The Golden Man Booker Prize: which book would get your vote?

The Man Booker Prize celebrates each year ‘the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK’. What is now a landmark literary event started in 1969 and to celebrate its 50th year, the Booker Prize Foundation has decided to award a ‘Golden Man Booker Prize’ to the best work of fiction to receive the annual prize from the last five decades, to be voted on by the public from a shortlist of five books chosen by the judging panel to represent each decade.

When the shortlist was announced a few weeks ago, my instinct was immediately that I would vote for Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient – a book which I remember savouring when it first came out. But I decided that, if I were to vote, I should do so from an informed basis – ie, I should read, or re-read, all five books first. This has proved to be a very interesting journey, full of surprises and new discoveries.

My re-read of The English Patient turned out to be much less successful than I expected. In fact, I couldn’t finish it. Perhaps watching the film several times since the book was originally published did not help – all I could see while struggling with the text were the iconic images associated with Anthony Minghella’s masterpiece. Of course the two represent the same story, but they were miles apart. I couldn’t get to grips with the writing – it seemed all over the place. Whereas I had anticipated enjoying a return to a beautifully crafted story, I just couldn’t settle to it this time around.

Perhaps I should have realised that my relationship with that book would be affected by the film. In general, I rarely read books where I have already seen a film version (and vice-versa) precisely because of this problem. And I began to fear for my re-reading of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Again, I first read this prior to watching the TV programme. So how would it be to return to the book?  Much to my surprise and delight, I found in this case that it was an advantage to have seen the TV programme. This time, I was able to enjoy the text with an image of the wonderful Mark Rylance as Cromwell in my mind. The text seemed to gain extra clarity as a result and I found it easier to read than before. I was really pleased to have returned to this fascinating and brilliantly-crafted book.

When George Saunders’ experimental book Lincoln in the Bardo won the annual prize last year, I tried several times to read it, but its quirky style proved off-putting. So I decided to try the audio version. After all, so many people had waxed lyrical about the marvels of this book, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Looking at all the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, it seems that the majority of readers absolutely loved this unusual and highly creative project. Unfortunately, I was in the minority camp. Yes of course the subject (Lincoln trying to come to terms with the death of his son) is moving and emotional. But I found the format got too much in the way of the narrative. The 160+ characters and all those source citations killed the atmosphere of the book stone dead for me.

Turning then to In a Free State by V S Naipaul, I was looking forward to reading this because its core themes (displacement, conflict, deterioration of a country) suggested that it is a book both of its time and highly significant for current times. I have read several modern novels dealing with these subjects recently and I feel that it is almost our duty to engage with such important issues, especially when, like me, one has the good fortune to live in a country which is not likely to implode any time soon (ahem, not mentioning Brexit…). Sadly, I found the two main characters to be utterly unlikeable, and dare I say it, boring. Perhaps this was part of Naipaul’s plan. I was expecting a tough read, but found instead a text which felt tedious and lacking in depth.

Finally, I came to Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger. This is another book which I had not read – in fact, I don’t think I had read anything by Lively, which surprised me. This one started slowly, so much so that I started to wonder whether to carry on with it. But the text proved to be one of those where you find yourself reeled in bit by bit, until it has woven itself into your being. Like velcro, its many tiny and perfectly crafted hooks increasingly clung to me and I found could not put it down.

So how is one to pick ‘the best’ from any selection of books? My starting point was to rule out The English Patient on the grounds that I couldn’t finish it. Next, I ruled out In a Free State and Lincoln in the Bardo because I just could not engage with them sufficiently. So that left Wolf Hall and Moon Tiger. Both books are exactly the kind that I enjoy most, ie they: change my mind about something; tell me something new; and/or reveal new depths and insights to an existing experience. It was very hard to choose and I would have preferred really to have voted for both.

In the end I plumped for Moon Tiger because, on this round of reading, it is the one which has most stayed with me, and keeps popping up in my mind. It is possible that I would choose differently another time, but there you have it.

On 8 July we will learn which book has been chosen by the public. It will be really interesting to see the outcome. Meantime, what do you think? Which of the five would you pick?

31 thoughts

  1. I also remember really liking The English Patient when I read it about 20 years ago, but maybe I would have a different reaction to it now – I should re-read, along with Moon Tiger, which I know I’ve read but can remember absolutely nothing about!

    We can keep each other company in the Lincoln in the Bardo minority camp – I didn’t like it at all, although I did finish it, which is more than I managed with Wolf Hall (blasphemy I know…)

    I’ve never read any Naipaul, so In a Free State could be the place to start 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • So glad I am not alone with LitB! As I mentioned in the post, I did not enjoy IaFS, but will be interested to learn what you think if you get around to it. I have Naipaul’s A Bend in the River on my shelf, so am hoping I get on better with that one. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I admire you ability to set aside time to read. Re-reading requires us to go back to time and place on our personal timelines. We are meeting ourselves at an earlier age and stage of understanding.

    Liked by 2 people

    • As usual, Becky, your comments are such a wise and perceptive addition to the discussion, thank you. I rarely re-read anything these days because there are so many new books out there to be discovered, so this was an interesting experience. I guess it is not surprising that books we first read many years ago have a different resonance for us years later. And vice-versa in a sense – I am finding that I enjoy books these days which would not have interested me when I was younger. As you say, our relationship with our previous selves is complex and fascinating.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The only one of them I’ve read is Wolf Hall, which I thought right up there with A Place of Greater Safety in her work. So I’m not really qualified to comment! But from a position of stone ignorance, I would be astonished if all of them are better than Schindler’s List. What is that not doing in the shortlist!
    I’m currently reading Carl Sandburg’s 1-volume biography of Lincoln, which abridges his 6-volume edition written in the 20s and 30s. It’s a compelling book, as you might imagine. Sandburg was a poet and the style is lyrical, at times in a captivating way and at times a bit irritating. John McCain recommended it in some interview he have about books in his life, which is why I picked it up. You might enjoy it – once you’ve read the 37000 books already on your “to read” pile!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I decided not to go anywhere near the ‘why these five books and not others’ question (I agree with you that there are others which I think should have been chosen), and just engage with the reality of the shortlist. I have A Place of Greater Safety on my shelf – in fact it was recommended to me about 100 years ago by the lovely Michael Kron- I really must promote it properly to the top of the TBR pile. And that Lincoln book sounds perfect – I was thinking about looking out a biography so my search is over – thanks for the tip! Two more for the tottering TBR…!! 😂😱📚


  4. Brilliant insightful reviews of these books and you give us a clear image of all the books, your feelings and it’s interesting to revisit them! I’m tempted by Moon Tiger … let’s see if it wins the overall vote!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I read the English Patient before seeing the film. I can’t say I was much impressed by either so haven’t re-read or re-watched. The book was a struggle at first until I got used to the different time-lines. I haven’t read any of the others in this list. I tried a couple of Penelope Lively’s books years ago but couldn’t get on with them. I ought to try again with something of hers. Both my mother and sister read Wolf Hall. My sister loved it and my mother didn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a great post, Liz, and well done on tackling all five nominees. The only one I’ve read is The English Patient and in a quirk of fate, I re-read it not that long ago and found it easier second time around. Your discussion with Clanmother on re-reading is wonderful and so right. I never re-read a book until the last few years and I find it a fascinating experience now. I suppose I can see the changes in myself reflected in my reactions to the book. But I digress! I can’t offer a sensible preference, having read just the one, and I do wonder at the choices here (but as you say, that’s not for this post). My idiosyncratic choice (despite not having read anything my her!) is Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger. She’s British; she’s had longevity as a writer; she’s written for adults and children. None of which is relevant in this instance of course! Plus, I think I would love Moon Tiger. I really must bump it up the list 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve been wondering about this same question, and finding it difficult to separate the exceptional books from the personal favourites and – in some cases – the books from the films. I finished with ‘The Remains of the Day’ in the exceptional corner and ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ in the favourites corner.

    I’ve seen much praise or ‘Moon Tiger’ but never read it, and you have just tipped the balance and sent me off to search the library catalogue.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I remember enjoying The English Patient when I read it years ago but am not sure how I would find it now, Wolf Hall I just couldn’t get on with. I do have Lincoln in the Bardo to read at some point. You mention in another comment that you have A Bend in the River, I remember reading and reviewing it (shameless plug alert), it was a really good read and well worth your time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have you to thank for ABitR – should have given you the credit! I am hoping to have a better experience with that one after the disappointment of IaFS. I’ll be really interested to see what you think of LitB in due course.


      • I haven’t been reading as much recently, it is almost two weeks since I picked up The Lunar Men so will really have to get back to that and then start getting the rest down. I really rated A Bend so hope after all my hype that you will do too, it’s a tough life with these first world problems.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I enjoyed Lincoln in the Bardo, but partly as I’ve been speaking about that time and those people for years when doing work-related courses and talks as it was a Civil War (Union) general who was the first person to be embalmed using something close to what we use today, and Mrs Lincoln saw this and so her son was embalmed, and Lincoln. I also liked the way the structure was different. I have read Wold Hall, but liked it on telly better, as I’m a sucker for costumes 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  10. What a truly thoughtful, insightful and delightful post. I am glad to know the context in which you read each. I loved Wolf Hall and Moon Tiger too, and I loved The English Patient at the time.
    However, I sometimes think the books that win awards are the ones that confuse the reader, and are therefore judged clever. (I once wrote a post about that but never published it — but you can see my prejudice.)
    There is something to be said, though, for reading a book in its time: Life of Pi had special meaning after 9/11; The English Patient had themes of war and great war-time relationships at a time when these were in the public discourse.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much Cynthia. I completely agree with you that some books are very much of their time. Sometimes this makes it hard to read them at the ‘wrong’ times; occasionally it can add to the discovery experience we get any time we look at a page – it’s a lottery which one it will be and that’s half the fun of reading!!

      Liked by 1 person

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