This is a cheat. I’m only going back in history as far as 1969 – the year the Booker Prize was instituted. Do you remember what you were doing in 1969? Probably half of you reading this post weren’t even born. Do you remember the winner? I didn’t. I glanced through the Man Booker booklet and found it was P.H. Newby for his novel Something to Answer For.
1969 was a year when I wore skirts shorter than any I’ve ever worn and will ever wear, and my bikini was smaller than any I’ve ever worn and certainly will ever wear! Dr Chris Barnard had only just performed the first heart transplant. I’d seen Francois Hardy perform live in Cape Town. I’d heard Neil Armstrong speak from the moon. The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin and the Beatles were all doing their thing and Woodstock took place on a New York farm.
In 1969 my days were defined by reading on the beach, dancing the nights away and earning a paltry salary as an art teacher, dreaming of saving enough money for a ticket on the mail-ship to Southampton so I could get to London where it was all happening! I lived in a wooden cottage above one of the most famous and beautiful beaches in the world – Clifton, where surfers were still using longboards and where across the water, Nelson Mandela was chipping stone in a quarry on Robin Island.
I hadn’t heard of the Booker. I was reading Ayn Rand, Leon Uris, Robert Ruark, Doris Lessing and a few Dostoevsky’s thrown in. The first Booker I ever read was 5 years later in 1974 when Nadine Gordimer won with The Conservationist. A discomforting book about a capitalist who believes he has won privilege through hard work and not birth, which jabbed at my conscience. After that it was easy jump to other South African writers… Andre Brink’s An Instant in the Wind (the story still haunts me) won in 1976 and his Rumours of Rain short-listed in 1978 when Iris Murdoch’s The Sea The Sea won, and J M Coetzee’s 1983 winner Life and Times of Michael K. I didn’t read Thomas Keneally’s Shindler’s Ark which preceded Michael K but I did read Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac which won the next year. I’m sure I pass Anita Brookner on the Fulham Road. She seems to be getting more fragile and like the characters in her books, seems rather alone.
Right now I’ve just read Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie and have started Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English. But what I most wish is that (like Adele Geras and Linda Newbery and I’m sure many others too) I’d kept a detailed list of all the books I’d ever read. It would be interesting to know what I thought as a 20 year old, a 30 year old and a 40 year old and how the history of the day impacted on me as a reader.
If you were to choose your best Booker ever over the last 43 years since 1969, what would it be? Would it be Salman Rushie’s Midnight’ Children which won the overall 40 year winner by popular online vote, or would it be:
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall
Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty
Yann Martel’s Life of Pi
Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day
And if you could include books from the short list too:
Emma Donoghue’s Room
Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room
Tim Winton’s Dirt Music
Ian McEwan’s Atonement
Carol Shield’s The Stone Diaries
A S Byatt’s Possession or The Children’s Book
Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda.
Or something from Rose Tremain? Beryl Bainbridge? Graham Swift? Margaret Atwood? Anne Enright? Iris Murdoch? My list might become very long.
What overall winner would you choose since 1969? And if not one overall winner, what short-list would you have for the past 43 years?
And what book would you choose for one that never made it? Mine would be Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing (1950) which I haven’t read for years but which still resonates with me. But perhaps like Julian Barnes’s narrator in The Sense of an Ending… ‘What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.’
Hollinghurst's Line of Beauty, I think.
But - from books that didn't make it, I loved Rose Tremain's The Colour. Peter Carey's Illywacker. That's just for starters.
Lovely post and IMPOSSIBLE to answer which one we like best, I think. I'd go for Remains of the Day, Possession (which did win by the way!) and Wolf Hall. But then what about...you see what I'm saying! And among the shortlistees, definitely Carol Shields.
I have kept a list of books read that's true but alas no comments with them. I have to rack my brains to remember some of them, I'm afraid.
This is a game you could play forever though I think youR quote from Julian Barnes was apposite (incidentally I loved A SENSE OF AN ENDING). However, here goes:
William Boyd ANY HUMAN HEART
Ian McEwan ATONEMENT
Rose Tremain RESTORATION
Margaret Atwood ALIAS GRACE
Jane Gardam OLD FILTH
But ask me tomorrow...
Lovely piece, but I'm hopeless a choosing like this, because I find good books incommensurable - if you want to compare A with B you have to know what your criteria are for comparing, before you can decude who's doing it better. But there's an infinite number of ways a book can be good, and some of them are incompatible (unless you're so narrow in your appreciation of what a book can do that you only have one way it can do it for you).
But I did want to say that my daughter turned eighteen a couple of weeks ago. She's a reader, and a writer in the making, and for an 18th birthday present her godmother gave her a crate containing a copy of every single Booker Winner since my daughter was born. Even if she doesn't like one of them specially she's bound to like another, and it's a trousseau: a box of treasures to take with her as she becomes an adult...
Emma that's a wonderful gift. It makes we want to start collecting for my grand daughter... better treasure than silver spoons!
Haven't read Sense of an Ending Yet Linda... it was quite heavily criticised in America.
And you're right about Possesion Adele and YES Jo... forgot how much I loved Rose Tremain's Colour... it had such a beautiful cover as well.
Its true we all need different books at different times.
Yes, it would've been lovely to have had something like Goodreads all these years...and the will to use it. So many books I've read I haven't even reviewed. Bad sqrl.
But as for the Booker, it's not on my radar. I can report however that I didn't like Atonement at all, and that my father recommends Wolf Hall but not Room or Life of Pi.
Very interesting. I am reading my way through this year's Booker shortlist and have loved the rich and juicy Jamrach, The Sisters Brothers (best title!), and the wonderfully-voiced Half-Blood Blues, but felt a distance from Snow Drops. One that fell out of the shortlist, The Last Hundred Days, should have stayed there, in my opinion.
As you have identified, it is not just that each year's crop of books is new - we individual readers are also new, renewed, renovated in our ideas, changed by the last book we read, altered by events in our own lives that teach us new empathies or insights and make certain things unbearable or illuminating. So I couldn't make a stable list of favourites, and I'd always suspect that the best book ever was the one third down the to-be-read pile ...
I would choose "The Siege of Krishnapur" by J.G. Farrell. Hands down!
So hard to choose - but my heart says Rose Tremain.
I heard the short-listed speak last week and Patrick de Witt (The Sisters Brothers) was marvellous... laconic dry humour and he read brilliantly. Esi Edugyan (Half Blood Blues) was also impressive... incisive and lovely to listen to.
Loved The Glass Room - and war surprised, amused and impressed by The Siege of Krishnapur when I read it recently. Am a great fan of Rose Tremain, too.
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