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7 Female Booker Prize Winning Authors: English Language Fiction at its Best

Alice Baynton itcherThe Booker Prize is awarded to the very best English Language novel every year. It is one of English Literature’s greatest honours and you can guarantee any Booker winner is worth reading. Iris Murdoch, Anita Brookner, A.S Byatt, Arundhati Roy, Margaret Atwood, Anne Enright and Hilary Mantel are the fantastic female Booker Prize winning authors that I have chosen for my list. ~ Alice Baynton

A Writer’s Dream

In the book trade, the Booker Prize is a much anticipated event. It is greeted with specialised advertising campaigns in bookshops and endless newspaper and media coverage for the winner. Even discounting the huge prize itself, it is worth a fortune in book sales and fame, not just to the winner but to those shortlisted as well.

To be able to proudly display a little stamp on the cover of your book that says ‘Winner of the Booker Prize’ or ‘Shortlisted for the Booker Prize’… to an English language author, that is the stuff dreams are made of.

This year’s (2015) wonderful winner is Marlon James (being the first Jamaican ever to win this award), but I’m sure you’ve heard enough about him by now. So I’ve compiled a list of 7 women Booker Prize winning writers from past years that may have slipped through your reading net.

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Iris Murdoch – Won in 1978

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Iris Murdoch, the 4th woman to ever win the Booker Prize, and the earliest winner on my list of female award winning authors.

Her winning novel ‘The Sea, the Sea’ has become a modern classic (it has in fact been published as a Penguin Classics edition, which means that it’s official now).

Born in Ireland in 1919, she went on to study Philosophy and become a hugely prolific novelist. She had a long and happy marriage, however it was unusual in the fact that her husband was aware and accepting of her many affairs. She suffered from Alzheimer’s in her final years and died in 1999.

Book Recommendation: ‘Under the Net’ (1954)

‘Under the Net’ was Murdoch’s debut novel, written way back in the 1950’s. The story centres on fickle, roguish anti-hero Jack Donaghue, a struggling writer.

One of her more light-hearted books, it has a cast of quirky characters and some almost farcical adventures including the kidnapping of a film-star dog.

Read it to see where this award winning, legendary writer first began.

In most of her work, large casts of well drawn characters swap spouses and have affairs and sexual intrigues. She adds to this a big scoop of philosophy and often meditates on the concepts of good and evil.

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Anita Brookner – Won in 1984

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Anita Brookner was born in London to Polish parents in 1928. During the 1930’s and WWII her parents, being Jewish themselves, opened their home to Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany, which must have made for an interesting, chaotic childhood.

An art historian and professor, she won the Booker Prize for her novel ‘Hotel Du Lac’ (which appears on this list of the ten best fictional holidays in the Guardian).

Some of her work has been accused of playing it safe. She writes mostly about semi-autobiographical female protagonists, but writes them well, with unflinching honesty.

Book Recommendation: ‘Latecomers’ (1988)

Knowing that her parents took in refugees during the war, you can see immediately where she got her inspiration for this book.

‘Latecomers’ is one of the few books mostly revolving around male characters.

It is the story of the 50 year friendship between two German refugees, who came to England on the Kindertransport. A tender book that follows the lives of these two men, through their boyhood, then as successful businessmen, husbands and parents.

Anita Brookner writes detailed, compassionate portrayals of ordinary people. Very civilized but honest writing on love, loss and ageing. She studies the human condition.

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A.S Byatt – Won in 1990

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A.S Byatt is an academically impressive addition to this list of female award winning writers. She has more than 10 honorary doctorates and degrees from a wide range of British Universities.

Born in Sheffield, her parents and siblings are equally as impressive. Consisting of another novelist, an art historian, and two barristers.

She has written novels and short stories, as well as critical studies (including one on Iris Murdoch). Her writing often involves elements of fantasy and fairy-tale. She won the Booker Prize for her novel ‘Possession: A romance’.

Book Recommendation: ‘Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice’ (2000)

A collection of fantastical, magical short stories, some set in this world, others not. They deal with extremes and opposite as the title of the collection suggests.

One of the more fantastical stories tells of an ice maiden who falls in love with a desert prince, whose touches burn her. Another story more grounded in the real world is ‘Crocodile Tears’, where a woman runs away from her life after the death of her husband.

Varied in subject matter and richly detailed.

You can imagine A.S Byatt telling tales around a fire; fairy-stories, myths and legends. She is a natural born story-teller, who writes beautifully descriptive prose.

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Arundhati Roy – Won in 1997

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Arundhati’s first novel ‘The God of Small Things’ won the Booker Prize, moved millions of people to tears and left readers waiting, excitedly, for her next. That second novel never came.

Despite this, she has been anything but idle. She is a political activist, desperate for change and equality in her native India, where she still lives.

She has written many non-fiction books on a wide range of issues and has been on the ‘Prospect World Thinkers’ list more than once.

Book Recommendation: ‘The God of Small Things’ (1997)

I would love to recommend another work of fiction by Arundhati Roy, but sadly no such work exists.

I can’t count the number of people who have said that this is one of their favourite books, including other successful authors like Taiye Selasi (who I have previously written about here).

It tells the story of an Indian family, their love, deceptions and struggles, and how their lives are changed forever on just one day. The writing is of a different class, vivid, delicate and sensuous.

So, if you haven’t read ‘The God of Small Things’ yet then seriously, come on now, read it already.

Writes political, radical non-fiction works. And one astounding, perfect novel.

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Margaret Atwood – Won in 2000

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Margaret Atwood is a Canadian author who has written over 40 volumes of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and children’s literature. Her book ‘The Blind Assassin’ is what won her the Booker Prize.

She has taught English, and been Writer in Residence at many different institutions. She was also the first writer named to take part in the Future Libraries project, where a forest has been planted in Norway, that will, in 100 years, become a collection of books.

Book Recommendation: ‘Oryx and Crake’ (2003)

The first in a dystopian trilogy, gives us Snowman, a normal human being who used to be called Jimmy struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world where a plague has wiped out humanity. He may be the only human still alive, in a land full of genetically engineered animals and ‘Children of Crake’.

Margaret Atwood takes technology and science that we know, things within our grasp, and shows what could almost believably happen in the not too distant future.

Another dystopian novel of hers worth finding is ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, which was also nominated for the Booker Prize.

Current, prolific writer who, with stark and simple prose can conjure up vast, complex worlds, or zoom right in on one character’s crisis of faith.

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Anne Enright – Won in 2007

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An Irish writer who sticks to her roots and writes novels set in the country she loves and lives in. She had a relatively low profile before her book ‘The Gathering’ won her the Booker Prize, although she has won a few different awards and has always received good reviews.

She used to work in television before leaving due to a breakdown, which she widely acknowledges and says she ‘recommends’ having one early on in life to get it out of the way.

Book Recommendation: ‘What Are You Like?’ (2001)

A slightly surreal novel about twins, identity and family.

It begins with Maria, going through the belongings of the man she has fallen in love with. In a box she finds a picture of herself at twelve years old. But she’s wearing the wrong clothes. It looks like her, but it’s not. The novel follows the lives of Maria and the girl in the picture, between Dublin, London and New York.

This book made it only the shortlist for The Whitbread Award.

Her writing explores sex, love, family relationships and Ireland’s difficult past. Expect many more award winning novels from this author.

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Hilary Mantel – Won in 2009 AND 2012

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How could I not include Hilary Mantel? She is the first woman and the first British author to ever win the award twice. She is also the only person to win a Booker Prize for 2 books from the same trilogy. She won with ‘Wolf Hall’ in 2009, and ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ in 2012.

Mantel writes historical fiction, which is also unusual for a Booker winner, as winning novels are usually literary fiction (although her writing could be described as ‘literary historical fiction’, literary being a hard genre to define).

She was born in England, studied law, was employed as a social worker and lived in Botswana and Saudi Arabia. It seems that everything she has ever written, non-fiction or fiction, has won an award.

Book Recommendation: ‘An Experiment in Love’ (1995)

Through the story of the main protagonist, Carmel, this book explores the pressures on women to succeed in the 1960’s. It examines a generation of women torn between their desire for power and the fear of being ‘improper’.

A relatively short novel for Hilary Mantel, she writes succinct and clear prose. The book won the Hawthornden Prize in 1996.

A powerhouse of historical fiction. It seems there is no subject that Hilary Mantel cannot write about with ease and grace.

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30 Vs 16

At the time of writing this article, 30 men have won the Booker Prize, compared with only 16 women. The outnumbering of men to women seems to be the case with all long-running major prizes.

Things are changing though, with 2013 becoming the first year that women outnumbered men on the Booker Prize longlist since it started being released in 2001.

Are you an avid reader who longs for their favourite author to win this sought after prize?

Who do you think will be a winner in the future?

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