Short books, books by Irish authors, debut novels, second novels, novels about family, politics and the environment – here’s everything you need to know about this year’s longlist
Strengthen your bookshelves, because it’s time to add 13 new titles to your to-be-read list, as the Booker Prize 2023 longlist is announced.
The 13 books chosen by this year’s judges are all linked by the quality of their storytelling, but there are also other things the books have in common. The titles are:
A Spell of Good Things by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀
Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry
Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein
If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery
How to Build a Boat by Elaine Feeney
This Other Eden by Paul Harding
Pearl by Siân Hughes
All the Little Bird-Hearts by Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow
Prophet Song by Paul Lynch
In Ascension by Martin MacInnes
Western Lane by Chetna Maroo
The Bee Sting by Paul Murray
The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng
Read on for 13 things you need to know about the Booker Prize 2023 longlist.
The Booker Prize longlist is a mix of experienced and fresh voices. The latter includes four debut novelists among the 10 first-time nominees: Jonathan Escoffery for If I Survive You, Siân Hughes for Pearl, Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow for All the Little Bird-Hearts, and Chetna Maroo for Western Lane.
Chetna Maroo’s Western Lane is the shortest novel on this year’s longlist, at 176 pages, but it’s not the shortest-ever nominated for the prize. Other compact books include Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, which is 132 pages and won the prize in 1979 – it’s the shortest ever winner. Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, shortlisted in 2022, is just 128 pages.
At the other end of the scale, the longest book on this year’s longlist is The Bee Sting by Paul Murray, at 656 pages, although it still falls a couple of hundred pages short of the longest-ever winner of the prize, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (which is 832 pages).
Mothers – both present and absent – feature prominently in a number of books on the longlist. Chetna Maroo’s Western Lane follows a family, and in particular, 11-year-old Gopi, after the mother dies. In Siân Hughes’ Pearl, eight-year-old Marianne’s mother goes missing; as time passes, the disappearance continues to haunt her life. Elaine Feeney’s How to Build a Boat is about Jamie, who wants to connect with his late mother Noelle, and build a Perpetual Motion Machine, while Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song is about a mother-of-four who faces a terrible choice after officers from Ireland’s newly formed secret police arrive to talk to her trade unionist husband. At the centre of Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow’s All the Little Bird-Hearts is Sunday, who lives in the house she grew up in with her daughter Dolly.
Water, islands and the natural world link some of the books on the list, perhaps unsurprising at a time when discussions of climate change and its effects – from increasing temperatures to the effects of flooding and the loss of land and species – are never far from people’s minds.
In Martin MacInnes’ In Ascension, Leigh escapes her unhappy home life through her fascination with the waterfront in her home of Rotterdam; she carries this obsession through to adulthood, where as a marine biologist she travels the globe to study ancient organisms, eventually joining an exploration team for a trench in the Atlantic Ocean.
Paul Harding’s This Other Eden takes place on an island enclave off the coast of America, while the protagonist in Sebastian Barry’s Old God’s Time has settled into a new home overlooking the Irish Sea, and Siân Hughes’ Pearl revolves around the tidal pull of a river.
Three of the novels on the list take inspiration from real life. Tan Twan Eng’s The House of Doors is about a lawyer and his wife who are visited by an old friend: the writer William Somerset Maugham. The book is also inspired by a real-life court case of an Englishwoman charged with murder.
Although Apple Island in Paul Harding’s This Other Eden is fictional, it is based on the real Malaga Island in Maine, which was the home of an interracial community from the Civil War until the early 1900s, when its residents were forcibly evicted. Siân Hughes’ Pearl takes inspiration from the medieval poem of the same name, which in the book is found by protagonist Marianne; the 14th-century poem is considered one of the masterpieces of Middle English literature.
Tan Twan Eng is longlisted for his third novel The House of Doors, which means he has been nominated for the Booker Prize for every novel he’s released. His debut The Gift of Rain was longlisted in 2007, while his second novel The Garden of Evening Mists was shortlisted in 2012. His connections to the prize go further; in 2023 he served as a judge for the International Booker Prize, which awards the authors and translators of books in translation.
With his longlisting for Old God’s Time, Sebastian Barry joins one of the Booker Prize’s most exclusive clubs: that of authors who have been nominated five times or more. The 10 other writers on this list include Beryl Bainbridge, Salman Rushdie, William Trevor and David Mitchell.
Perhaps echoing fears about corrupt governments and a pull to the political right across the world, a number of the books on the longlist deal with politics, both individual and societal.
Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s A Spell of Good Things is about two families in Nigeria, showcasing what happens when there is wealth inequality, an imbalance of power, and political corruption. In Paul Harding’s This Other Eden, the residents of Apple Island are threatened by officials who want to bring ‘civilisation’ to the area, while in Jonathan Escoffery’s If I Survive You, Topper and Sanya flee political violence in Kingston, Jamaica, but find American society treats them and their children with suspicion. Prophet Song by Paul Lynch takes place in an Ireland where the government is on the brink of tyranny, and society is collapsing.
The Booker Prize is open to long-form fiction, but other fictional forms aren’t far away when it comes to this year’s longlist.
The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng, as well as featuring William Somerset Maugham as a character, uses the writer’s short story ‘The Letter’, about the real-life Proudlock Scandal (where an Englishwoman shot a man dead in her house in Malaysia in 1911) as inspiration.
In addition, Elaine Feeney is also a short story writer and a published poet. Siân Hughes and Sarah Bernstein are poets too.
A longlisting for the Booker Prize is the second big literary accolade for author Sarah Bernstein, nominated for her second novel Study for Obedience, this year. The first came when she was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists; the once-a-decade list names 20 authors under the age of 40 who the literary magazine believes are the stars of the future. Bernstein is also the second youngest author on this year’s list, aged 36. (Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ is a year younger.)
Who said the second novel was difficult? Three of the books on this year’s list are their author’s sophomore novels: Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s A Spell of Good Things, Elaine Feeney’s How to Build a Boat, and Sarah Bernstein’s Study for Obedience.
Many of the books on the list prominently feature children and teenagers. Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting is about the Barnes family, including teenage daughter Cass, a former top student who is binge-drinking her way to her exams, and 12-year-old PJ, who is planning on running away from home. Western Lane is told from the point of view of 11-year-old Gopi, while 13-year-old Jamie leads Elaine Feeney’s How to Build a Boat. In Siân Hughes’ Pearl, the reader spends time with Marianne as a child and later in life.
This year’s longlisted authors represent seven countries – Scotland, England, Ireland, Canada, America, Nigeria and Malaysia – across four continents. Just two Americans, Paul Harding and Jonathan Escoffery, are nominated; this is the lowest since 2019.
Ireland is the most represented country on the list, with four authors nominated: Sebastian Barry, Elaine Feeney, Paul Lynch and Paul Murray.