Analysis - The Booker Prize calls itself the "leading literary award in the English-speaking world" for good reason; winning it can transform an author's career and sell thousands of books.
I have always loved the Bookers; the intrigue, the spats and the books. This year, after reading shortlisted Western Lane, I got hooked on the idea of reading this year's shortlist. That meant ditching doomscrolling on my phone in favour of reading about 360 pages a week (a stretch, for a slow reader like me). Every bus ride to and from work was spent with the Booker nominees. One gardening weekend, I listened to Sarah Bernstein read her Study for Obedience on audiobook, then went back and read it to make sure I stuck to reading the books.
Here's what I thought of each of the books (and what the official Booker judges had to say about them).
Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein
In brief: A woman goes to live with her brother in a country which once persecuted her people. Things go badly.
Chance of winning: Outsider.
What's the story? A woman goes to live with her brother, a successful businessman, in an unnamed country, where she meditates at length as she walks or does chores. She thinks closely about her need to be obedient, her desire to be meek, a servant of people. She may have been abused by her brother; she is probably friendless. She speaks to herself in circling sentences which sound ancient, so it is a shock when Twitter or a laptop turn up. Bernstein, a poet, started with the sounds of sentences first, before shaping them to a meaning. The sound of the words is hypnotic. Eventually, the musings become almost stifling.
If this sounds intense, it is. I experienced it like an electric shock; others seem to have been unconvinced. One thing to know is it can be drily funny. I laughed out loud on a packed Auckland #253 bus over a description of the brother's divorce.
What the Booker judges said: The novel "is an absurdist, darkly funny novel about the rise of xenophobia, as seen through the eyes of a stranger in an unnamed town - or is it? Bernstein's urgent, crystalline prose upsets all our expectations, and what transpires is a meditation on survival itself."
Prophet Song by Paul Lynch
In brief: Civil war breaks out in Ireland against a nationalist government and Eilish Stack must try to get protect her family from the violence. Eventually, the choices become impossible.
Chance of winning: Deserved frontrunner.
What's the story? The first half of this timeless, timely book is filled with dread as Eilish reacts to the state crackdown. When she stays seated at a family wedding rather than join in the lusty singing of the national anthem, we know things are going to get bad. The family is tracked by the police; her local butcher won't serve her; she is shunned at work. When civil war breaks out, every decision becomes fraught. As war closes in, so do her choices; should Eilish get her family out or stay to search for her disappeared men?
What lifts Prophet Song into Booker contention is the final scenes. Descriptions of Ireland, even names and descriptions of characters, seem to leach away, until it becomes about any war; Eilish and her family could be from Lebanon, Syria or, now, Gaza.
What the Booker judges said: "Prophet Song follows one woman's attempts to save her family in a dystopic Ireland sliding further and further into authoritarian rule. It is a shocking, at times tender novel that is not soon forgotten. Propulsive and unsparing, it flinches away from nothing. This is an utterly brave performance by an author at the peak of his powers, and it is terribly moving."
Western Lane by Chetna Maroo
In brief: After their mother dies, three daughters must deal with grief, unspoken pain, and their struggling father. He decides squash is the answer. One of them, Gopi, excels. Lovely, gentle, tender book.
Chance of winning: A personal favourite, but not favoured by the bookies.
What's the story? Gopi is an 11-year-old Jain Gujarati girl in London who has just lost her mother, leaving her and two older sisters and father bereft. Neighbours urge him to find a healthy outlet for the grieving girls; he turns to squash, the game he loves. Gopi discovers a real talent. She fills the void playing squash at Western Lane sports centre. Her father shows her videos of the greats like Jahangir Khan and others, then coaches her as much as he can. She meets a boy, Ged, hangs out with her sisters as they try to navigate life without their mother, and she plays her way into the final of a big British squash tournament. The plot feels light, the story weighty.
What the Booker judges said: "Skillfully deploying the sport of squash as both context and metaphor, Western Lane is a deeply evocative debut about a family grappling with grief, conveyed through crystalline language which reverberates like the sound "of a ball hit clean and hard…with a close echo."
This Other Eden by Paul Harding
In brief: A community of 19th century refugees is forcibly broken up by authorities worried about the mixing of races. Poetic, Biblical, cinematic at times.
Chance of winning: Extraordinary poetic prose, but it's probably not Harding's year.
What's the story?: Waves of 19th century castaways and refugees wash up at Apple Island, off the coast of Maine, USA. This Other Eden is the story of the destruction of that community in the early 20th century as, first a teacher arrives to try to better the people, then the governor who studies eugenics, becomes worried about the inter-racial marriages.
The novel proceeds in swooping scenes unfolding the thoughts of each distinctive character in the community. Harding's writing is mesmerising; rich and rhythmic, each sentence twisting around and around to look back at its subject, often running to a whole paragraph. The poetry of the language brings us into the inner life of the islanders. But there is a question at the heart of This Other Eden, a worm in Apple Island. For all the love and beauty of the islanders' thoughts, there is a sickness of incest and inbreeding.
The Booker judges said: "Based on a relatively unknown true story, Paul Harding's heartbreakingly beautiful novel transports us to a unique island community scrabbling a living. The panel were moved by the delicate symphony of language, land, and narrative that Harding brings to bear on the story of the islanders."
If I Survive Youby Jonathan Escoffery
In brief: Linked stories centred mostly around Trelawny, the son of a Jamaican immigrant, as he tries to find his place in Miami. He mostly sinks, then survives. Background of race identity, poverty, and racism. Swampy.
Chance of winning: Low. Probably won't win.
What's the story?: The novel mainly follows Trelawny, the son of Jamaican immigrants, who is constantly navigating between what is assumed of him as being black in America and what is assumed of him being an immigrant, or both. He is always being asked, "What are you?"
At the start Trelawny is a student, promising and bright, if obsessed with working out his identity. At his Midwest university, he is definitely "Black". Back in Jamaica for a stint, he is a Yankee. By the end, as his life unspools, he is taking any kind of job he can to get by, from cheating as the administrator of cheap social housing, to living rough, and eventually fulfilling the sexual fantasies of beautiful rich Miamians. Race and poverty lie at the heart of the book, but so do fathers and sons. There is no doubt that If I Survive You is a blast of a debut, arriving like a Florida hurricane. The question is, do the linked stories hang together enough to be a novel?
What the Booker judges said: "An astonishingly assured debut novel, lauded by the panel for its clarity, variety, and fizzing prose. As the stories move back and forth through geography and time, we are confronted by the immigrants' eternal questions; who am I now and where do I belong?"
The Bee Sting by Paul Murray
In brief: A riotous, dark, funny, tragic novel of a family unravelling and the secrets they are keeping from each other.
Chance of winning: Funny, painful and tightly constructed, this is one of the best books of the year even if it doesn't win the Booker.
What's the story?: Dickie Barnes is the manager of his father's VW car franchise in the Irish Midlands, as the Celtic Tiger falls apart in the 2008 crash. The business is failing; he's failing worse. The story is told through the eyes of PJ, his gentle son, who is being bullied and extorted at school; his daughter Cass, desperate to escape the town but constantly undermined by her toxic best friend; Dickie's wife, Imelda, a great beauty from a poor background and finally Dickie himself. As the pace of the novel speeds up, the characters' stories intertwine faster and faster as Dickie's decision unspools towards a showdown. The novel is so tightly written and plotted that explaining is to give too much away.
What the Booker judges said: "Paul Murray's saga, The Bee Sting, set in the Irish Midlands, brilliantly explores how our secrets and self-deceptions ultimately catch up with us. This family drama, told from multiple perspectives, is at once hilarious and heartbreaking, personal and epic. It's an addictive read."