Shelter Cymru book club

Competition

Swansea's 'sisterhood' are the winners of the Booker Prize 2022 Book Club Challenge

For the first time, we invited six groups from around the UK to each read one book on the 2022 shortlist and share their views online. Now, the Booker judges have chosen the winning club

Written by Donna Mackay-Smith

Publication date and time: Published

Earlier this summer, we launched the first ever Booker Prize Book Club Challenge. In partnership with The Reading Agency, the competition invited book clubs across the UK to apply to join us in rating and reviewing the Booker Prize 2022 shortlist. As with all competitions, there would be a winner: representatives from the winning club would be invited to attend this year’s Booker Prize ceremony on Monday, October 17.

We were looking for a mix of groups that represented the UK as a reading nation; clubs that were passionate about books and had built a community together through their shared love of reading. Six clubs were selected by the Booker Prize judges from over 100 applicants and, after joining us at our shortlist announcement party in London on September 6, where the members met the judges and received copies of their assigned book, they set to work.  

The chosen clubs were: The Royal Devon Culture Club from Devon, who read The Trees by Percival Everett; Bridge Books from Northern Ireland, who read Treacle Walker by Alan Garner; Scunthorpe Pageturners from Lincolnshire, who read Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan; Casual Readers Club from London, who read The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka; Weegie BeeGee from Glasgow, who read Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo; and the Chwaeroniaeth club from Swansea, who read Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout.

Finalist book club The Royal Devon Culture Club (Exeter) at the Booker Prize 2022 shortlist event, The Serpentine, London
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by @elljay2012

In the weeks that followed the shortlist announcement, the clubs read, reviewed and discussed their books, sharing their thoughts and views online. The Booker judges immensely enjoyed seeing how all six groups responded to the books, often finding things in the books that the judges themselves hadn’t thought of.
 
While the judges concluded that each of the six groups deserved a prize, they ultimately declared the Chwaeroniaeth book club the winner. 

After being told her club had won, Michelle Wales of the Chwaeroniaeth club, which means ‘sisterhood’ in Welsh, and whose members met many years ago while working for the charity Shelter, said: ‘The Booker Prize Book Club Challenge appealed to our shared love of words, poetry and, of course, reading. Taking part in the process made us explore and question a little bit more and Oh William!, our allocated book, was perfect for this. It has opened a new chapter for the group with further ventures already in the planning. We are falch - proud - to be a small part of the avid and the enthusiastic readership in Wales. We thank the Booker Prize for providing us with this opportunity.’

See below to find out what our judges said about the winning club and the competition generally, as well as what the members of the winning club and the five runners-up had to say about their shortlisted books.

What the Booker judges said

‘As judges of the 2022 Booker Prize, we’ve spent the last nine months as members of a pretty intense book group. So we were eager to find out how the six book clubs in this new competition had responded to the works we had chosen for the shortlist. It was a relief to discover that all of them found that the books we’d selected merited serious attention and sustained debate. In many cases, a club had developed some of our ideas and reactions to a particular book further than we had taken them. They also raised issues that had not surfaced at all in our earlier debates, but which we shall certainly discuss at our meeting to choose the final winner. Above all, it was reassuring to discover that in every case the clubs found that the book was addressing questions that went far beyond the compass of the story being told. From which you will understand that, ideally, we would have awarded prizes to all six clubs.

‘We had, of course, to choose one, and we opted for the Chwaeroniaeth book club. What was especially impressive was their balancing of the intellectual and emotional demands of the book under discussion, the different ways in which they related the narrative to aspects of their own lives, and to their attempts to make sense of their own personal histories. There was a subtle analysis of how the author set out to win the confidence of the reader by an apparent simplicity of style, while introducing ever more ambiguity in key aspects of the story, and a sense of real enjoyment in being reminded how unknowable each one of us is - and chooses to remain.’  
 

Booker Prize 2022 judges with the six shortlisted novels

The winning book club: Chwaeroniaeth on Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

Taking to Twitter following their initial discussion of the book, members of the Chwaeroniaeth described their first meeting as ‘an intense two hours of discussing the first 85 pages of #OhWilliam’. They said it involved ‘animated discussions’ and a ‘heated debate’ but their different perspectives were ‘listened to and appreciated’. 

‘Less is so much more,’ said their member Sarah, on the author’s purposefully pared-back dialogue. She thought Strout was ‘an eloquent storyteller whose narrative is one of sense making’ and said the novel was ‘an exploration of human belonging & sense of purpose’. It was ‘storytelling at its finest’, she concluded.

Fellow member Michelle said the book was a depiction of ‘class in America and how it manifests itself in Lucy’s life’, while Liz said: ‘The language and structure of the novel felt like a conversation with a friend’.  ‘The book raises a number of questions on grief, loss, past trauma, poverty, class and authority’, she added, while saying she couldn’t put Oh William! down. 

For Winfred, the book, which is part of a series in which Lucy Barton is present, could have benefited from a little more back story, for any new readers: ‘I do think that as the third book in the Amgash series that some context as to how Lucy came to be in the place where she was in this book was lost’.

Steph said the joy of exploring this story with other book club members came from discovering ‘perspectives that were similar, different and sometimes quite the opposite of mine’. Jayne enjoyed the book’s ‘depth’ and felt its overriding theme was ‘trying to make sense of the human condition and our relationships’.

The Royal Devon Culture Club on The Trees by Percival Everett

As The Royal Devon Culture Club picked up Percival Everett’s provocative take on racism and revenge, all of the members were struck by the injustice at its core. 

After reading, Lyndsey said ‘this book holds a mirror up to pervasive, systemic racism & violence in the US’. She felt it ‘underpinned by real human stories’. ‘Not an easy read, but a must read’, she concluded.

Their member Tenzin, who listened on audio, said it reminded them of Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird, explaining, ‘Perhaps it is the racial discrimination and the justice part that has resonated with me which has not changed that much in today’s divided America.’ Despite its weighty subject matter, they said they ‘found parts of it very moving’. 

Their member Sharifa reflected on their read. ‘It took me a few chapters to see the humour and understand it amidst a challenging backdrop of an unfamiliar culture, yet the all too familiar experience of racism and how this manifests.’ 

‘I have placed the book back along the rest of my collection, not one I would have picked for myself, but very glad to have been given the opportunity to explore. I’m still musing on it and will no doubt pick it up again to look out for things I have missed. For now, Percival Everett has won me over with intrigue and a challenge I didn’t expect.’

Rachel said the book had ‘a style that is full of personality’ yet found other aspects of the novel a challenge. ‘The irreverent humour and short, sharp chapters make for easy reading of a very difficult subject, but unfortunately the unresolved questions which remain after having finished the book made it, for me, rather unsatisfying overall’

Amy called it a ‘provocative read’ that ‘jumps unflinchingly to the heart of the action giving an aperture on racial tensions in North America.’ It was the author’s writing that made an impact on Jane, who said ‘Everett’s talent lies in his ability to write incredibly powerful and beautiful prose which nonetheless reads easily.

Members of the club also appeared on the BBC Radio Devon Breakfast Show to discuss the Book Club Challenge (listen here from 1:53:10).

Scunthorpe Pageturners on Small Things like These by Claire Keegan

As the group began their club meetings to review Claire Keegan’s emotional tale set against the Magdelene Laundries scandal, their member Jamie documented their meet-ups to review the book and said their first impressions were both ‘moving and intense’.

After reading, Jamie said the novel ‘has a Dickensian concern with social justice and how kindness and love can change lives’. For their member Jessica, Keegan’s writing packed a punch: ‘The brevity of the book is impressive in its ability to say so much with so little. You get the sense that the author has chosen every word very carefully, to maximum effect. She weaves in and out of time, thought, and action effortlessly.’

He continued: ‘I thought the novel’s prose was wonderfully lyrical in it’s descriptions of characters and their everyday lives but also sadly timeless in its depiction of a community failing in its moral duty. Driven in no small part to fear of those, whose influence could cause unemployment in a time of recession’.

Elaine found it a trickier read. ‘Initially I just did not like this book, although I did like and appreciate how beautifully and accurately written the descriptions of the characters, the scenery, the daily life were’. Stephie thought it was ‘slow to start but was impressed with how moving it was’. ‘The subject matter is handled with sensitivity but does not hold back from making some judgements’, they said. 

Denise found meaning in the morality tale, adding ‘The message I took from the story is evil happens when good men do nothing’.

Casual Readers Club on The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka

@india.jwc Casual Readers Club @thebookerprizes - shortlist announcement part. #bookclub ♬ Selfcare-demo - Bella Moulden

The Casual Readers Club dived into Shehan Karunatilaka’s epic satire set amid the Sri Lankan civil war. Their member India ‘loved the self-deprecating humour and thought that the author painted a clear and full picture of his protagonist’. ‘What an interesting, nuanced, brutally honest and morally grey character. He’s complex, flawed and always up for a good time. What more can you ask for from a character?’, they said.

Rolakeosabia called it a book that was ‘Bursting with life (and death)’ and commented on how the author melded different genres to create an otherworldly tale: ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is an amalgamation of speculative fiction, historical fiction and mystery’.

Mutyas found the narrative structure, at times, a tough read. ‘The constant shifts in timelines and narratives makes the book feel disjointed but this seems intentional to the greater message of the book which I am still yet to grasp.’

Esosao said they were drawn in by ‘the world-building and loved the initial mystery and intrigue in the beginning of the book’, but struggled to connect to the novel’s protagonist. ‘The character felt underdeveloped and there was a definite lack of intimacy between the reader and main character - perhaps the second-person perspective contributed to this detachment. 

Lyzalawal noted: ‘It’s interesting how the political climate running through the book can be ignored, the same way in which we often disassociate from politics in our own lives and continue to trudge along.’

Weegie BeeGee on Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo

As the Glasgow-based club were allocated NoViolet Bulawayo’s tale of an uprising told through a chorus of animal voices, they mused on Twitter about how to begin: ‘A common #BookGroup quandary is when to start #reading: too early means forgetting stuff; too late runs the risk of not finishing! At 403 pages we need to read 50.4 pages a day to finish before our chat… We can do it!’, they said. 

After reading, their member Emma said: ‘You can’t help but admire the author’s ambition in attempting to tell such a “big” story about a nation and I came away from the book determined to read up more on a history and culture I have so little knowledge of.’

‘The joy of belonging to a book group is that you read outside your comfort zone, which can turn up gems. The reverse is true as well of course. Personally, I found Glory a struggle to read. I’m not keen on allegory, and sometimes the satire seemed rather laboured.’

Astrid commented on the author’s writing style and said: ‘Some passages were very flowing and there was a natural storytelling underlying the ambitious description of a nation’s resilience and repeated rebirth.’ 

For some members, this style and narrative structure proved challenging at times. Morag said ‘I did find the whole chorus of animal voices narrating the story slightly confusing and hard to get into for the first couple of chapters’ though she added that while reading, ‘that quickly changed’. ‘Yes, there are a lot characters but each of them is used with skill, purpose and intent.’

Member Claire was struck by Glory’s stylistic and genre-bending prowess. ‘It has splashes of farce, violent tragedy, trenchant political critique, and a rolling command of its postcolonial diction.’ For Emma, the book’s nods to current affairs made it an emotional read. ‘This is the first time I have seen George Floyd turn up in fiction, and I found that part of the book incredibly moving,’ they said. Member Jackie also commented on the book’s take on the fall of Robert Mugabe: ‘This book is ambitious in scope and yet remains a deeply individual study of suffering under tyranny,’ they said.

Members of the club also appeared on BBC Radio Scotland’s Afternoon Show to discuss the Book Club Challenge (listen here from 1:40:40).

Bridge Books on Treacle Walker by Alan Garner

Bridge Books took on Alan Garner’s fable about an introspective young mind, a book which the group called a ‘Marmite’ novel.

‘…it became apparent there are so many ways to interpret the book and everyone took something different from it,’ said Craftandbookjunkieni, on Instagram. 

Another member thought it was a book that benefited from multiple reads, remarking, ‘It’s a good thing that the novel is so short, because it bears (perhaps even demands) repeated reading to unlock its messages.’ Commenting on Garner’s prowess as a writer, they said: ‘Perhaps none of it is meant to make sense in the traditional meaning of the word. Rather, it’s Alan Garner’s meditation on time and existence from the perspective of someone who is 87 and has viewed the world through the prism of fantasy throughout his working life.

For some members, Garner’s liberal use of colloquialisms detracted from the story. Melissa said ‘This was my first time reading a story by Alan Garner and by the end I’m intrigued to read more! Does that mean I loved Treacle Walker? Not necessarily. Did I appreciate it? Yes. It read like a folktale, which I enjoyed and I tried to read it with a loose hold, not gripping and stressing, trying to understand all of the deeper meanings that must be hidden beneath its riddles and slang.’

Craftandbookjunkieni concluded, ‘I have never read anything by Alan Garner before and what an introduction this unique book was. It is packed full of mythology, folklore and has a fable feel to it. The prose is full of colloquialisms, local dialect, paradoxes and slang.’