At a ceremony at London’s Guildhall on Tuesday night, A Brief History of Seven Killings by the Jamaican author Marlon James received the 2015 Man Booker Prize. A longlist of thirteen titles was announced on 29 July, comprising:
A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James (Jamaica)
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara (USA)
A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler (USA)
Did You Ever Have a Family, by Bill Clegg (USA)
Lila, by Marilynne Robinson (USA)
Satin Island, by Tom McCarthy (UK)
Sleeping on Jupiter, by Anuradha Roy (India)
The Chimes, by Anna Smaill (New Zealand)
The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria)
The Green Road, by Anne Enright (Ireland)
The Illuminations, by Andrew O’Hagan (UK)
The Moor’s Account, by Laila Lalami (USA)
The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sahota (UK)
Then on 15 September, these thirteen titles were narrowed down to a shortlist of six. A Brief History of Seven Killings was joined by A Little Life, which over 720 difficult pages tells the story of four diverse friends in New York City in the decades after they graduate from college; A Spool of Blue Thread, which covers three generations of the same family about their Baltimore home; Satin Island, whose narrator, known only as U., works as a ‘corporate anthropologist’ and must undertake a grandly elusive cultural study; The Fishermen, which follows four brothers given a dark prophecy in a small Nigerian fishing village; and The Year of the Runaways, which moves between Sheffield and India focusing on the experience of migrant workers in Britain.
A Brief History of Seven Killings is Marlon James’ third novel. Spanning several decades and 680 pages, it sprawls forth as an imagined oral history spurred by the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. The aftermath covers drug wars, street life, and politics in New York City and Jamaica across the 1980s and 1990s. The story is told by an array of characters including gang figures, politicians, security agents, ghosts, beauty queens, and Keith Richards’ drug dealer.
The award marks the first time the Booker Prize has been awarded to a Jamaican novelist. The 44-year-old James’ previous novels are The Book of Night Women (2009) and John Crow’s Devil (2010). For the past eight years, he has taught creative writing and literature at Macalester College in St Paul, Minnesota. Describing his win as ‘so surreal’, he cited reggae music as his work’s inspiration, saying:
‘The reggae singers Bob Marley and Peter Tosh were the first to recognise that the voice coming out our mouths was a legitimate voice for fiction and poetry.’
HBO has already optioned A Brief History of Seven Killings for a prospective television series. And the novel has previously received the 2015 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction, and the 2015 Minnesota Book Award for a Novel or Short Story, as well as being a finalist for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award.
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First awarded in 1969 and initially labelled the Booker-McConnell Prize, the Man Booker Prize was known simply as the Booker Prize until 2002, when the investment company Man Group became its sponsor. Since that year, the prize has been orchestrated by the independent charity the Booker Prize Foundation.
Sometimes criticised for pandering to a London-based coterie of writers, and bemoaned for its lack of scope, historically the winner of the prize had to be a citizen of the Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland, or Zimbabwe. Following the 2013 award, it was announced that in future all English-language works would be eligible, significantly opening the field to authors from the United States.
The Man Booker Prize is therefore a celebration of English-language novels: in the history of the prize, only one short story collection has been shortlisted, Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid in 1980. In 1971, winner V. S. Naipaul’s novel In a Free State was structured as a framing narrative around three short stories.
30 men and 16 women have won the Man Booker Prize, with the award split twice, in 1974 and 1992. Originally awarding £5,000 to its winners, the prize money was doubled in 1978, before rising to £50,000 in 2002. Each of the shortlisted authors receives £2,500.
The winner is decided by a judging panel, which now makes its selection on the day of the award ceremony. The judging for 2015 was chaired by literary critic and Princeton scholar Michael Wood, on a panel which also included editor Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, poet John Burnside, journalist Sam Leith, and writer Frances Osborne. In contrast to French literature’s Prix Goncourt, established in 1903 and decided by ten long-standing academicians, the judging panel for the Man Booker Prize changes each year.
Sales figures play no part in the determination of the winner. In 2014, the prize was won by the Australian novelist Richard Flanagan for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, whose title was inspired by the haibun of Matsuo Basho. Yet prior to the announcement, the shortlisted novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by American author Karen Joy Fowler, had sold more than three times the total of its rivals: encouraged by its place on the shortlist, it had shifted 55,664 copies in contrast to the combined 16,710 of the other five texts.
Yet as one of the prominent awards in world literature, the Man Booker Prize significantly boosts the sales of both shortlisted and winning authors. Indeed, between 2001 and 2011, winning authors saw their weekly sales rise by anything from 463% to 1918%. After A Brief History of Seven Killings was named on the Booker shortlist, its sales immediately tripled to more than 1,000 copies a week.