With the exception of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I’m not such an avid follower of literary prizes as I once was although I can’t seem to resist speculating about the Booker. That said, this year’s shortlist is making me think I need to keep an eye on the Rathbones Folio Prize, two titles from which are out in paperback in May, although it was Colm Tóibín’s The Magician that bagged the award.
The first is Sunjeev Sahota’s engrossing China Room which interweaves two stories, both set in the Punjab: the first in the 1920s when a young woman is married to one of a formidable matriarch’s three sons; the other in the 1990s when her British descendent comes to India. Mehar is installed with two other young women, none of them knowing which of the three brothers they’ve married but Mehar is curious. Decades later her eighteen-year-old great-grandson spends the summer at his family’s derelict farm, desperate to wean himself off the drug he’d used to dull the pain of racism.
Also shortlisted for the Rathbone, Natasha Brown’s Assembly sees an unnamed Black narrator, due to visit her white boyfriend’s childhood home. She’s met his parents before, eager to parade their socially liberal credentials, but this is the first time she’s visited their country estate, invited to celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary with family and friends. It marks a turning point at which she’s faced with continuing along the path that leads to assimilation or rejecting all that the wealth and status of this family stands for. An extraordinarily impressive, confident and discomfiting debut which I included on my Women’s Prize wishlist.
Ailsa McFarlane’s debut, Highway Blue also appeared on my list, more in hope than expectation. When Cal turns up two years after walking out with no warning, Anne Marie is wary and with reason. Soon they’re on the run, one of them having shot dead the man pursuing Cal. As they head south, Anne Marie reflects on her short marriage to a man she loves dearly but who has hollowed out her already troubled life. An aching loneliness suffuses this bleakly beautiful novella, delivered in uncluttered, brief sentences from which the occasional gorgeous descriptive paragraph shines out.
Taking place over what should have been a happy, celebratory weekend, Marie Aubert’s darkly funny Grown Ups explores sibling bonds and rivalries through Ida and Marthe who steals the show by announcing her pregnancy. There’s a multitude of things for Ida to seethe about and drink fans the flames further. Aubert delivers her story with a great deal of black humour, injecting it with a feeling of foreboding which builds towards the inevitable showdown then leaving her readers with an ending I decided was a hopeful one. A very smart slice of fiction which may feel a little too close to home for some.
Humour of a more slapstick variety runs through John Boyne’s The Echo Chamber which takes a hefty swipe at social media following the Cleverley family, made famous by self-proclaimed national treasure George Cleverley, over the course of five days in which they find themselves caught up in a Twitter maelstrom after George gets his pronouns in a twist. Boyne uses humour very effectively in a satire which pokes fun at the sanctimonious outrage so often spouted on social media while conveying a serious message about the damage it inflicts.
May’s paperback short story collection is Louise Kennedy’s The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac which comprises fifteen stories, many told from the perspective of women, often disenchanted with their partners. Their setting is frequently the countryside where money is short for the locals who service the blow-ins’ demands for a fashionable authenticity. Things are often not quite what they seem, the truth revealed as small details are slipped into stories through which run a sly humour coupled with pathos and acerbic observations. A brilliant collection and I’m delighted to say that Kennedy’s first novel, Trespasses lived up to its promise. I’ll be reviewing that on Wednesday.
That’s it for the first instalment of May’s paperbacks, all of which I’ve tried and tested. A click on a title will take you to my review for any that have snagged you attention, and if you’d like to catch up with the month’s new titles, they’re here and here. Part two soon…