For those of you who have forgotten, the Man Booker Prize has been awarded annually since 1969 for the best original novel "written in English and published in the UK in the year of the prize, regardless of the nationality of their author." The prize includes an award of £50,000, making it one of the richest literary prizes. Booker Prize winners that I have read include:
- Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, 2014. As I noted in my longer review, this is really two stories, both united by a common character, the Australian doctor Dorrigo Evans. One story involves a group of Australian POWs forced to help build a railroad through the Burmese jungle during World War II; Evans served as the physician and ranking officer for the POW camp. The second involves an affair that Evans had with his uncle's wife prior to being sent off to war. Both events haunt Evans throughout the novel. For the most part, I found this to be an engrossing book, although I recognize that it isn't for everyone, particularly the squeamish.
- Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending, 2011. A retired man looks back over his life — his friends at school, one particularly difficult girl friend, his failed marriage — and reconnects with the girl friend after her mother surprisingly leaves him some money and a friend's diary at her death. The book is very well written and has some fascinating themes — an unreliable narrator, memory, responsibility, ethics.
- Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question, 2010. I enjoyed this novel about three British men (two Jews and a Gentile) who come to grips with various Jewish issues. Treslove is the somewhat neurotic Gentile who wants to be a Jew. Finkler is a Jewish philosopher who writes popular books. Libor is their old teacher. The latter two are widowed, and Treslove is unlucky in love. The characters are wonderfully drawn, and the novel is infused with a gentle humor as well as a sense of sorrow and loss. Not much happens, but it's great fun to get to know and observe the characters.
- Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger, 2008. This book is narrated by a former chaffeur turned entrepreneur and presented as a series of letters to the Chinese Prime Minister, who is visiting Bangalore soon. It portrays the real India behind the “World Is Flat” facade, an India of immense poverty and corruption. The protagonist begins life as a poor villager in northern India and works his way up by unscrupulous means, including the murder of his boss and the escape to Bangalore, where he bribes the police and becomes a successful entrepreneur. Lots of black humor and cynicism.
- Anne Enright, The Gathering, 2007. A dysfunctional Irish family gathers for the funeral of Liam, the most difficult of the dozen children. There are some wonderful passages, particularly those describing characters (“He is the kind of man who looks like he should be wearing a bowler hat ... Charlie is only ever passing through ... It seems that he has information to impart though, after he has gone, it is often hard to know what that information might have been ... He makes people feel warm and uncertain, as though they might have been conned – but of what? ... By then, the things that go wrong with people's faces had gone thoroughly wrong with theirs; Rose's mouth pulled into a jag of disapproval, my mother's gaze now watery and vague”), but all in all, the surly, self-pitying narrator is too much to take.
- Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss, 2006. This novel deals with a retired judge in eastern India, his cook, and a girl that he has more or less adopted. The writing has a richness that suggests the lush vegetation of the area, but the plot is extremely depressing, particularly at the end, where it becomes unrelentingly so. This is unfortunate, because otherwise the characters are rich and the setting is rich. But the endless string of defeats and dejections is hard to take.
- John Banville, The Sea, 2005. Banville's novel is about a retired art historian who goes to a seaside cottage to try to deal with the deaths of individuals in his life. Generally well written, although often pedantic in his choice of words. Keep a dictionary handy.
- Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty, 2004. The story of Nick Guest, a gay graduate student who lives with the Fedden family, the father of which is a Conservative MP during Thatcher's years as Prime Minister. The “line of beauty” is Hogarth's double S or ogee curve, and the curve reflects the contrast between material and spiritual beauty, which is a major theme of the book. The writing is wondrously good and amazingly observant, although its beauty seems to get in the way at times. The portrayal of life among the privileged classes during the early to middle 1980s and the portrayal of gay love are particularly striking.
- DBC Pierre, Vernon God Little, 2003. A teenage Texas boy becomes the prime suspect in a series of murders after his friend kills 16 schoolmates and then shoots himself. Little doesn't help his case by running away to Mexico. The writing is brilliant at times, filled with outlandish characters, brilliant similes, and profanity-laden, keen observations. Pierre is Australian, and his portrayal of Americans and their consumerist obsessions is fascinating. Still, the novel seems a bit of a stretch at times.
- Yann Martel, Life of Pi, 2002. Martel's novel about an Indian boy who survives over 200 days on a lifeboat in the Pacific with a tiger. The book did not impress me, either with its pointless narrative or its mediocre writing. I have trouble understanding why the novel won the Booker Prize; it seems far too bland. Perhaps some people liked the allegorical nature of the tale, but even that seems too far-fetched for me. Perhaps the point is that there's no such thing as reality, but again this point is made in a very drab manner.
- Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang, 2001. Carey's “autobiography” of the famous Australian outlaw is a tour-de-force in many ways, but the writing, in a vernacular style, with much profanity and little punctuation, can be hard to follow. Kelly writes the recollection for his daughter, whom he never saw, and blames his life of crime on the corrupt police that he encounters.
- Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin, 2000. Atwood's novel about two sisters coming of age between the two world wars has richly developed characters, multiple narratives, mysteries and surprises, and explorations of concepts ranging from love and passion to betrayal and revenge. Written in a fluent, precise style.
- J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace, 1999. About a white South African professor who is dismissed for having an affair with a student and who then witnesses an attack by three black men on his daughter at her farm. The novel is straightforwardly written and explores the changing political landscape in South Africa as well as larger themes of communication, aging, power, and exploitation. Well written but also a bit flat and almost lifeless.
- Ian McEwan, Amsterdam, 1998. Clive Linly is a well-known composer, and Vernon Hailliday is the editor of the daily newspaper, The Judge. They renew their former friendship at the funeral of a former lover (Molly), whose husband (George Lane) and former lover (Julian Garmony, the Foreign Secretary) they despise. Lane sells Halliday photos of Garmony in drag, taken by Molly, and Halliday runs one as the front page of the newspaper. Linly opposes this, and sends Halliday a scathing postcard. Halliday is fired, as the immediate publicity backfires. Halliday offers to join Linly on a trip to Amsterdam for the premier of his latest symphony, and the two arrange for one another's "euthanasia," which is legal in Holland. There is irony and some black humor but little else. The book is not spectacularly well written and apparently was not a popular choice for the Booker.
- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, 1997. Wonderful novel about the lives of a pair of fraternal twins in India, with particular focus on a tragic series of events when they were 7 years old. The story is powerful, the characters are rich, and the writing is beautifully lush. One of the best novels that I've read in quite some time.
- Graham Swift, Last Orders, 1996. When butcher Jack Dodds dies, his friends take his ashes from London to Margate to be scattered. In the process, Ray, Lenny, Vic, and Vince recall Jack an his wife Amy and their own lives. The narrative style is like Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, with each chapter told from the point of view of one of the characters. A very well written, poignant view of real lives, with their private pains and aspirations.
- Pat Barker, The Ghost Road, 1995. The third installment in a trilogy that includes Regeneration focuses again on Billy Prior, a shell-shocked soldier who returns to the front lines in France, and Dr. William Rivers, a psychologist who helped Prior recover. The theme is the absolute horror and insanity of war — especially World War I — and Barker interweaves Rivers's memories of the headhunters he lived with and studied, whose culture was dying because the ruling Brits had outlawed headhunting. Some understated pieces on the horrors of war are quite good — Rivers opening letters meant for the recently dead. Some parts are just dreary and plodding though.
- Roddy Doyle, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, 1993. Well-written story of a ten-year-old Irish boy and his exploits. Funny goes to sad as the town's growth takes over the empty lots in which he and his friends play, his father drinks and then leaves, and his friends turn against him. In the end, even the title becomes a mocking chant, and that is the point of the novel.
- Kazuo Ihiguro, The Remains of the Day, 1989. A British butler journeys across postwar England and thinks back about his life of service, especially to Lord Darlington, whose sympathy for the Germans after World War I included a short fling with Nazism. Well-written, thoughtful. Much of the book is about the life of service, and some of the themes include the unreliability of the narrator and the difficulties of interpersonal communications.
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