Australian writer Richard Flanagan won the Booker Prize on Tuesday with a visceral book about wartime brutality and its aftermath — a novel the head of the judging team said was as powerful as a kick in the stomach.
Flanagan drew on his father’s experiences as a World War II prisoner of the Japanese for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which centers on the Burma Death Railway, built with forced labor at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.
Named after a classic work of Japanese literature, the book is dedicated to Flanagan’s father — referred to by his prisoner number, 335 — who died at the age of 98 shortly after his son finished the manuscript.
Flanagan is the third Australian to take the award, after Thomas Kenneally and Peter Carey, and his victory disappointed those who hoped to see an American win in the first year U.S. authors are eligible.
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Philosopher A.C. Grayling, who chaired the panel of judges, praised the “profoundly intelligent humanity” and “excoriating” descriptions of suffering in Flanagan’s novel.
He said the book, which moves from Tasmania to southeast Asia to Japan, explored “the loss of a love and then the loss of comrades” and the trauma of having to live with such an overwhelming experience.
“If you are made a hero by your country but you don’t feel like one – that is explored so wonderfully well in this novel,” he said.
Grayling said it was “the sort of book that kicks you so hard in the stomach” that it is difficult to move on.
Flanagan, 53, was given his trophy and 50,000 pound ($80,000) winner’s check by Prince Charles’ wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, after a black-tie dinner in London’s medieval Guildhall.
This was the first year writers of all nationalities have been eligible for the Booker, previously open only to authors from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth of dozens of former British colonies, including Australia.
U.S. writers Joshua Ferris and Karen Joy Fowler were among the six finalists. Ferris’ cyber-identity tale To Rise Again at a Decent Hour and Fowler’s unusual family story We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves were shortlisted alongside Flanagan and three novels by British writers – Ali Smith’s dual-narrative story How to Be Both, Howard Jacobson’s dystopian J and Neel Mukherjee’s Calcutta-set The Lives of Others.
Winning the Booker guarantees a boost in profile and sales, and can transform careers. When Hilary Mantel won for Wolf Hall in 2009, she went from modestly successful novelist to literary superstar. Last year’s winner, New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton, has seen her 900-page novel The Luminaries sell 500,000 copies around the world.
Jonathan Ruppin of bookstore chain Foyles said Flanagan’s book should be a strong seller. He said it was “one of the truly great winners of the prize, one that will be widely read not least because it’s impossible to lay aside completely and forget.”
Some British writers had expressed fears that the change in eligibility could lead to U.S. dominance of the 46-year-old award, officially named the Man Booker Prize after its sponsor, financial services firm Man Group PLC.
Grayling said Flanagan’s victory should put a stop to chatter about an American invasion.
“There is a very powerful cohort of contemporary American writers, but neither the longlist nor the shortlist was overwhelmed by them,” he said.