Today, September 21, 2023, the shortlist for the Booker Prize 2023 was announced by the Chair of judges, Esi Edugyan, at an event held at the newly reopened National Portrait Gallery in London
The Booker Prize is the world’s most significant award for the best sustained work of fiction written in English by authors from anywhere in the world and published in the UK and/or Ireland.
None of the six authors has previously been shortlisted for the prize. There are two debuts on the shortlist; there is one British, one Canadian, two Irish and two American authors. Although full of hope, humour and humanity, the books address many of 2023’s most pressing concerns: climate change, immigration, financial hardship, the persecution of minorities, political extremism and the erosion of personal freedoms. They feature characters in search of peace and belonging or lamenting lost loves. There are books that are grounded in modern reality, that shed light on shameful episodes in history and which imagine a terrifying future.
The 2023 judging panel is chaired by twice-shortlisted novelist Esi Edugyan. She is joined by actor, writer and director Adjoa Andoh; poet, lecturer, editor and critic Mary Jean Chan; author and professor James Shapiro; and actor and writer Robert Webb.
The judges chose the final six novels from thirteen longlisted titles – the ‘Booker dozen’ – which were selected from 163 books published between October 1, 2022, and September 30, 2023, and submitted to the prize by publishers. All the shortlisted authors receive £2,500 and a bespoke bound edition of their book. They gain global readerships and a dramatic increase in sales.
The 2023 winner, announced on November 26 at an award ceremony held at Old Billingsgate, receives £50,000 and can expect their career to be transformed overnight. The winner will also receive a trophy designed by the late Jan Pieńkowski. In a recent public vote, the trophy was named ‘Iris’ in honour of the 1978 Booker winner Iris Murdoch.
‘The best novels invoke a sense of timelessness even while saying something about how we live now. Our six finalists are marvels of form. Some look unflinchingly at the ways in which trauma can be absorbed and passed down through the generations, as much an inheritance as a well-worn object or an unwanted talent. Some turn a gleeful, dissecting eye on everyday encounters. Some paint visceral portraits of societies pushed to the edge of tolerance. All are fuelled by a kind of relentless truth-telling, even when that honesty forces us to confront dark acts. And yet however long we may pause in the shadows, humour, decency, and grace are never far from hand.
‘Together these works showcase the breadth of what world literature can do, while gesturing at the unease of our moment. From Bernstein and Harding’s outsiders attempting to establish lives in societies that reject them, to the often-funny struggles of Escoffery and Murray’s adolescents as they carve out identities for themselves beyond their parents’ mistakes, to Maroo and Lynch’s elegant evocations of family grief – each speaks distinctly about our shared journeys while refusing to be defined as any one thing. These are supple stories with many strands, many moods, in whose complications we come to recognise ourselves. They are vibrant, nervy, electric. In these novelists’ hands, form is pushed hard to see what it yields, and it is always something astonishing. Language – indeed, life itself – is thrust to its outer limits.’
‘This is truly a list without borders. It includes a Briton of Indian descent, an American of Jamaican descent, a Canadian recently named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, and two Irish authors.
‘Though new to the Booker shortlist, all of these writers have been lauded elsewhere or in other ways. One has been longlisted for the Booker with a previous novel. One has won the Pulitzer. A third has just been longlisted for Canada’s Giller Prize. Another has been nominated, in translation, for the two most prestigious French prizes. The two debut authors have both won the Plimpton Prize, awarded by the Paris Review.
‘It’s a pleasure to be bringing their extraordinary talents and vastly varied styles to Booker Prize readers – and we can’t wait to hear what the thousands of members of the new Booker Prize Book Club on Facebook have to say about them.’
Real events and experiences inspired the shortlistees. This Other Eden uses the true story of Malaga Island as a springboard for a story in which an isolated community faces an existential crisis when white outsiders arrive to educate, study and eventually destroy them. Prophet Song takes Syria’s tyranny, unrest and refugee crisis and places it in a reimagined Ireland.
Questions about identity and belonging appear throughout the shortlist. Study for Obedience places its central character in an unnamed country where her ancestors have been persecuted and where the locals are fearful of her. In If I Survive You, Trelawny, born in America to Jamaican parents, struggles to work out how he fits into his own family and to society in general.
Several books on the shortlist feature families in crisis. In Western Lane, three British-Indian sisters are coming to terms with the death of their mother. In The Bee Sting, financial problems and dark secrets threaten to shatter an entire family. In Prophet Song, a mother struggles to hold her family together as Ireland slides into totalitarianism and her husband is imprisoned by repressive government forces. Two of the books, The Bee Sting and If I Survive You, shift between the perspectives of several family members.
The shortest book on the list is Western Lane, at 161 pages, while the longest is The Bee Sting, at 640 pages. The longest winner in the prize’s history is Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (832 pages, 2013), while the shortest is Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore (132 pages, 1979).
There have been plenty of accolades for this year’s shortlistees. Sarah Bernstein was named on Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 2023 list earlier this year. Paul Harding won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his first novel, Tinkers. Paul Lynch’s awards include the 2022 Gens de Mer Prize, the 2020 Ireland Francophonie Ambassadors’ Literary Award and the 2018 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award. Paul Murray’s novel, Skippy Dies, was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2010 and his novel The Mark and the Void, won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize in 2016. Chetna Maroo (2022) and Jonathan Escoffery (2020) have been awarded the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction.
‘A stirring meditation on survival and a pointed critique of the demonisation of the outsider.’
‘All of life is here in unflinching detail: the fragility of existence, the American dream and the road not taken’.
‘It’s rare to encounter a work of historical fiction that is at once so lyrical and so empathetic’.
‘Propulsive, unsparing and terribly moving, the book warns of the precarity of democratic ideals’.
‘A mesmerising novel about how silence can reverberate within a family in the aftermath of grief’.
‘Funny, sad and truthful. The characters, with their myriad flaws and problems, are unforgettable’.
‘I was trying to think through what it might look like if certain (usually feminised) characteristics associated with passivity could take on a kind of power, especially over the people reinforcing those sorts of gendered norms. That idea comes from the painter Paula Rego – that obedience can, in a sense, also be murderous – it can be harmful to the person demanding obedience. I was also interested in the question of innocence and the really bizarre expectation that, in order for someone’s suffering to be recognised as legitimate, that person needs also to be innocent – whatever that means.’
‘I’m interested in what models we have for being good men, and in what potentially damaging messages we send men about how to be in the world, and in how those messages get passed from one generation to the next. I also wanted to explore the question of whether fraught relationships between fathers and sons can ever be repaired, and the associated costs of attempting to repair them.’
‘The line I tried as best I could to draw between fact and fiction was the maybe couple of dozen factual details that most struck me in the limited reading I did about Malaga Island and what they subsequently led to when I imagined my way beyond them. From the moment the historical events began to suggest connections with stories like Noah’s Ark, the Garden of Eden, The Tempest, Sarah Orne Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs, Moby Dick, Harriet Jacob’s memoir, and so forth, I moved toward the purely fictional because I wanted a kind of poetic licence to intermingle the material with those influences.’
‘I was aware while writing this book that I was addressing, in part, a modern problem: why are we in the West so short on empathy for the refugees flooding towards our borders? Prophet Song is partly an attempt at radical empathy. To understand better, we must first experience the problem for ourselves. And so I sought to deepen the dystopian by bringing to it a high degree of realism. I wanted to deepen the reader’s immersion to such a degree that by the end of the book, they would not just know, but feel this problem for themselves.’
‘It’s fair to call it a sports novel. It’s also been called a coming-of-age novel, a domestic novel, a novel about grief, a novel about the immigrant experience. Recently a friend asked me if the book has something of the detective story about it, with Gopi trying to find her way, piecing together the clues of small gestures, actions and fragments of overheard conversations; she has little to go on and since she’s dealing with the mysteries of loss, there are no answers for her.’
‘More than anything, I wanted to write about climate change. That sense of impending doom is something that feels different to the nuclear threat and gives a tone to the present that is new. Climate change relates to the past, obviously, but dwelling on its origins aren’t going to help us. We really need to find a new way of being to get through it and we haven’t found a way yet of doing that. In short, what I’m interested is in not so much the past coming back, but the ways it obscures the present and stops us from embracing the future.’
Read the full interviews here
During the celebration at the National Portrait Gallery, guests were treated to a private tour of authors in the collection by Katy Hessel, art historian, broadcaster and the bestselling author of The Story of Art without Men. Weaving together the close bonds between visual art and literature, the tour included Booker Prize winner Iris Murdoch painted by the late Booker Prize judge Tom Phillips, Booker longlisted author Jeanette Winterson, as well as Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, and a large-scale artwork called Work in Progress, which focuses on women including Virginia Woolf and Booker shortlisted author Zadie Smith. Hessel’s tour was filmed and will be publicly available at thebookerprizes.com next week.
The National Portrait Gallery shop will stock the six shortlisted titles and will have 50 limited edition Booker Prize 2023 tote bags designed by illustrator Adam Simpson and featuring Iris, the newly-named Booker Prize trophy to give away to customers after the winner is announced.
Other stockists of the free bag will include a selection of Waterstones stores across the country and the six winners of the Booker Prize Indie Bookshop Spotlight competition to be announced next month.
Booksellers and librarians across the UK and Ireland are supporting the prize, with over 350 bookshops across the chains and independents, plus almost 100 libraries, having signed up to receive point of sale material to promote this year’s shortlist. Online retailers are supporting with a range of editorial content across their websites and social channels.
The Booker Prize Book Club is a brand-new forum for readers everywhere to discuss and learn more about the 2023 shortlist. Hosted as a Facebook Group, the Book Club is a space for readers all over the world to share their opinions and post reviews, to put questions to the shortlisted authors and to win a range of prizes, including tickets to our ceremony in November. Book Club members will also be able to access some of our original content, including videos and reading guides, before it appears on other Booker channels. Find out more here
There are a number of opportunities to hear from the shortlisted authors this year. On Saturday, October 7, the Booker Prize Podcast co-host James Walton will be at the Cheltenham Literary Festival to interview them, and to present the world premiere of this year’s shortlist films, starring well-known actors and produced by Sharon Horgan’s company, Mermade (Tickets here). The authors will also take part in the annual readings at Southbank Centre in London on Thursday, November 23 chaired by novelist Sara Collins, and feature in the Hay Festival Winter Weekend on Friday, November 24, in an event chaired by Booker Prize Foundation Chief Executive Gaby Wood. More details will be added here when tickets go on sale.
The Booker Prize 2023 award ceremony will take place on the evening of Sunday, November 26, 2023 at Old Billingsgate in the City of London and will be broadcast in a special half-hour edition of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row at 9.30pm. YouTuber Jack Edwards, known as the ‘internet’s resident librarian’ will host the official livestream of the ceremony across the Booker Prizes’ social channels and on his own YouTube account.
The 2022 Booker Prize was won by Shehan Karunatilaka with The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. On winning, according to its publisher Sort of Books, sales soared to over 100,000 across all formats. It has now been translated into 19 languages with another 10 in process. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida has massively outsold – by 2,000% – Karunatilaka’s previously acclaimed and prizewinning novel, Chinaman (Jonathan Cape, 2012).
Visit thebookerprizes.com for further information on the longlist, as well as entertaining content on the hundreds of books and authors in the Booker Library.
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