Summer reading special: take the Booker Prize… to a hotel
From hotels with unusual proprietors to the settings for passionate affairs, join us as we check in to some of literature’s most memorable establishments
From solitary escapes to idyllic resorts, take a trip through literature’s most unforgettable coastal settings with these Booker Prize-nominated novels
The humble British seaside. Its sun-soaked heyday may be behind it, but our love affair with the coast remains. Writers have always been drawn there, to its rock pools and sand dunes, to the rush of the tide. For Muriel Spark and John Banville’s characters on the brink, it is a means of escapism, for others, it offers reflection and renewal.
With beach season upon us once again, we’ve selected a list of Booker-nominated novels that are the perfect holiday backdrop. And while we can’t guarantee you’ll feel the sand, or even the shingle, between your toes, we know these literary masterpieces will transport you to the shore in a heartbeat.
Charles Arrowby retires from life as a top London theatre playwright and director, moving to the coast to write his memoirs. He buys a lonely cliff-top house called ‘Shruff End’ which gazes out onto the North Sea. His new home is damp and dilapidated, without electricity and Gothic in stature. It’s a world away from the swank of his life in the capital.
‘I lay there, listening to the soft slap of the sea’, writes Murdoch. ‘Of course the water is very cold, but after a few seconds it seems to coat the body in a kind of warm silvery skin, as if one had acquired the scales of a merman.’
The author’s descriptions are transportive; she details the rock pools and coastal wildflowers, the well-trodden cliff paths, the froth of the seafoam, and often, the rage that emanates from the belly of the sea, which seems entwined with Charles’ own emotional state. He envisions ‘a monster rising from the waves’ and - as he becomes consumed by his own vanity and obsessions - it feels like the sea intends to consume him, too.
‘At the foot of grey-brown cliffs a belt of shingle gave way to the sand on which generations of Dynmouth’s children had run and played, and built castles with moats and flag-poles’, reads the first paragraph of Trevor’s 1976 novel. But day-to-day life in this quintessential coastal town is not all buckets and spades, as the seaside silhouettes the bland life of bored teenager Timothy Gedge.
A socially inept loner, Timothy’s endless – at times sadistic – curiosity leads him to unravel some of the sleepy town’s dark secrets, leaving the residents deeply unnerved. Convinced he’s destined for better things, the teenager desperately wants to escape Dynmouth. He turns to blackmail, but eventually, his trail of destruction implodes.
Trevor’s beautifully rendered depiction of beachtown life, from the hustle of the amusements to quirky bathing togs, is often darkly funny, though it’s an anxious read. He skillfully builds tension as the reader follows Timothy’s exploits, right through to his eventual downfall. The novel won its Irish author the Whitbread Prize and a place on the 1976 Booker Prize shortlist.
First things first. It’s worth pointing out that this book was not the basis for the big-screen rom-com where the lovelorn Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet giddily swap lives. In fact, it seems that Stanley Middleton used a liberal dusting of irony when he came up with the title for his morose 1974 novel, set in a fictional town rather akin to Skegness.
Edwin Fisher’s beach getaway is a solitary escape to a place of childhood happiness amid a serious mid-life crisis - he is trying to come to terms with the death of his son while his marriage slowly unravels. Like Edwin, the resort is run down and fraying at the edges. We follow him from beach to bar to boarding house, where, on the face of it, not much actually happens. He gazes out through twee lace curtains and struggles to fill his days. Yet Middleton’s novel was never meant to be a vacation. This is a flight; a depiction of an ordinary soul trapped in an endless web of grief.
Middleton’s keenly-observed portrayal of a fictional seaside town, Bealthorpe, won the prize in 1974, sharing it with Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist. It was the first time such a double win had happened in the history of the Booker. Middleton went on to publish a mammoth 45 novels in his long career, which spanned 50 years.
This little novel on the missteps of young love, set over a mere two-hour period in 1962, is one of literature’s most memorable seaside stories.
It’s the evening of Flora and Edward’s wedding night. The rushing of the sea is within earshot of their hotel, as they prepare for their first night together as a couple. But their intimacy is interrupted by fear and anxiety built up over a lifetime. And what begins as a case of wedding night jitters leaves the new couple torn apart, before they have even truly got started.
‘Instead, he stood in cold and righteous silence in the summer’s dusk, watching her hurry along the shore, the sound of her difficult progress lost to the breaking of small waves, until she was blurred, receding against the immense straight road of shingle gleaming in the pallid light’.
The Economist said it was a ‘memorable exposé of how terrible wounds can be inflicted and the entire course of a life changed - by doing nothing.’ McEwan’s subtle articulation of the complexities of relationships was acclaimed and shortlisted in 2007. It went on to be adapted for film in 2018.
When John Banville wrote his 2005 Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sea, he set it in the idyllic seaside village he holidayed in during summers. It was ‘a direct return to my childhood, to when I was ten or so’, the novelist told the Paris Review.
Art historian Max Morden runs from the trauma of his wife’s bereavement, a death which has rekindled the painful memory of another trauma - the drowning of two friends on a childhood holiday. He attempts to reconcile both his past and present by taking a trip to the guesthouse he used to stay in with his parents, and Banville’s vivid use of imagery often serves as a metaphor, as the sea beckons our protagonist.
‘The little waves before me at the water’s edge speak with an animate voice, whispering eagerly of some ancient catastrophe, the sack of Tri, perhaps, or the sinking of the Atlantis. All brims, brackish and shining. Water-beads break and fall in a silver string from the tip of an oar. I see the black ship in the distance, looming imperceptibly nearer at every instant. I am there. I hear your siren’s song. I am there, almost there.’
The author’s work is a moving portrait of a man adrift. And yes, The Sea may be yet another novel with yet another middle-aged man retreating to the coast, hoping to find himself among the waves, but Banville’s story remains a tour de force of seaside reading. Professor John Sutherland, chair of judges, called it ‘a masterly study of grief, memory and love recollected’.
‘Teacakes were thus buttered and twirled in a paper bag and Lydia and Margaret took a train to Saltbeach and changed to the single track to Eastkirk and went slowly, see-sawing from side to side.’
Gardam’s coming-of-age tale, told from the vantage point of a closeted eight-year-old girl, is a beautifully evocative period piece set between the wars. Young Margaret has been brought up in a strict Christian family. Over the course of the gorgeous summer of 1936, her eyes are gradually opened to the big bad world that exists outside her puritanical home, through trips to the seaside with Lydia, her maid.
The author’s notes of levity alleviate the more downcast elements of the story, with classic dollops of British humour in all the right places - from the father’s hilariously unbridled bible-thumping on the dunes to the havoc Lydia wreaks on local men. And then there’s the local ‘madhouse’.
This is a trip back in time that shows the world through the eyes of a child, with her dawning realisation that the life she knows isn’t all it seems. ‘We are in the hands of a master storyteller’, wrote the New York Times of Gardam’s novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker in 1978.