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?
Australian writer Favel Parrett’s beautifully expressed When the Night Come made quite an impression on me when it was published in the UK back in 2014. It was its Antarctica setting that first attracted me but it was Parrett’s gorgeous writing that left me wanting more. It’s clear from its dedication that There Was Still Love is a tribute to her beloved grandparents, borne out by her note at the end of this lovely novel that takes us back and forth from Prague to Melbourne in the early ‘80s, following two sisters separated in 1938 at the beginning of the German occupation.
In 1980, Ludĕk runs up and down the streets of Prague before flying home to his grandmother’s tiny flat. It’s just the two of them. Ludĕk’s mother is a dancer, on tour with the Black Theatre, only allowed out of the country if her son stays at home, and his father is dead. Meanwhile, his cousin Malá Liška lives with her grandparents in a Melbourne apartment decorated as if it’s been transported from Prague. Once an engineer, her grandfather works as a night watchman. He and her grandmother cut every corner so that Máňa can visit her sister Eva and their grandnephew, Ludĕk, every four years. Malá Liška has never met her cousin, staying with her uncle for six weeks while her adored grandparents are away. The sisters’ reunions are full of reminiscence. Eva and Máňa talk while Ludĕk and Bill walk the city, often revisiting the house that Bill lived in when he was called Vilém. Ludĕk doesn’t know his Aunty Máňa and Uncle Bill’s story but he knows not to mention the war. When his mother returns with her partner and a baby, the new family moves away leaving Ludĕk’s whole world behind. One day, Malá Liška will see pictures of this cousin she’s never met when his grandmother comes to Australia.
Parrett unfolds her story in impressionistic episodes, much of it from Ludĕk’s perspective, punctuated with snapshots of the family’s history reflecting the cataclysmic events that overtook Czechoslovakia. Ludĕk’s sections are fresh and immediate, the language clear and bright as he seizes his freedom, making Prague his own running through its streets when his grandmother thinks he’s playing in the park. There’s an aching homesickness underpinning the novel with its recurrent motif of suitcases. Máňa and Bill still live like exiles, recreating Prague in their tiny Melbourne flat, each forced to leave the country they loved through circumstance. While Bill is more pragmatic, Máňa yearns for her sister. Parrett’s tender portrayal of this couple who love each other and their granddaughter dearly is beautifully executed. Such a touching novel, a work of fiction as Parrett makes clear in her author’s note, but undoubtedly a testament to the lives of the grandparents she adored.
Sceptre Books: London 2020 9781529343557 224 pages Hardback
Midge Raymond’s My Last Continent caught my eye when I was busy perusing the July publishing schedules for a preview post. It’s set mainly in Antarctica, a backdrop shared by two other novels that I’d read and thoroughly enjoyed: Favel Parret’s tale of the 1987 Nella Dan disaster, When the Night Comes, and Rebecca Hunt’sEverland which recounts two expeditions separated by a century. I was hoping for more glorious descriptions of the Antarctic landscape and Raymond delivers them beautifully in her moving story of Deb and Keller, drawn to each other by their mutual love for this desolate yet majestic continent.
Close to forty and unmarried, Deb is a researcher for a project examining the effects of climate change and tourism on penguins. She’s something of a loner, more at home on the ice observing her beloved birds than at the parties her Oregon landlord throws. Ironically, her annual research trips are funded by her work as a tour guide aboard the Cormorant, educating tourists about the impact of their behaviour on the environment. She’s all too well aware that her own research increases the penguins’ anxiety as much as the presence of tourists during their heavily supervised excursions. It’s on one of these trips that she meets Keller who has turned his back on his career as a lawyer. These two see each other only during their summer research stints – Deb hoping for something more, Keller still untethered after the loss of his daughter. One summer Keller fails to appear on the Cormorant, dropped after overstepping the mark in expressing his views to a passenger. When the book opens we know there will be a shipwreck and that the death toll will be heavy but we don’t know who will die.
There are two narrative strands running through Raymond’s novel: one unfolding Deb’s story, taking us back and forth over twenty years; the other, her account of the weeks leading up to the shipwreck. Raymond’s writing has a quiet, contemplative tone which contrasts sharply with the dramatic suspense of the shipwreck scenes. The love story between Deb and Keller is deftly handled, properly grown up in its acknowledgement of the tensions between them, but this is not simply a novel about two lovers – it’s a passionate tribute to the no longer pristine Antarctic icescape and the fauna that inhabits it. Raymond is never sentimental in her descriptions but it’s impossible not to be moved by her recurring image of the ‘flipper dance’ with which Emperor penguin mates greet each other after a long separation ending with an ecstatic cry, echoing Deb and Keller’s encounters. Her novel is full of arresting images – icebergs the size of skyscrapers, a zebra-striped monochrome island – conjuring up a world of stark beguiling beauty where the slightest slip can result in death. Raymond weaves her research lightly through her writing; there’s no bludgeoning the reader with polemic but the awareness of the environment’s fragility is always there. Enlightening, absorbing and moving, it’s a damn good read which succeeded in transporting me into a very different world from the one outside my door on what was then the hottest day of the year.
I tend to read what’s often described as literary rather than commercial fiction – I’d be hard pressed to tell you what the difference is although I know it when I see it – but, for me, David Nicolls is king of the commercial fiction castle which is why Us is top of my May paperback list. I’m sure Nicholls must have felt under pressure after the phenomenally successful One Day but he seems to have risen to the challenge with a novel which explores how a long marriage survives. Douglas is a little discombobulated when Connie announces she’s leaving him, insisting that they take his long-planned European Grand Tour in the hope that it will keep them together. I do hope that Hollywood will keep its mitts of this one.
The title of Michel Guenassia’s The Incorrigible Optimists Club is enough to make me want to read it but I like the sound of the structure, too. Set in Paris in 1959, it follows twelve-year-old Michel as he eavesdrops on a group of Eastern European men who play chess and tell their stories of life before they came to France. I’ve been warned that it’s a bit of a door-stopper but it sounds right up my alley.
Robin Black’s Life Drawing is one of the two books in this round-up I’ve reviewed. There’s a nice little edge of suspense running through this story about an artist and her writer husband, not least because we know right from the start that he has died and that his death wasn’t a natural one. Taut and claustrophobic, it reminded me a little of Joanna Briscoe’s Sleep with Me.
The other is Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes which I rated enough to include in both my books of last year and my wish list for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize. Based on a true story – the sinking of the Nella Dan – it’s about the deep bond that forms between a young Tasmanian girl and the Danish sailor who lodges with them in between supply trips to the Antarctic aboard the Nella Dan. It’s an absorbing story but what struck me about the book was the beauty of Parett’s writing. Gorgeous descriptive prose.
Finally, Philippe Claudel’s debut Grey Souls is being reissued and if you missed it the first time around please do keep your eyes peeled for it. Three mysterious deaths in an isolated French village during the First World War still haunt the local policeman twenty years later: the new schoolmistress killed herself; a ten-year-old girl was found strangled; and the policeman’s wife died alone in labour while her husband was hunting the girl’s murderer. Claudel’s prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in. He’s a very fine film maker, too.
That’s it for May paperbacks a click on a title will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis of anything I haven’t reviewed and if you’d like to catch up with my hardback choices they’re here.
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.
I was drawn to Favel Parrett’s novel by the slimmest of synopses when checking out titles for my Books to Look Out for in November post. Antarctica was the lure. I’ve read several non-fiction books about it and had particularly enjoyed Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica. In the event it’s not really about that but this story of a crewman who cooks aboard a supply ship for the Casey research station and a thirteen-year-old girl recently arrived in Tasmania after her mother’s marriage breaks down turns out to be quite captivating. It’s also the story of the Nella Dan which sailed for twenty-six years in the service of the Australian government.
Isla’s mother has fled a violent marriage, taking Isla and her brother to Hobart where they live hand-to-mouth until her divorce settlement comes through. They take in a lodger to help pay for the small cottage her mother buys. Bo is the cook aboard the Nella Dan, the Danish ship which takes expeditioners down to Casey Island and supplies the research station there. He’s the son of a sailor who died young at sea, a man who also crewed the Nella Dan, sailing on her maiden voyage. Bo comes and goes with the ship gradually bringing Isla out of herself with his tales of life at sea, his descriptions of elephant seals and the beauty of the Antarctic, firing an interest in science and the natural world which will follow her into adult life. Bo and Isla’s mother grow close. Over ‘two long summers’, tragedy and disappointment intertwine with quiet joy and camaraderie aboard the Nella Dan, just as in Hobart a terrible loss is tempered by gradual adjustment and acceptance.
In short impressionistic chapters, occasionally punctuated with brief bursts of poetry, Parrett tenderly unfolds the story of Bo, Isla and the Nella Dan, sometimes through Bo, sometimes, through Isla. Moments of drama stand out vividly from her quietly poetic yet unfussy prose. It’s studded with wonderful descriptions – Leo baking in the galley, his pastries ‘like sunshine’; the snow petrels of Casey Island ‘flashes of white against the sky’; Isla’s first sighting of the ‘bright red wall of steel’ of the Nella Dan and the wave she exchanges with the sailor on board. The growing bond between Bo and Isla – both of whom lost their fathers young in very different ways – and the deep, often unspoken, consideration and friendship between the sailors, are beautifully conveyed. Not least, there’s the love of the sailors for their ship – hard for those of us who’ve spent our working lives confined within four walls to comprehend perhaps, but borne out by the testimony of the men who really did sail on her: ‘the Ship of my Life’, ‘the perfect ship’, as Hans Sønderburg puts it. A beautifully expressed book, then, far more moving than I expected, and one I hope won’t be overlooked.
Much to my surprise there are more enticing books published this November than in October. It’s usually a rather dull month – all the finest jewels in the box put out on display for Christmas already – but some treats have been held back perhaps the most surprising of which is Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, the first in a trilogy that promises to follow an American family over a century. It opens in 1920 with Walter and Rosanna Langdon beginning their lives together on an isolated Iowan farm. There’s a chapter for each year, apparently, with the next two parts due to be published in 2015. From a writer of Smiley’s calibre this could be a very enjoyable way of exploring the American twentieth century.
Mary Costello’s first novel, Academy Street, also looks at twentieth century American history this time through the eyes of Tess Logan, a shy young woman with a passionate heart. Over four decades, Costello follows Tess from her early years in the west of Ireland to the razzle-dazzle of New York where she makes her home. Costello’s short story collection, The China Factory, was much praised and the quote from the novel on Canongate’s press release looks very promising indeed.
I enjoyed Amanda Coe’s What They Do in the Dark very much. It’s one of those taut, domestic thrillers – very dark indeed, and she certainly knows how to ratchet up the tension. In Getting Colder Sara, who deserted her children to be with her lover – once a much-lauded playwright now whiskey-soaked and blocked – has died. Thirty-five years after she left them, her children have sought Patrick out wanting answers. A little less sinister than What They Do in the Dark, apparently, although it sounds pretty unsettling to me
I know very little about my fourth choice, Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes, but somehow the juxtaposition of its settings alone – Tasmania and Antarctica – makes it worth checking out. In it a young girl and a crewman on an Antarctic supply ship cross paths, each learning something from the other. Not much, I know, but it’s enough to pique my interest.
This one may seem completely out of character to regular readers of this blog – it’s William Gibson’s The Peripheral – but if there’s one SF writer non-genre readers make an exception for it’s Gibson. The prescience of his near-future set novels – Virtual Lightand Pattern Recognition, for instance – is uncanny and his writing is excellent. I’m hoping for more of the same in this ‘tale of drones, murder and time-travelling crime’ set in 2020 where a young woman in a video game witnesses a drone strike kill a young child in the Deep South. At the same moment – but one hundred years into the future – a boy is remotely killed in London. Intriguing!
My final choice is Georges Perec’s Portrait of a Man. Years ago I read and loved what is probably Perec’s best known novel, Life: A User’s Manual, about the inhabitants of an apartment block in Paris. It’s quite some time since I’ve read anything else by him but this one caught my eye. Written in the 1950s, it’s the story of a forger and a killer. It’s only recently been discovered – it’s his first novel – which may well mean that it was tucked away in a drawer somewhere, rejected by a long list of publishers but I think it’s worth a try.
That’s it for November. A click on the title will take you to Waterstones website if you want to know more about a book – and if you’d like to see what I’m looking forward to in October click here for the hardbacks and here for the paperbacks.