Since 1969, the Booker Prize has been awarded to writers (from Ireland or the Commonwealth) for the best original full length novel written in English. The long list of novels selected by the jury used to be my touchstone for “must-reads” in any particular year. However, of late, I believe the judging panel has lost its way, and this year’s selection does nothing to change my mind. Without necessarily wanting to pick on any one book (particularly one I haven’t read), Will Self’s “Umbrella” is a case-in-point. Positively reviewed by some as a “…daring Joycean work of experimental fiction”, it was long-listed before it was even published. As if that wasn’t a clear enough indication that the Booker books are no longer for the general public’s reading pleasure, “Umbrella” has been universally described as “…a novel about as far from ‘readability’ as you can imagine: 400 pages without paragraphs or breaks or chapter divisions, with wildly shifting points of view and time frames”. Will Self has himself (ahem) commented that he “…doesn’t write for readers”. No kidding.
Anyway, if like me, you aren’t really that bothered who scoops the prize in two weeks time, but you’re looking for a good read from yesteryear, here are some of my favourite winners from the past decade or so. I’ve also mentioned a few that I don’t remember so fondly, along with some I believe should have scooped the gong. I assume that when my debut novel is published it will be added to the list of honourable winners, but until then: happy reading!
1. Julian Barnes – “The Sense Of An Ending” (2011)
Last year’s winner – and very worthy it was too. A real page-turner that keeps you guessing until the end, it is accessible, clever and relevant. For maximum effect, you should really read it twice.
The early noughties were my Golden Age for the Booker. I met DBC (“Dirty But Clean” – what’s not to like?) at a book launch once and he seemed as anarchic as the protagonist in this book (he even wrote the name of his forthcoming, but top secret, book’s title on my copy of “Vernon God Little”, much to the chagrin of his publisher). The Young Vic staged this in London last year, and it was equally brilliant. Its after effects remain: for me, evidence of sheer brilliance.
3. Yann Martel – “The Life Of Pi” (2002)
Having been rejected by at least 5 London publishing houses, it just goes to show how important persistence is in the world of writing. The plot: an Indian boy exploring issues of spirituality on a boat. Oh, with a tiger aboard. Fresh, readable and imaginative, the film version will be released next month, but I strongly recommend you have a read prior to heading to your local cinema.
4. Peter Carey – “The True History Of The Kelly Gang” (2001)
My “wildcard” selection! This book relates the life of Ned Kelly as he adventures across Australia. So far, so dull. What makes the book so fascinating, though, is that it is written in a distinct vernacular style, with hardly any punctuation or grammar. Initially off-putting, bear with it, and you soon realise that you have tuned into Ned’s secret language. The book that JK Rowling would have liked to have written for grown-ups.
My literary hero. A double winner of the Booker, the man can do no wrong in my eyes (I even forgive him for dreaming up the “Elisabeth Costello” character). This is a tough read – in the sense that it covers a hard subject – but oh so worth it. “Youth”, “Summertime”, “The Life and Times of Michael K”: just read anything by Coetzee and be transformed into another world. Salman Rushdie may have won “The Booker of Bookers”, but for me Coetzee will always be the real winner.
5 That Should Have…
“Room” by Emma Donoghue;
“The Secret Scripture” – Sebastian Barry;
“On Chesil Beach” – Ian McEwan;
“The Master” – Colin Tóibín;
“Cloud Atlas” – David Mitchell.
…and 5 That Shouldn’t Have:
“Wolf Hall” – Hilary Mantel;
“The Sea” – John Banville;
“The Finkler Question” – Howard Jacobson;
“The Line of Beauty” – Alan Hollinghurst;
“The God of Small Things” – Arundhati Roy.