The longlist for my favourite UK literary award, The Women’s Prize for Fiction, is due to be announced next Monday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2018 and March 31st 2019 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 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 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction:
Several of my favourite writers are listed here – Kate Atkinson, Amy Bloom, Siri Hustvedt, Georgina Harding – but I’d be delighted if any one of these fifteen snags the judges’ attention. We’ll see. Any titles that you’d love to see on the judges’ list?
That’s it from me for a few days. We’re off for what could be our last weekend as European citizens abroad. I may need tissues. Back next week to tell you all about it.
I was a little wary of Gail Jones’ new novel, having been somewhat disappointed by A Guide to Berlin a few years back. All the poetic elegance of Sorry and Sixty Lights was present and correct but it felt a bit strained to me. The Death of Noah Glass flows much more smoothly. When the eponymous art historian is found drowned, his children find their own ways of coping – or not coping – with a grief complicated by the suggestion that their father may have been involved in something nefarious. Encompassing a multitude of themes, Jones’ novel explores the circumstances that led up to Noah’s death.
Martin and Evie rarely see each other. They have little in common besides their father. After his wife died in the early years of their marriage, Noah had taken his children to live close to her family. They became the centre of his life, yet they never knew it. Stunned by his death, each tries to find a way to the other, yearning for the connection they shared in their childhood. Evie moves into Noah’s flat ostensibly to clear it but hoping to find the essence of him there. Martin takes off for Sicily where Noah had spent three months shortly before his death, apparently to investigate the implication of Noah’s involvement in an art theft but desperate to try to understand the man he feels he hardly knew. There he meets Dora with whom Noah had fallen deeply in love and with whom he became embroiled in a scheme to wreak revenge on the criminals who murdered her father.
These are the bare bones of this beautifully wrought, erudite novel which encompasses themes of art, love, grief and family with a slim thread of suspense running through it. Noah’s story is woven through Evie’s and Martin’s, slotting them into the context of their motherless childhoods and his own difficulties as the son of missionaries while disclosing details of his time in Sicily to which his children will never be privy. It’s a complex piece of fiction, carefully assembled and exquisitely executed. Jones’ descriptions of Sicily, seen through Martin’s painterly eye, are particularly vivid and her evocation of the loneliness and dislocation of grief eloquent:
Goats’ heads hung suspended above huge trays of offal. Swordfish were displayed in an arc, balanced among gigantic pink octopuses and rows of lustrous fish. Blood oranges, cut open, forests of emerald broccoli.
And so Evie and Benjamin, both reticent and private, both wretched, in some ways, with the experience of loss, began to speak to each other.
I was reminded a little of Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved which, coming from me, is high praise indeed.
Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.
This month we’re starting with Stephen King’s It which I haven’t read and have absolutely no intention of doing so. Far too cowardly!
I know very little about King’s novel but the blurb tells me it’s set in Maine which gives me the opportunity to scuttle quickly back into my comfort zone. J. Courtenay Sullivan’s novel Maine has a New England summer home setting and family secrets to reveal, both favorites for me.
Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum is one of the best family secrets novels I’ve read. A multitude of clues are spilled finally revealing what’s been puzzling Ruby Lennox for much of her life. Atkinson’s beautiful structured, often very funny novel won her the Whitbread Book of the Year award back in 1995 before it became the Costa.
The eponymous Cathy from Anna Stothard’s The Museum of Cathy is also keeping secrets, this time from her fiancé. The arrival of a package with no name or note attached threatens to unravel her new life in this nicely taut novel which has some gorgeous descriptions of the natural world.
The Museum of Cathy is set in Berlin leading me to Gail Jones’ A Guide to Berlin in which six people – all Nabokov aficionados, all visitors to the city – gather together to discuss the work of their literary hero but begin by telling their own stories.
Jones is also the author of Sixty Lights about a woman’s fascination with the newly emerging photographic technology which leads me to William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, an homage to woman photographers. It follows the life of Amory Clay from snapping socialites to documenting war in a career spanning much of the twentieth century. You could think of it as the female equivalent to Any Human Heart if you’re a Boyd fan.
In his novel’s acknowledgements Boyd mentions the war photographer Martha Gellhorn, one of the three wives of Ernest Hemingway whose stories were fictionalised in Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway. I put off reading Wood’s novel for some time owing to my Hemingway antipathy but enjoyed it very much.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a fraught New England summer holiday to the South of France in the 1920s, equally fraught at times. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.
Two things attracted me to Gail Jones’ new novel: its Berlin setting – a city with which I’m almost as infatuated as I am with New York as a backdrop – and the prospect of the elegantly, poetic writing I’d enjoyed so much in her previous novels. I liked the synopsis, too: six people – all Nabokov aficionados, all visitors to Berlin – gather together to discuss the work of their literary hero but begin by telling their own stories. Those in the know will have realised, of course, that Jones’ title mirrors that of a Nabokov short story.
Cass is in Berlin hoping to write. She’s rents a pokey studio flat and travels the U-Bahn exploring this wintry city so different from her native Australia. One day a young man approaches her as she looks up at one of the many apartments Nabokov lived in and asks her if she’d like to join the small group he’s gathered to discuss their literary idol’s work. There are six members including Cass: Victor is an American academic, recently retired; Marco was once at university with Gino, a fellow Roman; Yukio and Mitsuko are Japanese, and obviously in love. At the first meeting they decide that each member will tell their story, openly and freely – a ‘speak-memory’ in honour of their hero. Victor begins with his tale of Holocaust survivor parents. Gino’s life has been marked by the horrible coincidence of his father’s death on the day he was born. Marco’s father walked out when he was eight, seemingly unable to cope with his son’s epilepsy. Mitsuko and Yukio’s stories are more happily linked – she was the Lolita Girl, dressing in little girls’ clothes, who rescued Yukio from his self-imposed isolation, the reason for which he explains in his own story. Finally, it’s Cass’s turn but she finds herself unable to speak of the loss of her brother, talking only of her childhood home and love of butterflies. The group resolve to discuss their love of Nabokov’s work when they next meet. Then things take a very dark and unexpected turn.
Jones’ descriptions of Berlin in winter are wonderfully atmospheric, so vivid that they provide a stage set against which the drama of her novel unfolds. She perfectly captures the louring greyness of the Berlin sky and the beauty of the first snowfall. She took me back to winter holidays, complete with the brightly coloured fibre-glass bears which are all over the city, the only colour at that time of year. At times it reminded me of the Decameron as each character tells their story but, of course, the abundant literary allusions are to Nabokov’s life and work. Some are overt – the titular story is summarised nicely, Cass’s love of butterflies, the speak-memories echoing Nabokov’s own autobiographical memoir, Mitsuko’s Lolita outfits – some are more oblique – a fire engine is described as a ‘pale fire’ against the Berlin grey. I’m sure there are many more that I failed to identify, having only scant knowledge of his work. All beautifully presented, then, but the event which precipitates the group’s dissolution felt painfully staged, stretching my credibility and leaving me somewhat disappointed. I enjoyed it but I think Sorry remains my favourite Jones novel.
If you’d like a second opinion you might like to visit Kim over at Reading Matters who’s reviewed the book as part of her year reading Australian literature. You can follow that on Twitter via #ReadingAustralia2016. I can recommend it!
Yes , I know – it’s not even Christmas week yet but if you’re a little weary of the same old titles popping up on Books of the Year lists – mine included – you might like a peek at what’s to come in 2016 which gets off to a very exciting start with a new Helen Dunmore. Regular readers of this blog will already know that I have a bit of a bee in my literary bonnet about how underrated Dunmore is alongside the likes of Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis who all get acres of coverage when she’s lucky to get a single football field’s worth. Exposureopens in November 1960 amidst the febrile atmosphere of the Cold War. Simon Callington stands accused of spying for the Soviets. His wife is determined to clear his name, unaware that Callington is hiding a damaging secret in his past.
Set at the other end of the Cold War in 1981, Francesca Kay’s The Long Room also explores the world of espionage but in a very different way. Stephen Donaldson is assigned the ultra-secret case of Phoenix, his task to assess whether or not his subject is betraying his country. Lonely and frustrated, Stephen finds himself falling in love with the voice of Phoenix’s wife. ‘With her mastery of the perfect detail, Francesca Kay explores a mind under pressure and the compelling power of imagination.’ says the publisher. Given how much I enjoyed An Equal Stillness, I’m looking forward to this one.
The same goes for Gail Jones’ A Guide to Berlin. Sixty Lights, Sorry and Dreams of Speakingare all examples of very fine writing so my hopes are very high for this new one named after a Nabokov short story written in 1925. Six travellers – two Italians, two Japanese, an American and an Australian – meet in empty Berlin apartments to exchange stories and discuss Nabokov’s work until an act of violence splits the group apart. Jones’ writing is beautiful – elegant and delicately understated. This should be a treat.
Patrick Modiano is also a master of the understatement. I read my first Modiano this year – So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood – and was as impressed as I had expected to be given the many fans in the blogosphere who had been singing his praises. Maclehose Press are publishing two more this year, the wonderfully named In the Café of Lost Youth which sounds as if it explores just that and The Black Notebook, in which a writer discovers a set of notes and sets off in search of a woman he loved forty years ago. There seems to be an element of mystery in both novels but if Neighbourhood is anything to go by, there will be more questions posed than answers.
Jonas Karlsson’s The Invoice appears to be the story of an unremarkable man, happy with his life working in a Stockholm video store and living alone in a small flat just a few yards away from an Ice cream stall that sells his favourite flavours. I know this hardly sounds riveting but I loved The Room with its portrayal of a man in the grips of a delusion – a wonderfully quirky novel with cringemaking descriptions of corporate office life which will be all too familiar to many, I’m sure.
Similarly, Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else was a fine read which is why I’m including Mr Splitfootdespite its slightly unconvincing premise. Two orphans decide to jump ship and attach themselves to a travelling con man who claims to channel the dead. Decades later a young woman, in the midst of a crisis, is visited by her mute aunt. Together they set off on foot, travelling across New York. ‘Ingenious, infectious, subversive and strange’ say the publishers – I particularly like the sound of subversive.
That’s it for the first batch of January titles. As ever, if you’d like more detail a click on a title will take you to Waterstones website. More to follow soon.