The Man Booker Prize at 50: 1999-2008

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The prize’s fourth decade marked the first time, in 2001, that the longlist was revealed to the world at large. It decade also marked two second wins for previous winners, Carey and Coetzee, who both won for the first time in the 1980s.

In 2008, it was the fortieth anniversary of the prize. Once again the “Booker of Bookers” was awarded – this time by public vote on a selected shortlist. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children won, again.

1999 – Disgrace by J M Coetzee

Reviewed by Karen Heenan-Davies

J M Coetzee’s Disgrace is a chilling novel that takes us deep into a world of moral uncertainty and racial complexity. Set five years after the end of apartheid and the birth of the new South Africa, it uses a domestic crisis to reflect on the gulf that still exists between the black and white populations in a society in the process of being overhauled.

It begins in a deceptively quiet manner in Cape Town where David Lurie, a white fifty-something university professor, is feeling out of synch with the new post apartheid regime. His specialism in modern languages has been abolished so he’s left teaching just one course to students he disdains. He considers he is rather more successful in his private life: “For a man of his age, 52, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” In reality is a predator who sees nothing wrong in seducing one of his students, a girl half his age.

Denounced and accused of sexual misconduct he steadfastly refuses to repent or to comply with the university’s politically correct process of rehabilitation. He resigns, abandons his home and seeks refuge with his daughter Lucy on her smallholding somewhere in the Eastern Cape. There they are subjected to a savage attack and the farm is set alight.

Lurie is mystified why his daughter refuses to report the attack or report her suspicions that her black neighbour was one of the assailants. ”Sell up,” he urges her, believing that her rapists will return. But Lucy refuses, and though she says she cannot get over ”the shock of being hated,” she nevertheless insists that the threat to her security is the price that whites must now pay for their right to remain on the land.

The novel ends bleakly. There are no resolutions in Disgrace: the problems of the character’s lives remain by the time we reach the final page.

The attack has destroyed Lurie’s good looks, his confidence and his professional ambitions. He’s gained some understanding of the suffering of other people and sees that the balance of power in the country has shifted. But he doesn’t fully understand how to atone for his past behaviour.

Coetzee’s sparse style brings an emotional distance even though he deals with hugely emotive issues. Particularly impressive for me was that Coetzee makes us understand Lurie’s arrogance even if we don’t endorse his beliefs and shows us by the end of the novel that it’s possible to sympathise with a man who starts out as a thoroughly unsympathetic human being.

Karen Heenan-Davies blogs at Bookertalk

2000 – The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Reviewed by Susan Osborne

Despite its Booker Prize, The Blind Assassin is one of Margaret Atwood’s less well-known novels which is a shame. It combines the secrets, domestic tragedies and love affairs of a family saga with an acute political and social awareness of the period between the two world wars, and it has a wonderful twisty plot. Iris Griffen, the oldest daughter of the once prosperous Chase family, narrates the main part of the novel. Threaded through her memories is The Blind Assassin, an erotic love story that scandalised polite society.

Iris is eighty-two, impoverished, frail, and more than a little irritated by the modern world. As she struggles around Port Ticonderoga, the small town once dominated by her family, railing against those who offer her help, she reflects on the events that surrounded her sister’s demise. Ten days after the end of the Second World War, twenty-five-year-old Laura drove off a bridge and plunged to her death. Her novel, The Blind Assassin, posthumously published by Iris, earned her notoriety and a cult following for its story of an affair between a socially prominent young woman and a political fugitive. As Iris looks back on her father’s downfall, her own disastrous marriage and its effects on her relationship with Laura, the story of The Blind Assassin unfolds in parallel until she spills the secrets she has kept for fifty years, unravelling the many twists in the plot of this multi-layered novel.

Susan Osborne blogs at A Life in Books

2001 – The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

From the blurb:

“I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silence…”

“To the authorities in pursuit of him, Ned Kelly is a horse thief, bank robber and police-killer. But to his fellow ordinary Australians, Kelly is their own Robin Hood. In a dazzling act of ventriloquism, Peter Carey brings the famous bushranger wildly and passionately to life.”

2002 – The Life of Pi by Jann Martel

Reviewed by Meredith Smith

The reason death sticks so closely to life isn’t biological necessity – it’s envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But, life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud.

The first time I picked up The Life of Pi, I abandoned it for being ridiculous. I did not recognize the beauty of the writing, nor the ethereal qualities of magical realism. I was a very concrete girl, and thus at times, a foolish reader. A boy is named Piscine Molitor Patel after a swimming pool in Paris, because his family’s good friend loved swimming there the best? It was not an auspicious beginning to me. Skip to the part where Pi’s father decides to leave Pondicherry, India for Winnipeg, Canada. The ship they are on, carrying several animals from the family’s zoo, which has been sold, sinks. All that is left is Pi, an orangutan, a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger. A tiger who has been named Richard Parker, after the befuddled intervention of a shipping clerk who got the papers mixed up between the tiger and the hunter who had found him.

But this time through, I am utterly entranced. I feel as if I am on the boat with Pi struggling to live. First, he has to go through the realization that his parents and brother are lost to him. Then, he has to figure out how it is that he can survive. Not only must he find food and water for himself, in the middle of the sea, he must find it for Richard Parker. He must be certain that he is not dinner for the tiger. The way they survive is quite graphically depicted. Pi eats fish raw, as well as whatever he pulls from the ocean. He tears apart turtles, and exists on dorados, flying fish, and the water he can obtain from rainfall or flimsy stills, which turn seawater into fresh.

When I place myself in his position, mentally, I am overwhelmed by the abundance in my life compared to the absence of practically everything required to live in Pi’s. Of course, there is the trouble of finding enough food and water, but so much more is lost to him: family, human companionship, baths, entertainment of any sort. He reads the survival manual he has found perhaps a thousand times, for the lack of any book. Yet he is determined to live. His perseverance is one of my favorite things about him.

Near the conclusion of the novel, we come upon two very bizarre things. One is the encounter that Pi has with another man. Pi has become temporarily blind, but he communicates with this voice on board his lifeboat. Until Richard Parker eats this man, and Pi recovers his eyesight to behold a dismembered body without a face, we are unsure if he exists at all. Even more bizarre is a forest of floating trees, resting on seaweed and algae rather than earth. Pi and Richard Parker tentatively step out onto this island, and feel quite comfortable there with the pools of fresh water and fish, which lie therein. However, when Pi discovers a tree, and climbs it in hopes of enjoying its fruit, he finds that the ‘fruit’ is really a light ball, the contents of which is a human tooth. There are, in fact, all the teeth of a human skull inside each ball, and Pi comes to the conclusion that he cannot stay safely on this island as he had hoped; it is a carnivorous island which devours what comes its way.

Like the very best of animal stories, this one is ultimately about dealing with extreme loss, overcoming fear, testing one’s endurance, and being courageous beyond what one thinks he is capable of being. And for those who scoff at Pi’s story being true? I leave you with this quote:

“If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe?”
“Mr. Patel-“
“Don’t you bully me with your politeness! Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?” 

Meredith Smith blogs at Dolce Belezza

2003 – Vernon God Little by D B C Pierre

Reviewed by Kim

Did I like DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little? I honestly can’t say. It’s certainly weird. And it’s very wacky.

It’s a bit like Catcher In the Rye updated for the 21st century, except it’s slightly more off the wall, and I could never imagine Holden Caulfield, despite all his teen angst, suddenly finding himself on some mind-bending reality show on Death Row where viewers vote who’s going to be the next one to meet ol’ Sparky. Yes, I told you it was weird.

DBC Pierre came out of nowhere to land the Booker Prize. And like this novel – his first – he seems a bit weird and wacky, too. There’s an interesting interview with him here, which sheds some light on his background and where the seed of this book was sown. I have to say that I was impressed with Pierre’s turns of phrase, his clever way with words and his inventive use of language.

Outside a jungle of clouds had grown over the sun. They kindle the whiff of damp dog, burping lightning without a sound. Fate clouds. They mean get the fuck out of town, go visit Nana or something, until things quiet down, until the truth seeps out. Get rid of the drugs from home, then take a road trip.

I think what I enjoyed most about Vernon God Little was the satire, the whole sending-up of small town America (although I’ve never been to Texas, reading this book is exactly what I imagine it to be like, images and impressions cobbled together from movies and TV shows).

This is closely followed by the narrator’s voice. It’s unique and, for the most part, rings true. Even though the aforementioned Holden Caulfield had “issues” and was alienated, his problems, his views, were tame by comparison. One gets the impression that Vernon Gregory Little DOESN’T HAVE A CLUE about how the world operates: he’s naive and gullible; he’s also highly manipulative and self-centred and he’s just a tad sex-obsessed; but he also has a health problem that keeps him grounded in an endearing kind of self-conscious way.

The story itself, which reads a bit like a road movie, is not so much plot driven but character driven. Effectively it all happens in Vernon’s head. And the whole premise of a school shooting, which puts Vernon on America’s Most Wanted List, happens before the story even starts; you just get tiny “glimpses” of what actually happened on that fateful day, filtered through Vernon’s eyes, towards the end of the book.

What I didn’t like were the almost fantastical elements to it (especially Part V); they were riotously funny but a little ridiculous and because of that the story didn’t seem particularly believable. It also took me a while to get into the flow of the book; I think this is a read-in-big-chunks type of story rather than one you can pick up and read for small, intermittent periods.

All in all, an interesting and somewhat intriguing novel, but unless you’re an experienced “literary” type reader who doesn’t mind bad language, quirky characterisation and experimental story-telling, I’d say this one isn’t for you.

Kim blogs at Reading Matters

2004 – The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

From the blurb:

“It is the summer of 1983, and young Nick Guest, an innocent in matters of politics and money, has moved into an attic room in the Notting Hill home of the Feddens: Gerald, an ambitious new Tory MP, his wealthy wife Rachel, and their children Toby and Catherine.

As the boom years of the mid-80s unfold, Nick becomes caught up in the Feddens’ world, while also pursuing his own private obsession, with beauty – a prize as compelling to him as power and riches are to his friends. An early affair with a young black council worker gives him his first experience of romance; but it is a later affair, with a beautiful millionaire, that brings into question the larger fantasies of a ruthless decade.”

2005 – The Sea by John Banville

Reviewed by Helen Parry

The past beats inside me like a second heart.

Mourning the death of his wife, Max Morden retreats to a boarding house by the sea in a village where he used to spend the holidays as a child. As he recalls his wife and her final year with him, he also remembers one far-off summer with the Grace family, who rented that very boarding house. It soon becomes clear that something significant happened that summer, something terrible, but what? And why is Max, filled with self-loathing and misery, drawn back to it now?

The Sea is concerned with memory, love, decay and death as Max remembers his first and last loves. His memories, even as he doubts their accuracy, are very sensual and detailed: he describes the intense glow of a sunbeam on a vase of flowers, the strands of hair that fall across Mrs Grace’s face which have ‘the slightly greasy hue of oiled oak’, her smell of ‘sweat and cold cream and, faintly, of cooking fat’. The incorporeal nature of memory is balance by an emphasis on physicality, on bodies that sweat and rot even as they move and breathe, so that his re-created past is as solid and real as his present. Of Mrs Grace, his first love, he writes:

Yet to me she was in all her ordinariness as remote and remotely desirable as any painted pale lady with unicorn and book. […] She was wholly real, thick-meated, edible, almost. This is the most remarkable thing of all, that she was at once a wraith of my imagination and a woman of unavoidable flesh and blood, of fibre and musk and milk.

This is the novel for which the phrase ‘beautifully written’ was coined. Morden notices everything – the studied hesitancy of a doctor who understands he ‘must be as good an actor as physician’; the ‘tufts of tight curls in the shape of a miniature pair of widespread fuzzy wings’ on a man’s chest under his open blazer; a ‘greenish twilight’ in which lupins drip. And these observations are rendered precisely and with an ear for the music of language, so that the novel is pleasurable to read but never loses focus or strays into self-indulgence. Banville also has a wonderful ability to somehow inject the sinister into the beautiful so that a sense of foreboding builds up almost imperceptibly. As they say, come for the story, stay for the prose.

Helen Parry blogs at A Gallimaufry

2006 – The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Reviewed by Rob Spence

When Kiran Desai won the Booker in 2006, she was going one better than her mother, Anita Desai, who had been shortlisted no less than three times. The daughter’s subject matter, like her mother’s, concerns the problematic colonial legacy in India following independence, to which she adds the immigrant experience in the diaspora and the impact of globalisation.

In The Inheritance of Loss (a lovely paradox of a title), we are introduced to the old retired judge Jemubhai Patel, into whose ramshackle Himalayan household comes his orphaned granddaughter Sai. It is a time of political tension near the Nepal border, and the old house is vulnerable. Meanwhile, the cook is writing to his son in America, whose letters suggest he is living the dream, but Desai’s narrative shows him struggling with an immigrant underclass to scrape a living in the basement kitchens of New York. Sai is in love with her tutor Gyan, creating a personal upheaval among the political one overshadowing the house.

On top of this dual narrative, the judge’s painful rise from rural obscurity to a position of relative affluence is chronicled in narrative flashbacks to his miserably awkward time as a student at Cambridge, where he suffered racial abuse.

As one reviewer put it, “Almost all of Desai’s characters have been stunted by their encounters with the West.” The form of the novel mirrors that sense of dislocation and liminality, with a narrative that skips restlessly from one scene to another, in almost cinematic style. The novel’s multi-faceted plots refer to each other, and present a patchwork picture of the tensions at the heart of post-independence India. The past, and the legacy of empire inform the judge’s story, and the later narratives, which are set twenty years before the publication date, so they have their own historical resonances, depict those whom Desai calls “the shadow people” of the global diaspora.

Desai skilfully manipulates these elements in this novel, which feels ever more relevant over ten years after its publication, as she examines the urgent themes of Impermanence, instability and transience. This vividly written and well-observed novel is poignant, moving, funny and tragic by turns, a tour-de-force of ambitious and committed story-telling. As Hermione Lee, that year’s chair of the Booker judges said: “a magnificent novel of humane breadth and wisdom, comic tenderness and political acuteness.”

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

2007 – The Gathering by Anne Enright

Reviewed by Kim

Grim and disturbing are the first words that spring to mind when describing Anne Enright’s Booker winner The Gathering. But amid the dark, often depressing, subject matter there are chinks of light that make the novel surprisingly witty and, in a perverse kind of way, uplifting.

The story, which is set in Dublin, revolves around Veronica Hegarty, a 30-something wife and mother, who has escaped the clutches of her huge Irish Catholic family — she has eight siblings — only to be dragged right on back when her wayward brother, Liam, kills himself. Closest to him in age, Veronica is the one who must pick up the pieces — and bring back his body from England, where he drowned himself off Brighton Beach.

The first-person narrative is told in a stream-of-consciousness manner from Veronica’s perspective. She flits backwards and forwards in time, exploring her family’s dark history. She goes as far back as her grandparent’s generation as she tries to unravel the nub of the story, which is laid bare in the book’s opening lines:

I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me — this thing that may not have taken place. I don’t even know what name to put on it. I think you might call it a crime of the flesh, but the flesh is long fallen away and I am not sure what hurt may linger in the bones.

During the course of the book, which spans Liam’s death through to his funeral, Veronica traces the sexual history of the family. There’s a lot of shocking stuff here — crass descriptions of love-making and the like — which may be too much for prudish readers to bear.

But through this crude language we glimpse Veronica’s obsessions and see how her personality has been slightly damaged by her rough-and-tumble crowded childhood. Her pain and her anguish is never expressed to the outside world (she cannot even communicate with her husband), but is buried deep inside where it finds expression in Veronica’s self-loathing. If nothing else, The Gathering is a portrait of a lost woman coming to grips with her past, her present and her future.

This is a complicated book, one that requires more than one reading with which to fully come to grips. There’s a lot going on here, about family, about the ties that bind, about the fact we can never escape the past. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s too grim and rambling and unfocused for that, but I’m a big fan of Irish fiction and found this one did not disappoint.

Kim blogs at Reading Matters

2008 – The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Reviewed by Helen Parry

The winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2008 is the blistering reminiscences of a successful entrepreneur, recounted in a letter to the premier of China over the course of seven nights. Balram, as he is sometimes known, was born into poverty in a small Indian village preyed upon by unscrupulous landlords. Denied the chance of a decent education, he enters service as driver to one of the landlords’ sons, Ashok. But Balram is a ‘white tiger’, a rare and special person, who is not content to waste away in menial servitude. How, though, will he ever escape it?

Balram has a clear-eyed if cynical view of India’s underbelly and, through his tale of his rise to prosperity, Adiga exposes the poverty, misery and hopelessness which destroy the lives of so many. We see how the caste system, the crippling expenses of bride price, corruption and lack of rule of law annihilate children’s educational opportunities, allow the rich to ruthlessly exploit the poor and leave a man coughing up his life blood on a dirty hospital floor because no doctor can be bothered to visit the area. Most people accept their place in this tough and inflexible society, but Balram bloodily rebels. His vigorous and sardonic narrative voice compels admiration for his inventiveness and refusal to be a victim even as it shocks, and it infuses the novel with an energy and verve which make it a gripping and angering read.

That is all for tonight, Mr Premier. It’s not yet 3 a.m., but I’ve got to end here, sir. Even to think about this again makes me so angry I might just go out and cut the throat of some rich man right now.

Helen Parry blogs at A Gallimaufry

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A huge thank you to all our reviewers above.

Tomorrow, the fifth decade of Booker winners from 2009-2017.

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