Looking to start the year with a book to put a smile on your face? We’ve trawled the Booker Prize archives in search of the wittiest works, from biting social satire to family farce 

Written by John Self

Publication date and time: Published

You might have concluded from some recent Booker Prize winners that great novels aren’t funny any more. It’s true that 2023’s winner, Prophet Song by Paul Lynch, is a story of fear and oppression – therein lies its power – and that recent shortlists have sometimes been light on laughs. (In 2020, choose between the ‘post-colonial nightmare’ of This Mournable Body, the climate change-ravaged The New Wilderness, and the alcoholism and domestic abuse of winner Shuggie Bain – though, like life, that book contains some very funny moments, too.)  

But if you’re looking for a book to cheer you up, the good news is that the Booker Prize has always had an ear for comedy as well as tragedy. Recent winners that are properly funny include Paul Beatty’s The Sellout – a blazing satire of racism in America – and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. And you don’t have to dive far back into the Booker Prize library to find further comic riches. 

Well-established comic writers have always featured in the Booker Prize, from winners like Iris Murdoch, J.G. Farrell, Kingsley Amis and Howard Jacobson, to shortlisted authors such as Beryl Bainbridge, David Lodge, Edward St Aubyn, Muriel Spark and Malcolm Bradbury. But for this list we’ve avoided some of the more well-known names and delved a little deeper into the Booker archives.  

Funny books illustration

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane (shortlisted 1981) 

There’s a whiff of Nancy Mitford in this deeply eccentric and caustically funny tale of a poor little rich girl’s upbringing in an Irish stately home in the early 20th century. Aroon St Charles, an unusually tall young woman coming to terms with her ‘ungovernable bosoms’, is surrounded by idiosyncratic people, from a father who doesn’t let his wooden leg disrupt his love affairs, to the cook Mrs Lennon, who avenges the paltry wages the family paid her (£30 a year) by not leaving any of her recipes after her death. Aroon’s cheerful rudeness about everyone (one character is ‘the right kind of moron’, another has a ‘tiny brain’) masks her own ignorance: the book’s deepest comedy is the dramatic irony of the reader seeing the truth before she does. As a taster for Keane’s wit, read her diary of ‘being an “also-ran” in the Booker’. ‘[The] superbly expressed comments on my book turn me giddy with pleasure – or, is it the whisky?’ 

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane

Sour Sweet by Timothy Mo (shortlisted 1982)

Hong Kong-born Mo’s second novel (his third and fourth were also shortlisted for the Booker Prize), Sour Sweet is a Dickensian romp through London’s Chinatown in the 1960s. It shows us in vibrant colour the lives of the Chen family, who come to the city from Hong Kong (making the book an early example of the ‘reverse colonial’ novel, where citizens of colonised countries come to live in the home of the British Empire). The comedy comes partly through culture clash and confusion: one character, Lily, is afraid to leave her home because she thinks Coronation Street is representative of the British people; later, unable to find rhinoceros horn in the shops, she substitutes it in her recipes with carrot (‘something she considered similar’). When the family sets up a Chinese takeaway, the kitchen is so tense that Lily’s sister Mui wants to put up a sign saying ‘MANAGEMENT NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR COOK’S COOKING’. The presence of Triad gangs in the community adds tension to the merry-go-round. 

Sour Sweet

Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler (shortlisted 1990) 

Canadian author Richler received his second Booker nomination (St Urbain’s Horseman was shortlisted in 1972) for this epic tale of a family’s absurd exploits over 150 years. It opens and closes with sightings of a large black bird with ‘an unquenchable itch to meddle and provoke things, to play tricks on the world and its creatures’. And so it does, from arctic explorer, church-founder and womaniser Ephraim in the 1850s, to Moses in the 1980s, a man whose ‘compelling’ ugliness makes him ‘not so much attractive as a case to answer’. This is a book of both anger and compassion but carried along with a comic exuberance that recalls the fluent style of other great Jewish novelists of the last century like Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth. But Richler has a pace and wit that is all his own, and the book’s length, as well as its characters’ overlapping tomfoolery, means it will keep you good company. A family tree is provided at the start: you might need it to keep track of the doings and don’t-ings of the extended Gursky clan – or you might tear it up and just enjoy the ride. 

Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler

The Van by Roddy Doyle (shortlisted 1991) 

As in Sour Sweet, a food business is born in the last and best part of Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy (following The Commitments and The Snapper). Its territory – working class Dublin life, told largely in caustic and funny dialogue – is one that we now take for granted, but that Doyle made his own. The Rabbitte family are at it again: at everything and nothing, from despairing over daughter Linda’s school report (‘Persistent in talking. Homework not done. Stabbed student with compass’) to glumly watching the local football team get beaten by a better one: ‘The last time this lot had seen the net shake was when their keeper farted.’ Even when dad Jimmy sets up a chip van with redundancy money, it’s not plain sailing. (Does the ketchup on the sign look too much like blood? he wonders.) It’s no spoiler to say that things don’t work out – but what a great time we have on the way there. Don’t feel bad for Doyle that he didn’t win either: he went on to take the Booker Prize home for his next novel, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, two years later. 

The Van by Roddy Doyle

The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills (shortlisted 1998) 

This extraordinary debut about a pair of fence-builders and their hapless foreman is comedy of the most brilliantly deadpan kind. It’s a world of manual labour where emotions are so unspoken that the act of turning off a radiator can seem weirdly sinister, and when someone says, ‘Mr McCrindle’s fence has gone slack,’ it detonates like a punchline. By the time a dissatisfied customer is accidentally killed and buried along with one of his fence posts (‘He was dead, wasn’t he?’), it’s clear anything can happen, and that we’re in a world closer to the funniest fantasies of Kafka than traditional English literary realism. But there’s something strangely moving too about the relationship between our foreman narrator and his reluctant, childlike workers. The 1998 Booker Prizer is sometimes remembered for Beryl Bainbridge losing out to Ian McEwan, but this unique farce would have been a worthy winner too. 

The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka (longlisted 2005) 

One of the most purely entertaining, silly and joyous novels nominated for the Booker Prize, this debut deservedly became a popular hit. A story about illegal immigration and the history of Ukraine sounds like heavy going, but here everything is played for laughs (to the dismay of Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov, who, missing the point, lamented that ‘this novel will not leave the reader any the wiser about the Ukrainian community in England’). In it, an 84-year-old man falls for an immigrant woman half his age with ‘superior Botticellian breasts’, much to the horror of his children, who spot the gold-digging tendencies of this ‘pink hand grenade’. ‘Please try to act like an adult for once in your life,’ says his daughter, who suddenly finds her liberal impulses reversed as she becomes ‘Mrs Flog-’em-and-send-’em-home’. On reflection, perhaps the book does have something to tell us about people after all. 

A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian by Marina Lewycka

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (longlisted 2010) 

Fans of Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting will be delighted by his earlier novel, which is just as funny and sad. Murray, as we know from Cass and PJ in The Bee Sting, is expert at rendering the confusions and excitements of adolescence, and Skippy Dies is all about those. It’s set in ‘the oldest Catholic Boys’ school’ in Ireland, where the boys indulge in classic schoolboy mockery: French teacher Father Green is known as Père Vert. At this age life is full of discoveries, from multiple universes to drugs to the girls of St Brigid’s, so it’s down to teacher Howard to provide some ballast from grown-up life. Even if the fate of Daniel Juster, aka Skippy, is foretold by the title, this is still a novel full of surprises, entertainment and pent-up energy. In this world, where ‘celebrity is the one goal truly worth pursuing’, children long to be adults, while adults want to be children again. One schoolboy, Mario, shows his friends his ‘lucky condom’ stored safely in his wallet: ‘It never fails.’ ‘But if it was really a lucky condom,’ asks one friend, ‘wouldn’t you have used it by now?’ 

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

The Yips by Nicola Barker (longlisted 2015) 

To say that The Yips is like no other Booker nominee is accurate but inadequate: it’s like no other novel at all – except perhaps another Nicola Barker one. The title refers to ‘nervousness or tension that causes an athlete to fail to perform effectively,’ and the central character of the book, the ‘repugnantly charismatic’ golfer Stuart Ransom, has it: he has the yips. It’s a book about how what you love can destroy you, about transformations, about women and their relationship to the home. And it’s populated with comic grotesques: an agoraphobic tattooist, a woman whose personality changed after being hit on the head by a golf ball, a man who’s had cancer eight times (‘once terminal’). The Yips is hilarious, bizarre, foul-mouthed and inexplicable, all the funnier for being set against the dullness of the generic hotels and multi-storey car parks of Luton, England. It opens its story mid-conversation and rewires the reader’s brain over its 550 excitable, absurd, surprisingly profound pages. 

The Yips by Nicola Barker

Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson (longlisted 2013) 

The supreme energy of this novel comes from its combination of comic scenes and big characters, all lovingly rendered in nutritious language. It tells us about Londoner Laura and her daughter Marina, abandoned by Laura’s husband and taken in by elderly Hungarian relatives, who treat Laura as ‘a puzzling pet’. These old, heavily accented women are half-grotesque, half-affectionate creations, people who ‘make the French look reserved’ and are never shy in offering young Marina their advice. ‘Vot-apity you don’t vant to look pretty.’ Both cartoonish and satirical, the book moves into another gear when Marina goes to a posh school and finds herself even more at sea than she was at home. Only someone like Mendelson, whose own relatives were Hungarian (well, sort of – there’s an author’s note about that), could write these characters with such balancing wit and affection. It’s a delightful farce of a book with hidden depths, reminiscent at times of Iris Murdoch’s funniest fiction. 

Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson

The Trees by Percival Everett (shortlisted 2022) 

Funny books can lower the reader’s defences and let serious stuff in, and if black comedy means making us laugh at things we shouldn’t be laughing at, then The Trees is one of the blackest and most serious of all. It takes the form of a police procedural in Mississippi, where two detectives investigate a string of killings that seem to be related to the (real life) racist murder of Emmett Till in 1955. But there’s something unusual about the victims (‘His balls ain’t on him!’), and the story is driven by jokes as much as by its plot, with characters named Cad Fondle, Hickory Spit and Helvetica Quip. Amid the darkness and anger at racism in America, Everett has energy to burn and never passes up an opportunity for a joke – however silly – often delivered in exquisite comic dialogue. ‘What’s your dog’s name?’ ‘Oh, he ain’t got no name.’ ‘Why’s that?’ ‘I don’t like names.’ ‘How do you call it?’ ‘Call it?’ 

The Trees by Percival Everett