2023 Booker Prize longlist: 13 books that explore ‘what it means to exist in our time’
“A story, like a bird of the mountain, can carry a name beyond the clouds, beyond even time itself. Willie Maugham said that to me, many years ago. He has not appeared in my thoughts in a long time, but as I gaze at the mountains from my stoep on this autumn morning I can hear his thin, dry voice, his diction precise, correct, like everything else about him.” This is the voice of Lesley Hamlyn, the only fictional character in Malaysian novelist Tan Twan Eng’s third novel, The House of Doors, which is among the 13 books longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize, announced on Tuesday (August 1).
In The House of Doors, the famous Ethel Proudlock case that took place in Kuala Lumpur in 1911 is skillfully woven into the plot. When writer William Somerset Maugham had visited Kuala Lumpur in 1921, a lawyer named EAS Wagner had shared the case with him: a cause célèbre, it had created a sensation in the Malay British community. Ethel Proudlock, the wife of a schoolmaster, was accused of murdering William Steward, the manager of a tin mine and her alleged lover. During the trial, Ethel insisted that William had attempted to rape her, but the court refused to accept her account. As a result, she was sentenced to hang. However, the tide turned when her supporters petitioned the Sultan of Selangor, which led to her eventual pardon.
The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng
Maugham used the episode as material for one of his works, The Letter: originally a short story that first appeared in his 1926 collection The Casuarina Tree, it was adapted into a play centring on themes of passion, betrayal, and moral ambiguity, in 1927. The Letter was also turned into a Hollywood film starring the iconic actress Bette Davis. In the novel, it is Lesley Hamlyn who relates the case to Maugham.
Set in the Malayan district of Penang, The House of Doors revolves around Lesley, a charismatic society hostess, and her husband Robert Hamlyn, a powerful lawyer, whose lives are invigorated when the latter’s old friend, Somerset Maugham, affectionately known as Willie, visits them.
As Lesley and Willie’s friendship blossoms, she sees how Willie is trapped in an unhappy marriage, battling ill-health, and grappling with failed business ventures, and not to mention, writer’s block. She gains a clearer understanding of the struggles of a great writer compelled to conceal his true self from the world. As Willie prepares to depart, Lesley entrusts him with her own secrets. Among them is her connection to the murder case involving the Englishwoman Proudlock in the Kuala Lumpur courts.
“In my memory I see him again, on his last night in our old house on the other side of the world, the two of us on the verandah behind the house, talking quietly, the full moon a coracle of light adrift above the sea. Everyone else in the house had already retired to bed. When morning came he sailed from Penang, and I never saw him again. Ten thousand days and nights have drifted down the endless river since that evening. I live on the shores of a different sea now, a sea of silent stone and sand,” Lesley reminisces in the Prologue.
“Drawing on the life and writing of Somerset Maugham, The House of Doors is a magisterial and haunting tale of forbidden love and loss in the shadow of revolution and empire. This is historical fiction at its finest,” the jury said. Twan Eng (51), in his previous two novels — The Gift of Rain (2007) and the Booker-shortlisted The Garden of Evening Mists (2012) — explored the Japanese wartime occupation of Malaya and its impact on the region.
The Booker Dozen
Four novels — almost a third of the nominees this year — are from Ireland: Sebastian Barry’s Old God’s Time; Elaine Feeney’s How to Build a Boat; Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song, and Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting. It makes Ireland the country that, with 37 writers, has produced the most nominees, relative to population size, in the history of the prize. Barry (68), also a playwright and poet, becomes one of only 11 writers to have been nominated at least five times: the roll-call includes the likes of Beryl Bainbridge, William Trevor and David Mitchell. Murray (47), was longlisted in 2019 for his novel Skippy Dies; his 656-page novel is the longest book on the longlist. Feeney (44), who has also published three collections of poetry, is on the list for the first time for her second novel.
Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan, twice-shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is the chair of the 2023 judging panel, joined by actor-writer-director Adjoa Andoh; poet-lecturer-editor-critic Mary Jean Chan; Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and Shakespeare specialist James Shapiro, and actor-writer Robert Webb.
“We read 163 novels across seven months, and in that time whole worlds opened to us,” Edugyan was quoted as saying in a release by The Booker Prize Foundation. “We were transported to early 20th-century Maine and Penang, to the vibrant streets of Lagos and the squash courts of London, to the blackest depths of the Atlantic, and into a dystopic Ireland where the terrifying loss of rights comes as a hard warning. The list is defined by its freshness – by the irreverence of new voices, by the iconoclasm of established ones. All 13 novels cast new light on what it means to exist in our time, and they do so in original and thrilling ways,” she added.
The four debut books include If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery (US), a collection of eight interlinked stories that explore the life of a Jamaican family in Miami; Pearl by Siân Hughes (UK) unravels the mystery of a mother’s disappearance; All the Little Bird-Hearts by Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow (US), which is told from a unique perspective of a mother with autism; and Western Lane by British-Indian Chetna Maroo, which follows the journey of a grieving squash player and her family. At 176 pages, Maroo’s book is the shortest book on the longlist.
The four other nominees are: A Spell of Good Things by 35-year-old Ayobami Adebayo (Nigeria), included in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 2023, is an exploration into corruption and gender inequalities; Canadian writer Sarah Bernstein’s Study for Obedience is the story of a young woman, who moves to a remote northern country to be her brother’s housekeeper; This Other Eden by Paul Harding (US) “celebrates the hopes, dreams and resilience of those deemed not to fit in a world brutally intolerant of difference,”; and In Ascension by Martin MacInnes (Scotland), “a Solaris for the climate-change age,” which confronts the “great questions of existence, while looking inward to illuminate the human heart.”
A surprising omission in the longlist is Salman Rushdie’s latest and 15th novel, Victory City, which tells the story of Pampa Kampana, a sorceress and poet of extraordinary powers, who conjures an entire civilisation from her ‘magical seeds.’ Six of the 13 longlisted titles will go through to the shortlist, which will be announced on Thursday, September 21st. The shortlisted authors will each receive £2,500 and a bound edition of their book. The winner will be announced on Sunday, November 26th. They will receive £50,000 and a trophy designed by the late Jan Pieńkowski.
The winner can also expect a dramatic rise in global book sales. When Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida was announced as the 2022 Booker Prize winner, its sales soared to more than 100,000 across all formats. The novel has been translated into 19 languages so far, with another 10 under way, the Booker Prize Foundation said in the release.