Saturday, July 20News For London

Booker Prize 2023: Three Pauls nominated but did the right one win?

(Designed by Shaurya Thapa, image of Paul Lynch by The Booker Prize, book covers by Oneworld, Hamish Hamilton and Hutchinson Heinemann)

Paul. All iconic groups need one. Jesus’s 12 Apostles had one. And so did The Beatles. But this year’s lineup of the Booker Prize-nominated writers had three!

With the award night live-streamed on November 26 (Sunday), 2022 Booker winner Shehan Karunatilaka presented the coveted literature trophy to Paul Lynch for his fifth novel Prophet Song. 

But among bibliophiles, there remain a few who feel the Irish film critic-turned-author might not have been the best Paul to win. With three out of six nominees this year sharing the first name Paul, here’s a look at each one of them and their winning chances. 

The Paul who won 

(Infographic designed by Shaurya Thapa, images by The Booker Prize)

A dystopian take on Ireland slipping into totalitarianism, Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song made headlines not just for the politically-charged premise but also for his unconventional choice of not having any para breaks in the narrative. 

Prophet Song is an Orwellian tale set in an alternate Dublin where the secret police do the authoritarian government’s bidding, abducting anyone at will and curbing all dissent. 

“I didn’t write this book to specifically say, ‘here’s a warning’, I wrote the book to articulate the message that the things that are in this book are occurring timelessly throughout the ages,”  Lynch said in his acceptance speech, becoming the fifth Irish writer to receive a Booker. 

Lynch was definitely not a dark horse and a strong contender in his own right but some bibliophiles are disappointed that Canadian author Sarah Bernstein didn’t win for Study for Obedience, a 208-page allegory on antisemitism.

(Cover image by Granta Publishers)

On the r/TrueLit subreddit, Redditor gratza79 commented: “I thought the overall quality this year was pretty high, but Study for Obedience is far and away the best of the bunch.”

The 23 million member-strong subreddit r/Books also polarised readers. A chunk of Redditors believe Lynch’s dystopian political fiction is timely given the recent Dublin riots by far-right protestors and the Israel-Gaza conflict. 

(Screenshot taken from the YouTube live-chat of The Booker Prize 2023 ceremony)

On the other side, contesting these claims are readers who found Prophet Song to be fairly simple. A case in point is Redditor Devils of Loudon who commented: “Amazing prose style but I don’t see it measuring up to other famous dystopian books in the long run since it doesn’t bring anything new to the table plot-wise.” 

The second Paul from Ireland 

(Infographic designed by Shaurya Thapa, images by The Booker Prize)

The Booker Prize 2023 shortlisted two Pauls from Ireland, the other contender being Dublin-born scribe Paul Murray who was in the race for The Bee Sting. A family drama at its core, The Bee Sting charts the tumultuous journey of an Irish family of four that struggles in the face of the 2008 global financial crisis. 

While Lynch’s Prophet Song is more explicitly political, Murray’s book was hailed as an achievement of realist fiction with praise also targeted at its observational satire. 

Having won the Irish Book Award for Novel of the Year in 2023, The Bee Sting also had a legion of fans this Booker season. The recurring “bee emojis” being commented on the award ceremony’s livestream bear testimony to this fact. 

(Screenshot taken from the YouTube live-chat of The Booker Prize 2023 ceremony)

Fellow Irish novelist Caoilinn Hughes also tweeted a few days before the results: “My feeling is that Paul Murray will win the Booker for The Bee Sting, and – having read the whole shortlist  – I think that he should.” 

But as Lynch took home the award and the £50,000 prize money, half of which he admitted to use to pay off his mortgage, Murray will have to eye another Booker season for a victory. 

“Paul” in the USA

(Infographic designed by Shaurya Thapa, images by The Booker Prize)

The third Paul to be nominated for the 2023 Booker Prize was the 2010 Pulitzer-winning American Paul Harding. 

It was Harding’s third novel This Other Eden that made it to the Bookers shortlist. And this time too, there’s an Irish connection.

With its narrative unfurling in the late 18th century, The Other Eden presents a reimagined version of Maine’s Malaga Island (called the “Apple Island” in this Biblically-named book). The island becomes a safe haven for society’s castaways and one such castaway pair is former slave Benjamin Holey and his Irish wife Patience. 

“Paul Harding’s spellbinding novel celebrates the hopes, dreams and resilience of those deemed not to fit in a world brutally intolerant of difference. But then when the forces of ‘modern civilisation’ seek to invade the island a century later, Holey’s descendants face new challenges,” The Booker’s official citation read.

However, at least in reading groups on social media, the multi-generation novel wasn’t being backed by the same enthusiasm as works by the other two Pauls or Sarah Bernstein’s Study for Obedience.  So, it doesn’t seem that surprising that the American Paul’s fascinating take on a racism-free Utopia failed to win the Booker this year. 

The Bookers and Pauls

The 1977 Booker shortlist similarly witnessed an abundance of Pauls with English novelist Paul Scott winning for his post-colonialism novel Staying On. The same year, fellow Brit Paul Bailey was also nominated for the satirical Peter Smart’s Confessions. 

Otherwise, too, the Booker Prize has had many previous winners with the first name Paul, the latest one before 2023 being the 2016 winner Paul Beatty, the first American to win a Booker. And while he’s not exactly a Paul but 1971 winner V.S. Naipaul was also one of the Booker’s most decorated and nominated writers.