The Man Booker Prize – originally, just the Booker Prize – isn’t the world’s longest-running literary prize. Nor is it one of the richest. But it is indisputably one of the most influential for literature written in English. Since 1969, the Prize has chosen to award one English language novel out of those published in the UK and Ireland each year. In the beginning, the pool was limited to writers from the Commonwealth and a few other countries, but it has now been widened to include writers from anywhere in the world, a decision that has faced not a little criticism.
Indian writers – or those of Indian origin – who have been shortlisted for the prize include Anita Desai for Clear Light of Day in 1980, In Custody in 1984, and Fasting, Feasting in 1999, and Rohinton Mistry for Such A Long Journey in 1991, A Fine Balance in 1996, and Family Matters in 2002. More recently, Jhumpa Lahiri, Neel Mukherjee, Jeet Thayil, and Sunjeev Sahota were shortlisted for The Lowland, The Lives of Others, Narcopolis and The Year of the Runaways respectively. Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things), Kiran Desai (The Inheritance of Loss), and Aravind Adiga (The White Tiger) have all gone on to win the prize.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize, the prize will honour one of its previous fifty-one recipients with the Golden Man Booker. Each of the five decades was assigned its own judge who chose a book that surpassed the other winners to create a short-list of five novels called the Golden Five. We take a look at the five-shortlisted novels out of which a winner will be chosen by a public vote, which one can participate in here.
In A Free State, VS Naipaul
V S Naipaul’s In A Free State (1971) was chosen by the writer Robert McCrum from the pool of winners from the years 1969 to 1979. Lucy Scholes pointed out that this was the least impressive of the Booker’s decades “not least because the prize simply didn’t have the kind of profile it has today until it began being televised in the early 1980s.” Naipaul edged out largely forgotten novels with the exception of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea to make it to the Golden shortlist. But even McCrum has admitted that he doesn’t believe In A Free State will win in the public round of voting. It does seem unlikely that a novel about a road-trip through an unnamed African nation that owes its reputation more to its experimentation with form than its attention to context and characters will win in the year 2018.
Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively
From the winners of the 1980s, the poet and playwright Lemn Sissay chose Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger (1987). It’s been declared to be the one surprising contender on the shortlist, considering that the 1980s’ list includes Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children – which won both the Booker of Bookers in 1993 at the 25th anniversary of the prize, as well as the Best of the Bookers, which was held to celebrate forty years of the prize – Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. Moon Tiger follows the the story of an old woman looking back at her life before, during and after the Second World War as she pursues journalism, love, and motherhood.
The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
Kamila Shamsie picked Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) from the 1990s, which contain some of the prize’s best-loved and most famous winners, including J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam. Ondaatje’s lyrical novel is set in an Italian villa at the end of the Second World War occupied by an unnamed, severely burned man, the nurse who tends to him, an Indian bomb-disposal expert, and a thief who is also an addict – all of whom have been damaged by the preceding years in their own way.
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel’s tenth novel, Wolf Hall (2009), was chosen by the novelist Simon Mayo from the 2000s, from a list that featured Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and John Banville’s The Sea. The follow-up to Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies, also won a Man Booker, and the third novel in the trilogy, The Mirror and The Light, is currently being written. Wolf Hall is a fictionalised but scrupulously researched version of Thomas Cromwell’s life as a statesman under Henry VIII from 1500 to 1535. Mayo chose it because he saw the book’s handling of England’s moving from the influence of Rome as “as anguished as any essay about Brexit you’ll read in the papers.”
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders
Julian Barnes’ The Sense of An Ending, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries were some of the winners between 2010 and 2018 which lost out to George Saunders’ debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (2017). It was the poet Holly McNish’s pick because it was unlike any book she’d ever read – “funny, imaginative, tragic…a piece of originality in its form and structure.” Saunders’ ghost story is inspired by the early death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, William, at age eleven to what was probably typhoid fever. Set in the intermediate realm between life and death, the novel imagines Lincoln’s visits to his son’s grave, and William’s eerie interactions with the other ghosts in the bardo over the course of one evening.
The choice of Booker winners has often been divisive, with readers finding some of the novels sub-par, tedious or overly hyped. There have been murmurs a few times about biases too. But the Prize has consistently boosted sales, kept each of its fifty-one winners in print, and cemented careers and reputations for a lifetime. The publicly chosen Golden Man Booker promises to be one more way in which it will keep its books and its writers in the conversation.
Corrections and clarifications: This article has been edited to reflect the fact that Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry was shortlisted in 2002 and not 1999 as originally stated.