Just one novel by a British writer has made the shortlist for this year’s Booker prize: Western Lane by Chetna Maroo. The list is also weighted towards male writers for the first time in eight years.
Four of the six shortlist places went to novels by men: Prophet Song by Paul Lynch, The Bee Sting by Paul Murray, This Other Eden by Paul Harding, and If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery. Study for Obedience by the Canadian writer Sarah Bernstein completes the list. None of the six authors have been shortlisted for the prize before.
Maroo’s Western Lane was a “mesmerising” novel “about how silence can reverberate within a family in the aftermath of grief”, according to the judging panel. The book, which is the slimmest in the shortlist at 161 pages, follows 11-year-old Gopi as the squash court becomes her world.
The Bee Sting by Ireland’s Murray is a tragicomedy about an Irish family in crisis and the longest novel on the list. The judging panel, chaired by the Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan, said Murray’s fourth novel was “funny, sad and truthful” and that the characters, with “myriad flaws and problems”, are “unforgettable”.
Prophet Song by Lynch, also Irish, was a “propulsive, unsparing and terribly moving” book warning of “the precarity of the democratic ideal”, the judges said. The novel, set in Dublin, is a dystopian tale of Ireland under a tyrannical government.
Bernstein’s Study for Obedience is about a young woman who travels to an unspecified remote northern country to be housekeeper for her brother. Judges thought the book was a “stirring meditation on survival and a pointed critique of the demonisation of the outsider”.
Harding, an American, won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 2010 for his book Tinkers. His Booker shortlisted novel, This Other Eden, is inspired by the true story of an island off the coast of Maine, which became one of the first racially integrated communities in the American north-east. Judges said it was rare to “encounter a work of historical fiction that is at once so lyrical and so empathetic”.
If I Survive You is the debut book from Escoffery, who is also American. It is a collection of eight linked stories following a Jamaican family navigating racism and a financial crisis in Miami. “All of life is here in unflinching detail: the fragility of existence, the American dream and the road not taken,” the judges said.
The six finalists were selected from 13 longlisted titles, which were chosen from 163 books published between 1 October 2022 and 30 September 2023. All the shortlisted authors receive £2,500.
Commenting on the fact that more men appear on the list than in recent years, Edugyan said that “it’s the strength and the quality of the work that landed these writers” on the shortlist. Her fellow judge, the actor Robert Webb, joked that “it was very much the work that we were concentrating on rather than whether or not they were called Paul”.
The discussion to decide the shortlist lasted between four and four and a half hours, Edugyan said, adding that the debates were “often enthralling, sometimes intimate, sometimes charged”. Webb said that it was very difficult to let go of certain books, particularly in the case of Sebastian Barry, who was longlisted for the fifth time for his novel Old God’s Time. “I deeply regret a couple of the books that aren’t there, but we can’t all have our way all the time. But the meetings were largely convivial,” he said.
Also on the judging panel were the literature professor James Shapiro, the actor Adjoa Andoh and the poet Mary Jean Chan. Andoh said that there was a “sense of variety” on the list. “Maybe it is in something fabulous and flamboyant and funny in the face of distress, or something very quiet, or something that seems abstract. But that variety is about the variety of who we are as human beings and the circumstances that we find ourselves in,” she said.
“Some of the excellent novels tend to reflect the grim times in which I certainly feel that we live,” Shapiro said. “We turn to creative writers to see more deeply into the crises that we face.”
The winner of the prize will be announced on November 26. Last year’s winner was The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by the Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka.
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