We asked members of the Booker Prizes family - including several previous winners - to pick a single book from the Booker archive and tell us why they’re looking forward to reading it
The formidable ‘to-be-read’ pile. As book lovers, we’ve all got one. Some are towering: a guilty secret that grows larger by the day, side-eyeing you every time you cross its path. Others are small and efficient: a carefully considered, bare-bones collection, patiently waiting for their spines to be cracked.
And since a new year is the perfect time to refresh - or add to - that TBR stack, we decided to celebrate by inviting several Booker-nominated authors, translators and judges to have a metaphorical rummage through the hundreds of titles in the Booker Library, to pick out a book they’re planning to read in 2023.
So while we can’t help tackle any groaning book piles, we can promise to add some of the finest books in fiction to kickstart your reading journey this year.
Shehan Karunatilaka will be reading… To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
Having served my time in the ad business, collecting advertising novels has become somewhat of an obsession. Some may be silly, many may be shallow, but a few are rather good - though none as brilliant as Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris. It captures the sad, the absurd and the funny of being trapped in adland. Having read his short stories, I can confirm that Ferris is a class act who does jokes, pathos and surprises. I know next to nothing about the novel that was shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize, but it shall be my next read. When you find a writer in whose hands you feel safe, you’ll follow them anywhere.
The Elected Member seems to be one of those Booker winners to have since vanished from the public imagination, which makes it feel like a ‘lost’ Booker - despite its win. It won the year I was born, in 1970, which gives me a selfish interest. Both Antonia Fraser and Rebecca West judged it the best, and their tastes are as legendary as their books. More than anything else I’m curious about how a late 60s and early 70s eye viewed drug addiction. I am looking for humanity and I hope I find it.
The next book I am particularly looking forward to is Celestial Bodies, the 2019 International Booker Prize winner by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth from Arabic. I have already read The Bitter Orange Tree by this same duo and was quite impressed by both the lovely translation and the beautiful story. I keep trying to hunt it down in local bookshops, and it’s always sold out, which is a good sign, of course!
This year, I’ll be reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1979 Booker Prize-winning novel, Offshore, about an eccentric gang of houseboat owners, moored along the Battersea stretch of the River Thames. I found a second-hand copy with Giles Gilbert Scott’s old Battersea Power Station on the cover - ferociously pumping plumes of smoke into the London sky, rather than the serene shopping complex it is now! There’s also a character called Maurice who lives on a boat called ‘Maurice’, which is an idea that tickles me. Fitzgerald was apparently the compromise for judges divided between big novels by Naipaul and Golding that year, but I suspect she’s every bit their equal.
My fellow Korean science fiction writers would jokingly say we should refrain from writing about sex dolls because nothing good can come out of it: feminists and women readers, in general, will hate you while the other half of readers will misread you. And yet Jeanette Winterson has managed to write a Booker-longlisted novel about sex dolls, cryonic resurrection, and artificial intelligence all rolled into one - this is my next must-read!
Deborah Levy’s living autobiographies are some of the best books I’ve read but I’ve never read her fiction. I have a copy of Hot Milk but every time I’m choosing a new book to read, I look past it and pick up a different book. I’m nervous, I think: the fiction won’t be as superb as the non-fiction. But, actually, I don’t believe that - it’s just daft. Levy wrote, in Real Estate, ‘Language is a building site.’ So this year, I’ll be putting on a hard hat and I’ll be reading Hot Milk.
I’m looking forward to reading Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym. I loved her novel Excellent Women, which explores what we would now call the problem of emotional labour with great humour and gentleness - and also modesty. Working in miniature, with respect to characters’ emotional range, requires incredible skill, and I’m still trying to figure out how she pulled it off in Excellent Women without diminishing the novel or the characters in any way. Maybe Quartet will have the answer.
Almost 700 million people live in Southeast Asia, but before 2022, only one book from the ASEAN member states has ever been nominated for the International Booker Prize - Man Tiger by Indonesia’s Eka Kurniawan, translated by Labodalih Sembiring. Fellow Indonesian author Norman Erikson Pasaribu and translator Tiffany Tsao broke the streak when Happy Stories, Mostly was longlisted six years after, and since I’ve already read that (excellent) book, I might as well read the only other Southeast Asian book in the Booker Library and hope for more readers to unlock the awesome riches of this region in the near future.