The Booker is my favourite literature prize of the calendar and each year I eagerly count down the days until the longlist is announced and then count down the days until the shortlist is announced and then countdown the days until the winner is announced … to be honest it’s exhausting. Most years I completely get it wrong with my chosen winner languishing in the longlist as the shortlist races ahead. Sometimes, however, the best book doesn’t win and I get sad and mopey and complain about it to my friends and family … none of whom care. So, what follows is a list of 5 novels that were shortlisted but that I feel probably should have won.
The article is in year order when the book was shortlisted for the award and in brackets is the actual winner.
A Bend in the River – VS Naipaul – 1979 - (Penelope Fitzgerald – Offshore)
For the longest time I actually thought Naipaul won in 1979, however I was evidently wrong. It was fourteen years before I was born, so I think I’m excused. A Bend in the River is one of the best books about ‘Africa’ and is seen through the eyes of a young Indian Muslim named Salim who observes the shifting and changing fortunes of a country post-independence. The country remains anonymous - and potentially fictional - which is a masterstroke from Naipaul as the country with its trials and tribulations becomes a metaphor for all countries that struggled with the aftermath of colonisation.
Did he ever win? Yes: In a Free State - 1971
I know why there is no glass in front of watercolour picture of blue irises, and why the window opens only partly and why the glass in it is shatterproof. It isn’t running away they’re afraid of.
-The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood – 1985 - (Kinglsey Amis – The Old Devils)
Yes, you may be thinking, ‘Really, this was nominated and didn’t win … what the feck is The Old Devils?’ You are, however, gifted with hindsight, which is – apparently – a wonderful thing. Now, you need to understand that the Booker judges that year wouldn’t be able to tell how important or how much of a cultural powerhouse The Handmaid’s Tale would become (she also lost out with Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace, Oryx and Crake which were all also shortlisted, but didn’t win). They should, however, have been able to work out what a phenomenal prescient text Handmaid is. The story of a young woman whose sole role in society is to breed with rich white men, is as chilling today (perhaps even more so) as it was at the time Atwood wrote it. If you’ve never read anything by Atwood, do yourself a favour and get to the nearest bookshop. The woman is an absolute treasure.
Did she ever win? Yes: The Blind Assassin – 2000
The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie – 1988 - (Peter Carey - Oscar and Lucinda)
I had to really stop myself putting a bunch of Rushdie novels on this list (he’s been shortlisted two other times as well: Shame, The Moor’s Last Sigh. He was Longlisted for Shalimar the Clown). Whilst not his masterpiece – hello, Midnight’s Children – it would be for any other writer. The Satanic Verses has become infamous after the death penalty was given to Rushdie for writing it, however that should not detract from the sheer brilliance of the thing … I mean the novel starts with a movie star and a voice actor falling from a plane over England; surviving; and then one grows a halo and the other goat horns and hairy goat legs. That’s got you hooked. The novel also features the so called ‘Satanic Verses’ which are texts taken from the Quran that open up a whole can of worms that Iran and many followers of the Islamic faith didn’t take too kindly too, especially when you add the fact the Prophet is depicted as a womanising tyrant. Luckily, Rushdie survived the ordeal after hiding away under the name of Joseph Anton for 9 years and went onto gift us with some of the greatest novels the world will ever see.
Did he ever win? Yes: Midnight’s Children - 1981
Atonement - Ian McEwan – 2001 - (Peter Carey – True History of the Kelly Gang)
Curses! Peter Carey, you strike again, you Australian Dickens! McEwan may well be one of the most famous authors in English Literature – and the first major writer to find success after a creative writing course – and has found himself unsuccessful three times: The Comfort of Strangers, Black Dogs, and On Chesil Beach – which I also wanted to include on this list. Because of this he’s probably not beating himself up too hard about losing to Peter Carey who is one of best writers of his generation and is well deserving of his too Booker wins. Atonement revolves around a love story between two ‘youths’ in pre-war Britain and how people can make small, innocent blunders that can snowball into life destroying tornados (metaphorically speaking, of course, the novel isn’t set in Kansas). The novel also becomes a reflection on the very essence of writing itself, which is probably why it was shortlisted in the first place.
Did he ever win? Yes: Amsterdam - 1998
He experienced the singular pleasure of watching people he loved fall in love with other people he loved.
A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara – 2015 - (Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killings)
This is the odd one out on this list, because as well as being the most modern, it is the only one where the book that won still really deserved to win. The 2015 Booker was such a close contest. Everyone – all the critics … and yours truly – assumed A Little Life would win because it’s one of the best novels of the 21st Century, however, when A Brief History of Seven Killings went onto win, everyone went ‘Oh well, he deserves it too’. What was also interesting about the 2015 prize is that it was the first time writers from outside of the Commonwealth were permitted to enter. Yanagihara unfortunately missed out on being the first American to win the prize (that honour goes to Paul Beatty for his masterful satire The Sellout in 2016) with her stunning portrayal of four male friends in their twenties trying to make their way in New York when one of their group is damaged emotionally beyond repair. It’s a long novel, but one that will have you hooked and sobbing well into the night.
Did she ever win? No: (but she wasn’t eligible for entry until 2015, so who knows if she would have won before, but the future is definitely looking good for Yanagihara).