminiscent of Browning and Rossetti (amongst others) send you scurrying to your bookshelves to find the Victorian counterparts, and to marvel at Byatt’s facility to produce credibly authentic verse. This is a novel that offers new delights on subsequent readings: it is dense with allusion, with sly glances at the world of critical theory and with an ironic take on romance, both of the literary and of the Mills and Boon variety. It cemented Byatt’s reputation as one of our foremost novelists, and remains probably her best-loved book.

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

1991 – The Famished Road by Ben Okri

Reviewed by Charlie Place

Ben Okri’s The Famished Road was the winner of the 1991 Man Booker Prize.  It stood alongside Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow, Roddy Doyle’s The Van, Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey, Timothy Mo’s The Redundancy of Courage, and William Trevor’s Reading Turgenev on the shortlist.

About the life of an abiku or ‘spirit child’ who lingers between reality and his spirit world whilst his reality is poverty and a community is affected by politics, the book sports a beautiful writing style.  It’s a literary language that is enhanced by the novel’s magical realism, which often strays into full fantasy territory.

However, the book does suffer for this, lacking a proper story and characterisation, with its population portrayed in a vague manner.  The same scenes are repeated endlessly – money gained only to be spent on drink and parties; fights between townspeople; the young child, Azaro getting lost in the spirit world – and the purpose of what can be presumed a metaphor is never truly revealed. There are drips and drabs of a sense of political upheaval, racial prejudice, a mother’s love, and history.

Some characters have more purpose – the photographer who is clearly publicising the political and social problems in his country, lauded and hated in equal measure by his neighbours and the powers that be.  The bar owner, Madame Koto, shows how a person can go from relative obscurity and poverty to rich if they choose to follow the people who can provide the material life they wish for, even if at the expense of respect.  Madame Koto’s transformation happens very late in the book, but the photographer’s role is clear from the first few chapters in which he appears, and is a great help when it comes to seeing the wood for the trees.

But at well over 500 pages, with so much cryptic storytelling to get through and little reward at the end, it would be hard to recommend it.

Charlie Place writes at The Worm Hole where she reviews books and talks about her walks around old buildings. She hosts literary events Southampton.

1992 – Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth (tied)

Reviewed by Lizzy Siddal

The love of money, the making of profit is the sacred hunger of Barry Unsworth’s 1992 joint Booker Prize Winner. It is a quest that justifies everything and sanctifies all purposes. Living in their gaudy houses, playing with culture, romance and love, British merchants of the 18th century ruthlessly pillage Africa of its lifeblood. Detailed analysis of the triangular trade is woven into the first half of the novel which follows the history of The Liverpool Merchant slaver ship from conception and build to its disappearance in an Atlantic storm.  Its tortuous voyage, the lives blighted and destroyed (both in Britain and Africa) in the pursuit of its business, form a fascinating and, at times, horrendous narrative.

The second half of the novel focuses on the British in America where “white man is speaking with forked tongue” to vanquish the indigenous nation on the other side of the Atlantic.   It is heartbreaking to understand that shiny bright beads and baubles persuaded coastal Africans to hunt and enslave those from the interior.  Heartbreaking also to see shiny bright medals persuade Indian chiefs to hand over lands to the British King.

While the history of the ship, its crew and its cargo steers us through the first half of the novel, the enmity between the two main protagonists, cousins Erasmus Kemp (the ship owner’s son) and Matthew Paris (the ship’s doctor) provides the narrative drive in the second.  For Kemp wants Paris to pay for the damage done to his family when the ship did not return and pursues him, with a savage fury, across the Atlantic.  In the meantime Paris, along with the visionary Delblanc, forms a utopian society with the survivors of the ship.  Can this fledgling society, founded on the theft and brutalising of half its population,  coalesce and heal?  Or will the sacred hunger, common to mankind, reemerge even here?

Unsworth has done his homework but wears it lightly. Vivid characterisation and a gripping plot disguise his research.  If there is any fault in this novel, and I admit this grudgingly (because for many years Sacred Hunger was my Booker of Bookers), it is that the pace of the first two sections is very slow.  However, once The Liverpool Merchant reaches Africa, the pages turn very, very quickly indeed.

Lizzy Siddal blogs at Lizzy’s Literary Life

1992 – The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (tied)

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

“There is, after Herodotus, little interest by the Western world towards the desert for hundreds of years.  From 425 BC to the beginning of the twentieth century there is an averting of eyes. Silence. The nineteenth century was an age of river seekers. And then in the 1920s there is a sweet postscript history on this pocket of earth, made mostly by privately funded expeditions and followed by modest lectures at the Geographical Society in London.”

This book is a river of words, in which you are carried purposefully along, sometimes rapidly and excitingly, sometimes slowly and reflectively, sometimes submerged and fearful, and often – in spite of a strong sense of direction and purpose – caught in back eddies or still water.  It’s a magical, moving, wondrous experience, with real intensity and a sense of space.

I came to it late, reading the book for the first time after seeing the film in 1997, an unusual way for me to find any book.  It is set in the final stage of the war in Italy in 1945, as a nurse, Hana, stays to look after an English patient when a war hospital in an old monastery moves out.  They live an odd, dislocated, isolated life, him unable to move because of terrible burns all over his body, and without company until Caravaggio and Kip join them, one an old friend of the nurse’s father, the other a Sikh bomb disposal expert.  The book considers their odd, dangerous, separated lives together, and the history of the Libyan desert where the Englishman had been an expert traveller and historian, Herodotus in hand. The narrative is fractured, dreamlike, disjointed, as they remember and forget, and as then and now are confused and mingled. But the prose is beautiful, gentle but charged, as we consider the beauty of the desert, an adulterous love affair, the tenseness of bomb disposal, the camaraderie of nationless exploration.

Of course, this is no idyll but hard and bitter agony, beauty and love notwithstanding, and it cannot continue.  The English patient is no innocent, no Englishman; Kip flees the villa when he hears of Hiroshima, an attack by the white men in the West on Asia, Hana wants to return to Canada, to a small cabin and pink rock in Georgian Bay.  This is a novel of great sadness, of exploration, and loves which have no ending but no fulfilment.

1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle

Reviewed by Annabel

It is a quandary why the Booker judges so rarely reward comedy, for when it is well done, it can be sublime, as in Roddy Doyle’s first shortlisted novel in 1991, The Van. In that book, the final part of his Barrytown trilogy, we turn to the father of the Rabitte family, and follow the trials and tribulations of Jimmy sr and his mate as they try to make some money from a fish and chips van. Easily the best part of the trilogy, the chucklesome pages slip by, but perhaps The Van was just too much fun to read for the Booker judges.

Now Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is a rather different animal if you were expecting more of the gentle humour of the Barrytown trilogy. Still set in the Dublin suburbs, the novel is written from the point of view of a ten-year-old boy and follows his life roughly for the period of a year. There are some comic moments of course, but there is an underlying drama unfolding as the year goes on.

Paddy is a mischievous schoolboy, always up for a lark, running with his gang who are definitely modelled on Just William’s – Paddy tells us he’s read all the books – but they are naughtier, more streetwise, potty-mouthed and love fighting. Paddy also has to put up with his younger brother Francis, known as Sinbad, hanging on, typical sibling rivalry, but Paddy does look out for Francis.

Paddy tells us about his days in vignettes – there are no chapters. In typical Doyle fashion, speech is indicated by a dash, and there are long conversations between Paddy’s mind-dumps. The structure is very stream of consciousness, with Joycean echoes. Paddy jumps from one thing to another and the reader must run with the non-sequiturs.

There is a subtle sense of the passing of time, although Paddy rarely refers to any dates or times other than Christmas. As the novel goes on, Paddy and his friends must get used to new gangs moving in as the Corporation puts up new houses nearby:

Over at the Corporation houses, that end, wasn’t ours any more. There was another tribe there now, tougher than us, though none of us said it. Our territory was being taken from us but we were fighting back. We played Indians and Cowboys now, not Cowboys and Indians.

There is also the worsening relationship between Paddy’s parents. At the beginning, his da is just a bit strict with the boys, quick to punish, but quick to get back to normal. As the year passes, he gets meaner, and Paddy listens to and witnesses many rows which get steadily worse. Paddy becomes adept at breaking in on them to protect his mother by his sudden presence and by the novel’s end, his da has left making Patrick ‘the man of the house now’.

There’s no doubting that Doyle totally nails Paddy’s voice; everything and everyone in the book is coloured by his narration. My problem was that most of Paddy’s life outside the home was rather boring – variations on the same old japes at school and at play. Paddy does have two little sisters – but as far as he’s concerned, they don’t really exist; his ma, and the assorted old ladies and teachers that the boys torment, are the only real female figures in this totally boy-centred story.

The more experimental form makes Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha a more difficult book to love than The Van, but an easier one for the Booker judges to reward – although it was still considered a controversial choice at the time. The win did, however, cement Doyle’s reputation as one of the great stylists of contemporary Irish literature.

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

1994 – How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman

Reviewed by Lisa Hill

How Late It Was, How Late caused a furore because of the bad language which characterises the voice of Sammy Samuels, the narrator. It is indeed very bad language, and I can well imagine that some readers might take one look at the book and demand its removal from the library shelves, but that would be a pity because it is well worth reading and deserves its place in literary history.

How Late It Was, How Late brings us the voice of the unheard underclass, and it’s also innovative in style and form. Apart from the bad language, the narrative voice takes a bit of getting used to because it is written in working-class Glaswegian vernacular. On top of that, the text alternates between Sammy’s somewhat muddled stream-of-consciousness and an occasional third-person narrative voice, and Sammy himself is none-too-sure about what happened, and he keeps changing his mind about things and he dissembles when caught out with some uncongenial truth. It is not until the reader absorbs the rhythmic poetry of these narrative voices that the novel takes on a life of its own beyond the challenge of making sense of it. Then it becomes impossible to put down.

Sammy is a petty criminal who wakes up in the gutter after a spectacular booze-up with his mates to find that he’s been relieved of his wallet and his good leather shoes. He has vague memories of Friday, but Saturday is a blank. When he staggers to his feet on Sunday he imprudently picks a fight with some off-duty policemen and they beat him up, leaving him with what appears to be kidney damage, broken ribs and the loss of his eyesight. Sammy seems remarkably philosophical about all this, masking a sense of alienation so profound that he simply accepts whatever is dished out to him either by fate or by the brutality or indifference of the society in which he lives. We see this at the police station where his predicament seems to be an occasion for general hilarity…

He rubbed at the base of his spine then sat forwards, hands clasped on his knees. He had a lot to consider. When ye come to think about it. And that’s what he had no been doing: thinking. He had just been

who knows, who knows; his brains were all over the place

All the auld ways of living, as if they’ll go on forever. Then ye wake up and find yerself f—kt, all gone man, that’s that. So okay, ye have to accept it; what else can ye do, there’s f— all, everything’s fixed and settled as far as that’s concerned, it’s happened, past tense. So now it’s down to you.

So, he expects no help, and asks for none. Released, he makes his way home, where he finds that his girlfriend Helen has disappeared. He makes himself a stick from a broom and finds his own way to the DSS to file a benefit claim. There he submits to an impersonal interrogation, leavened only by a chat about soccer with the officer. No one seems the least bit concerned that an apparently healthy man in his thirties has suddenly lost his sight. He must also attend another office to have the date his sight was lost determined because it affects the date from which his benefit might or might not be paid!

Any pathos is negated, however, by the mystery of Helen’s disappearance, by the interrogation about one particularly dubious drinking pal, and by Sammy’s reluctance to use the system on the rare occasions when it seems to work for him, as when he gets a referral to a charity for help. There is something suspicious about the way he conspires in his own entrapment, but the reader can’t identify what is going on. Clearly the police can’t be trusted but they may have a legitimate line of enquiry; Sammy’s drinking mates and Ally the would-be ‘rep’ helping with his claim are just as likely to be ‘spooks’ or ‘grasses’; and Sammy himself has obviously been up to no good.

All this, together with the humour and Sammy’s engaging personality, makes for very interesting reading. I was particularly charmed by his encounter with his teenage son, and by his sometimes naïve interpretations of Helen’s point-of-view and of women in general.

Like How Late It Was, How Late, other earlier novels by Kelman, notably The Bus Conductor Hines (1984) and A Disaffection (1989), also explore existential crises in the lives of working men in Glasgow and together, have strongly influenced the work of other Scottish writers.

Lisa Hill blogs at ANZ LitLovers where the full version of this review first appeared.

1995 – The Ghost Road by Pat Barker

The third book in the Regeneration Trilogy

From the blurb:

“1918, the closing months of the war. Army psychiatrist William Rivers is increasingly concerned for the men who have been in his care – particularly Billy Prior, who is about to return to combat in France with young poet Wilfred Owen. As Rivers tries to make sense of what, if anything, he has done to help these injured men, Prior and Owen await the final battles in a war that has decimated a generation.”

1996 – Last Orders by Graham Swift

Reviewed by Andrew Blackman

On the surface, the plot of Last Orders is very simple: some friends drive to the coast to scatter the ashes of their friend Jack. Along the way, they have arguments and fights and endless pints of beer, but none of that is really the point. The real action of this book takes place in the past, appropriately enough for a novel about scattering ashes. These are old men remembering not only Jack but also their own former selves.

There are lots of lies and secrets and betrayals, but most of all there are missed chances. There’s a phrase that really stuck in my mind, “If we could see and choose”. Meaning that all the characters had ideas of themselves as young men, ideas of who they wanted to be. Jack wanted to be a doctor, Ray a jockey, Lenny a boxer. But then things got in the way: the war, family, health, and a hundred other reasons why things didn’t work out the way they should have done.

If we could see the way everything would pan out and choose based on the outcomes, things would be very different. But we can’t. We choose based on what seems best at the time, or easiest, or what other people want us to do. And sometimes we don’t really get to choose at all. And so our lives are not what we would have chosen, but what we end up with.

It’s a maudlin kind of book, again appropriately – not just because of the death at the centre but because of the pubs that feature so heavily throughout. It feels like the sort of story you’d be told by an old man sitting at the bar nursing his half-finished pint on a slow Tuesday afternoon in one of those old-fashioned pubs where there’s no music or TVs to drown out the melancholy thoughts that quiet drinking can bring on. You can feel the longing in the characters, sad and resigned to what their lives have become but still remembering what they would have done, if only they could see and choose.

Andrew Blackman’s latest book is A Virtual Love

1997 – The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Reviewed by Isobel Blackthorn

Set in Kerala, southern India, The God of Small Things follows the lives of Esthappen and Rahel, dizygotic (fraternal) twins separated by tragedy. A mix of present day and flashback scenes takes the reader through a complex story of one wealthy family’s fall.

At the heart of the novel is a tragic mystery, the death in 1969 of the twins’ English cousin, Sophie Mol, who drowned in the river with their grandmother’s silver thimble in her fist. Twenty-five years later, Rahel returns to the family home to see her estranged twin brother, Estha, who she hasn’t seen in all that time. The scars of the past are deep, the family wracked with violence, secrets and shame. The present is also bleak, the twins’ loss of innocence brutal, the trauma enduring.

Through the lenses of its various characters, The God of Small Things takes in the historical context of India in 1969, the residents of Ayemenem House unable to escape the influences of Communism, Christianity piety and the Hindu Caste system; the reader provided with insights into the intricacies of India’s politics, society and culture.

The outstanding achievement of this novel, however, lies not in its scope, nor in its plot and characterisation, but in the very fashioning of the novel itself, its structure and the distinct quality of the writing. Composed with a soaring wit, Roy depicts the twins’ tribulations through prose that is buoyant, punchy, almost childlike in its execution and filled with playful metaphors. This energetic and vibrant style is coupled with a teasing approach that never allows the reader to settle into a single moral viewpoint. In all, Roy has penned an intricate, nuanced and thoroughly entertaining novel entirely worthy of its accolades.

Isobel Blackthorn is a novelist and book reviewer.

1998 – Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth

On paper, the Booker goes to the best novel of the year. But occasionally it’s faced with the question of whether the prize was actually awarded to the novel or the writer. Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, the 1998 winner, is one of those cases.

Douglas Hurd, the chairman of the then judging panel and former British Foreign Secretary, described Amsterdam as “a sardonic and wise examination of the morals and culture of our time”, while critic Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times regarded it as a “dark tour the force, a morality fable, disguised as a psychological thriller.” At the same time, McEwan aficionados tend to dismiss it as the writer’s worst; Sam Jordison in his 2011 retrospective Booker club column for The Guardian, with hindsight, opted for the rather harsher “[t]he slightness of characterisation, the over-the-top prose, the obtrusiveness of the plotting and the idiocy of the premise might be more easy to forgive as sacrifices made in the service of comedy.” Either a moral masterpiece, or a “farting and belching” sidestep from a talented writer, at the very least Amsterdam offers a critical dilemma.

The novel doesn’t have the cheeriest premise: when newspaper editor Vernon and award-winning composer Clive attend the funeral of their former lover, Molly, both men are faced with their own mortality. Fearing a death like Molly’s – a rapidly debilitating brain disease leaving her both physically and mentally helpless – they enter a euthanasia pact with each other. But their friendship takes a(n even) murkier twist when Vernon publishes controversial photos in his paper – it’s the public’s right to see the foreign secretary in drag, he argues, and Clive, on a walk in the Lake District, does not intervene in a rape attempt in order to savour the musical genius that has just come upon him. The promise to help a friend in their darkest hour quickly turns into a race to the bottom, both men moralizing and pointing fingers at each other, simultaneously watching their own careers crash and burn.

McEwan turns this all into an emotional rollercoaster for the reader: Amsterdam is funny, heart-breaking, gripping and angering all in one. I find myself lamenting a stranger’s slow death, only to turn the page and laugh at wonderfully stilted social awkwardness at her funeral reception. McEwan makes the most of his morbid topics, really bringing his trademark dark humour and dry wit to the fore.

What’s more, both protagonists are deeply unsavoury: there’s nothing likeable about Clive, who regards himself as Vaughan Williams, nor Vernon with his totalitarian editorial style. But Amsterdam is built into such a moral maze that the characters and their actions go from decidedly black into an area of multi-shaded greyness: what can a tabloid do? Should a bystander risk their life to help others?

There is, though, a valid argument in saying that Amsterdam isn’t McEwan at his very finest: some characters are just too conveniently placed for plot purposes to make them interesting (the brown-nosing, back-stabbing Dibben at Vernon’s paper, for example), and the final sequence – I won’t give it away – stumbles and falls into the last page. Yet that is like saying that your dinner at Le Cordon Bleu wasn’t quite at its usual culinary standard, or that your night at the Ritz missed its usual beyond-five-stars mark: both are still in a totally different league than the McDonald’ses and Travelodges of this world. Amsterdam is a more than deserving winner of the Booker; that McEwan managed that with perhaps the worst of his oeuvre says more about his overwhelming skill than the judges’ substandard criteria.

Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist.

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A huge thank you to all our reviewers above.

Tomorrow, the fourth decade of Booker winners from 1999-2008.

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