The more things change

A judge for the “lost” Booker prize is impressed by past writing

When the Booker prize switched from retroactive award in 1971, to a prize given for the best novel in the year of publication, the award date was also changed, from April to November. That meant most novels published in 1970, were never considered for the prize. They were “lost.” Peter Straus, the Booker’s unofficial archivist, considered this an injustice, remedied with a one-off prize. Any novel published in Britain in 1970 and still in print would be considered, and the judges for the contest would, like the books, all be 40 years old. They would draw up a shortlist of six, and the public would then vote for the winner. Journalist Rachel Cooke enjoyed her experience as a judge, which gave her, she writes, the perfect opportunity to read genre books she would not otherwise have picked up: the briny Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian and Len Deighton’s Bomber, which brilliantly describes the progress of an Allied air raid over 24 hours in the summer of 1943. The 21 surviving books—those that had stayed in print—proved that just as many historical novels were published in 1970 as now, even though at Booker prize time, critics always complain that not enough books with contemporary settings are being written. In the end, the judging panel of 40-year-olds crafted a six-book shortlist with three historical novels: The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard, a tale of Naples just after the war; Troubles by JG Farrell, set in Ireland after the First World War, where Major Brendan Archer is visiting his fiancee at her home, the crumbling Majestic hotel (in Farrell’s deft hands, a beautiful metaphor for the wider crumbling of empire); and one of the most famous historical novels of the 20th century, Mary Renault’s Fire From Heaven, the first volume of her trilogy about Alexander the Great.

The Guardian