Significance by Jo Mazelis: A Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize 2015 winner

Cover image Fiction Uncovered was set up in 2011 with the aim of promoting British writing. Last year with the support of a charitable foundation it became the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize.  It’s an unusual award in that there are eight winners including, this year, Jo Mazelis’s Significance. I’m more than a little late to the party with this one – the winners were announced back in June – but I’m glad I finally turned up. With its intricate plotting and many-layered narrative Significance turns out to be completely engrossing.

Unhappy in her relationship, Lucy has reinvented herself and run away to France. She’s booked into a hotel but is drawn back to the restaurant in a nearby small town she visited on her first evening. When she sees a young man on the pavement outside staring fixedly ahead she decides to investigate. He’s unresponsive and she learns from the man’s brother that he’s mentally disabled. Uncharacteristically, Lucy follows the brother to a bar where their overheard exchange startles an elderly English couple. Lucy moves on to another bar, unsettled at finding herself the only woman in the place. A little the worse for wear, she drops her cardigan in the street without noticing it. A young black man spots it and runs after her. Hearing footsteps, she dodges into an alley. Knowing that he’s frightened her, he decides to leave the cardigan spread on a bush outside the bar. Each of the many seemingly inconsequential acts leading up to Lucy’s death is observed by someone, all of whom are convinced their own version of events is correct. There’s a crime but this isn’t a crime novel: it’s a study in human nature and the way we interact and observe each other.

Mazelis leads us down a multitude of cul-de-sacs and wrong turnings, filling in the back stories of each of her characters no matter how peripheral they might appear. Given my predilection for pared back prose, you’d think this would be the kiss of death for me but patience pays off with this novel. By showing events from so many points of view and telling us her characters’ stories, Mazelis draws her readers into a rich tapestry of interpretation and misinterpretation. Her characters are sharply observed. They engage in internal debates on all manner of things from feminism to art. Assumptions are made by one character about another’s behaviour only to be proved entirely wrong when seen from the other point of view. It’s all beautifully done. Hints and clues are scattered through the novel – often red herrings – but when we do finally learn the killer’s identity it’s delivered almost in an aside. By then it’s hardly the point – the lives of Mazelis’ characters are so involving that it’s what happens to them that matters. The ending is suitably ambiguous, open to interpretation. A gripping first novel, thoroughly deserving of its prize, and there are still seven other winners to explore.

15 thoughts on “Significance by Jo Mazelis: A Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize 2015 winner”

  1. Oh great, now I’m really interested by this! And the other Jerwood Uncovered books, all of which look amazing and some of which (Animals; The Redemption of Galen Pike; The Incarnations) are already on my To-Be-Investigated list.

    1. Oh, I like the ideas of a to-be-investigated list. I think I’ll take that one up. I liked the synopsis for Significance but was taken by surprise by just how good it is. The shifting narratives are brilliantly handled. Mazelis builds such depth of character throught it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, Elle.

  2. This one is a peg higher than to be investigated for me… straight on the MUST read list. Sounds brilliant & you appear to have fed us enough insight to whetted the appetite without giving anything away, fab!

    I lazily start to use my Amazon basket ‘save for later’ for my to be investigated list when I joined twitter… scarily got a notice this week it was full – 600 books many I’ve gone on to buy elsewhere but forgot to take out – and they say twitter/blogging doesn’t sell books!
    Must have a good root through….

    1. Blimey, Poppy! That’s a big basket…. I’m glad you like the sound of this one. Such a subtle book, all so cleverly done. I’ll be interested to see what she does next.

  3. This sounds fascinating, Susan. I love what you say about it not being a crime novel, but a study in human nature – sounds like one for the to-read list!

    1. It draws you in with its many back stories and constantly shifting points of view, Gemma. I hope you read it – highly recommended.

    1. It’s great, isn’t it. I like the idea of eight winners and if this one’s anything to go by the other seven are well worth exploring.

  4. I seem to have missed this one when the Jerwood prize was announced. I’ve read three of the other winners – two were excellent, one was so so. This prize is such a great idea..

    1. Definitely a great idea. I spotted your review of A Man Lies Dreaming which looks like a good place to start exploring the other seven winners.

  5. Pingback: Books of the Year 2015: Part 4 | A Life In Books

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