10 of the best very short books from the Booker Library
From classics to contemporary, we’ve compiled a selection of Booker-nominated novels that make a big impact in around 200 pages or less. They may be small, but they’re perfectly formed
From multi-generational epics to expansive masterpieces, we’ve compiled a selection of Booker-nominated novels that stretch to 500 pages or more. They may look intimidating but these immersive literary tomes are well worth your time
Do you like the challenge of reading a great big doorstopper? While bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, some authors such as Iris Murdoch, Timothy Mo, Peter Carey, Nicola Barker and Clemens Meyer have excelled at the form of long fiction and they’ve all had multiple such novels listed for the Booker Prize. Other authors gave their Booker-nominated epics ironic titles such as A Brief History of Seven Killings, A Fraction of the Whole or A Little Life, despite each novel running for many hundreds of pages.
In Yann Martel’s 2002 Booker Prize winner Life of Pi the hero comments, ‘My greatest wish — other than salvation — was to have a book. A long book with a never-ending story. One I could read again and again, with new eyes and a fresh understanding each time.’ Surely any reader stranded on a lifeboat for an extended period would wish for the same! Though losing yourself in a great expansive novel can be an enriching experience, our time is finite, so choosing the right longer reads is important.
It’s understandable that some readers are hesitant to begin a big book because it demands a sizeable time commitment. It can be disappointing to have spent weeks, months or even years reading an enormous title only to find it lacking. Devotedly reading such a monumental text you may even feel inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt even if you’ve not enjoyed it. As E. M. Forster once stated, ‘Long books, when read, are usually overpraised, because the reader wishes to convince others and himself that he has not wasted his time.’ Conversely, if a reader falls in love with a long book he will be glad that there are many more pages to enjoy.
Let there be no such ambiguity about the quality offered by this list. I’ve selected 12 big books from the Booker archives that are truly worthy of your time, each one delivering an absorbing and enriching read. Every title is over 500 pages long which I believe makes it worthy of being designated as a big book. These are all novels which are enhanced by their considerable length. Their sustained storytelling grants the reader an all-consuming experience to be savoured over multiple days and nights.
When Lucy Ellmann took the stage at the 2019 Booker Prize ceremony to receive a special edition of her shortlisted novel, she pretended it was too heavy to lift. The book’s considerable girth has been a frequent topic of discussion because, at over 1000 pages, this is the longest title to have ever been listed for the Booker. The story covers only a few days in the life of its protagonist, who runs a baking business out of her home, in addition to being a busy wife and mother of four. Her stream of thoughts includes a range of subjects, such as her personal past, her immediate family life, local news, political divisions in America and global environmental concerns. In this accumulation of detail, which veers from the comic to the profound, the novel builds a hypnotic rhythm. It forms a monumental portrait of one woman’s life and how she feels burdened with the weight of the modern world on her shoulders. Running parallel to her account is the surprising tale of a mountain lion which gives an entirely different perspective on motherhood.
It takes a long novel to fully describe the many complicated issues which bind and divide a family. At the heart of this multi-generational saga is 79-year-old Parsi widower Nariman Vakeel. His multiple health problems force him to rely on his adult children – none of whom are keen to accept the responsibility of his care because of economic hardships and lingering resentments about Nariman’s past actions. This novel realistically captures all the challenging pressures and unexpected comedy which arises from a big family living in cramped quarters while also presenting an expansive portrait of modern Bombay. This is a heart-rending depiction of the struggle to maintain dignity and ideals in such strained circumstances. As a retired teacher of English, Nariman’s bountiful knowledge of literature elegantly informs the story and presents a highly original modern version of King Lear. All three of Mistry’s novels to date have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. But, given that Family Matters remains his most recent book, having made the 2002 shortlist, his fans are eagerly awaiting his next.
In 2013, Eleanor Catton made history when she became the youngest winner of the Booker Prize (at 28 years old) and for what was then the longest novel to have ever won the award. Clocking in at 832 pages, The Luminaries is a historical epic set in a New Zealand gold mining town in the mid-19th century. Its thrilling and intricate plot includes deceit, greed, ambition, sailing adventures, hidden fortunes, familial strife, swapped identities, self reinvention, wacky séances, dirty deals, murder, prostitution and the opium trade. The novel also has an intricate structure with characters who are paired with different signs of the zodiac and planets. However, no knowledge of Western astrology is needed to appreciate the story’s many compelling and psychologically-rich mysteries, including figures such as a dead hermit, a missing affluent miner, an enigmatic widow and a suspicious scarred captain. The sense of suspense is enhanced by sections which become increasingly shorter as the novel reaches its tantalising conclusion.
Nobel Prize-winning author Patrick White’s novel The Twyborn Affair was originally shortlisted for the 1979 Booker Prize, but the author asked that it be removed from consideration to make way for younger writers. However, White’s longest novel, The Vivisector, was posthumously selected for the shortlist of the Lost Man Booker Prize of 1970. The story concerns the life and creative journey of Hurtle Duffield who is born to a poor Australian family, adopted by a wealthy couple and rises to become a highly successful artist. Amidst his encounters with an array of charismatic figures, the novel poignantly considers whether it’s possible to dedicate oneself to artistic creation whilst also living as a fully rounded person. As his life progresses, the author increasingly keys us into commentary about Duffield, from those around him adding to his sense of isolation. In doing so, White captures the perilous loneliness which might be encountered by those who cruelly analyse other people for a higher purpose.
This impressive fictional chronicle of the 21st century is so big that it required two translators. Originally published to great acclaim in Germany and subsequently listed for the 2020 International Booker Prize, the story balances an overview of large-scale political and social changes alongside recounting the personal fortunes and failures of a particular family. It begins in the country of Georgia with a master confectioner who possesses a secret recipe for irresistible hot chocolate. His descendants become involved in all levels of society, from a commander in Trotsky’s Red Army, to the mistress of a fearsome leader, to a defector fighting for Georgian independence, to a singer who becomes a symbol of political resistance. At the heart of the book is Stasia, who possesses superstitious beliefs about the cursed nature of the family’s chocolate recipe and sees the ghosts of dead relatives. The novel is truly epic in showing how family stories are built upon the tales of past generations and how radical transitions in society can result in innumerable instances of personal strife.
The concept of the multiverse might have been popularised by Marvel, but it is also elegantly portrayed in this literary novel listed for the 2017 Booker Prize. American author Paul Auster has frequently explored how the element of chance impacts a person’s life and this great big coming-of-age tale is his magnum opus. It traces how seemingly small changes in the life of the novel’s young hero, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, can lead to radically different outcomes. Following one early disruptive accident, the book branches out to follow four different possible lives Archibald might lead as he navigates the politically tumultuous 1960s. The narrative frequently alternates between these timelines so the reader experiences them all simultaneously. Though this sounds confusing, Auster deftly handles transitions between these possible paths playfully showing certain parallels alongside radical divergences. Different events not only affect Archibald’s life but also those around him, most notably his parents. The result is both comic and moving, whilst raising compelling questions about the nature of personality and fate.
This seminal historical novel won the 2009 Booker Prize, inaugurating Mantel’s trilogy fictionalising the life of Thomas Cromwell, the 16th century English statesman and lawyer who rapidly rose to power in the court of Henry VIII. The second book, Bring Up the Bodies, won the 2012 Booker Prize and the third book, The Mirror & the Light, was listed for the 2020 Booker Prize. These closely linked novels have an impressive combined length of 2,009 pages. While each book can certainly be read in isolation, it is advisable to start with Wolf Hall, where it all begins with Cromwell as an abused and vulnerable boy. This casts a shadow over the rest of his fascinating life and informs later scenes as Cromwell carefully navigates the choppy waters of court life, serving Henry VIII and being a key negotiator of the English Reformation. Mantel portrays his resilience, innate intelligence and ability to use his ingenious political skills to execute the King’s will where many of his predecessors failed.
It takes some chutzpah to use Shakespearean plots in a modern story, but if any author had the intelligence and talent to pull this off it was Murdoch. Listed for the Lost Man Booker Prize of 1970 this novel is reminiscent of Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream but it also bears the influence of other Shakespearean drama and classical references. The effect is a highly entertaining exploration of the meaning of love and a range of philosophical issues through the lives of several friends, family members and spouses in contemporary London. Julius King acts as an agent of chaos meddling in the relationships of several people including Simon and Axel, one of the most sympathetically portrayed longterm gay couples in literature. This depiction is particularly significant given that it was first published only a few years after the decriminalisation of private sexual acts between adult men in England. Though Murdoch won the 1978 Booker Prize for her novel The Sea, The Sea, this earlier title remains a popular favourite.
A longer novel has enough room to contain multiple fully-realised stories. Shortlisted for the 2004 Booker Prize, Mitchell’s kaleidoscopic Cloud Atlas contains six interconnected stories of different genres set over different time periods, from a mid-19th century high seas adventure to a post-apocalyptic distant future where an old man recalls the fall of civilization as we know it. These tales nest within one another like Matryoshka dolls to produce a fantastic effect, combining for an overall message about the universality of human nature and society’s wayward progress. Though each has their own quirks and personalities, the central characters of these stories share a distinctive birthmark and can be viewed as a reincarnation of the same individual in different forms. Impressively, this elaborate concept doesn’t distract from the immense pleasure and suspense of this riveting reading experience. It was also turned into an equally ambitious 2012 film with an all-star cast, written and directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer. Recently, Shehan Karunatilaka cited Mitchell’s novel as having a big influence on his novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, winner of the 2022 Booker Prize.
Even though Ma is this novel’s central character, she spends the first 175 pages silently turned away from both the reader and her family members who anxiously buzz around her. As a widow in mourning she chooses not to converse with others, but people flock to her bedside as they believe that her cane decorated with butterflies has magical properties. Much to her family’s consternation, she then sets out on a quest to visit her homeland that is now known as Pakistan. In the process, she revisits her painful childhood which was disrupted by Partition. This book is packed with a profusion of wonderful detail which fully evokes the sensory experience of modern Indian life. The narrative perspective frequently shifts between different family members as well as groups including a flock of crows and renowned writers. This not only gives a rounded point of view on the story, but tests the meaning of boundaries between individuals, nations, genders, classes and religions. This winner of the 2022 International Booker Prize inventively shows how these are social constructs which might physically constrict us and inhibit our empathy. People are conditioned to believe these borders actually exist but through the story we experience Ma’s one-woman rebellion against these imaginary dividing lines.
Though Burgess may be most famous for writing the dystopian satire A Clockwork Orange, this saga, shortlisted for the 1980 Booker Prize, is considered by many to be his masterpiece. Its unreliable narrator is 81-year-old homosexual English novelist Kenneth Toomey who has retired in Malta to luxuriate in his literary notoriety with his much younger and distempered secretary/lover. When an archbishop invites him to assist in the process of canonisation of Toomey’s brother-in-law, who was the late Pope Gregory XXVII, he reflects on their lives and experiences which span most of the 20th century. Both men wield different forms of power while pursuing seemingly antithetical careers in the arts and the church. Through many humorous episodes he considers social and moral issues within literary circles, religion, politics and relationships, while crossing paths with famous figures from James Joyce to James Baldwin. Toomey admits to being foggy about details so his recollections are probably based as much in fantasy as they are in memory, but this novel revels in juggling the truth while delivering a riveting story with tremendous emotional weight.
Clarke’s enormous and immersive novel can be categorized as fantasy given that it focuses so much on magic and creates an alternative 19th century English history. Indeed, it won multiple major fantasy book prizes in addition to receiving the attention of literary awards, including a place on the shortlist for the 2004 Booker Prize. The novel also draws on Romantic literary traditions, using a pastiche of styles, from the clever wit of Jane Austen to the social realism of Charles Dickens. In doing so Clarke produces a captivating tale of competition and friendship following the first two ‘practical magicians’ England has seen in centuries. There is the highly educated and reserved Gilbert Norrell and the young and charming Jonathan Strange. As they become involved with the conflict and politics surrounding the Napoleonic Wars, they are also plunged into grander supernatural battles. The drama of this sweeping tale raises issues surrounding racial tensions and the hereditary ruling classes in a way which inspires serious contemplation as well as a dazzling sense of wonder.