It is now 50 years since the Booker Prize was established in 1969, with its main aim being to reward “the best novel in the opinion of the judges”. Often, the prize is controversial, and this year will be no different as the prize’s major sponsor, the Man Group, has withdrawn its annual £1.6 million sponsorship after 18 years, in part following criticism from author Sebastian Faulks about its links to “the enemy” due to hedge funds providing the income for the company – no coincidence, of course, that Faulks has never won the prize despite being a very popular writer whose books sell really well.

That is perhaps the dilemma about the prize. The winner in 2018 was Anna Burns with Milkman, which was seen as difficult to read but which brought the author to the attention of far more people, not because it is a great book but perhaps more because it is one to be ticked off as “should be read”. I am currently reading it and finding it challenging but absorbing because of the style and the central female character. Readers are bombarded with lists such as “100 books to read before you die” or “Classic books you should have on your bookshelf” and, for many, those titles that make either the long or short lists for the Booker Prize present another challenge to our “To be read” lists each year. Are we less “well read” if we haven’t turned the pages of any Booker Prize winners? Well, I thought I’d go back 50 years and take a glimpse at each decade to see how worthy the past winners have been.

1969 – The inaugural winner – Something to Answer For by P.H. Newby

Percy Howard Newby was born in Crowborough, East Sussex, in 1918 and joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1939, visiting Egypt (the setting for the book) in 1941. A year later, after leaving the army, he began teaching English at a Cairo university, where he stayed for five years, during which time he wrote his first novel. Returning to England, he worked for the BBC writing and producing literary-based programmes, ending up as Managing Director of BBC Radio in 1975. He was awarded the CBE in 1972. Newby died in 1977.

The book both fascinates and requires attention, with a detailed plotline and a somewhat mysterious lead character in Townrow, who could well have been seen within the pages of a John Le Carre or Graham Greene novel. It is 1956 and Townrow is in Port Said with the backdrop of the Suez Crisis looming. He has come to “help” Elie Khoury, the widow of a friend, with her finances. He met Elie when serving in the British Army some years before and often has a love-hate relationship with her and with the memory of her husband. Mrs K (as she is known throughout the book) believes her husband to have been murdered, although Townrow can find no evidence of this. He becomes romantically entangled with the daughter of the Khoury’s lawyer, Leah Strauss. There are some great characters that cross the path of Townrow, Christou the bar owner, Amin the “legal officer” and Abravanel the lawyer.

Very soon we feel as confused as Townrow about what is happening, especially after he suffers a beating in which he is left injured and perhaps severely concussed. Why is he really in Port Said with British troops circling? There is typically dark British humour often linked to mortality as well as some highly stereotypical colonial views of foreigners and the way Jews were still viewed despite their sufferings in WWII. How will Townrow react, or be expected to react, and do others doubt that his intentions are for the most part innocent? “The hell of being among strangers was that nobody formed any expectation of how you would behave…”

Newby writes well. The narrative confuses but draws us in as readers and I really wanted to understand why Townrow was being thrown from one scenario to another, often in quickly paced and sometimes scary plots. Townrow eventually begins to unscramble his mind about the truth and the imagined dreams that become his reality. It is sad that as a writer Newby’s books seem to have somewhat disappeared from literature today. Would it win in 2019?  Maybe. I enjoyed it as a personal read, especially learning about the history of British and Egyptian ownership and living conditions of the important Suez Canal region. Book clubs that look back to nostalgic times post-war and a more literary style would enjoy it too. 4*/3*

1979 – Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald was a “surprise” winner of the Booker Prize. This was her third novel and she had come to writing later in life. She was 63 when she won, commenting to friends, “I knew I was an outsider”. Although older when success came, Fitzgerald packed much into her years, with nine novels, three biographies, including an excellent one about the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones, as well as many essays and reviews. The daughter of a literary family, she also stood by her Evangelical principles and had a wry sense of humour, often revealed through many of her plots.

I like Fitzgerald’s characters. They are often on the edges of society and here in Offshore they live on Battersea Reach on the Thames, amongst a group of houseboats. There is good-natured Maurice, by occupation a male prostitute but also a receiver of stolen goods. There’s Richard, who puts himself in charge, is an ex-navy man who tends to dominate the small community and Nenna, on her own after he husband left and bringing up (or trying to) two young girls in a slightly unconventional home situation. There is also Sam Willis, the marine painter who wants to sell it before it sinks.

Fitzgerald had herself lived in a canal boat at a time in her life where things were not going well both personally and in her career. This makes the novel very authentic and perhaps Nenna is very much a reflection of the author herself in her bohemian life trying to sort her emotions and life. The flow of the river, storms, waves, tides and the sway and movement of the boats and their occupants are good images used within the novel and reflect the lives of the characters and their needs. “They have to take their chance with wind and tide, my dear, like all of us.”

I remember being recommended the book by members of my book club who were older than me, many of whom had lived through this era and had experienced life in London. Since then I’ve read other works by Fitzgerald and continue to enjoy her work. Would it win today? Definitely, especially as many people are turning their backs on conventional living to live on boats in areas such as this. Great personal read and I am sure book clubs will enjoy it with the many interesting characters to discuss. 4*/4*

1989 – The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguo

Recently awarded a knighthood for his services to literature, Ishiguro came to the UK when he was five years old from Nagasaki in Japan (itself linked with war) and has now said he feels “a big love affair with Britain and its culture”. His father was a researcher at the National Institute of Oceanography and sent his son to a grammar school in Surrey, where he flourished. How strange to discover that the author once worked as a grouse-beater for the Queen Mother at Balmoral before he went to university. It must have added interest to his conversation with Prince Charles when he received his knighthood! After graduating and working for a while as a social worker in his home area in Scotland, Ishiguro studied on the famous creative writing course at the University of East Anglia run by famous writer Malcolm Bradbury. By 1983 he was lauded as being amongst the 20 “Best Young British Writers”. He had already had a bestseller with Never Let Me Go when he turned to write about the classic English country house between the wars. Not only would he win the literary prize, but his works would be turned into well-known films.

Set in Darlington Hall, but moving through holiday trips to Salisbury and Wiltshire, the novel tells the story of an elderly English butler confronting disillusionment as he remembers his long life in service against the backdrop of war and the rise of fascism. The author talks about the “fear of emotions” as a major part of the novel, a theme often expressed in portrayals of life above and below stairs, although The Remains of the Day takes this further, maybe because Ishiguro looks at the English world from the outside and provides minute detail about the smallest of characteristics. Butlers are known worldwide and Stevens is stoic, mannered, unobtrusive and loyal, yet re-reading the novel so clearly is his fear of opening himself up to love brought to the fore with his relationship with Miss Kenton.

With overriding obedience, “Surely I don’t have to remind you that our professional duty is not to our own foibles and sentiments, but to the wishes of our employer” says Stevens to Miss Kenton in front of all the other staff. So even though Miss Kenton tries to break down this wall of dignity or even show him this “waste of life”, sadness and a stiff upper lip must prevail. Even if you are only aware of the film, with marvellous acting by Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, do treat yourself to the wider narrative within the book and the swirling challenges of the outside world impacting once again the people who are always pushed to the edges.

Wonderful writing by a rightly praised author. Would it win today? Definitely! With our continued love of class and posh houses it would attract a wide readership. A super personal read and sure to provide lots of discussion around many themes for book clubs. 5*/4*

1999 – Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Born in 1940 in Cape Town, South Africa, and educated in both Africa and the USA, Coetzee had written much and won many literary prizes, including being a previous Booker winner for his novel Life and Times of Michael K, which I think is a better book. As well as novels, he is a literary critic and translator and was Professor of General Literature at the University of Cape Town. He lived and worked for some years in the USA but is now an Australian citizen and lives and works in South Australia. He was awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Set in post-apartheid South Africa, Disgrace tells the story of David Lurie, a twice divorced 52-year-old Professor of Communications and Romantic Poetry at Cape Technical University. He believes (and Coetzee does nothing to dispel the image of a selfish and misogynist character) that he now has a comfortable life. He seems to feel it is a passionless life although in the first few pages, we discover he has a weekly visit to a regular prostitute who works for Discreet Escorts at a local motel. He’s presented as a classic old Lothario, reciting sonnets to admiring and naïve young women (which reminded me of the male character in the recent Glenn Close film The Wife).

When Lurie seduces one of his students, it sets in motion a chain of events that shatter his little world view and career. It is tight and powerful writing and works well to explore Lurie’s quite objectionable views. But when the scenes move to the remote countryside of the Eastern Cape as Lurie retreats from his disgrace to live with his daughter, Lucy, I feel the novel takes off well. Lurie has to come to terms with Lucy’s life, those she is surrounded by and the insecurity of being exposed to the threats around them. “He speaks Italian, speaks French, but Italian and French are useless to him in Black Africa.” The relationships between humans and animals are also explored and readers should be warned that the violence against animals is graphically described. The 2008 film, featuring John Malkovich as Lurie, is well worth seeing as I feel he fits the role perfectly.

Would the book win today? I don’t think so. The main male character could be seen as out of place in our new view of women in the world, but we mustn’t reject Coetzee’s strong writing and his other novels are perhaps the best way to lead into his work. It’s still worthwhile as a personal read but perhaps many book groups might reject it by only taking into account the first pages and not letting the plot develop. 3*/3*

1999 – Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

In a recent Danny Dyer historical documentary (whoever thought those words would be put together?!), he visited the Tudor home of the Seymour family known as Wolf Hall and we found it was a small, slightly unimpressive manor house in Wiltshire. But is has now become synonymous with Mantel’s award-winning novel.

Born in 1952, Mantel had a strict religious upbringing and a good education, gaining a law degree, although she chose her early careers in social work and retail. When she moved to Botswana with her husband, her isolation in a foreign country and a chronic medical illness made her turn to writing fiction. Her first novel was Every Day is Mother’s Day in 1985 and the variety and strong writing helped her reputation in the literary world. But the first of her historical trilogy, Wolf Hall, was to rocket her to fame and fortune, with the second, Bring up the Bodies, coming together to provide award-winning TV and stage adaptations, with the memorable performance of Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell forever etched in our minds. She was made a Dame in 2014, although critics still question her ability to complete the trilogy with the final instalment.

The novel is set during the 1520s, with Henry VIII on the throne. He has no heir and Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce Henry needs and which the Pope refuses to grant. Into this setting comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey’s clerk and then promoted to be the King’s chief advisor. We are perhaps familiar with the historical timeline and with the main characters, but Mantel’s skill is humanising them as real people with lives and families and flaws. Mantel has clearly done her research and one of my criticisms, despite my love of historical fiction, is the intricate detailing of everything. That’s why it’s such a big book. Because of his lowly background, Cromwell’s ambitions are even more immense, being the son of a violent blacksmith, a charmer, a bully and hugely clever in manipulating people and events for his own ends and financial gain.

Seen as a “truly great English novel” it brings human psychology into context alongside wider historical making politics. There are many characters and incidents and it needs close attention, but a wide readership learns more than any bland academic documentary could ever explore. So, is this the beginning of a “dumbing down” of history? Not at all. Although no one can be precise about people long since dead, the use of historical research helps to turn real people into realistic and engaging characters. It is a great skill and Mantel has it in spades. A long but wonderful personal read and one I know many book groups have loved. 4*/5*

2019 – Who will win the Booker this year?

Perhaps a new name with a novel launching a new literary style – or has Milkman achieved that accolade and made a readership turn against difficult works – or will it be an established and well-loved author whose novels fill library shelves and always top the bestseller lists? Who knows, it might even be Sebastian Faulks…

Philipa Coughlan
February 2019