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.
The last of my ‘books of the year’ posts begins with one of my two September favourites, Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist which tells the story of the man who killed Houdini not once, but twice. Far from a straightforward reimagining of the Houdini story Galloway’s novel is a very clever bit of business which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. A very different kettle of fish, Matthew Thomas’s richly textured portrait of a marriage We Are Not Ourselves is a fine debut, one of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t be put off by its length – once begun Thomas’s compassionate characterisation and quiet, considered yet compelling writing carries you along without even thinking about its 600 pages.
In October Daniel Kehlmann’s F told the story of a very different family: three brothers, all unhappy in their own way, and their father for whom a hypnotist’s performance turns his life upside down despite his emphatically professed scepticism. There are many pieces of Kehlmann’s narrative puzzle all of which click snugly into place partly due, of course, to Carol Brown Janeway’s excellent translation. October also saw the second of my non-fiction titles, Phillipe Claudel’s sometimes smelly, often fragrant, Parfums, made up of vignettes of a life remembered through smells. Claudel’s prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in and translated beautifully by Euan Cameron.
Surprisingly, the often dull November turned out to be an excellent reading month. Mary Costello’s Academy Street is another very fine debut written in that pared back elegant style that I admire so much. Suffused with melancholy, it’s a heat-wrenching, beautifully written book in which Tess Lohan lives an attenuated life, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity, becoming ‘herself, her most true self, in those hours with books’. Delighted to see this one on the Costa First Novel shortlist. A new novel by Jane Smiley is always something to look forward to but the premise of Some Luck is a particularly attractive one. It’s the first in a trilogy which tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920. It ends in the Cold War years with a crisis in the heart of the family leaving you wanting much more just as the first in a series should. The next two instalments have already been written and I’m fascinated to know how Smiley has imagined the years between when she finished writing her trilogy and its end in 2020. And finally Favel Parett’s When the Night Comes surprised me with its captivating story of a crewman who cooks aboard a supply ship for an Antarctic research station and a thirteen-year-old girl recently arrived in Tasmania after her mother’s marriage breaks down. It’s also the story of the Nella Dan which sailed for twenty-six years in the service of the Australian government. A beautifully expressed book, far more moving than I expected and one I hope won’t be overlooked.
It’s been a little while since I read a novel with a First World War setting. Several popped up here earlier in the year but I think I’ve managed to avoid most of the deluge of books published on it recently. It was the Charles Rennie Mackintosh thread running through Mr Mac and Me rather than the war that attracted me to it. Impoverished and with nowhere else to go, Mackintosh and his artist wife Margaret spent the first year of the war on the Suffolk coast at Walberswick. Esther Freud tells their story from the point of view of Thomas Maggs the young son of a local publican with whom the Mackintoshs strike up a friendship.
Thirteen-year-old Thomas is his parents’ only surviving son. His two sisters were born strong and healthy but his mother tends the graves of six other sons, leaving flowers daily. Once a sailor, his father is determined that Thomas will never go to sea. Thomas, of course, is fascinated by it and when war is declared he patrols the village coastline, eyes peeled for evidence of the enemy. Mackintosh and his wife have been living in the village for a while but when the Defence of the Realm Act comes into full force murmurs of suspicion are heard, becoming louder as news of casualties reach the village and sons come home less than they were. Mr Mac, as Thomas calls him, is an eccentric figure in a Suffolk on its guard against the enemy: striding out in his black cape, looking out to sea with his binoculars and speaking in that strange accent. It’s the old story – if you’re different, you’re probably up to no good, particularly in times of trouble. Even Thomas becomes alarmed when he comes across one of their art books with references in German. So enamoured with Mr Mac and his wife is he that he persuades himself it’s Gaelic, the language of Betty, the herring girl, with whom he is becoming sweetly besotted.
Told in Thomas’s simple direct voice, Mr Mac and Me is studded with vivid, almost painterly vignettes of Suffolk life at the beginning of the war. The countryside is summoned up beautifully – Thomas walks amongst the sights, sounds and smells of a summer’s day hardly believing the carnage that is taking place just a short voyage away. The Mackintoshs’ art is lovingly described, their ability to surround themselves with beauty even amidst the dilapidation they find themselves in is vividly conveyed. Freud weaves their story seamlessly through Thomas’s with pleasing effect: entrusted with Mr Mac’s letters to Margaret when she is called home to help ease her sister’s disastrous marriage, Thomas lets his sister (and us) read them so that she can learn how to write a love letter. Thomas’s voice is captivating – he’s an endearing yet believable thirteen-year-old – and the story he tells is both absorbing and enlightening. Like many, I knew about Macintosh’s association with the Glasgow School of Art but little else and nothing, I’m ashamed to say about Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh’s work. I found it fascinating. It’s worth mentioning the book’s jacket which is lovely – an illustration ‘derived from Fritillaria’ a Mackintosh work from 1915 and one which he would have been working on at Walberswick. An altogether enjoyable novel then, but one whose title I found just a tad off-putting – not that it’s inaccurate but it doesn’t somehow feel right to me. What do you think? Do you have a reaction to book titles? Are they sometimes enough to put you off reading a book?