All eyes on the prize…

Kate Braithwaite

In the final week before the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize is announced we take a look at how the historical novel has fared in previous years and consider the prospects for a historical winner in 2013.

On October the 15th the Man Booker prize will be awarded to the author of ‘the best novel of the year’ written in English by a citizen the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland or the Commonwealth. A panel of five judges will make their selection from the six shortlisted books and one writer will win a cheque for £50,000. In addition to the main prize all six shortlisted authors receive £2500 and a specially designed edition of their work.

Since the first Booker prize was awarded in 1969, nearly a third of the winning novels have been historical; from John Berger’s G, the winner in 1972, to Hilary Mantel’s recent Tudor double with Wolf Hall in 2009 and Bring up the Bodies in 2012.

A look at the  Booker winners ‘back catalogue’ reveals some truly memorable historical novels:

  • In 2001, Peter Carey became the second novelist to win the prize twice (J.M. Coetzee & Hilary Mantel are other members of this elite group) with The True History of the Kelly Gang, adding to first win in 1988 with Oscar and Lucinda. Both novels are set in 19th century Australia, but are dramatically different in style and storyline.
  • In 1992, the Booker prize was tied between two fabulous historical novels: Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, set in World War 2 Europe and North Africa and Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, an unflinching novel of the 18th Century slave trade.


  • The 1982 winning novel, which remains the best selling Booker prize book to date, was another moving story set in the past, Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Kineally.
  • The book voted The Best of the Booker in a 40th anniversary competition held in 2008 between all the Booker winners up to that date, was Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children, mixing of historical fiction and magical realism, in a tale of post-colonial India.

But what about the Man Booker Prize 2013? This year four of the six shortlisted novels are works of historical fiction.


Like Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri takes newly independent India for her starting point in her novel, The Lowland, effortlessly spinning the story of two brothers, Subhash and Ubayan, across oceans and decades. Lahiri has already proved herself as a major literary figure, winning the Pulizer Prize in 2000. The Lowland is also on the longlist for this year’s National Book Award for Fiction in the U.S.

colm-toibin-the-testament-of-maryThe Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin’s novella, is set in the first days and months after the crucifixion of Jesus. If it wins, The Testament of Mary will be the Booker winner set in the furthest distant past by nearly sixteen centuries. Until Wolf Hall the historical novels winning the Booker had never been set earlier than the 18th Century.

harvestjcIn contrast, Harvest, by Jim Crace, a dramatic story of the swift unravelling of a remote agricultural community in the face of enclosures of their common lands, is not so easy to date. In an interview for Radio 4’s Today Programme this week, Crace acknowledged that the decision not to be specific in the setting of Harvest, by either place or period, was a deliberate and important one allowing him to escape the ‘straightjacket’ of history, to imagine and to tell lies.

luminariesAnd last, but not certainly not least, is The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. This is a substantial work, over 800 pages tale of gold, murder, deception and ghosts in 19th century New Zealand. If Catton wins she will be, at the age of 27, the youngest winner of the prize and she is already the youngest author to be nominated.

For more on the Man Booker Prize, visit the prize website or follow on Twitter. The Guardian is running an entertaining series of Booker Hustings or you can join in here with your comments on historical novels and Booker winners past or future.


Posted by Kate Braithwaite

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