Michael Ondaatje’s bestselling novel The English Patient was announced as the winner of the Golden Man Booker Prize at the Southbank Centre in London, on Sunday. The prize was instituted as part of celebrations to mark the Booker’s having completed 50 years. The announcement came at the close of a three-day festival featuring over 60 speakers.
Ondaatje’s novel, set during World War II, about a horribly burned man who finds himself in an Italian villa with three other unlikely characters, was picked as the winner by a public poll from a shortlist of five books. The shortlist was selected by a panel of five judges, with each member tasked with picking the best Booker prize winner from a particular decade since the founding of the literary award.
Speaking at the close of the ceremony, Ondaatje said he had not re-read The English Patient since it was published and did not think it deserved to win the prize. According to The Guardian, Ondaatje said: “Not for a second do I believe this is the best book on the list, especially when it is placed beside a work by VS Naipaul, one of the masters of our time, or a major work like Wolf Hall,” before adding “I suspect and know more than anyone that perhaps The English Patient is still cloudy, with errors in pacing.” The writer’s most recent novel, Warlight, was published this year.
Novelist Kamila Shamsie, the judge responsible for choosing a Booker Prize winner from the 1990s, who picked The English Patient said it was a book that “gets under your skin and insists you return to it time and again, always yielding a new surprise or delight”.
The method for selecting the shortlist came under some criticism in the weeks leading up to the announcement, since it led to several of the prize’s most popular winners not being in the running for the Golden Booker, such as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which had won previous polls of the best Booker winner. The five titles on the shortlist were:
- In A Free State, VS Naipaul (1971)
- Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively (1987)
- The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje (1992)
- Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (2009)
- Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders (2017)