Each year, the Booker Prize shortlist sparks a litany of familiar criticisms. Too many worthy novels! Too many chosen not for their quality, but because they give the right ideological signals! And a new cry in recent years: too many Americans!
Thankfully, not this year. In the 2023 shortlist, culled from a surprisingly unstarry longlist of 13, gone are the novels that treat social issues too dutifully; gone too are the ones that have vaulting formal ambition, but can make for harder readerly work. Granted, on the six-strong list, two Americans get the nod – Paul Harding and debut novelist Jonathan Escoffery – and granted, there’s only one Briton: Chetna Maroo. But Sarah Bernstein, born in Canada but resident in the Highlands, might as well be an honorary Scot, while it’s a success for Irish fiction – representatively so – with the other two writers on the list, Paul Murray and Paul Lynch.
More importantly, these novels are all very good. Each is a richly satisfying marriage of form and content, suggesting that the Booker has rediscovered its purpose as a prize that champions literary fiction on its own terms, rather than seeing itself through the prisms of moral virtue and cultural relevance. What’s more – and it’s rare to say this about a Booker shortlist – most of the novels are pure pleasure to spend time with.
You’d be hard-placed, for instance, to find a sadder, funnier, more satisfying novel about the misunderstandings and mess of family life than Murray’s The Bee Sting, which juggles the perspectives of four members of the Barnes clan following the collapse of the family business in recession-era Ireland, and does it with a mix of tragic irony and daring sleight-of-hand. Nor will you find one more pulse-raising than Lynch’s Prophet Song, a psychological thriller set in a present-day Ireland that has become a totalitarian state almost overnight; this novel belies its obvious dystopian tropes with a third-person narrative laced with accumulating terror.
Both these novels are obvious crowd-pleasers; at least two on the list are subtler. In Bernstein’s Study for Obedience, an unnamed narrator has arrived in a new country whose language she doesn’t speak, and to whose unfamiliar way of life she is determined to assimilate. Balancing a story of deeply internalised racism with an evasive tone that contains moments of startling gothic horror, it gains its uneasy power precisely from its lack of specificity. Equally slow-burning is Maroo’s Western Lane, told from the perspective of a talented 11-year-old squash player whose mother has recently died; in the way of sizable events, not a great deal “happens”, yet Maroo’s quiet sentences contain multitudes on cultural tensions and grief, on the wordless love between a father and daughter.
It’s often said of contemporary literature that too many novels look inwards, prioritising the experience of the self at the specific expense of the form’s imaginative and linguistic possibilities. Escoffery’s sourly funny If I Survive You might sound, on the face of it, like a case in point: it’s a largely autobiographical tale of a boy born in Miami to Jamaican parents, who has skin so pale he can pass for white. Instead, Escoffery uses a restless structure more akin to a short-story cycle, and an insistent second-person point-of-view that both skewers the formula of the immigrant novel and captures the estrangement of its central protagonist, who tumbles through adulthood. Meanwhile, Harding’s This Other Eden recounts the forced eviction, in 1911, of the mixed-race inhabitants of a Maine coastal island. It’s an ostensibly familiar tale of racial injustice, but its characters are rendered newly luminous by the beauty of his prose.
Moreover, each of the six novels possess a distinct narrative voice, using language and form in ways that feel particular to themselves. I reckon you could take a line from any of them and know instantly to which one it belongs. So who will win in late November? Murray is the most obvious choice, and would be a worthy winner. But I’d love to see Bernstein or Maroo triumph instead. Both, in my view, have written wholly original novels that, in their imaginative reach and concentrated emotional power, exemplify what really good fiction can do.
The Booker Prize will be awarded on November 26