Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2023. With tenderness and verve, Elaine Feeney tells the story of how one boy on a unique mission transforms the lives of his teachers, and brings together a community

Jamie O’Neill loves the colour red. He also loves tall trees, patterns, rain that comes with wind, the curvature of many objects, books with dust jackets, cats, rivers and Edgar Allan Poe.  

At the age of 13, there are two things he especially wants in life: to build a Perpetual Motion Machine, and to connect with his mother Noelle, who died when he was born. In his mind, these things are intimately linked.  

And at his new school, where all else is disorientating and overwhelming, he finds two people who might just be able to help him.  

The Booker Prize 2023
Published by
Harvill Secker
Publication date

Buy the book

We benefit financially from any purchases you make when using the ‘Buy the book’ links.

Elaine Feeney

Elaine Feeney

About the Author

Elaine Feeney is an award-winning poet, novelist, short story writer and playwright from the west of Ireland
More about Elaine Feeney

Elaine Feeney on writing How to Build a Boat

‘How to Build a Boat took many years, and several drafts. I was desperate to simplify it. I wrote much of it longhand and, as with all projects, there was a copious amount of research. But there was a moment where I said, it’s fiction, stop reading about boats.   

‘I am a ‘sudden burst of activity’ person, and then long naps. Much like my cat.

‘I live with my family in a small bungalow surrounded by fields and stone walls, it’s the house I grew up in. There’s a farm across the road and I look out the windows a lot. I write in the kitchen at a desk, watching the farmer’s cows grazing, or crows picking stones, or the rain – that’s never far away. I write with my back to the wall. But ultimately, I write anywhere. And when I get stressed, I take off for a walk or I jump into the sea.’

Read the full interview here.

How to Build a Boat by Elaine Feeney

What the judges said

‘The interweaving stories of Jamie, a teenage boy trying to make sense of the world, and Tess, a teacher at his school, make up this humorous and insightful novel about family and the need for connection. Feeney has written an absorbing coming-of-age story which also explores the restrictions of class and education in a small community. A complex and genuinely moving novel.’

What the critics said

Sue Gaisford, The Financial Times

‘It is a privilege to read such a novel, and it richly deserves its place on this year’s Booker longlist. It is suffused with generosity, wisdom and understanding, and with a recognition that everybody has a value – from the immigrant Polish family, enduring racist insults but insisting on justice, to the hopeless, tragic old drunk breaking into the back of the pub with his cronies to drain the last of the kegs; even to the pompous judge, insisting that his wretched, dutiful son follow the family line. And, at the end, the currach, destined to be forever in perpetual motion on the water, is finished. The year has just turned, the first crocuses are appearing and there is “a stretch to the evening’s light”. In a wonderfully poetic epilogue, Jamie takes the boat out alone, along the river, right to the estuary. James Joyce himself could not have written an epiphany to beat it.’

Publishers Weekly

‘The author has a beautiful, crystal-clear prose style that penetrates to the emotional core of her three main characters, whose hurts and desires are achingly rendered on the way to a quietly triumphant ending. Readers will not soon forget Jamie and his quest to make sense of a confusing world.’

London Review Bookshop

‘​How to Build a Boat is the story of how one boy and his mission transforms the lives of his teachers, Tess and Tadhg, and brings together a community. Written with tenderness and verve, it’s about love, family and connection, the power of imagination, and how our greatest adventures never happen alone.’

Malcolm Forbes, StarTribune

‘At one point in the novel, Jamie is at a low ebb: “I live in fiction,” he says. “My life is the plot of a bad book.” In actual fact, his skillfully depicted life is at the center of a wonderful book that earned its rightful place on this year’s Booker Prize longlist. Feeney doesn’t just track her young neurodivergent protagonist’s movements, she also takes us into “the crevasses of his busy brain,” capturing and conveying the thoughts and ideas that are “fleeting around” in streaming sentences or jaggedly lyrical phrasings. Equally believable are emotionally damaged Tess and “outlier of outliers” Tadhg. We follow all three characters throughout this affecting and compelling novel, hoping that at the end of it – like their boat – they will have a chance of moving forward without foundering.

Michael Duggan, Irish Examiner

‘Feeney has assembled a compelling cast of characters: tormented, even self-tormenting souls. The flaw in the novel arises from wedging these damaged outsiders into a bizarre, stop-start confrontation with the local forces of conservatism, coalescing in and around the school. How to Build a Boat is given an odd, dual existence as something like an old-fashioned English public school novel of the dystopian variety.’

How to Build a Boat by Elaine Feeney