The Man Booker Prize is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with a “best of the best” Golden Man Booker Prize due to be awarded next month. However, while the winning novels have often been met by a mixed response, many of the shortlisted and longlisted titles have been well received and in some cases go on to be better known than those taking the prize that year. So if the past winners don’t inspire you, then here is a selection of “the best of the rest” to consider.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet – shortlisted in 2016, this is a brilliantly original historical crime novel which blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction with outstanding results. Published by Saraband, a small Scottish independent press, I doubt I would have discovered this if it hadn’t been for the publicity generated by the Man Booker Prize.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki – shortlisted in 2013, this novel really stood out for its originality. I noted in my review at the time that “stories featuring 104-year-old anarchist feminist Zen Buddhist nuns… are not what many people would consider to be “typical” Man Booker Prize material (if there is such a thing)” and I think it’s safe to say that this is still the case.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith – shortlisted in 2005, this book unfortunately lost out to ‘The Sea’ by John Banville – one of the dreariest books to win the Prize along with ‘The Gathering’ by Anne Enright in 2007. An honourable mention must also go to ‘Never Let Me Go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro, a brilliant dystopian novel which was shortlisted in the same year.
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields – shortlisted in 1993, I really enjoyed this novel about the life of a Canadian woman across the 20th century which is both ordinary and extraordinary.
Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller (2003) and Room by Emma Donoghue (2010) have been among the more commercially successful shortlisted titles. I really enjoyed both, and whatever your views about the Prize’s complicated relationship with “genre” fiction, Donoghue’s novel is surely more memorable than The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson which won that year.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara certainly made an impact when it was shortlisted in 2015 – a long and complex novel which was beaten by another long and complex novel ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ by Marlon James. I failed to finish the latter, but Yanagihara’s second book is extraordinary, although probably too divisive to win in the end.
Ian McEwan is much more likely to be remembered for his far superior novel ‘Atonement’ which was shortlisted in 2001 after taking the prize in 1998 for ‘Amsterdam’. Elsewhere, Margaret Atwood won in 2000 for ‘The Blind Assassin’ which was fourth time lucky after equally worthy shortlisted titles Alias Grace (1996), ‘Cat’s Eye’ (1989) and her most famous novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1986).
Other authors have been shortlisted more than once but have yet to win. Sarah Waters has been shortlisted three times for ‘The Little Stranger’ (2009), ‘The Night Watch’ (2006) and ‘Fingersmith’ (2002) while Ali Smith has been shortlisted four times for ‘Hotel World’ (2001), ‘The Accidental’ (2005), How to be both (2014) and Autumn (2017).
The Man Booker longlist was introduced from 2001 onwards with The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman making the cut that year. ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ by Mark Haddon was another novel popular with younger readers and was longlisted in 2003.
This is only a snapshot of the past 50 years of the Prize’s history, though. My choices are weighted heavily towards more recent years and there are many other past winners and shortlisted books I haven’t read yet by authors including Monica Ali, Sarah Hall and Graham Swift to name a few. Which longlisted or shortlisted books are among your favourites? Which ones do you think were robbed of the Man Booker Prize by a less worthy winner?