It’s that time of year again. The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction judges are putting the finishing touches to their longlist, due to be announced shortly. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2014 and March 31st 2015 qualify for the award. It’s the one prize I pay attention to these days so I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to see listed. What follows is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. A few of the titles are a bit out of the way but I’d like to think a sprinkling of them will appear. I’ve followed the same format as last year with thanks to Jackie at Farm Lane Books for coming up with such a simple but striking presentation. I’ve restricted myself to novels that I’ve read and there’s a link to a full review on this blog should you want to know more. So, in alphabetical order here’s my wish list for the 2015 Baileys Prize:
I’m sure there will be omissions and inclusions that some of you feel passionately about. I’ve heard good things about Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau, for instance, which is working its way up to the top of my pile. Do let me know what you think.
One of my books of 2014 is out in paperback in February – cue fanfare of trumpets – that gorgeous American small town gem, Shotgun Lovesongs. I’ve raved about this book so often on this blog that you could be forgiven for thinking that Mr Butler is my long lost brother but it’s sublime, and that’s not a word I use often. Preferred the original jacket, though.
Keeping with the American theme, the first instalment of Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years Trilogy, Some Luck, is being published promptly in paperback in February – the hardback edition only appeared in the UK last November. The trilogy tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920. Each chapter of this first instalment follows a year in their lives ending in 1953. The second instalment is due this May and I’m looking forward to it very much, particularly after Some Luck’s ending which left a large question mark over the family’s future.
Johanna Lane’s impressive first novel Black Lake is written in that pared back, elegant style which seems to be the mark of so much Irish writing. The past throws a dark shadow in Lane’s novel, the story of a family no longer able to maintain their nineteenth century Donegal estate, which reminded me a little of William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault. Praise indeed!
Sebastian Barry is another Irish writer who excels in spare, beautiful prose. His latest novel, The Temporary Gentleman, is about Jack McNulty, an Irishman whose Second World War commission with the British Army has never been made permanent, who tells his story from his lodgings in Accra in 1957. I’ve yet to read a Barry I haven’t admired.
Ellen Feldman’s Scottboro, her re-imagining of an infamous miscarriage of justice in 1930s Alabama, made quite an impression on me so I’m looking forward to The Unwitting, set against the backdrop of the Cold War, which explores the betrayal and the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination through Nell Benjamin whose world is shattered by a phone call. I see the publishers have kept the original cover which sports what seems to be one of the most popular jacket motifs of the last couple of years: a woman in a red dress walking away from the camera. Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed this?
I’ve been a fan of Michael Cunningham since I read A Home at the End of the World, a tender novel about what constitutes a family. His new novel The Snow Queen is about two brothers, one a struggling musician who turns to drugs to release his creativity, the other drawn to religion after experiencing a vision in Central Park. I’m a little doubtful about that premise but we’ll see.
Regular readers of this blog might be surprised to find that the last paperback on my February list is a thriller, not a genre that usually appeals but there’s something about Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm that snags my attention. Perhaps it’s the Scandi connection. Far from enjoying the blissful retirement on a Swedish farm that Daniel had assumed, his parents are on their way to London each with a different story about the other’s crimes and misdemeanours. Daniel must decide who’s lying and who’s not. Bit of a page-turner, apparently.
That’s it for February paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a review on this blog or to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis of those I haven’t reviewed. Click here if you’d like to find out which February hardbacks caught my eye.
I’ve a weakness for Irish writers many of whom seem to specialise in spare, almost terse yet elegant prose from which the occasional lyrical gem shines out. Colm Tóibín, John McGahern and William Trevor – whose The Story of Lucy Gault is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read – are amongst my favourite writers. Their work is often infused with melancholy. Hardly surprising given the sadness of much of their country’s history and it’s that past that throws a dark shadow in Johanna Lane’s first novel, the story of a family no longer able to maintain their nineteenth century Donegal estate.
Black Lake opens with an almost dreamlike chapter: the mother has taken her daughter from her boarding school, installed them both in the ballroom of the old house and locked the door. Their meals are left outside, the mother gives her daughter lessons and the father does nothing for what seems like months until, finally, the door is removed. In the ensuing chapters, Lane gently unfolds the events that have led to this unhappy state of affairs. John and Marianne met at university. Marianne the party girl and John the conservative, naive observer, always on the edge of things – they made an unlikely pair. Marianne’s ambivalence to Dulough, its grandeur and isolation a shock when John first revealed it to her, has turned to love for its beautiful gardens set against their mountain backdrop. John has carried the burden of Dulough’s declining finances for most of his adult life and has taken the only path open to him moving his family out as part of a deal with the government to open their home to the public. The move from the big house to a cottage on the estate unsettles the family, ultimately with tragic consequences.
At first, Lane alternates her narrative between John and eight-year-old Philip who tries to find ways to accept the sudden turn of events. John is kind but otherworldly – at times a little exasperating in his ineptness. So bowed down is he with the responsibilities of Dulough that he fails to see the effect of his actions on both his family and the Connollys, the housekeeper and gardener closer to him than he was to his own parents. History is everywhere in this novel from the evictions when the estate was established – still a scarcely healed scar on the village – to John’s decision to embroider Dulough’s past in a lie which offends the people he holds most dear. Lane expertly catches a sense of place and the powerful attachment where we live can evoke. It’s a tragic story, quietly told and all the more effective for that.