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The writing greats and their work that propelled them to the big literary prize

After Anna Burns from Belfast won the 50th annual Man Booker Prize last week, Hannah Stephenson looks back at some of the most popular winners from the past five decades

By Hannah Stephenson

The Man Booker is recognised as the leading prize in literature, with writing greats from Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro to Hilary Mantel among its winners.

But how many winning books can you remember from the five decades that the prize has been running?

As the Man Booker celebrates its 50th anniversary, here are just some of the literary gems you might have missed along the way...

1. In A Free State by VS Naipaul (1971)

This one made the shortlist for Golden Man Booker 2018, but was pipped by The English Patient. It's a disturbing book about two Brits, Bobby and Linda, travelling across an unnamed African country during an ethnic war that suggests the Uganda of the Idi Amin years. Despite their privileged position as members of the white colonial class, Bobby and Linda come to experience first-hand the escalating violence in the country.

2. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (1981)

Rushdie's post-colonial story about the partition of India was judged to be the Booker of all Bookers in 1993, and the Booker of Bookers on the prize's 40th anniversary.

It's the tale of a boy born at midnight at the exact time of India's independence, irrevocably tying him with 1,000 'midnight children' with whom he shares telepathic powers. Strange gifts are allotted to each child, related to India.

The peaks and troughs of the children's lives echo the tumultuous history of modern India in its early years.

3. Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally (1982)

Despite the controversy over whether Australian Keneally's winning book was fact or fiction, it proved a worthy winner. It centres on the true story of flamboyant German industrialist, Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of more than 1,000 mostly Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust by employing them in his factories in Krakow during World War Two.

Schindler was a womaniser, a drinker, a member of the Nazi party and a black marketeer.

Yet when all around him had gone insane, he insisted on decency and risked his life and fortune to turn the factories he owned into the ark of the book's title.

Many readers will have been drawn to the book following its 1993 screen adaptation, Schindler's List, starring Liam Neeson and directed by Steven Spielberg, which became a box office smash, winning seven Oscars.

4. Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (1984)

While some critics moaned at the time that Anita Brookner's (inset) novel should not have won the Booker (and that JG Ballard's Empire Of The Sun should have won instead), this is nevertheless a beautifully written, gentle story of a novelist who takes herself off to a Swiss hotel after a romantic indiscretion leaves her friends outraged and sending her off for a good think.

There, she finds herself among an eclectic mix of guests. Her melancholy is soon replaced by distraction through the often-infuriating characters she encounters, and it's clear that the hotel is just the tonic she needs to recover.

5. The Remains Of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)

This snapshot of post-war Britain set in the summer of 1956, sees the greying English butler of Darlington Hall reflect on his past - serving a master during the war who, through ignorance, sympathised with the Nazis.

It's a novel of regret, as the butler tries to come to terms with the confinement of his own reserved nature and mask of formality, and his repressed feelings for the housekeeper he once worked with. The books was adapted into a film starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins.

6. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992)

Many will be familiar with the Oscar-winning film starring Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche, adapted from this literary gem, which was recently voted the best Booker winner of the last 50 years by the public.

The story, set at the end of the Second World War as troops begin to leave Italy, centres on an army nurse tending a horribly-burned man in an Italian villa, who opens up about his tumultuous life and a tragic love affair from his past.

7. Life Of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)

This surreal fantasy adventure, which sees a 16-year-old Indian boy surviving on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with only a 450lb Royal Bengal tiger for company, has sold more than 13 million copies, translated into more than 40 languages, since it was first published in 2001.

Written as Pi looks back from an advanced age on his life, the amazing story of survival that he recounts is, in Martel's words, all about "discovering life through a religious perspective".

But it's the unlikely companionship that develops between man and beast which makes this novel so compelling.

8. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)

The fictional tale of Thomas Cromwell's rise to power, as he pits himself against parliament and the Church to reshape England to his own and Henry VIII's desires, is surely one of the most famous Man Booker winners of the last decade, being shortlisted for the Golden Man Booker.

Mantel's talent for fictional story-telling against a backdrop of factual events knows no bounds, and when Wolf Hall's sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, the second in a trilogy, was published in 2012, she became the first woman and British author to win the award twice.

9. The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes (2011)

Exploring themes of death, regret and reminiscence, this intense novella follows a dull, middle-aged man called Tony Webster, who starts to thinks a lot about a school friend who committed suicide as a young man - and how their lives compared and contrasted as they were making their way in the world, as one woman was significant in both their lives.

Touching on youthful sex, inhibition, regret and false recollection, the novel is largely concerned with how, in the course of life, we edit and erase our memories.

10. Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders (2017)

This ghost story, the first full-length novel from the American author, is built around the death of Abraham Lincoln's 11-year-old son, Willie, in February, 1862, during the American Civil War.

The story takes place in the graveyard where Willie is buried, where he is surrounded by other dead spirits, who cannot accept that they have gone, and try to engineer communication between Willie and the living Abraham.

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