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10 Booker Prize winners you really should read

On Monday night, one of six authors will become the latest to receive what is arguably the most prestigious prize for literature, the Booker Prize, with their name placed in the history books alongside being £50,000 richer as a tasty extra.

To commemorate the occassion, here is a list of just ten of the fifty or so winners since its inception to present day that ought to be seeked out by those yet to discover them who appreciate literature.

The Sea, the Sea (1978)

Iris Murdoch’s black comedy sees an actor move to a seaside town to enjoybhis retirement only to see his plans thwarted by the arrival of several acquaintances. When he comes into contact with an old flame, he begins an increasingly desperate and ridiculous plan to rekindle their romance, in spite of her being married to an individual just as stubborn as he.

Combining monologues and presentation of some kind of a surrogate family with an unpredictable edge, this insight into denial and despair verges on the absurd but is worth every read of its 500+ pages.

Offshore (1979)

To date, the shortest novel to win the Booker Prize, Penelope Fitzgerald cultivated a multi-strand narrative of individuals living in houseboats on the Thames in the early 1960s.

From a housewife residing on one boat with her children hoping her marriage will resume to a couple where the wife equally desires moving into a house to the male prostitute in league with shadowy business dealings, its examination of community made this an entertaining piece of 1970s literature.

The Remains of the Day (1989)

One of the finest books in the time the Booker Prize has been going, let alone one of the finest winners, Kazuo Ishiguro’s hypnotic piece focused on Stevens, a holidaying butler reflecting the time in interwar England working for the Nazi-sympathizer Lord Darlington. It explains how the loyalty to his employer superseded what his life could have been, from the relationship with his father to his suppressed feelings towards the housekeeper who worked alongside him.

Touching upon the reputational damage the employer ensures following the events of WW2, this was not just about platonic relationships but a warning sign into the idea of political misjudgment. Adapted into an Oscar-nominated feature that saw a scenery-chewing Anthony Hopkins win a BAFTA as the embittered butler, wonderful as the film was, the book bettered it.

Amsterdam (1998)

If there was one author you’d assume had won the Booker multiple times, Ian McEwen would come to mind and yet,he has only scooped the award once.

Achieving it on his third attempt, he was a deserved winner for thus thought-provoking character study of a newspaper editor and composer whose quests for personal success and achievement regardless of consequence prove to be their downfall.

At times, the definition of unputdownable, it is a book that lingers in the mind long after its morbid and jaw-dropping denouement.

Vernon God Little (2003)

Funny and provocative are just two of the many adjectives used to describe DBC Pierre’s often wildly entertaining look at the adventures of a teenage boy in too deep in the so-called “barbeque sauce capital of the world”.

Desperate to clear his name following a school massacre, the titular character’s freedom and life becomes dependant on the discovery of, of all things, a missing excrement-covered toilet paper. From dysfunctional family life and courtroom twists to Mexican bars and betrayals, this is one of the must-read Bookers of the century thus far.

The Sea (2005)

16 years after Kazuo Ishiguro pipped John Banville to the post, the roles reversed as the Irish writer of The Book of Evidence and Eclipse scooped the prize for his presentation of grief and reflection.

It presented an art historian returning to a location where he spent a childhood holiday with a family which ended in an unspeakable tragedy and reflecting upon it as a new tragedy approaches him in the present day.

Banville’s flair for sentences of absolute beauty showed as ever in this and though there are other novels of his that are better, it is a book that ought to be read more than once to absorb again what is being detailed.

The Finkler Question (2010)

A decade of intriguing victories of the Booker was kickstarted when Jewish author Howard Jacobson won for this satirical piece set in North London.

This focused on a former BBC producer now celebrity impersonator who questions his identity after a street robbery leaves him convinced he was mistaken for being Jewish following a remark by the assailant. Intrigued by the thought of being seen as such and already close with his elderly Jewish teacher, he positions himself further amongst members of the community, navigating anti-Israel sentiment with a continuing search for meaning in his somewhat unspectacular life.

A study into existential crisis, this is perhaps a good place to start when reading Jacobson.

The Sense of an Ending (2011)

Julian Barnes is one of the more engaging writers of his generation with Metroland and Flaubert’s Parrot aiding his reputation. After several nominations, he finally took home the Booker for what may be his finest hour, focusing on a salesman whose letter by a lawyer leads to a potentially life-altering discovery involving his ex-girlfriend decades prior.

Acting as a flashback to his friendship in his younger days with a fellow sixth-form student and moving back into the present day as he seeks to find out what may be, Barnes presented the sort of book that one feels compelled to return to with near certainty of being impressed further.

Interestingly it is a book that can be read naturally even if one has seen the enjoyable film adaptation first; such is the power of its author to make the reader disappear into the story.

Girl, Woman, Other (2019)

Making history as the first black woman to win the award (a rare joint win with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments), Bernardine Evaristo presented the lives of twelve mainly black women of differing ages in Britain from various walks of life at different times.

From a playwright preparing for a premiere at the National Theatre, to one whose lesbian love affair progresses into jealousy and cohesive control, to a child determined to succeed educationally via an equally determined teacher, this championing of black women in modern Britain saw an uplift in sales of the BLM protests.

It put its author on the national stage and deserved to be discovered for being a solid work than a response to social unrest.

Shuggie Bain (2020)

The Covid pandemic was not going to get in the way of the Booker Prize being awarded to Douglas Stuart’s blistering debut novel, an often harrowing and moving yet compulsive story of a young boy grappling with his homosexuality and his mother’s alcoholism in Glasgow during the reign of Thatcher.

A few standout moments occur, usually involving anger, but the part that grabs the most attention is the main character’s journey around Glasgow in a bid to reach his brother’s flat, bringing a range of varying reactions and placing its author as one who is only just getting started, with his follow-up Young Mungo released just recently.


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