Study for Obedience
by Sarah Bernstein
As the Booker Prize 2023 shortlist is announced, we’ve pulled together the most interesting facts and trends that have emerged in this year’s selection
The Booker Prize is the world’s most significant award for the best sustained work of fiction written in English and published in the UK or Ireland. As this year’s shortlist is revealed, we take a closer look at the six remarkable books and the stories behind them; their common themes and their many differences.
The titles shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2023 are:
Two debuts appear on the shortlist – Western Lane and If I Survive You. If Chetna Maroo or Jonathan Escoffery wins, they will become the sixth debut novelist to win the Booker, after Keri Hulme (The Bone People, 1985), Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things, 1997), DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, 2003), George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo, 2017) and Douglas Stuart (Shuggie Bain, 2020). No debut novels appeared on the shortlist in 2022.
None of the six writers have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize before – and only one of them (Paul Murray) has been previously longlisted. However, there are plenty of accolades among 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 previous novel, The Mark and the Void, won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize in 2016. Chetna Maroo (2022) and Jonathan Escoffery (2020) have both been awarded the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction.
Two Americans appear on the shortlist – Jonathan Escoffery and Paul Harding; the same number as last year. Two Irish writers appear on the list, one more than in 2022. If Paul Murray or Paul Lynch wins, they would become the fifth Irish Booker winner, after Iris Murdoch (1978), John Banville (2005), Roddy Doyle (1993) and Anne Enright (2007). Northern Ireland’s Anna Burns won the prize in 2018. There have been two previous American winners: Paul Beatty in 2016 and George Saunders a year later.
Two independent publishers – Granta and Oneworld – appear on the shortlist, with both having produced Booker winners in the past. Granta published Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, the 2013 winner, while Oneworld won the prize two years running, with Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings (2015) and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (2016).
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 husband and father is arrested and imprisoned by repressive government forces as Ireland slides into totalitarianism. In If I Survive You, Trelawny, born in America to Jamaican parents, struggles to work out how he fits in to his own family and to society in general. In This Other Eden, a handful of mixed-race families in an isolated island community face an existential crisis when white outsiders arrive to educate, study and eventually destroy them. In Study for Obedience, a submissive sister goes to live with and tend to her ailing brother. Two of the books, The Bee Sting and If I Survive You, shift between the perspectives of several family members.
Real events and experiences inspired a number of the shortlistees. This Other Eden uses the real events of Malaga Island off the coast of Maine, USA, as a springboard; Prophet Song takes Syria’s tyranny, unrest and refugee crisis and places it in a western European setting. On a more personal level, like the main character in If I Survive You, Jonathan Escoffery is an American-born son of Jamaican parents who emigrated in the 1970s and settled in Miami. Western Lane draws on Chetna Maroo’s own experiences of playing squash for many years.
Questions about identity and belonging appear throughout the shortlist. Study for Obedience places its central character in an unnamed country where her ancestors had been persecuted and where the locals are hostile and fearful of her. The main character in If I Survive You, born in America and whose parents are Jamaican, is constantly faced with the question ‘What are you?’, and struggles to fit in among his peers.
The two American books on the list begin with a hurricane. In If I Survive You, Hurricane Andrew tears the roof off the family home in Florida in 1992, on the day the main character, Trelawny, is due to begin Sixth Grade. In This Other Eden, Esther Honey recalls a devastating hurricane of 1815, which shattered the fragile island community where she and her family live.
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).
Writing a Booker-nominated book can take several years. Jonathan Escoffery says If I Survive You took 10 years to write. Paul Murray spent five years on The Bee Sting, Paul Lynch worked on Prophet Song for four years, and Chetna Maroo spent three years writing Western Lane.
Three Pauls appear on the shortlist for the first time. If Lynch, Harding or Murray wins, they will become the third Paul to win the Booker, after Beatty (2016) and Scott (1977). Two of this year’s Pauls have had an interesting career before becoming a full-time writer. Paul Lynch was the chief film critic for Ireland’s Sunday Tribune before writing fiction. Paul Harding was the drummer in an alternative rock band, Cold Water Flat, in the 1990s. Last year’s winner, Shehan Karunatilaka, played guitar in a 1990s alternative rock band, named Independent Square.