Earlier today, the 2015 Man Booker Prize was given to Marlon James for his novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, which beat out five other novels, including favorite-to-win Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. The 600-page novel is told through over seventy-five characters and voices, who deconstruct the assassination attempt of Bob Marley in the 1970s while the novel works its way up through the years to find the state of Jamaica in the 1990s.
Notably, James is the first Jamaican novelist to win the prize. Although the award has been given out annually since 1969, the group only accepted novels penned by writers hailing from the Commonwealth of Nations, the Republic of Ireland, and Zimbabwe until 2013 when the Man Booker group decided to expand the eligibility of entries, turning a blind eye to the novelist’s nationality. Essentially, for a novel to be able to compete for the honour, it would have to be written in English (or in the case of the Man Booker International Prize, translated from a non-English language into English) and published in the UK. This decision was popularly seen in literary circles as controversial for various reasons, whether they were matters of logistics or fears that the identity of the prize would be diluted, or worse, indistinguishable from counterparts like the Pulitzer Prize.
To give a better sense of what sets apart the Man Booker’s identity, we look back at some of the award’s most popular winners and examine how these novels give shape to the prize:
Barnes’s fourth novel to be shortlisted for the Booker explores the imperfections of memory, as the retired Tony Webster comes to grips with the lost diary of his childhood friend Adrian and how the written record comes into conflict with the sequence of events of which Tony is certain. Barnes takes chaos theory to the plane of ethics with this novel—there are no great apocalypses, but Tony ends up ruminating on what did and what didn’t happen, and he comes to realize that the brutal consequence of history is uncertainty.
It speaks volumes of Hilary Mantel’s skill that both Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, not only made it to the shortlist, but also garnered the prizes for the years they were nominated. The historical novel follows the rise of Thomas Cromwell from being Cardinal Wolsey’s right-hand man to becoming one of the more powerful ministers in Henry VIII’s court. The novel is somewhat revisionist, as Cromwell is never cast as hero. In spite of that, Cromwell’s chief characteristic is his opportunism, which guides him in the same way it guides many of the most devilish characters on Game of Thrones. Remember: Homo homini lupus.
Generally regarded as Ishiguro’s best work (and in my opinion, one of the finest English novels ever written), The Remains of the Day is another novel centered on memories. However, memory is used here as a device through which the book’s true theme is rendered, as Stevens, the head butler at Darlington Hall, ruminates on the what it means to be a good man. One of the great passages of this book occurs as Stevens overlooks the British landscape, and contemplates if Britain really is, as they say, great.
Perhaps Midnight’s Children is the quintessential Booker novel. Technically, it won the award thrice. Its two latter victories resulted from the Booker group organizing retrospective prizes (both of them basically called Best of Booker) to celebrate the award’s 25th and 40th anniversaries. The novel is a key work of postcolonial literature and magical realism, tracking the life and times of its narrator, Saleem Sinai, born at the exact moment of India’s independence, which mystically blesses him with special abilities. Saleem is the obvious allegory for India, as he observes his country grow and develop on its own at the exact same time he does, but his interactions with the people around him, enhanced by his special abilities, grant him intimate access into the Indian national consciousness and color the novel as socially and culturally significant. It goes to show that despite a fundamentally British eye and sensibility, there is nothing that stops the Man Booker winner from being all about Britain. Second case-in-point: A Brief History of Seven Killings.
The past two years of winners have shown that nothing much has changed with regard to the Man Booker’s selection; the quality of the works that have been shortlisted cannot be argued, and the award as a whole remains distinct from its American counterpart, the Pulitzer Prize. However, the Man Booker’s identity is slowly changing—some might even say evolving—and perhaps in due time, it will be seen less as the chief British literary prize of this day and more perhaps as the key global arbiter for the classics of our time.