As the Race for the Booker Prize Ends, Revisit Its Beginnings (Literally)

The Luminaries author Eleanor Catton, 27, became the youngest Booker Prize winner ever Tuesday. Read the first lines of her book and the other shortlisted novels below.

This post is part of a weekly series in which Atlantic staffers offer their takes on the six novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Polarized is how many Americans expect contests to be these days, so as I’ve followed my colleagues’ insightful weekly bulletins since the start of September, that’s how I’ve found myself viewing the six Man Booker Prize nominees. Would the over-50, established guys from the North (British Jim Crace and Irish Colm Tóibín) beat out the precocious female newcomers from the Southern hemisphere (Nigerian NoViolet Bulawayo and New Zealander Eleanor Catton)? I wrote off the middle because, well, it was the middle—and because Jhumpa Lahiri and Ruth Ozeki, authors of the remaining two nominees (The Lowland and A Tale for the Time Being, respectively), were the closet Americans of the group. They could hope for other honors (and, indeed, The Lowland was recently nominated for a National Book Award).

Each side had a lot going for it. The judges could, I figured, award a novel that capped an impressive oeuvre: Crace’s Harvest is his 11th work of fiction; Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary is his 10th book. Or they could salute brilliantly budding careers: Bulawayo’s We Need New Names is her first novel, and the 848-page The Luminaries is, amazingly, 27-year-old Catton’s second. The choice, as I scripted it, was between the eminently respectable bet and the bold leap. My gut told me the judges had narrowed it down to the starkest standoff:  Crace (the most senior) vs. Catton (the most prolific upstart).

The outcome today confirms, or at any rate doesn’t disprove, my instincts. And with Eleanor Catton anointed, I can say what a perfect swansong it is for the Man Booker Prize as the contest now expands beyond its Commonwealth boundaries and goes global. Next year, nominations will be open to novels written in English and published in Britain, originating anywhere, and Catton is a timely reminder of how much upstart talent there is to be found in far-flung places.

So what better way to close than by leaving polarization behind and celebrating convergence instead? In September, as this weekly series began, the National Book Award announced that it was copying the Man Booker longlist/shortlist format this year for the first time, eager to build suspense and sales with a drawn-out process. Every book lover should be happy to note that the U.S. is learning from the British masters of literary prizes.

Meanwhile, back in August, when the Man Booker season began with the announcement of its longlist, The Observer magazine of the Guardian newspaper invoked a similar hands-across-the-ocean spirit in copying us, The Atlantic, as they got the prize buzz going: “Atlantic magazine asked some of America's greatest writers last week for their favourite first lines from literature,” announced Observer editors. “We decided to ask the same of this year's Man Booker prize longlist … with some surprising results.” You can find the nominees’ picks here.

Now it’s our turn to finish off the Man Booker season with a variation on The Guardian’s theme. In case the weekly bulletins have already blurred in your mind, here are the first lines from all six of this year’s shortlisted novels. Find a favorite, and get inspired to read further.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names:

We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and Me.

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries:

The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met.

Jim Crace’s The Harvest:

Two twists of smoke at a time of year too warm for cottage fires surprise us at first light, or they at least surprise those of us who've not been up to mischief in the dark.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland:

East of the Tolly Club, after Deshapran Sashmal Road splits in two, there is a small mosque.

Rith Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being:

Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being.

Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary:

They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world.