Hits and surprises as judges reveal the Man Booker’s shortlist of five golden decades

Mantel and Ondaatje are in but Rushdie’s out as judges name shortlist for public vote on best novel

The popular novels The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall have made the shortlist of the five best Man Booker prize winners of all time, judges revealed at the Hay Festival in Wales. The public now have until early July to vote for the victor.

The golden Man Booker race celebrates the 50th year of Britain’s leading prize for fiction, taking a single title from each of those decades. Joining Mantel and Ondaatje are VS Naipaul’s In a Free State, which won the prize in 1971, Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively from 1987, and the American writer George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which triumphed last year. Among the five judges of the Golden Booker are the poet Lemn Sissay, who chose from the winners of the 1980s, and the writer Robert McCrum, the Observer’s former literary editor, who tackled the 1970s.

“The golden Booker is a stunt, of course, but a surprisingly worthwhile one,” said McCrum. “It’s a vindication of 50 years’ debate about the nature of so-called literary fiction. Prizes offer an odd kind of lit crit, but I’d say that almost all the novels the judges had to read, reread and consider have stood the test of time.”

Sissay’s choice of Lively’s book, a story of loss and desire set around the time of the second world war, is perhaps the biggest surprise. He rejected some very famous titles indeed, including Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils, Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, William Golding’s Rites of Passage and Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark. Salman Rushdie, who won the Booker prize with Midnight’s Children in 1981 and who is attending the Hay festival this year, also did not make the grade. Neither did Kazuo Ishiguro, the winner of the Nobel prize for literature last year and a Booker winner in 1989 for The Remains of the Day.

The other three judges are Kamila Shamsie, whose new novel Home Fire is in the running for the women’s prize for fiction, the former Orange prize, and who assessed winners from the 1990s; the broadcaster and novelist Simon Mayo, who picked the first of Mantel’s historical trilogy from the 2000s; and the poet Hollie McNish, who selected last year’s Booker winner, Saunders’s melancholy story about Abraham Lincoln, from the current decade.

The five judges were asked to read, or reread, each winner from their given decade before selecting what Man Booker is calling the golden five. All 51 winners since the prize was first awarded in 1969 are still in print – a vindication of the judges’ choices which can often prove controversial.

McCrum said he was “quite passionate” about his choice of Naipaul’s novel, although he doubted it would do as well as Mantel or Ondaatje’s books in the popular voting stage. He picked In A Free State over three enduring titles by female authors: Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust and Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea.

“If our shortlist of five were placed in a time capsule for re-examination in 2118, it would provide a surprisingly reliable snapshot of the novel in English, 1970-2010,” said McCrum.

The five shortlisted books will now be put to a month-long public vote on the Man Booker prize website and the ultimate winner will be announced at the Man Booker 50 festival at the Southbank Centre in London on 8 July.


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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