‘Portraits of what it means to be alive today’: how we chose the 2023 Booker prize shortlist

Any conversation about what reflects the best of world literature necessarily becomes a referendum on what literature can and should do. As chair of judges for this year’s Booker prize, I think it’s safe to say the conversations between my fellow judges and I were never dull. Adjoa Andoh, Mary-Jean Chan, James Shapiro and Robert Webb and I spoke for hours to decide on our shortlist, always going overtime. What, we asked ourselves, made a book great? Was it extraordinary prose? An uncanny vision? Was it even something definable or some more ineffable quality?

The debates were often enthralling: sometimes intimate, sometimes contentious, never short of brilliant. We brought to the task a range of tastes and disciplines, which no doubt shaped our perspectives – indeed, on our own, we might have produced five different lists – but this speaks to the health and vibrancy of the literary climate. We were reminded of the many varieties of human experience, of life’s boundlessness, and above all of the miraculous capacity we have within us for change.

Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein (Granta Books)

If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery (4th Estate)

This Other Eden by Paul Harding (Hutchinson Heinemann)

Prophet Song by Paul Lynch (Oneworld)

Western Lane by Chetna Maroo (Picador)

The Bee Sting by Paul Murray (Hamish Hamilton)

This year’s novels offer a full range of lived experience, and make for an exciting shortlist. Sarah Bernstein’s Study for Obedience is an absurdist, darkly funny novel about a woman arriving in an unnamed town where her ancestors have been persecuted. It has the uncanny charm of feeling like both a historical work – with its pastoral settings, petty superstitions, and suspicious villagers – yet also something bracingly modern. In this way it draws a link between a past we would like to believe is behind us and our very charged present. In Jonathan Escoffery’s astonishingly assured debut, If I Survive You, Topper and Sanya leave the trials of 1970s Jamaica to build new lives in Miami with their sons Delano and Trelawney. As they attempt to survive the US and each other, the piece becomes a study of identity and lost possibilities. Based on a little-known history, Paul Harding’s This Other Eden is a lovely hymn transporting us to the hardscrabble colony of Apple Island, off the coast of Maine, settled by enslaved Africans, Irish immigrants and Indigenous peoples. The arrival of a well-intentioned preacher brings with it the unwelcome attention of the world at large, to catastrophic ends. We were lulled by the delicate symphony of language in which Harding tells his story.

Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song vividly renders Eilish Stark’s attempts to protect her family as Ireland slides further and further into totalitarianism. It is a tender, at times shocking novel told in gorgeous prose. Far from didactic, the book warns of the precarity of democracies and the ugly possibilities of what might lie beyond. In Western Lane, Chetna Maroo skillfully uses squash as both framework and metaphor to explore a family’s grief in the face of their matriarch’s death. The language is crystalline, distilled to its essence, and utterly evocative. It’s a performance that stays with you. Finally, there is Paul Murray’s wonderful saga The Bee Sting. Set in the Irish Midlands, this family drama, told from multiple perspectives, gets at the impossibility of ever truly knowing anyone. It brilliantly explores how our self-deceptions ultimately catch up with us, and is at once hilarious and heartbreaking.

Being asked to judge this year’s Booker prize was an enormous honour. Having been shortlisted in the past, I understand first-hand its impact, its singular ability to highlight writers from far-flung parts of the globe and connect new readers with their work. This was an endeavor I didn’t take on lightly. Our shortlist contains works that transport us not just outside reality but outside the common language of the every day. The books refuse easy characterisation. No one voice, no one vision dominates. There are terrors here, just as there are pleasures, sorrows, joys, consolations. Together, they leave us with a multilayered portrait of what it means to be alive today. What each title does so beautifully, and utterly in its own fashion, is show us that no matter the outcome, the human journey is always one of resilience.