The highly anticipated annual Booker Prize 2023 shortlist was announced on the 21st of September. All six shortlisted books are by authors never previously shortlisted, including two debuts. The prize is awarded for the best work of long-form fiction, written in English and published in the UK and Ireland between the 1st of October 2022 and the 30th of September 2023. The Booker Prize is one of the most significant awards for fiction authors – perhaps the Oscars of the book-world. This year’s judging panel includes well-known figures of the literary sphere – Esi Edugyan, Adjoa Andoh, Mary Jean Chan, James Shapiro, and Robert Webb – some of whom have previously won the Prize.
The Bee Sting, Paul Murray
The Bee Sting by Paul Murray has been described by this year’s judges as “hilarious and heartbreaking, personal and epic”. The tale is set in the Irish Midlands in the present day, and follows the story of the Barnes family. Their journey is narrated from multiple perspectives, each uncovering how secrets and deception has led the family to their present situation. Murray has been particularly applauded for his character Imelda Barnes, described as “courageous, self-deluding, and entirely human.”
Western Lane, Chetna Mario
The next book on the shortlist is Western Lane by Chetna Maroo. She has been praised for her use of squash as both a sport and a metaphor, running alongside themes of “grief, sisterhood, [and] a teenage girl’s struggle to transcend herself”. This is Maroo’s debut novel, although her stories have appeared in anthologies published in The Paris Review, The Stinging Fly, and The Dublin Review. Judges praised Maroo for her deep exploration of the aftermath of grief: “The language in this novel is truly something to be savoured. Western Lane contains crystalline prose that also feels warm and tender, which can be a difficult balance to strike.”
Prophet Song, Paul Lynch
The third book on the shortlist is Prophet Song by Paul Lynch. This is Lynch’s fifth novel, and the second book on the shortlist written by an Irish author and set in Ireland. This dystopian tale sets Ireland in the grip of a ruthless government, forcing the protagonist, Eilish, to fight against unpredictable and uncontrollable forces to keep her family together. Judges have commented on the timeliness of this novel, describing Prophet Song as “a remarkable accomplishment for a novelist to capture the social and political anxieties of our moment so compellingly.”
This Other Eden, Paul Harding
This Other Eden by Paul Harding is inspired by historical events, drawing upon Biblical tales and periods of ‘otherness’. The novel is set on a fictional island off the coast of the United States, acting as a space to celebrate those brutally expelled from an intolerant society. The Honey family and their co-habitants have found Apple Island to be their safe haven since the 18th century, but suddenly ‘civilisation’ intrudes, and these castaways must once again fight for their place. The judges have described the story as a deeply moving “delicate symphony of language, land and narrative that Harding brings to bear on the story of the islanders.”
If I Survive You, Jonathan Escoffery
The penultimate book on this line-up is If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery. Set in 1979, this novel follows Topper, Sanya, Delano, and Trelawny as they flee their home in Kingston, Jamaica, to settle in Miami, USA. Having escaped their initial danger, they soon receive a less-than-welcoming reception in America, finding themselves fighting against family struggles, racism, a financial crisis, and Hurricane Andrew. This debut novel has built Escoffery’s reputation of a “skilled chronicler of American life at its most gruesome and hopeful” with judges commending his ability to “wrestle with the age-old immigrant dilemma – who are my people and where do I belong?”
Study for Obedience, Sarah Bernstein
Last but not least, the final book on the Booker 2023 shortlist is Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein. The main themes of this novel include prejudice, guilt, and suspicion told through the eyes of a singular unreliable narrator. The judges said: “Study for Obedience is an absurdist tale about how a stranger’s arrival in an unnamed town slowly unearths deep undercurrents of xenophobia, and it feels very like an allegory for the rise of ideological radicalism today. It is also a stirring meditation on survival.”
The line-up is fierce, and we have to wait until Sunday 26th of November, before the winner is announced – mark your calendars!