The Man Booker Prize at 50: 2009-2017

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And finally, this fifth decade brings us up to date with previous winners of the Man Booker Prize.

In 2010, the organisation decided to create “The Lost Booker” to celebrate books that missed out due to a change in the prize’s rules over publication dates. As previously, a shortlist was drawn up and put to the public vote, and J G Farrell’s Troubles won with 38% of all votes cast (see Monday’s post).

It is also the decade of Hilary Mantel – with 2012’s winner Bring Up the Bodies giving Mantel the accolade of winning for a novel and its sequel in the same decade.

In 2013, it was announced that the prize would be opened up to include any book written in English published in the UK or Ireland; previously authors had to be citizens of the Commonwealth, Ireland or Zimbabwe. This led to two American authors winning the first prizes awarded under these new rules.

2009 – Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Reviewed by Ali Hope

I have found Tudor history to be completely fascinating and since I was about ten have been happy to immerse myself in the dark and often murderous machinations of that most colourful historical period. In 2010 I quickly devoured Wolf Hall,a hefty hardback running to some 650 pages, savouring Mantel’s extraordinarily rich prose and unique feel for her period.

I felt I already knew quite a lot about Henry VIII – his exploits have certainly earned almost legendary status – but this novel allows us to view Henry from a distance as it is the more shadowy figure of lawyer and statesman Thomas Cromwell who is at the centre of the novel.

It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.

In Wolf Hall all the sights and smells of this exciting and brutal period are brought back to life. Thomas Cromwell – a background figure in so many other historical novels – is allowed centre stage here and his persona is such that it is perhaps surprising that he hasn’t been at the centre of more historical fiction. Mantel has created a thoroughly credible Cromwell, ruthless, self-serving and ambitious, but also very human, vulnerable and surprisingly sympathetic at times. Throughout the novel he remains wholly fascinating.

Cromwell and his family are brilliantly portrayed; his rise from humble beginnings, the son of a vicious blacksmith in Putney, to having the ear of the king. The tragedies at the heart of his family, and the relationships he has with the people around him have been faithfully researched and brought to life. Maybe because Thomas Cromwell is much more of a shadowy character historically, Mantel is able to bring him alive for us in a way which must be more difficult with well-known historical figures like Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – as we already think we know them.

One criticism levelled at Mantel with this novel, which I understand, is that sometimes the dialogue is confusing with too many “he saids” in a long complex conversation. Tudor politics are made fascinating although convoluted as Mantel weaves the story of Henry VIII’s terrifying lawyer through the tangled web of court politics.

When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them.

The period of Henry VIII’s reign dealt with in Wolf Hall is probably one of the most written and talked about in English history: Cardinal Wolsey’s fall from grace, Henry’s split with Rome, his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn. One man stands shoulder to shoulder with Henry throughout, Thomas Cromwell.

Thomas Cromwell is a hard man, a product of his background and the times in which he lived. Mantel’s portrayal of him is simply breath-taking.

Ali Hope blogs at Heavenali

2010 – The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

Reviewed by Rob Spence

Comic novels tend not to win the Booker: perhaps they are considered not to have sufficient gravitas for the premier literary award. Howard Jacobson’s 2010 winner is an exception, but it is worth pointing out at the start that although the novel is undoubtedly in the comic mode, it deals with serious issues, most obviously to do with Jewish identity, a topic to which Jacobson returns frequently in his work.

The novel’s three main protagonists are the eponymous Finkler, a Jewish popular philosopher,  his friend Treslove, a former BBC producer, and their old tutor Sevcik, a veteran old school Mittel-Europa Czech. When Treslove is mugged one evening after meeting up with his friends, it triggers, oddly, a desire in Treslove to become as Jewish as Finkler and Sevcik. The question – the Finkler Question, indeed – concerns what it means to be Jewish, and as the novel unfolds, this is explored in detail and with great comic panache by Jacobson.

Treslove’s journey into Jewishness allows Jacobson the opportunity to explore the key contemporary debates, as relevant now as they were eight years ago, around attitudes to Israel, to Zionism and Judaism in general. All shades of opinion are represented: Finkler becomes involved with a group of pro-Palestine Jews, while Sevcik takes a more traditional line. They argue about Israel’s right to existence, and Jacobson, whose newspaper columns often deal with this issue, is merciless in his ridiculing of some extreme viewpoints. At times, the novel is in danger of becoming a polemic, but Jacobson’s control over his material means he never quite crosses that line. His sharp ear for dialogue, and ability to present a theatrically comic set piece make the narrative zing.

In the end, the novel transcends its basic premise, and treats with insight and grace such universal themes as friendship, faith, love, age and grief. Jacobson’s lively style keeps the mood light, but there’s no escaping his ability to present complex matters in coruscating language, whilst still offering the reader a laugh on every page.

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

2011 – The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Reviewed by Karen Langley

The Sense of an Ending was the 11th novel by Julian Barnes, taking the Booker Prize in 2011; and it’s not difficult to see why this story of ageing, memory, the tricks memory plays on us and the tricks we play on ourselves was a winner.

This short but emotionally pithy novel is narrated by Tony Webster. Looking back from his 60s, he recalls his school days and the effect on his group of friends of the arrival of Adrian Finn; the complex balance of friendship between Tony, Alex and Colin shifts and the enigmatic Adrian will ensure the group is never the same again. In spare, economic prose (which looks deceptively easy and is remarkably effective) Barnes conjures up school days which are instantly recognisable, particularly to those of a certain age. This is the 1960s, and the swinging era has yet to make it out of central London. So the boys are hidebound by the constraints of ordinary life, obsessed with sex and unlikely to actually manage to persuade any poor girl into bed with them because of the risk of pregnancy.

With minds inflamed by the intensities and passions of literature, the young men discuss philosophical issues and are shaken when a school fellow commits suicide. At university, Tony becomes involved with the highly-strung Veronica. However, a meeting with her family is no more successful than the relationship is, and eventually Veronica moves on to Adrian. The second part of the book takes place in the present, with Tony attempting to make sense of what actually happened afterwards to the group. After a quiet marriage, a quiet slip into parenthood and a quiet divorce, he’s resigned to the inevitable quiet retirement. However, the past is not prepared to let him go and it does seem that we never know quite what will come back to haunt us…

The Sense of an Ending is a short but powerful book which in its 150 pages tackles the big topics of love, life and death, showing how a seemingly ordinary existence can hide darkness. Tony is an unreliable narrator but Barnes is actually using him to reveal the lies we tell ourselves to survive. In a sense he may be saying that we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives. The book shows up the vagaries of memory which make us rewrite our past into something we can live with. Whether Tony has simply chosen to ignore certain elements from his youth, whether the erasure of memory is a survival mechanism or just the effect of ageing is not clear; but as Veronica points out, he often just doesn’t get it. The writing and construction of the book is stunning, as is the impact of the last pages, and The Sense of an Ending finishes on a note of ambiguity which leaves the reader with as many questions as Tony Webster.

Barnes had been shortlisted several times before for the Booker, but The Sense of an Ending was a worthy winner, showcasing his writing and plotting skills and the sheer brilliance of his fiction. It’s a book you can (and will want to!) read in a single sitting, and one that will stay with you long after you’ve finished it.

Karen Langley blogs at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

2012 – Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

Hilary Mantel writes a superior brand of psychologically nuanced historical fiction. This second book of her Tudor trilogy centers on the downfall of Anne Boleyn and is, to my recollection, infinitely better than the Booker-winning Wolf Hall. Although events are (almost) just as portrayed in Season Two of Showtime series The Tudors (I certainly had images of the show’s cast in my head as I read), the novel is of course immeasurably more high-brow. The key to her books’ success – and what makes them unique in the crowded field of Tudor fiction – is her choice of Thomas Cromwell as a main character.

For Cromwell is a commoner, an Everyman, and yet he knows every detail of what is happening at court. He has risen from blacksmith’s son and pugilistic soldier to crafty lawyer and indispensable royal advisor. Now, as Chancellor, he carefully senses the king’s moods and feels tides shift before anyone else becomes aware. There is a certain ruthlessness to his masterminding, especially as the inexorable events of the Queen’s fall begin to play out: “our requirements have changed, and the facts have changed behind us,” he acknowledges; “He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.” Mantel does not shy away from the unsavory or contradictory aspects of her protagonist’s nature. Cromwell has his inconsistencies like the rest of us, and he can perhaps be excused all the more for living in a time when “The truth is so rare and precious that sometimes it must be kept under lock and key.”

A lesser novelist might have been tempted to make Cromwell’s a first-person narrative. Instead Mantel adopts a magisterial omniscient perspective that allows her to see into everyone’s actions and motivations. (The only unfortunate effect of this is that she sometimes has to resort to awkward asides to make it clear who is speaking or acting, i.e. “he, Cromwell” or “him, Thomas Cromwell.” Surely she could have obviated this need by simply saying “Cromwell says” or “Cromwell is going…”?)

Although Cromwell is our primary eyepiece, the view is broader, encompassing ages of history and thousands of miles of space: “But look, never mind all this. Queens come and go”; “along the silk routes to China where they have never heard of Henry the eighth of that name, or any other Henry, and even the existence of England is to them a dark myth.” What astonishing scope and novelistic confidence.

Mantel’s stunning prose (take the opening description of a falconry display, for instance) sets these novels apart. I look forward to the third book already – although I know that then we must bid Cromwell himself adieu, a victim in turn to the violent whims of the king.

Rebecca Foster blogs at Bookish Beck

2013 – The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Reviewed by Victoria

You have to imagine a big chest in the corner of the attic, containing the inscription: Plot Fireworks: Handle With Care! Then picture Eleanor Catton, that reckless smartie-pants, coming along with a fistful of lit matches and dropping them inside.

What happens next is The Luminaries, the ‘Big Bang’ of plot, out of which a whole heaven and earth is created and shown to us in its entirely in a fierce 360 degree rotation of the sphere. The world in question is New Zealand in the 19th century gold rush, a place of prospectors and opium dens and shipping magnates and hastily built hotels and jails. A place just growing into its existence, and whose fledgling state shows us that the basic human inclinations are hope, greed and vice.

Into this world steps Walter Moody, a polite young man from Edinburgh, come to seek his fortune, who has been somewhat traumatised by a supernatural encounter on the boat in. Moody has sought refuge in the first hotel he could find and is hoping to steady himself with a calming brandy in the lounge. Only he happens by chance upon a gathering of twelve men, who have come together after realising their shared implication in a recent crime.

The Luminaries begins by recreating the day of the presumed crimes in the most minute of detail. Each of the twelve men in the room will recount the story from his perspective (though the third person narrating voice actually tells all their stories in order to tidy them up a bit and give them coherence). And what we end up with is a huge, complex story that has, of course, spawned even more mysteries in the telling. But it’s not enough to reach anything like ‘the truth’. So in the good tradition of crime fiction, we move in two directions at once, forward as the implications of the crime are followed through, and backwards, as more information comes to light about how and why it was perpetrated.

It’s terribly clever, and terribly tricksy, the sort of book you really want to think about and discuss for ages. But at the same time it’s a rambunctious, rattling, plot-filled tall tale of a story, full of vivid characters and locations, enticing enigmas, blackmail, treachery, séances, shipwrecks, star-crossed lovers, thrilling courtroom scenes and much more besides. Rarely have I come across a book with so much energy! If we think of a plotline as a line cast by a fisherman zizzing out across the water, pure energetic potential, then imagine a narrative full of plot-lines thrown out by each character, some forwards in time, some backwards into the past, and you have a three-dimensional cat’s cradle of a book humming with energy. But what of the astrological dimension to the story? Each of those original twelve men in the lounge of the Crown hotel represents a star sign, and the charts at the start of each section show the constellation of the heavens on the day in question. What happens is predetermined by the stars (just as the plot of a novel is predetermined by its author).

I loved The Luminaries for all kinds of reasons – its audacity, its cleverness, its powerful storytelling, but I probably loved it most for having its heart in the right place.

Victoria is an Editor at Large of Shiny New Books

2014 – The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Reviewed by Isobel Blackthorn

A work of historical fiction set for the most part during the Second World War, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a portrait of a reasonably unlikeable, wizened old war hero wracked with self-doubt, reflecting back on his experiences as a prisoner of war in south Asia. At the heart of the story is the building of the Thai-Burma Death Railway, so named due to the numbers of men who died during construction under Japanese command. Perhaps, this is a story that needed to be told, although the very nature of the narrative renders the novel of limited, not universal appeal.

Flanagan’s protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, is satisfyingly nuanced as he searches, probes, seeks to comprehend the incomprehensible, pondering that dark period of his life and those he lost.  Here, the author displays his strengths both in terms of character development and narrative voice and style.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is well-structured; past and present are interwoven, the use of the Japanese haiku at the start of each section lending a touch of irony. Flanagan’s prose is lyrical, poised, sharp and sharply observant, the author displaying his vast and deep knowledge and understanding of his subject. However, the merging of a stilted syntax with a vernacular style lends the narrative a disjointed flavour which is hard to follow at times. There are weaknesses in story development, too, particularly regarding the character development of Dorrigo Evan’s romance with Amy.

Flanagan’s portrayals of men at war are vivid, gritty and confronting. The author does not spare his readers the details of the gore and brutality of war. For that alone, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is not a book for every reader.

Isobel Blackthorn is a novelist and book reviewer.

2015 – A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson

Some books leave you reeling in astonishment and A Brief History of Seven Killings certainly does that. I feel like I’ve been startled awake and can still hear the multiplicity of voices contained in this novel. Marlon James creates several distinct narrators to tell the story surrounding an assault upon Bob Marley’s house on December 3, 1976 by unknown gunmen who attacked Marley, his wife, manager and band mates which left them seriously injured. This mysterious incident occurred two days before he was due to sing in a concert which was meant to inspire peace between two warring Jamaican political groups. Nevertheless, Marley performed at the concert as scheduled. This novel is told from the point of view of dons (or territorial/gang leaders), CIA agents, a journalist, gang members, a woman trying to escape Jamaica, a hit man and a deceased politician. It spans a decade and a half from 1976 to 1991. It is specifically about the Singer and Jamaican politics, but it’s also a fantastic exploration of identity (national, racial, gender, sexual, spiritual). This is a book that challenges your assumptions about who you think you are and how you see other people.

It is commendable Marlon James engages with this period of Jamaican history and culture in such a complex and intelligent way. Perhaps he felt the need to answer his own challenge set by his character Tristan Phillips who suggests: “Maybe somebody should put all of this craziness together, because no Jamaican going do it. No Jamaican can do it, brother, either we too close or somebody going stop we.” This is a view of Jamaica that only this author could give, yet its meanings extend so far beyond the boundaries of that country and the individual voices it contains. It is a long read, but it becomes utterly mesmerizing. As an enticement to stick with it, you should know that the significance of this novel’s title and the killings it references isn’t revealed until near the end. A Brief History of Seven Killings is a novel I feel like I could go on and on about. I’ve only just touched on some of the fascinating themes and ideas this book brings up. It’s better if I just write you should definitely read it and end here.

Eric Karl Anderson blogs at Lonesome Reader

2016 – The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

The Sellout, Paul Beatty’s fourth novel, is such an outrageous racial satire that I kept asking myself how he got away with it. Not only did he get away with it, he also won a National Book Critics Circle Award for it. The novel opens with a prologue set at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. The narrator has been summoned here to defend himself against a grievous but entirely true accusation: that he has reinstituted slavery and segregation in his hometown of Dickens, California. What with his slimy showman of a lawyer and the stash of marijuana he uses to get high before his hearing, it’s clear this character isn’t taking the charges against him very seriously. Then again, Beatty takes very little entirely seriously in this zany, irreverent take on racial politics in America today.

The case is Me v. The United States, and that’s all we ever learn of the protagonist’s name: a surname that seems more like a pronoun. He is who he is: a sort of African-American Everyman. The plot is downright silly in places, but the shock value keeps you reading. Even so, after the incendiary humour of the first third of the novel, the satire starts to wear a bit thin. I yearned for more of an introspective Bildungsroman, which there are indeed hints of: the narrator’s father instructs him, ‘ask yourself two questions, Who am I? And how may I become myself?’ In a few places he remembers these soul-searching queries and wonders whether what he’s doing is helping him to construct a proper identity.

This reminded me most of Ishmael Reed’s satires and, oddly enough, Julian Barnes’s England, England, which similarly attempts to distill an entire culture and history into a limited space and time. Something about The Sellout has clearly struck a chord in America, and while I’m not sure it will be quite as successful in the UK, I’d recommend it for its perennially relevant questions about racial identity. Amid the laughs, you still get a sense of how important it is to Beatty that race remain a topic for public discussion. An exchange the narrator has with a police officer could just as easily describe the author’s purpose: ‘It’s illegal to yell ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre, right?’ / ‘It is.’ / ‘Well, I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.’ No whisper, this, but a brazen shout.

Rebecca Foster blogs at Bookish Beck

2017 – Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

The residents of Georgetown cemetery limbo don’t know they’re dead – or at least won’t accept it, as their euphemisms suggest: sick-box for coffin; sick-form for corpse. They remember their last moments – Hans Vollman had his skull stove in and his member swollen to a preposterous size by a falling ceiling beam; Roger Bevins III slit his wrists after being rejected by his lover, Gilbert – but hold out hope they can get back right where they left off. But through Willie Lincoln’s postmortem encounters with his presidential father, they come to see that the final transition is inevitable.

I enjoyed the different registers and standards of literacy Saunders uses for his characters, and Reverend Everly Thomas’s vision of heaven and hell is a highlight. However, I was less convinced about the snippets from historical texts (at least I presume they’re all historical); though this is in keeping with the format of multiple voices, it seems a bit of a lazy way to add context, and means there’s a need for a bibliography at the end. So I’m not quite as enamored as many other readers, but I still thought this an entertaining and original treatment of life’s transience.

Some favorite passages:

“What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain.” (Rev. Thomas)

“A warm breeze arose, fragrant with all manner of things that give comfort: grass, sun, beer, bread, quilts, cream—this list being different for each of us, each being differently comforted.” (Bevins)

“Two passing temporarinesses developed feelings for one another. Two puffs of smoke became mutually fond. I mistook him for a solidity, and now must pay.” (Pres. Lincoln)

Rebecca Foster blogs at Bookish Beck

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A huge thank you to all our reviewers above.

Tomorrow, the ones that got away – shortlisted Books that should have won?