[The JRB Daily] The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje honoured as the greatest-ever winner of the Man Booker Prize

Michael Ondaatje’s ‘transformative’ novel The English Patient has won the Golden Man Booker Prize, a one-off award for the best work of fiction from the last five decades.

The award was announced at the closing event of the Man Booker 50 Festival, celebrating fifty years of the prize, in London.

Baroness Helena Kennedy, Chair of the Booker Prize Foundation, said: ‘The English Patient is a compelling work of fiction—both poetic and philosophical—and is a worthy winner of the Golden Man Booker.

‘As we celebrate the prize’s fiftieth anniversary, it’s a testament to the impact and legacy of the Man Booker Prize that all of the winning books are still in print. I’m confident that this special book, chosen by the public, will continue to stand the test of time and delight new readers for many more years to come.’

Born in 1943 in Sri Lanka when it was known as Ceylon, Ondaatje now lives in Canada. The English Patient, his third novel, won the Booker Prize in 1992. The book follows the lives of four characters brought together during World War II, told through the painful, morphine-affected memories of an anonymous Englishman.

Although he is best known as a novelist, Ondaatje is more prolific as a poet, and is also a filmmaker. He is one of only two authors whose work has won the Booker Prize and an Oscar. His latest novel, Warlight, was published in May.

All fifty-one previous winners of the Booker Prize were considered by a panel of five judges, who each read the winning novels from one decade of the prize’s history, before the books were put to a month-long public vote.

The judges were: Robert McCrum, who chose In a Free State by VS Naipaul for the nineteen-seventies; Lemn Sissay, who chose Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively for the nineteen-eighties; Kamila Shamsie, who chose The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje for the nineteen-nineties; Simon Mayo, who chose Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel for the two-thousands; and Hollie McNish, who chose Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders for the twenty-tens.

Shamsie, who herself recently won the Women’s Prize for Fiction for her novel Home Fire, said:

The English Patient is that rare novel which gets under your skin and insists you return to it time and again, always yielding a new surprise or delight.

‘It moves seamlessly between the epic and the intimate—one moment you’re in looking at the vast sweep of the desert and the next moment watching a nurse place a piece of plum in a patient’s mouth. That movement is mirrored in the way your thoughts, while reading it, move between large themes—war, loyalty, love—to tiny shifts in the relationships between characters. It’s intricately (and rewardingly) structured, beautifully written, with great humanity written into every page.

‘Ondaatje’s imagination acknowledges no borders as it moves between Cairo, Italy, India, England, Canada – and between deserts and villas and bomb craters. And through all this, he makes you fall in love with his characters, live their joys and their sorrows. Few novels really deserve the praise: transformative. This one does.’




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