Booker Prize 2023: A Look at the Shortlist
By Jamie Fowler, Benedetta Giordani, Maria Sadek, Grace Briggs-Jones & Clara Garnier-Barsanti
It’s that time of year again. The shortlist for one of the most prestigious literary accolades in the world, the Booker Prize, has finally been announced for 2023. Awarded to a piece of long-form fiction written in the English language, the Booker Prize has a five-decade history rooted in promoting contemporary fiction and its readership. There are six authors vying for the pedigree of calling themselves a Booker Prize winner, as well as the £50,000 prize winnings and the dramatic increase in sales expected from being named in this list. None of those shortlisted have ever been named previously, and for two of them, it marks their debut novels. All these stories respond to deep social concerns and resonate with modern struggles, highlighting literature’s power as a vehicle for untangling the uncertainties of an often beautiful yet terrifying world. Esi Edugyan is the chair for the prize this year, supported by judges Adjoa Andoh, Mary Jean Chan, James Shapiro and Robert Webb, who together have the difficult task of selecting a winner to be announced on 26 November at Old Billingsgate, London. Without further ado, here are the final nominees…
First up, The Bee Sting by Paul Murray. Defined as a “tragicomic triumph”, the novel details the struggles of a well-to-do Irish family following the 2008 financial crash. Murray's debut novel (An Evening of Long Goodbyes, 2003) was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award and his following two novels (Skippy Dies and The Mark and the Void) were both highly praised by critics. In The Bee Sting, Murray’s fourth novel, each character seems to be grappling with their demons, from Dickie, who hides away building an apocalypse-proof shelter, to Imelda, who sells on eBay to make ends meet.
Next on the Booker shortlist is Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein. Named one of Granta's best young British novelists of 2023, Bernstein's writings have been published in Contemporary Women's Writing and Granta, among other publications. Study for Obedience is a reflection on survival and oppression through the voice of an unreliable narrator. The novel follows the narrator as she moves to a remote country, where a series of misfortunes lead the community to become suspicious of her. The novel's evocative style and unsettling premise appear to confirm Bernstein as one of the writers to look out for in the coming years.
Coming up next is an exhilarating debut novel by Jonathan Escoffery called If I Survive You. Described by the judges as captivating, heart-breaking and unflinching, Escoffery’s novel follows a family fleeing from Jamaica in search of a new beginning in America in the late 1970s. Yet, when they arrive, they discover the fragility of the American Dream, the impact immigration can have on identity and the vagaries of capitalism. The book pays particular attention to the relationship between two brothers, one who grew up in their new American home and one who yearns for a better future away from their new life.
The fourth novel on our rundown of the Booker Prize shortlist is This Other Eden by Paul Harding, a spellbinding novel inspired by a relatively unknown true story. The novel is set in 1792 and follows Benjamin Honey, a formerly enslaved man, and his wife Patience as they arrive on a US coastal island, hoping to make a new life. However, with the arrival of European colonists who have come to take over the island, the novel explores the power and abuse directed towards those whose identities and ways of life do not conform. This piece of historical fiction combines lyrical prose with beautiful characterisation and is a novel that cannot be missed.
Western Lane by Chetna Maroo is another shortlisted novel. This mesmerising debut is filled with melancholy and beauty as we follow a squash-obsessed teenager and a family reeling from a recent loss. Exploring grief and sisterhood, this indelible coming-of-age story captures the ordinary yet annihilates it with beauty. A valentine to innocence, the novel also encapsulates the strange ways we come to know ourselves and each other.
The final book on the shortlist is Prophet Song by Paul Lynch, an exhilarating, propulsive and confrontational portrait of a society on the brink. A work of breath-taking originality, Lynch manages to create a deeply human portrait of a mother’s fight to hold onto her family in an Ireland ravished by war and the newly formed Irish Secret Police. This novel spins a finely wrought and terrifying vision of Ireland in the grip of a tyrannical government, and is a book that is both beautiful and urgent in its delivery.
Awards imply a winner and losers, but to perceive the Booker Prize shortlist under that scope would be a big mistake. While waiting for the final choice on 26 November, we’ll dive into our love of good books with all these contenders: congratulations and thank you!