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 moving tales of immigration to novels endorsed by former presidents, these Booker Prize-nominated titles will take you on a journey to the home of pioneers and adventurers
It’s the land of the free, the home of the brave, and the nation that ill-advisedly invented peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Above all, however, the USA is a country of unrelenting ambition and enterprise, the destination of the world’s pioneers and adventurers. It offers a palpable sense of promise and opportunity to all those who journey there - and it’s these stories we often see documented in literature.
With summer upon us, we’ve compiled a list of novels from the Booker Library to take you on an odyssey through America, past and present. From the bright lights of New York, down Hollywood’s boulevards and into the country’s recent, unforgettable, unfathomable history. Whether you’re taking a trip to the US on holiday, or just want to expand your horizons from your armchair, these Stateside tales are the real deal.
The US is a nation built on immigrants, and while each has a story, many remain untold. From the time of the Great Famine through to the 1950s, more than six million people left Ireland, most bound for America. Irish author Colm Tóibín chose to document one such experience in his moving story, Brooklyn.
With few prospects at home, Eilis Lacey crosses the Atlantic Ocean from Enniscorthy to Brooklyn, in the hope of a better future. Lonely, lost and homesick, she finds work in a department store and begins to build her new life. But just as Eilis is starting to feel at home in this new land, she is forced to return to Ireland in the wake of a family tragedy. She then finds herself caught between two worlds - and facing a heartbreaking choice.
Tóibín, who has been nominated for the Booker four times, vividly depicts the emptiness that accompanies migration and how difficult it is to outrun the pull of the familiar. The Guardian called the book a ‘compelling and moving portrait of a young woman’. It was longlisted for the prize in 2009.
Great Circle is a novel of two stories. One is of Marian Graves, a wild child who trains as an aviator before embarking on her lifelong dream of flying over the Poles. The other is of Hadley Baxter, a fading former child starlet in 2015, who embraces a comeback role to play the fearless Graves in a film depicting her life.
The novel takes us on an adventure through time and space as it maps the lives of the two women. We move through Montana, Alaska, New Zealand, London, New York, Seattle, and present-day Los Angeles. The detail of each location is vividly rendered, from 1920s speakeasies to the fickle world of present-day Hollywood.
‘People talk about the sprawl, and, yeah, the city is a drunk, laughing bitch sprawled across the flats in a spangled dress, legs kicked up the canyons, skirt spread over the hills, and she’s shimmering, vibrating, ticklish with light.’
Shipstead weaves her two complex storylines into a tale that documents the resilience needed to be a woman, then and now. Her debut, Seating Arrangements, was a New York Times bestseller in 2012 and won the Dylan Thomas Prize and LA Times Book Prize for First Fiction.
She was, of course, already on the map, but Great Circle cemented Shipstead’s place as an accomplished novelist. It made the Booker shortlist in 2021 and the Women’s Prize shortlist in 2022.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016)
‘America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes - believes with all its heart - that it is their right to take the land.’
Colson Whitehead doesn’t pull any punches in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which reimagines the metaphorical Underground Railroad, a 19th century network of safe houses and abolitionists spread across the country that offered safe passage to fugitive slaves.
In Whitehead’s novel, Cora escapes the Georgian cotton plantation where she was born in a bid to reconnect with her mother. She rides the Underground Railroad, now a literal underground transportation system that connects the safe houses by secret subterranean routes. Desperately hoping it will lead to her freedom, she journeys across state lines while being pursued by a slave catcher.
Whitehead’s work is gut-wrenching and at times distressing, but an essential reminder of America’s recent, grim past. Each page pulsates with anger and a palpable fury at the blood on America’s hands. Yet despite this, the novel is interspersed with hope. The hope that just one small girl can beat the system, and escape one of history’s bleakest periods unscathed.
This genre-bending work - where it’s hard to tell where the line between reality and fantasy lies - was longlisted for the prize in 2017 and became a bestseller, picking up multiple awards. In 2019 it was ranked 30th on The Guardian’s list of the 100 best books of the 21st century.
George Walker is walking with trepidation through the woods, tracking an ‘animal that had eluded him since childhood’. It is ‘black in colour, known to stand on two feet but usually four’. But instead of the monster that plagues his dreams, he stumbles upon two brothers, Prentiss and Landry, recently freed from enslavement and now starving and homeless.
George offers the brothers paid work on his farm in Georgia, which causes friction with neighbouring landowners. This is the Deep South during America’s Reconstruction, a period in history after the Emancipation Proclamation. A time when everything was uncertain and trauma lingered around every corner.
Harris’s characters are flawed and complicated. They are creatures of their time, trying to reconcile the past with the present. His avoidance of stereotypes allows us to see, through a white family of landowners, a time when the reality of emancipation was just as brutal as enslavement.
Harris’s accomplished and lyrical debut hit bestseller lists upon release. Barack Obama picked it for his summer reading list in 2021, and it was an Oprah Book Club pick that year, too. It made the Booker shortlist and the judges said the debut astonished them ‘as much for its wise, lyrical voice as for its dense realisation of a fictional small town in the American South at a rarely written about moment’.
Three friends from Brown University are coming up to their big 3-0 in Manhattan, 2001. Marina, an ‘it girl’ and the daughter of a legendary journalist, still lives with her parents on the Upper West Side as she struggles to finish her book. Danielle is a TV producer, unable to make it in the world of documentary. Julias is a freelance reviewer for the Village Voice, struggling to make ends meet.
Propped up by their egos and privilege, all were convinced they were going to change the world. We follow them as they luxuriate over dinners in The Big Apples’s most fashionable restaurants and risk sexual encounters in the bathrooms of cocktail bars. And slowly, each experiences the dawning realisation that nepotism and inheritance will only get you so far.
Messud’s novel is the lovechild of a bougie Friends crossed with Succession. Compelling, yet often hugely unlikeable, her neurotic characters reveal an emptiness that is, at times, palpable. The author holds up a mirror to America’s metropolitan elite, questioning the endurance of power, politics and money.
Claire Messud was named on the 2003 Granta Best of Young British Novelists list and USA Today called her writing ‘vivid’ and ‘juicy’. The Emperor’s Children grabbed a spot on the Booker longlist in 2006, the same year The New York Times named it one of the ten best books of the year.
The Long Take by Robin Robertson (2018)
Walker is a D-Day vet suffering from PTSD, his life irrevocably changed by the war. He eschews a return to his native Nova Scotia, and instead travels across the US in a bid to piece his life back together.
As Walker treads the streets from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco, this story of one man’s recovery is also an elegy to post-war America, its cities deeply divided and in a state of reparation.
‘I wanted to write about an outsider… coming to this land of opportunity and finding a country that had won the war but was destroying itself and its people,’ Robertson told us when he was shortlisted for the Booker in 2018.
In The Long Take he chooses to follow traditional novelistic convention with a narrative arc, but the poetic prose pushes storytelling’s boundaries. It takes some guts to write an unclassifiable novel-length poem but, as Robertson shows, taking a big risk in a world of homogeneity pays off. The result is both jarring and packed with breath-taking beauty.
‘He’d sleep out on the roof, these nights and stare at this city / that’s too big to measure, / has too many windows to watch.’
The Long Take won the Goldsmiths Prize, Walter Scott Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The Financial Times said it was ‘a work of art, this dreamlike exploration is a triumph; as a timely allegory, it is disturbingly profound… One of the first major achievements of 21st-century English-language literature.’