6 Authors you didn’t know won the Booker Prize

Reader's Digest Editors

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction is one of the most prestigious and coveted literary awards. Every year, a panel of judges read well over 100 novels before selecting their winner and propelling their story to international fame. But how many of those who topped the list became household names—and how many household names have topped the list? Here are six worthy champions that you might not have known.

Penelope Lively (1987)

An award-winning author of over 20 children’s books, Penelope Lively is certainly no stranger to literary success. But for those who best recognise her name from the cover of The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, the author’s Booker Prize might come as quite a surprise.

Lively won with Moon Tiger, a story told from the hospital bed of the aged and dying Claudia Hampton. Nearing the end of her life, she begins to recreate the past in her mind, vividly revisiting the most passionate and painful parts of her own history, and confronting her personal legacy.

The book’s 1987 win was considered a shock, with other literary heavyweights expected to come out on top. Lively herself called the experience “disconcerting” as she wondered how to follow up the achievement. Luckily for fans, she needn’t have worried; the author has since penned over 20 more books for adults and children alike.

 

William Golding (1980)

For most English literature students, William Golding’s name will conjure up memories of Piggy and Ralph fighting for survival or passing round the conch. Yet it was not Lord of the Flies that landed him the Booker Prize, but Rites of Passage, published in 1980.

The first of "A Sea Trilogy", the story tells of a young man’s voyage from Britain to Australia at the start of the 19th century. The narrator becomes increasingly concerned about the welfare of a passenger, before a shocking incident leaves readers doubting everything they have come to know.   

Golding is said to have written the first draft of the book in just under a month; less time than a group of A Level students will have spent reading his works in class. The novelist claimed that he found his character’s voice by “transcribing conversations” he had heard in his head.

 

Margaret Atwood (2000)

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale has crept back into bestsellers lists after it was dramatised on television earlier this year. But while it was shortlisted for a Booker Prize in 1986, the Canadian author had to wait 14 years before being crowned the winner.

Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin scooped the prize in 2000, with critics lauding the work for being “far-reaching, dramatic and structurally superb”. The book is almost three novels in one, following the life of protagonist Iris Chase, her deceased sister’s posthumously published novel and the stories those fictitious characters also have to tell. 

With an amazing five Booker Prize nominations under her belt, Atwood was considered to be a frontrunner for this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, resulting in winner Kazuo Ishiguro even apologising to her during his acceptance speech. Here’s hoping the author isn’t in for another 14-year wait.

 

Thomas Keneally (1982)

You might not instantly recognise the name, but there will be few on the planet that won’t have heard of Thomas Keneally’s historical novel, Schindler's Ark. But while the book’s movie adaption catapulted the story to success in 1993, it had in fact already grabbed the Bookers Prize 12 years prior.

Liam Neeson in Schindler's List (1993) 

Based on true events, the 1982 novel documents the life of Oskar Schindler, a wealthy factory owner who's credited with saving over 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust. The moving story had been brought to Keneally by Holocaust survivor Poldek Pfefferberg, who he later dedicated the story to on completion. Pfefferberg would then later convince Steven Spielberg to create the motion picture. The movie has won the most awards for a film adaption of a Booker Prize-winning story.

Keneally and Pfefferberg’s extensive research can also be read in Searching for Schindler: A Memoir.

 

Yann Martel (2002)

A virtually unheard of author at the time, Yann Martel walked away with the 2002 Booker Prize for his novel The Life of Pi, changing his life forever.

The adventurous and imaginative story describes the journey of Piscine Patel, the sole human survivor after his family are ship-wrecked travelling from India to Canada. Managing to escape on a lifeboat, he soon finds he is not alone, instead sharing his desperate fight for survival with a rather hungry tiger called Richard Parker.

Martel described his win as a “freak success”, later revealing in a Guardian interview that he had been living on £4,000 a year just two years before. But it seems a Booker Prize doesn’t quite impress everyone, as the author went on to explain that his four children have remained decidedly indifferent to the achievement.  

 

Ian McEwan (1998)

Ian McEwan is no stranger to the Booker Prize, having been nominated an incredible five times in 26 years. But while it might be assumed that the popular and heart-breaking Atonement clinched the award, the author actually won with psychological thriller, Amsterdam, three years prior.

The lesser-known novel tells the story tells of two friends who form a euthanasia pact after watching their former lover die from an agonising rapid-onset disease. But their relationship soon begins to take a disastrous turn, with both seemingly normal characters rapidly losing control.

McEwan’s win paved the way for Atonement to become the global phenomenon it still is today. Readers can also be sure he made good use of his prize money; telling reporters he would be buying “something perfectly useless", to prevent it from being frittered away on "bus fares and linoleum”. Wonderful.

 

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