This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of my favourite UK literary award, The Women’s Prize for Fiction. I still remember being excited at the prospect of this prize when it was first announced and my delight when Helen Dunmore’s A Spell in Winter was the inaugural winner of what was then called the Orange Prize. The 2020 longlist will be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2019 and March 31st 2020 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in predicting what took the judges fancy but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they might think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. I’ve followed the same format as previous years, limiting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog. So, in no particular order here’s my wish list for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction:
There are some notable omissions from my list including Anne Enright’s Actress which I’m sure deserves a place but I’ve yet to read it. I may be stretching the rules a bit with Olive, Again, technically linked short stories rather than a novel but, hey, it’s my fantasy list. I’d be delighted if any one of these fifteen snags the judges’ attention – fingers firmly crossed.
What about you? Any titles you’d love to see on the judges’ list?
Early summer, which seems so very long ago now, was packed with literary goodies for me, particularly May which began with A Stranger City, Linda Grant’s portrayal of a post-referendum London through a set of disparate characters brought together by their connection with a woman whose body has been pulled from the Thames. Each character’s story is subtly woven through the others’ into a bright tapestry – some of it ragged and frayed – of a city Grant clearly loves but about which she’s deeply concerned. Her book reveals a London which is always in flux, shaping and reshaping itself to fit the constant flow of people drawn to it – a Brexit novel if ever there was one. I ended Part One by saying I’d try to avoid politics in the next instalment but as you can see, I’ve already failed.
Flotsam, May’s second favourite, is by Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press. Set on the German coast in the 1950s, this strange, unsettling book is a beautifully expressed exploration of the legacy of war and the grief it brings through the story of a young girl and her mother. Told in often lyrical yet spare, clean prose, first from Trine’s perspective then Anna’s, it’s the briefest of novellas yet it provokes more thought than many books three times its length. Far from an easy read but certainly a rewarding one, Ziervogel’s book leaves much for readers to deduce and is all the better for it.
Vesna Main’s Good Day? sported the second jacket I fell in love with this year, fitting its book as perfectly as the gloriously pink cover of Aylet Gundar-Goshen’s Liar, which popped up in Part One. Always a joy when publishers use an image which is both strikingly original and appropriate. Main’s Good Day? recounts a daily conversation between a Writer and her Reader, who is also her husband, describing the progress of her novel about a couple whose marriage is strained to breaking point. It’s such a clever piece of writing and a daring one, too. To write a novel almost entirely in dialogue and carry it off as well as Main does requires quite a degree of chutzpah. Thoroughly deserving of its place on this year’s Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.
May’s last choice is much more straightforward, a piece of fictionalised biography which introduced me to a someone I’d never come across but who turned out to be an internationally popular figure. Eva Meijer’s Bird Cottage is based on the life of Len Howard who, aged forty, threw up her life as a violinist in London and took herself off to Sussex to pursue her lifelong passion for birds, determined to devote herself to researching their habits. Using simple, clean prose, Meijer lets her subject tell own story, weaving through it observations of Star, one of Howard’s favourites. A delightful book, the story of a true English eccentric.
June began with another piece of fictionalised biography by Jill Dawson who often chooses that form for her work. When I read that The Language of Birds was based on the notorious Lord Lucan affair my heart sank but far from being a rehash of the infamous murder replete with the usual speculation as to Lucan’s fate, Dawson’s book reimagines the story from the nanny’s perspective. Her careful, compassionate and compelling novel honours Sandra Rivett’s memory, tipping the balance away from a media which reduced her to ‘the lovely young nanny’ rather than a vibrant young woman with a life of her own. For me, it’s one of Dawson’s best, and that’s saying something after The Crime Writer, a wonderful piece of literary fan fiction starring Patricia Highsmith.
The first half of 2019’s books of the year ends with Craig Cliff’s The Mannequin Makers, an inventive and imaginative piece of storytelling which takes its readers from 1902 to 1974 with a tale of castaways and mannequins, the like of which had never been seen before. Not just one story but several nested within each other, this is a novel haunted by madness and grief with more than a touch of the gothic brightened with moments of humour. Absolutely gripping – I loved it.
All of the above are linked to my reviews here if you’d like to know more. Part Three takes us into high summer with the return of Jackson Brodie after a nine-year hiatus, a tale of love, jealousy and betrayal in the Bauhaus and another beautiful jacket, perfect for its book’s contents. If you missed the first quarter on 2019’s favourites and would like to catch up, it’s here.
Another year, another Man Booker Prize longlist in the offing, except this year its reverted to the Booker Prize, thanks to a change of sponsorship with Crankstart stepping into the funding breach as of June 1st this year. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2018 and 30th September 2019, and have been written in English. Regular readers will know that any similarity between my wish list and the judges’ longlist is likely to be entirely coincidental. The judges usually allow themselves twelve, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen and this year I have, too. Their list will be revealed on Wednesday, 24th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions – in no particular order, with links to my reviews.
It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here before September 3rd when the shortlist is announced but I’m sticking to the tried and tested. And if I had to choose one? That’s a tough decision this year. It’s a toss-up between A Stranger City, The Dutch House and Land of the Living, although there are several others I’d be loath to relinquish.
What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?
After three tries by Linda Grant’s patient and determined publicist, A Stranger City finally arrived through my letter box. I’ve no idea what happened to the other two copies but I hope someone’s enjoying them somewhere and telling all their friends about it. Grant’s novel paints a picture of a post-referendum London through the stories of a set of characters brought together by their connection with a woman whose body is pulled from the Thames and who remains unclaimed and unidentified for four years.
Pete Dutton is the detective in charge of the investigation into the identity of DB27, the label given to the woman who is the twenty-seventh corpse retrieved from the river that year. Intrigued by her anonymity, Pete becomes obsessed, his thoughts turned away from his wife who is recovering from cancer at home. He contacts Alan McBride, a film-maker, whose attention has already been caught by a missing person alert on Twitter for the brash young woman he saw crushed by her slick hipster companion’s comment overheard on his way back from viewing a house with his wife Francesca. Pete wants Alan to make a film about DB27 which Alan broadens to include Chrissie, who turned up alive and well, and Marco, her flatmate who set up the alert, regretting his sharp remark. Chrissie is a nurse who quickly comes to the aid of Rob when he’s caught up in a terrorist attack, forging a friendship with him that will result in the eventual revelation of DB27’s identity. Grant’s novel explores the rich and varied lives of these characters revealing a London which is always in flux, shaping and reshaping itself to fit the constant flow of people drawn to it.
This many-layered, vibrant portrait of London encompasses a multitude of themes – privacy and exposure, interconnectedness and isolation, gentrification and poverty – the most prominent of which is the racism and its close relative xenophobia, unleashed since the 2016 referendum.
We won’t hear that in twenty years. If they stay, their kids will speak English as their first language and no new people will be coming. It’ll be a time machine, taking us back to the past
Each character’s story is subtly woven through the others’ into a bright tapestry, some of it ragged and frayed, of a city Grant clearly loves but about which she’s deeply concerned. Dickensian London is summoned up in a dreamlike episode when Francesca, the quintessential smart West Ender, uncomfortable in her new North London home, is taken to an area known as the Island by two neighbours. Pete’s love of his hometown and the river which runs through it is neatly contrasted with the superficial gloss of Marco’s PR world. It’s a structure that could easily have become bitty and overly-fragmented in less capable hands but Grant is too deft for that. I loved it – a novel with something to say which draws you in and keeps you rapt to its end. Well worth the wait.
May’s second batch of new titles begins with Linda Grant’s A Stranger City which seems to use the discovery of a body in the Thames to explore the nature of community in London, or the lack of it, through a policeman, a nurse and a documentary-maker. ‘The wonderful Linda Grant weaves a tale around ideas of home; how London can be a place of exile or expulsion, how home can be a physical place or an idea. How all our lives intersect and how coincidence or the randomness of birth place can decide how we live and with whom’ according to the publishers which sounds promising. I’ve not always got on with Grant’s fiction but enjoyed her last two novels: Upstairs at the Party and The Dark Circle.
I’m not entirely sure about Mary Loudon’s My House is Falling Down which sees a marriage under strain when Lucy falls in love with Angus. Lucy is determined not to deceive her husband but is shocked by his reaction to her affair. ‘Infused with her trademark precision, clarity and dark humour, Mary Loudon’s searing, highly-charged novel My House is Falling Down is a fearless exploration of what infidelity means when no one is lying, and how brutal honesty may yet prove the biggest taboo in our relationships’ say the publishers which suggests an original take on the somewhat hackneyed theme of middle-aged infidelity.
Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted could also go either way which seems to be becoming a theme for this post. A physics professor is determined to get to the bottom of why she’s received a phone call from a friend when she knows he died two days ago. ‘Helen is drawn into the orbit of Charlie’s world, slotting in the missing pieces of her friend’s past. And, as she delves into the web of their shared history, Helen finds herself entangled in the forgotten threads of her own life’ according to the blurb which leaves me a little mystified but I enjoyed Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds enough to give it a try.
At first glance, Joanne Ramos’ The Farm is some way outside my usual literary territory but it comes garlanded with praise from all and sundry including Sophie Mackintosh and Gary Shteyngart. A young Filipina immigrant hopes to improve her life and her child’s, taking a job at Golden Oaks a luxury fertility clinic run by an ambitious business woman who’s spotted a gap in the market. Described by the publishers as ‘a brilliant, darkly funny novel that explores the role of luck and merit, class, ambition and sacrifice, The Farm is an unforgettable story about how we live and who truly holds power’ which reminds me a little of David Bergen’s Stranger. It’s the dark humour and class theme that attracts me to this one.
I suspect there’ll be some dark humour in Paulo Maurensig’s A Devil Comes to Town set in a Swiss village where everyone’s a writer so absorbed in their work they’ve failed to notice the inauspicious signs, all but the new parish priest that is. When the devil turns up in a flash car claiming to be a publisher, the village’s harmony is shattered as literary rivalries are let loose. ‘Maurensig gives us a refined and engaging literary parable on narcissism, vainglory, and our inextinguishable thirst for stories’ say the publishers of a novel which could well be a great deal of fun.
I’m rounding off this second instalment of new titles with Being Various: New Irish Short Stories put together by guest editor Lucy Caldwell. It’s the sixth volume in a series from Faber, apparently – I’ve clearly got a lot of catching up to do. Following In the footsteps of Kevin Barry, Deirdre Madden and Joseph O’Connor, Caldwell has assembled a stellar list of contributors which includes Eimear McBride, Lisa McInerney, Stuart Neville, Sally Rooney, Kit de Waal and Belinda McKeon. I’m sure there will be more than a few gems with writers of their calibre involved, and that’s a fabulous jacket.
That’s it for May. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis if you’d like to know more, and if you want to catch up with the first part of May’s preview it’s here. Paperbacks soon…