Summer reading special: take the Booker Prize… to the seaside
From solitary escapes to idyllic resorts, join us on a trip through literature’s most compelling coastal tales with these Booker Prize-nominated novels
From adventurous pensioners to genre-bending excursions, join us on a trip like no other in the company of these Booker Prize-nominated novels
Since Jack Kerouac wrote the inimitable On the Road in 1957, and inspired generations of wannabe beatniks to follow in his tyre tracks, the road-trip novel has become a genre in its own right. There is, after all, nothing quite like the freedom of the open road, as Kenneth Grahame’s Mr Toad confirms:
‘Here today, up and off to somewhere else tomorrow! Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, and a horizon that’s always changing!’
For some, these journeys can be both literal and metaphorical. Take this year’s International Booker Prize winner, Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, where a road trip offers an unlikely protagonist the opportunity to come to terms with buried trauma. Others are quietly reflective, and some are downright debaucherous.
Thankfully, there’s plenty of great reading out there, which means you don’t necessarily need to take off to experience life on the road. Just sit back, and fasten your seatbelts…
The best road trips are always loaded with surprises. And what bigger surprise than a road-tripping octogenarian ready to take on the world.
In Tomb of Sand, headstrong pensioner Ma embarks on a life-changing road trip from northern India to Pakistan to confront the lingering trauma Partition left on her as a teenager. Clearly, this is no gap-year jolly and, heck, it takes almost 200 pages for Ma to muster the energy to even get out of bed. Yet her physical, emotional and spiritual journey is a deeply moving one, as she addresses the ghosts of her teenage past.
‘What is a border?’ Ma asks prison officers after being arrested for attempting to cross between the two countries without documentation. ‘A border, gentlemen, is for crossing.’ Her razor-sharp wit is her biggest weapon. When pressed for more detail on why she has come, she states, matter-of-factly, ‘I didn’t come here. I left here.’
It’s these bursts of humour and the novel’s wonderfully original wordplay that won it this year’s International Booker Prize. Frank Wynne, chair of the 2022 judges, said it ‘speaks to readers around the world about loss and love, exile and homecoming, the borders that constrain us - personal, political and geographic - and how they can be overcome’.
Our next journey takes us on the road to New York in a genre-bending piece of work that pays homage to Miguel de Cervantes’ classic Don Quixote.
Ismail Smile, an out-of-work travelling salesman and Indian migrant with an obsession for daytime TV, falls in love with one of its stars and sets off on a rambunctious journey to woo her. Despite never having met the object of his affections, he believes ‘love will find a way’ and sets off in pursuit in his bedraggled Chevy Cruze, with a son he has conjured up along the way.
Travelling through backwater towns in the true underbelly of the country, he lays his head in budget, fluorescent-lit motels:
‘The road was his home, the car was his living room, its trunk was his wardrobe, and a sequence of Red Roof Inns, Motel 6’s, Days Inns and other hostelries provided him with beds and TVs.’
Salman Rushdie’s 2019 Booker-shortlisted metafiction is a satirical journey through modern America, a nation where the streets are no longer paved with gold but overrun with opioids, racism, and the constant looming threat of the far right. Undeterred, Rushdie’s vulnerable protagonist clutches on to hope.
‘New York or bust. Start spreading the news. We’re heading there like everyone does, to be loved, or broken, to be born again, or to die.’
It’s slightly ironic that one of fiction’s most renowned road trips is no decadent tale of wild abandon, but a six-day, solitary drive through a bucolic English landscape.
‘What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.’
It’s 1956 and Stevens, a butler with a long record of service, takes a well-earned break from his place of work at Darlington Hall to drive through the West County to visit a former colleague, Miss Kenton. Throughout his trip, he reminisces on his loyalties and relationships. Oscillating between past and present, Ishiguro takes the reader deep on Stevens’ emotional journey as he deals with some hard truths about the life he has led.
Ishiguro’s Booker-winning novel was critically acclaimed and adapted for the big screen in 1993, starring heavyweights Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, and went on to be nominated for eight Academy Awards.
Take a hungover trio (and their tortured souls), some second-generation trauma, one lost-in-transit corpse, a borrowed hearse and a handful of illegal drugs. Wash it all down with some pisco on a bonkers voyage, and you have Alia Trabucco Zerán’s darkly funny debut, The Remainder.
Set in Santiago, Chile, the novel follows Felipe, Iquela and Paloma, as they try to recover the body of Paloma’s dead mother in ‘The General’, the funeral car they charter for their mission after her coffin gets lost in transit.
It’s a hedonistic journey, one which intertwines with the indelible effects of a period that has shadowed all their lives - their community’s recovery from the trauma of Pinochet’s dictatorship. But while the lasting impact of the tyranny that underpins the tale makes for some heavy reading, there is no shortage of genuine belly laughs.
Zerán’s novel was shortlisted for the International Prize in 2019. The judges called it ‘a lyrical evocation of Chile’s lost generation, trying ever more desperately to escape their parents’ political shadow.’
The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge (1974)
When Beryl Bainbridge wrote The Bottle Factory Outing, she rooted the story in her time spent working as a cellar girl after her divorce. Her comic noir follows Freda and Brenda, who work in a wine-bottling factory by day and share a charmless London bedsit by night. There is desperation in the air, but a work day out offers a slice of freedom.
Piling into a Ford Cortina and a Mini, the girls and a bunch of workmates set off on the road on a tour of Windsor. But tensions run high after an argument between the pair and Freda storms off - only to be found later. Dead. Unsure who is responsible or what to do, the gang bundle her body into the back of the Cortina and return to London, where they dispose of the corpse in a defective sherry barrel that will be discarded at sea.
Bainbridge’s novel is a macabre Carry On-style romp, described by the Observer as ‘one of the greatest novels of all time’. It’s funny in all the right places but tempered with Freda and Brenda’s heartbreaking hopelessness - the author’s deeply personal experience is almost palpable in their characterisation.
This was Bainbridge’s fifth shortlisting, and though the Coronation Street actor never won the prize, she remains a heroine of the Booker Prize Foundation. So much so, a special prize - the ‘Best of Beryl’ - was created in her honour in 2011.
Set at the end of an empire, Naipaul takes readers on a dangerous and uncomfortable journey through an African country that has just won its independence, in this series of interconnected travel vignettes with a novella sitting at its heart.
Bobby, a white civil servant, is driving back to his compound with a colleague’s wife after a work event. There is a heady mix of tension and hostility in the air of the fractured locale, which is descending into civil unrest.
‘The verges widened; a few tarnished villas were set in large gardens. There was a roundabout, its garden still maintained, and the highway entered the town. Cross-streets, each with a new black-and-white board bearing the name of a minister in the capital, could be seen to end in mud after two or three hundred yards. The town had been built to grow. It hadn’t grown’.
Their trip builds in suspense as they drive through areas littered with decay and townships burn in revolution around them. This is one race-against-time road trip where we wouldn’t choose to sit in the passenger seat, as Naipaul’s work casts an unblinking eye on the after-effects of colonialism. It’s a world away from travel blogs and glossy Sunday supplements, and though Naipaul’s pioneering form of travel writing was often terrifying, In a Free State finds the author at the top of his game. The novel won the Booker Prize in 1971.
Before Margate became famous as the home of Tracey Emin and the Turner Contemporary, it was just another past-its-prime location on the Thanet Coast. Yet that little seaside town’s pier played a starring role in Graham Swift’s 1996 Booker Prize-winning novel, as four working-class Londoners journey there to carry out a friend’s last wishes: to have his ashes scattered into the sea.
‘It was like a voyage, only the other way round. So that instead of the waiting and hoping to sight land, you were moving over land in the first place, all impatient, all ready for that first glimpse. The seaside. The sea.’
The group begin their travels from Bermondsey to the coastal town and Swift, in turn, gives each of them a voice to reveal their history and tell their story. Swift weaves slang and colloquialisms with a culture to bring the men’s tangled web of grief to life as he asks a seemingly simple question: what makes a life well lived?
Ultimately a morality tale, the novel was praised for its depiction of an ordinary life and his win cemented Swift as one of the finest writers of his time. The TLS declared it ‘his finest book to date; emotionally charged and technically superb’.