Wondering which of the 13 Booker Prize 2023 longlisted titles to read first? We asked our judges to summarise each book – and say what they loved about them

Publication date and time: Published

Over the past seven months, the Booker Prize 2023 judges have read over 160 novels, gradually whittling them down to a longlist of just 13 titles: our ‘Booker Dozen’. 

As Chair of judges Esi Edugyan says, ‘The list is defined by its freshness – by the irreverence of new voices, by the iconoclasm of established ones. All 13 novels cast new light on what it means to exist in our time, and they do so in original and thrilling ways. Their range is vast, both in subject and form: they shocked us, made us laugh, filled us with anguish, but above all they stayed with us. This is a list to excite, challenge, delight, a list to bring wonder.’

Below, our judges share their thoughts on each of the longlisted books.

Booker Prize 2023 longlisted books

A Spell of Good Things by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀

A Spell of Good Things is an examination of class and desire in modern-day Nigeria. While Eniola’s poverty prevents him from getting the education he desperately wants, Wuraola finds that wealth is no barrier against life’s harsher realities. A powerful, staggering read.  

Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry

A murder investigation leads a retired policeman to confront the loss and sorrow of his past. Barry brilliantly evokes the distorting effect of trauma on memory as we enter an easy companionship with his gentle, funny protagonist. Both the legacy of historic child abuse in Ireland and the enduring power of love are sensitively explored in this compassionate and quietly furious book. 

Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein

Study for Obedience is an absurdist, darkly funny novel about the rise of xenophobia, as seen through the eyes of a stranger in an unnamed town – or is it? Bernstein’s urgent, crystalline prose upsets all our expectations, and what transpires is a meditation on survival itself.  

If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery 

An astonishingly assured debut novel from Jonathan Escoffery, lauded by the panel for its clarity, variety and fizzing prose. Jamaican husband and wife Topper and Santa flee from the troubles of their 1970s Caribbean home to make a new life in Miami with their sons Delano and Trelawney. In the remorseless, laugh-out-loud code switching of the recently arrived, they attempt to survive America and each other, as the reader is confronted with the immigrants’ eternal questions: who am I now and where do I belong? 

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀

How to Build a Boat by Elaine Feeney

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. 

This Other Eden by Paul Harding

Based on a relatively unknown true story, Paul Harding’s heartbreakingly beautiful paean to Apple Island, off the coast of Maine, transports us to the unique tiny community scrabbling a living there – descended from trafficked Africans, immigrant Irish and indigenous Penobscot. The arrival of a well-intentioned though racist preacher brings with it the unwelcome attention of 19th century America, with inevitably disastrous results. The judges were moved by the delicate symphony of language, land and narrative that Harding brings to bear on the story of the islanders. 

Pearl by Siân Hughes  

Pearl, by Siân Hughes, an exceptional debut novel, is both a mystery story and a meditation on grief, abandonment and consolation, evoking the profundities of the haunting medieval poem, ‘Pearl’. The degree of difficulty in writing a book of this sort – at once quiet and hugely ambitious – is very high. It’s a book that will be passed from hand to hand for a long time to come.  

All the Little Bird-Hearts by Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow

Written from the perspective of an autistic mother, All the Little Bird-Hearts is a poetic debut which masterfully intertwines themes of familial love, friendship, class, prejudice and trauma with psychological acuity and wit.

Elaine Feeney

Prophet Song by Paul Lynch

Paul Lynch’s harrowing and dystopian Prophet Song vividly renders a mother’s determination to protect her family as Ireland’s liberal democracy slides inexorably and terrifyingly into totalitarianism. Readers will find it timely and unforgettable. It’s a remarkable accomplishment for a novelist to capture the social and political anxieties of our moment so compellingly.  

In Ascension by Martin MacInnes  

In this strange and wonderful world, every outward journey – whether to space or the depths of the ocean – is an inward one, as Leigh seeks to move beyond her troubled childhood. In Ascension is a Solaris for the climate-change age.  

Western Lane by Chetna Maroo 

Skilfully deploying the sport of squash as both context and metaphor, Western Lane is a deeply evocative debut about a family grappling with grief, conveyed through crystalline language which reverberates like the sound ‘of a ball hit clean and hard…with a close echo’.  

The Bee Sting by Paul Murray/node/2643

Paul Murray’s saga, The Bee Sting, set in the Irish Midlands, brilliantly explores how our secrets and self-deceptions ultimately catch up with us. This family drama, told from multiple perspectives, is at once hilarious and heartbreaking, personal and epic. It’s an addictive read.  

The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng  

Drawing on the life and writing of Somerset Maugham, The House of Doors is a magisterial and haunting tale of forbidden love and loss in the shadow of revolution and empire. This is historical fiction at its finest. 

Paul Lynch

Esi Edugyan on judging the Booker Prize 2023