Four Irish novels – almost a third of the nominees – have made the longlist for this year’s Booker Prize, which was announced on Tuesday.
Old God’s Time, by Sebastian Barry, How to Build a Boat, by Elaine Feeney, Prophet Song, by Paul Lynch, and The Bee Sting, by Paul Murray, join nine other books in the running for the prestigious literary award.
It makes Ireland the country that, with 37 writers, has produced the most nominees, relative to population size, in the history of the prize. Barry became one of only 11 writers, Beryl Bainbridge, William Trevor and David Mitchell among them, to have been nominated at least five times. It is Murray’s second longlisting, after the nomination, in 2010, of his novel Skippy Dies.
“We read 163 novels across seven months, and in that time whole worlds opened to us,” Esi Edugyan, the Canadian novelist who is chairing the 2023 judging panel, said. “We were transported to early 20th-century Maine and Penang, to the vibrant streets of Lagos and the squash courts of London, to the blackest depths of the Atlantic, and into a dystopian Ireland where the terrifying loss of rights comes as a hard warning. The list is defined by its freshness – by the irreverence of new voices, by the iconoclasm of established ones. All 13 novels cast new light on what it means to exist in our time, and they do so in original and thrilling ways.”
She and her fellow judges – the actor, writer and director Adjoa Andoh, the poet, lecturer, editor and critic Mary Jean Chan, the author and professor James Shapiro and the actor and writer Robert Webb – said that, in Old God’s Time, about a murder investigation that leads a retired policeman to confront the loss and sorrow of his past, “Barry brilliantly evokes the distorting effect of trauma on memory as we enter an easy companionship with his gentle, funny protagonist. Both the legacy of historic child abuse in Ireland and the enduring power of love are sensitively explored in this compassionate and quietly furious book.”
Speaking of his nomination, Barry said: “The immense pleasure of a Booker nomination certainly doesn’t grow old. A group of busy people read 160 books and collate their findings. It’s a great privilege to see one’s book among the 13. And miraculous really.”
Feeney’s How to Build a Boat, about a teenage boy trying to make sense of the world, and Tess, a teacher at his school, was called “complex and genuinely moving novel” by the judges. They said Feeney had written “an absorbing coming-of-age story, which also explored the restrictions of class and education in a small community”.
Feeney said it was “a great honour” to be nominated. “I’m so proud to fly the flag for the west of Ireland with its deep literary traditions, but I’m still so shocked,” she told RTÉ Radio 1 after the announcement.
“I’m a teacher by trade, so I’m interested in the development of young adults and our children going in to the education system,” she said.
“I’m also very drawn to that person or that teacher who can change your life. We hear a lot of that; people say there was one remarkable person in their life that changed it and in the novel is that person, a boat builder from the west islands who changes Jamie’s life, and with another teacher called Tess – the three of them unite and quietly build this boat.
“It’s a novel about connection and the idea of a Meitheal. This Irish idea of coming back together and our need for connection.
“[The book] seems quiet on the surface, but it’s fuelled by this anxiety of bringing up boys in the world today.
“I was quite interested in the idea that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ I think we can lose sight of that.”
Lynch’s “harrowing and dystopian” Prophet Song, which is due to be published on August 24th, is “timely and unforgettable”, vividly rendering “a mother’s determination to protect her family as Ireland’s liberal democracy slides inexorably and terrifyingly into totalitarianism”. The judges said “it’s a remarkable accomplishment for a novelist to capture the social and political anxieties of our moment so compellingly”.
Lynch said it was a “huge honour to earn those stripes” to be included in the longlist. “It’s the biggest literary prize in the English language so it can really have an impact on your career,” he said.
He said he was proud there are four Irish writers on the longlist. It is “a testament to State investment,” the writer said.
“It took me four years to write this book. In that time, I received two grants from the arts council and I availed of the tax exemption.”
Lynch’s novel is set in Ireland as the country is “taking a turn towards tyranny”.
What inspired him to write the novel? Lynch said he was thinking of Syria and how its society imploded. “This book began as an attempt to understand why people would get into dangerous boats to escape”
He said the book was about victims of countries that collapse. “Every western country is only two to three governments away from totalitarianism”.
In The Bee Sting, set in the Irish midlands, Paul Murray “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,” the judges said.
Speaking about his nomination, Murray said: “It’s great to be longlisted – there’s a long way to go obviously, but the recognition at this stage is wonderful.”
“When I’m writing a novel I try not to think about how it will be received, but obviously I’m hoping that people will read it – books only come to life when they’re read, after all, and there are just so many books published that it’s not always easy to find your audience.
“The book is about a family that has stopped talking to each other ... It’s increasingly easy in today’s world to feel isolated, to imagine there’s no possible point of connection with the people around you. That sense of isolation, paradoxically, is something that so many of us have in common. We’re all getting lonelier, and the way we address that often only deepens our alienation.
When writing the novel, Murray said he was trying to write a different book, “something light and funny, but every day the world felt less funny to me”.
“I guess it arose out of my sense of anxiety and despair about where we as a species are heading, what it’s like to raise a family at a time when the future has a gun to its head. Nobody in the book is bad, but every choice they make seems to deepen the trouble they’re in, which is how a lot of us feel in the climate change era”.
One of the judges of this year’s prize, James Shapiro, said the range of fiction this year was “quite remarkable”.
Asked why there were so many Irish nominees in this year’s longlist, Shapiro told RTÉ Radio 1 that he believed a number of reasons made it possible. “Strong English departments in universities, a brilliant basic income scheme from the past few years to support struggling artists, artists income tax exemption, terrific bookstores, wonderful literary festivals and a tradition of strong writers.”
“When you have people like Anne Enright, whose a professor of fiction at UCD, training the next generation and writing great novels herself, it’s really not surprising that an island which has invested in literary culture is seeing the fruits of that in the Booker longlist,” he said.
Booker Prize 2023: All 13 longlisted titles
- Ayobami Adebayo: A Spell of Good Things (Canongate)
- Sebastian Barry: Old God’s Time (Faber & Faber)
- Sarah Bernstein: Study for Obedience (Granta Books)
- Jonathan Escoffery: If I Survive You (4th Estate)
- Elaine Feeney: How to Build a Boat (Harvill Secker)
- Paul Harding: This Other Eden (Hutchinson Heinemann)
- Siân Hughes: Pearl (The Indigo Press)
- Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow: All the Little Bird-Hearts (Tinder Press)
- Paul Lynch: Prophet Song (Oneworld)
- Martin MacInnes: In Ascension (Atlantic Books)
- Chetna Maroo: Western Lane (Picador)
- Paul Murray: The Bee Sting (Hamish Hamilton)
- Tan Twan Eng: The House of Doors (Canongate)
The Booker Prize is open to works of long-form fiction by writers of any nationality, written in English and published in the UK or Ireland. For this year’s award all of the nominated titles had to be published between October 1st, 2022, and September 30th, 2023, and submitted to the prize by their publishers.
Six of the 13 longlisted titles will go through to the shortlist, which will be announced on Thursday, September 21st. The shortlisted authors will each receive £2,500 and a bound edition of their book. The winner will be announced on Sunday, November 26th. They will receive £50,000 and a trophy designed by the late Jan Pieńkowski.
The winner can also expect a dramatic rise in global book sales. When Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida was announced as the 2022 Booker Prize winner, sales soared to more than 100,000 across all formats. It has now been translated into 19 languages, with another 10 under way.