x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Novelist Beryl Bainbridge finally gets her (posthumous) Booker

The late author was notably never a recipient of the Booker Prize, but her posthumous award last week rectified that omission.

She was called a national treasure and could boast almost as many awards as committed readers. But one prize - the big prize - eluded Beryl Bainbridge. So as her writing finally gained posthumous recognition from The Booker Prize last week, it's tempting to wonder what the celebrated author of The Dressmaker and An Awfully Big Adventure would have made of it all. Although she pretended when she was alive that her status as the most shortlisted novelist never to win the Booker Prize wasn't a cause of great concern, her daughter rather let the cat out of the bag recently.

"Beryl did want to win the Booker very much despite her protests to the contrary," said JoJo Davies on the Booker website. "We are glad she is finally able to become the bride, no longer the bridesmaid."

Even the Booker Prize Foundation seemed to acknowledge that the phrase "Booker Bridesmaid" had undeservedly stuck to Bainbridge. And out of either sheer embarrassment or simple duty, in February they decided to do something about it, asking the public to vote on which of her five shortlisted novels deserved the "Man Booker Best of Beryl Prize".

The winner, announced on Tuesday, was the last of her books to be recognised by the Booker panel: 1998's Master Georgie. Ironically, it's not even Bainbridge's most immediately accessible novel - even the author herself said at the time of writing it that "most people have to read it at least three times before they understand it". But, set during The Crimean War, the story of the unorthodox, titular hero who leaves London for The Bosphorus is one of those books that positively demands a second or third reading. George Hardy's adventures are told and contradicted by successive narrators, mirroring his complex and confusing life.

Master Georgie is also a rather slim novel, and it's often been suggested that the comparatively short length of her books is why Bainbridge missed out on the most prestigious prize in world literature five times. An essay published on the Booker website by the literary professor Alvaro Ribeiro argues that such "clarity, voice, craftsmanship, darkly ironical comedy and merciful brevity" initially appeals to a Booker Prize judge faced with 120 books to read in six months. The problem is, he says, once her books are reread at the shortlist stage, such clarity can "begin to look to you simplistic… her brevity appears lightweight". Hence plenty of shortlistings and no victories.

Ribeiro's assessment is actually rather harsh: the very reason that Bainbridge's books - from the coming-of-age tale An Awfully Big Adventure to the brutally comic A Quiet Life - have stood the test of time is that she was possessed with the rare gift of getting to the heart of a story without submerging it in superfluous detail. Though she barely wasted a word, her 18 novels are full of life and depth. As Hilary Mantel said earlier this year - also on the Booker site, "a spare writer like Bainbridge must create a resonance behind her text if the story isn't to seem perfunctory".

She certainly did that. After an early career clearly inspired by the drab Liverpool of her upbringing during the Second World War, the first three novels shortlisted all deal with people wanting some kind of escape but not always finding it. Her later work saw her turn to historical fiction. Every Man for Himself (shortlisted in 1996) reimagined the events on Titanic, but in typical Bainbridge style, it's a puzzling voyage of self-discovery and ambition rather than a disaster story.

In the end, Bainbridge was probably just unlucky that in the years she was shortlisted, she was duelling with the likes of Nadine Gordimer, AS Byatt and Ian McEwan - who are among the greatest writers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. No doubt, though, a wrong has now been righted - although Martin Amis, another author famous for being overlooked by the Booker Prize more than once, would probably hope he also doesn't have to die to get his deserved recognition.

The one sadness is that literary prizes are prone to bestowing their awards on deserving authors whose body of work is perhaps more significant than their latest book. Certainly, the last two winners of the Booker, Hilary Mantel and Howard Jacobsen, fit into that category. So judging by the advance praise for Bainbridge's final book - The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress - she may finally have snaffled the Booker this year… but the rules allow submissions only from living authors. But the Best of Beryl Prize, if it gets even just one more reader enthused by Bainbridge's unique talent, will be compensation enough.