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Booker Prize 2023: the six shortlisted books reviewed by our experts

Boudica: Queen of War reviewed by an expert in the real ancient British ruler

From a longlist of 12, six novels have been shortlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize. Our academics review the finalists ahead of the announcement of the winner on November 26.

Western Lane by Chetna Maroo

Chetna Maroo’s subtle novel follows a British Asian girl, Gopi, who plays squash fiercely to cope with the grief of her mother’s death.

In Western Lane, the squash court becomes an arena for playing out the conflicting emotions flowing between a grieving father and his daughters. Here other tensions also come to the fore, such as her father’s memories of Mombasa in Kenya, the delicate negotiations between British people of diverse south Asian heritages and interracial tension and budding romance.

Powerful descriptions of the physicality of competitive racket sport are accompanied by evocative hints of Gujarati foodways and familial codes. Together, these aspects of Gopi’s life define her adolescent sensibility but also help alleviate loss.

This is a story that defies one genre. At once, Western Lane is a wonderful coming-of-age narrative about a girl navigating her adolescence – exploring identity, familial expectations, first love and more.

It is a story about grief and that which can often go unsaid in the process of mourning. It is also a sports story that uses the physical and mental demands of being an athlete to heighten its emotional narrative. A marvellous read.

Reviewed by Ananya Jahanara Kabir, professor of English literature, King’s College London

The Bee Sting by Paul Murray

Paul Murray’s fourth novel, The Bee Sting, is a rare thing: a 600-page page-turner. It’s also a masterclass in narrative perspective. Starting off in the third person, four novella-length sections introduce us to the Barnes family. There’s failing car salesman Dickie, his frustrated wife Imelda, teenage Cass who dreams of life beyond small-town Ireland, and tween PJ who, like the rest of the family, is nurturing a secret.

The following section, Age of Loneliness, ricochets between the second-person viewpoints of the four protagonists, with brief snatches of ancillary perspectives as the narrative reaches its rapid-fire crescendo. It’s a novel about class and wealth, isolation and connectedness, and the secret histories that lie beneath a family’s stories of itself.

The Bee Sting’s occasional distractions, such as the sparing punctuation in Imelda’s sections, do not take away from its many successes: the gripping atmosphere, its capacity to surprise – even shock – and the rich symbolism that surrounds the titular wound.

Reviewed by Bethany Layne, senior lecturer in English literature, De Montfort University

Study in Obedience by Sarah Bernstein

Sarah Bernstein’s Study for Obedience is a polished pebble of a novel: opaque, contained, unyielding. The story seems to begin when the unnamed female narrator relocates to look after her elder brother, whose wife and children have left.

However, the narrator’s insistent attention on duty and deference is linked to echoes of historical oppression and exclusion rooted in her identity. Though not named, it is inferred by repeated allusions to her scapegoating by the Christian community she lives among.

While there are glimmers both of the narrator’s resistant subjectivity and of her reclaiming service as power, the story preserves its polished surface, committed only to studying obedience as a behaviour.

Not claiming to speak for anyone is part of the moral discipline the narrator prides herself on. But the absence of any dialogue and the sterility of the voice ultimately crafts a narrator who is constrained not just by her brother’s demands but by her own self-perception.

Reviewed by Alison Donnell, professor of modern literatures in English, University of East Anglia

Prophet Song by Paul Lynch

In his powerfully atmospheric fifth novel, Paul Lynch imagines a near-future Ireland that is inexorably mutating into a repressive, authoritarian state under the control of a right-wing populist government. The reader’s focalising guide to the novel’s ever-darkening moral universe is commercial scientist and mother-of-four Eilish Stack, who lives in suburban Dublin with her husband Larry, a teacher and trade unionist.

Larry’s summary arrest and detention by the newly formed secret police acts as the catalyst for Eilish’s awakening to the reality that “the state they live in has become a monster”. Once “the great waking begins”, the pace of Eilish’s engulfment by fear and panic accelerates precipitously, in tandem with the country’s spiralling descent into societal breakdown and civil strife.

Lynch’s dense, monolithic paragraphs potently enact Eilish’s tightening encirclement by malevolent forces, from which she desperately tries to shield her family. Prophet Song, like the best dystopian realism, exerts a compelling hold upon the imagination because of its chillingly plausible cautionary message.

Reviewed by Liam Harte, professor of Irish literature, University of Manchester

If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffrey

If I Survive You tells the interconnected stories of the men from a Jamaican family that migrate to Miami. The novel moves between stories from brothers Trelawny and Delano, their father Topper and their cousin Cukie as they navigate issues of belonging, racial identity, displacement, father-son relationships and hurricanes in 20th- and 21st-century America.

Perhaps the most striking element of Escoffrey’s novel is its lyrical narrative voice. It moves between characters and between first, second and third person to create a kaleidoscopic, cinematic meditation on black masculinity and the immigrant experience.

The novel’s opening chapter recounts Trelawny’s childhood experiences. He reflects on being asked “What are you?” in relation to his racial identity. Escoffery does a skillful job of highlighting the complexities of this question, and the ways in which blackness is understood differently across cultures.

If I Survive You is a beautifully written novel that introduces many unforgettable characters, captivates its reader with humour and heart, and demonstrates Escoffrey’s unmistakable aptitude for the art of storytelling.

Reviewed by Leighan Renaud, lecturer in Caribbean literatures and cultures, University of Bristol

This Other Eden by Paul Harding

The title of Paul Harding’s richly textured novel, with its wry invocation of Shakespeare’s scepter’d isle, points to the long literary legacy of islands as places of imaginative possibilities.

The story explores the shattering of a mixed-heritage community on the fictional Apple Island, off the coast of Maine, by racist forces of missionary zeal and eugenicist thought. A dazzling array of narrative perspectives bring this world to intense sensory life.

The novel’s elaborate, dreamlike prose sits uneasily at times with the brutal dispossessions of American history, especially the fates of the real-life Malaga Islanders. Its plot strains to accommodate the complexities of transatlantic slavery, colonial conquest and Irish settler diaspora.

Yet Harding’s work is best read, not as historical fiction, but rather as a form of speculative writing. This Other Eden imagines vivid possibilities for human connection, dignity and hope – even as it reminds us of the terrible fragility of these visions.

Reviewed by Muireann O'Cinneide, lecturer in English, University of Galway


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The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.