The 2023 Booker Prize shortlist was announced on Friday. None of the six authors who made it has previously been shortlisted for the prize. There are two debut novels on the shortlist, a novel from Britain, one from Canada, two from Ireland, and two from the US. The books broadly address the issues of climate change, immigration, financial hardship, the persecution of minorities, political extremism and the erosion of personal freedoms. (There are also three authors with Paul as their first name on the shortlist!) The winning author will be awarded a cash prize of £50,000 at a ceremony in London on November 26, 2023.
“Together these works showcase the breadth of what world literature can do, while gesturing at the unease of our moment,” said the jury about the 2023 shortlist.
Read the opening lines and the jury comments on each of the shortlisted titles:
The Bee Sting, Paul Murray
“Paul Murray’s saga, The Bee Sting, set in the Irish Midlands, brilliantly explores how our secrets and self-deceptions ultimately catch up with us. This family drama, told from multiple perspectives, is at once hilarious and heartbreaking, personal and epic. It’s an addictive read.”— The Booker Prize 2023 judges
In the next town over, a man had killed his family. He’d nailed the doors shut so they couldn’t get out; the neighbours heard them running through the rooms, screaming for mercy. When he had finished he turned the gun on himself.
Everyone was talking about it – about what kind of man could do such a thing, about the secrets he must have had. Rumours swirled about affairs, addiction, hidden files on his computer. Elaine just said she was surprised it didn’t happen more often. She thrust her thumbs through the belt loops of her jeans and looked down the dreary main street of their town. I mean, she said, it’s something to do.
Cass and Elaine first met in Chemistry class, when Elaine poured iodine on Cass’s eczema during an experiment. It was an accident; she’d cried more than Cass did, and insisted on going with her to the nurse. They’d been friends ever since.
Every morning Cass called to Elaine’s house and they walked to school together. At lunchtime, they rolled up their long skirts and wandered around the supermarket, listening to music from Elaine’s phone, eating croissants from the bakery section that were gone by the time they got to the checkout. In the evening, they went to each other’s houses to study. Cass felt she’d known Elaine for ever; it made no sense that they had not always been friends. Their lives were so similar it was almost eerie.
Western Lane, Chetna Maroo
“Skilfully deploying the sport of squash as both context and metaphor, Western Lane is a deeply evocative debut about a family grappling with grief, conveyed through crystalline language which reverberates like the sound “of a ball hit clean and hard…with a close echo.”— The Booker Prize 2023 judges
I don’t know if you have ever stood in the middle of a squash court - on the T- and listened to what is going on next door. What I’m thinking of is the sound from the next court of a ball hit clean and hard. It’s a quick, low pistol-shot of a sound, with a close echo. The echo, which is the ball striking the wall of the court, is louder than the shot itself. This is what I hear when I remember the year after our mother died, and our father had us practising at Western Lane two, three, four hours a day. It must have been an evening session after school, the first time I noticed it. My legs were so tired I didn’t know if I could keep going and I was just standing on the T with my racket head down, looking at the side wall that was smudged with the washed-out marks from all the balls that had skimmed its surface. I was supposed to serve, and my father would return with a drive and I would volley, and my father would drive, and I would volley, aiming always for the red service line on the front wall. My father was standing far back, waiting. I knew from his silence that he wasn’t going to move first, and all I could do was serve and volley or disappoint him. The smudges on the wall blurred one into the other and I thought that surely I would fall. That was when it started up. A steady melancholy rhythm from the court, the shot and its echo, over and over again, like some sort of deliverance. I could tell it was one person conducting a drill. And I knew who it was. I stood there, listening, and the sound poured into me, into my nerves and bones, and it was with a feeling of having been rescued that I raised my racket and served.
Prophet Song, Paul Lynch
Paul Lynch’s harrowing and dystopian Prophet Song vividly renders a mother’s determination to protect her family as Ireland’s liberal democracy slides inexorably and terrifyingly into totalitarianism. Readers will find it timely and unforgettable. It’s a remarkable accomplishment for a novelist to capture the social and political anxieties of our moment so compellingly— The Booker Prize 2023 judges
The night has come and she has not heard the knocking, standing at the window looking out onto the garden. How the dark gathers without sound the cherry trees. It gathers the last of the leaves and the leaves do not resist the dark but accept the dark in whisper. Tired now, the day almost behind her, all that still has to be done before bed and the children settled in the living room, this feeling of rest for a moment by the glass. Watching the darkening garden and the wish to be at one with this darkness, to step outside and lie down with it, to lie with the fallen leaves and let the night pass over, to wake then with the dawn and rise renewed with the morning come. But the knocking. She hears it pass into thought, the sharp, insistent rapping, each knock possessed so fully of the knocker she begins to frown. Then Bailey too is knocking on the glass door to the kitchen, he calls out to her, Mam, pointing to the hallway without lifting his eyes from the screen. Eilish finds her body moving towards the hall with the baby in her arms, she opens the front door and two men are standing before the porch glass almost faceless in the dark. She turns on the porch light and the men are known in an instant from how they are stood, the night-cold air suspiring it seems as she slides open the patio door, the suburban quiet, the rain falling almost unspoken onto St Laurence Street, upon the black car parked in front of the house. How the men seem to carry the feeling of the night. She watches them from within her own protective feeling, the young man on the left is asking if her husband is home and there is something in the way he looks at her, the remote yet scrutinising eyes that make it seem as though he is trying to seize hold of something within her.
This Other Eden, Paul Harding
Based on a relatively unknown true story, Paul Harding’s heartbreakingly beautiful novel transports us to a unique island community scrabbling a living. The panel were moved by the delicate symphony of language, land and narrative that Harding brings to bear on the story of the islanders.— The Booker Prize 2023 judges
Benjamin Honey-American, Bantu, Igbo-born enslaved-freed or fled at fifteen, only he ever knew – ship’s carpenter, aspiring or chardist, arrived on the island with his wife, Patience, née Raferty, Galway girl, in 1793. He brought his bag of tools-gifts from a grateful captain he had saved from drowning or plunder from a ship on which he had mutinied and murdered the captain, depending on who said – and a watertight wooden box containing twelve jute pouches. Each pouch held seeds for a different variety of apple. Honey collected the seeds during his years as a field-worker and later as a sailor. He remembered being in an orchard as a child, although not where or when, with his mother, or with a woman whose face over the years had become what he pictured as his mother’s, and he remembered the fragrance of the trees and their fruit. The memory became a vision of the garden to which he meant to return. No mystery, it was Eden. Years passed and he added seeds to his collection. He recited the names at night before he slept. Ashmead’s Kernel, Flower of Kent, Duchess of Oldenburg, and Warner’s King. Ballyfatten, Catshead.
After Benjamin and Patience Honey arrived on the island – hardly three hundred feet across a channel from the mainland, just under forty-two acres, twelve hundred feet across, east to west, and fifteen hundred feet long, north to south, uninhabited then, the only human trace an abandoned Penobscot shell berm – and after they had settled themselves, he planted his apple seeds.
Not a seed grew. Benjamin was so infuriated by his ignorance that over the next year he crossed to the mainland whenever he could spare some time and sought out orchards and their owners in the countryside beyond the village of six or seven houses, called Foxden, that stood directly across the channel from the island, and traded his carpentry skills for seeds and advice about how they grew and how to cultivate the trees and their fruit.
If I Survive You, Jonathan Escoffery
An astonishingly assured debut novel, lauded by the panel for its clarity, variety and fizzing prose. As the stories move back and forth through geography and time, we are confronted by the immigrants’ eternal questions: who am I now and where do I belong?— The Booker Prize 2023 judges
It begins with What are you? hollered from the perimeter of your front yard when you’re nine – younger, probably. You’ll be asked again throughout junior high and high school, then out in the world, in strip clubs, in food courts, over the phone, and at various menial jobs. The askers are expectant.
They demand immediate gratification. Their question lifts you slightly off your preadolescent toes, tilting you, not just because you don’t understand it, but because even if you did understand this question, you wouldn’t yet have an answer.
Perhaps it starts with What language is your mother speaking? This might be the genesis, not because it comes first, but because at least on this occasion you have some context for the question when it arrives. You immediately resent this question.
“Why’s your mother talk so funny?” your neighbour insists.
Your mother calls to you from the front porch, has called from this perch overlooking the sloping yard since you were allowed to join the neighborhood kids in play. Always, this signals that playtime is over, only now shame has latched itself to the ritual.
Perhaps you’d hoped no one would ever notice. Perhaps you’d never noticed it yourself. Perhaps you ask in shallow protest, “What do you mean, ‘What language’?” Maybe you only think it. Ultimately, you mutter, “English. She’s speaking English,” before going inside, head tucked in embarrassment.
In this moment, for the first time, you are ashamed of your mother, and you are ashamed of yourself for not defending her. More than to be cowardly and disloyal, though, it’s shameful to be foreign. If you’ve learned anything during your short residence on earth, you’ve learned this.
Study for Obedience, Sarah Bernstein
Study for Obedience is an absurdist, darkly funny novel about the rise of xenophobia, as seen through the eyes of a stranger in an unnamed town – or is it? Bernstein’s urgent, crystalline prose upsets all our expectations, and what transpires is a meditation on survival itself.— The Booker Prize 2023 judges
It was the year the sow eradicated her piglets. It was a swift and menacing time. One of the local dogs was having a phantom pregnancy. Things were leaving one place and showing up in another. It was springtime when I arrived in the country, an east wind blowing, an uncanny wind as it turned out. Certain things began to arise. The pigs came later though not much, and even if I had only recently arrived, had no livestock-caretaking responsibilities, had only been in to look, safely on one side of the electric fence, I knew they were right to hold me responsible. But all that as I said came later.
Where to begin. I can it is true shed light on my actions only, and even then it is a weak and intermittent one. I was the youngest child, the youngest of many more than I care to remember – whom I tended from my earliest infancy, before, indeed, I had the power of speech myself and although my motor skills were by then scarcely developed, these, my many siblings, were put in my charge. I attended to their every desire, smoothed away the slightest discomfort with perfect obedience, with the highest degree of devotion, so that over time their desires became mine, so that I came to anticipate wants not yet articulated, perhaps not even yet imagine my siblings with the highest degree of devotion, so that over time their desires became mine, so that I came to anticipate wants not yet articulated, perhaps not even yet imagined, providing my siblings with the greatest possible succour, filling them up only so they could demand more, always more, demands to which I acceded with alacrity and discreet haste, ministering the complex curative draughts prescribed to them by various doctors, serving their meals and snacks, their cigarettes and aperitifs, their nightcaps and bedside glasses of milk. Of our parents I will say nothing, not yet, no.