Now that the 2017 Man Booker Prize has been announced, we take a look at the genre that has dominated the field for this prestigious literary award. This year’s winner, Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, is the sixth historical novel to have won the coveted prize in the last decade.
So, what is it about this genre that seems to catch the fancy of readers and the Booker jury alike? We look at the last six historical novels to have won the award and hope to get a clearer idea of where the appeal lies, beginning with the winner of the prize in 2009 and ending with this year’s.
Wolf Hall (2009), Hilary Mantel
A fictionalised biography which chronicles the rise of Thomas Cromwell, a relative nobody, in the court of Henry VIII during the first half of the 16th century, Wolf Hall is the result of five years of research and writing. Mantel often had to work hard to match her version of events to the historical record, and as anyone who has read the book can attest that you’ll reach the end of this staggering 600-plus page novel craving more. If you’re one of those people, we have great news for you – Wolf Hall is the first part of a trilogy, the final instalment of which is likely due in 2019.
Bring Up the Bodies (2012), Hilary Mantel
No, you aren’t reading this wrong. Mantel won the coveted Booker Prize again, just three years after Wolf Hall and what’s even more amazing is that Bring Up the Bodies is part two of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy. This remarkable achievement silenced the few detractors of her previous novel and helped her to cement her place in the pantheon of literary greats. This sequel picks up the action not too long after the conclusion of the events detailed in Wolf Hall and is filled with all the tension, drama and terrifying moments that made the first novel such a hit. Now, more than ever, we can’t wait for the final book in the series.
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The Luminaries (2013), Eleanor Catton
Just winning the Booker wasn’t enough for Eleanor Catton; she had to do it in style. Her novel, The Luminaries, is the longest book to have ever won the prize (832 pages) and, at just 28 years old, Catton is the youngest Booker prize winner in history. So, what do you need to take the literary world by storm? How about a novel told through the perspective of twelve men, each of whose character traits represent the twelve signs of the zodiac? Set during New Zealand’s famous Otago gold rush of the 1860s, this novel is just pure (yes, we’re doing this) gold! If you’re looking for a unique reading experience, Catton’s distinctive themes and literary prowess are a treat to discover.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014), Richard Flanagan
In 2014, when The Economist called the novelist Richard Flanagan “the finest Australian novelist of his generation” not too many people paid heed. Just a few months later, Flanagan was the toast of the literary world after winning the Booker Prize for his haunting love story about a war hero struggling to come to terms with his identity and sense of self-worth in the aftermath of the war. In a moving article for The Sydney Morning Herald, Flanagan revealed that it took him 12 years to complete this novel, which he based on his own father’s experiences as a Japanese Prisoner of War (POW), proving once again that the best stories are the ones based on real life.
A Brief History of Seven Killings (2015), Marlon James
If all you know of Jamaica is that it’s home to Usain Bolt and reggae music, then this novel is the perfect way to expand your knowledge of the complex and troubled history of this beautiful country. James pulls off the impossible by taking us through the events surrounding the infamous assassination attempt of Bob Marley in 1976, its far-reaching consequences in New York City, and its role in the formation of a modern Jamaica of the 1990s, through a veritable smorgasbord of characters – 75 in all! And if you think this would make for an amazing TV series, HBO agrees – the network has optioned the novel and plans to release a TV series very soon.
Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), George Saunders
This year’s Booker Prize went to the famous short story writer, George Saunders, for his first full-length novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Based on actual historical newspaper reports about Abraham Lincoln entering the crypt of his recently deceased son to cradle him in his arms, the novel quickly takes a turn into spiritual and supernatural territory as it explores Lincoln’s actions over the course of a single night. The bulk of the novel is set in the bardo, which is the Buddhist equivalent of what we colloquially call “limbo” – a transitional state between life and death.
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