The longlist for the only UK award that really excites me these days, The Women’s Prize for Fiction, is due to be announced next Thursday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2017 and March 31st 2018 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in my suggestions but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what the judges think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. I’ve followed the same format as 2017, 2016 and 2015, 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 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction:
Lots of paperbacks to look forward to in March, many of which I’ve already read beginning with Sally Rooney’s award-winning debut, Conversations with Friends, which is about two best friends – once lovers – who fall into a friendship with an older couple whose marriage seems a little frayed. Rooney’s novel explores the endless exchanges that make up relationships, big and small; the misunderstandings, misconceptions and happenstance that can ultimately shape your life. Not a book in which much happens yet lives are changed irrevocably.
You could say the same about Katie Kitamura’s A Separation about a woman whose husband is missing in the Peloponnese. Their estrangement has been kept secret from every one apart from her new partner. She flies to Greece at her mother-in-law’s request where she finds herself both an observer, looking back on her relationship with her self-absorbed husband, and a participant in the dramatic turn events have taken. It’s an absorbing novel, if discomfiting, with nothing so simple as a clean resolution.
Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie’s retelling of Antigone, also begins with a separation. Orphaned Isma has finally taken up her place to study in America now that her sister and brother are grown up. A chance meeting leads to an affair back in London between her sister, Aneeka, and the son of the determinedly anti-terrorist, Muslim home secretary but Aneeka has an ulterior motive – a determination to bring her beloved brother back from Syria. Shamsie’s characters are carefully fleshed out and entirely credible, her writing is both beautiful and lucid, her depictions of political maneuvering and the media’s lurid sensationalism sophisticated and believable.
A second novel from a writer whose first you’ve loved as much as I did Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs is a tricky thing – sets the heart racing with anticipation tinged with apprehension. Set in Wisconsin and spanning nearly six decades The Hearts of Men explores what it is to be a man in America through the lens of two very different boys who form a kind of friendship in 1962. Butler is careful to avoid turning them into cartoon black and white characters but Nelson is clearly the novel’s moral compass while Jonathan represents a more louche type of manhood. It’s a deeply heartfelt novel which asks hard questions and gives no easy answers.
Sara Baume’s second novel also followed a debut which I deeply admired: Spill Simmer Falter Wither was one of my favourite books of 2015. Both novels follow a year or so in the lives of characters who sit uncomfortably in the world. In A Line Made by Walking twenty-five-year-old Frankie is an artist who takes herself off to her grandmother’s dilapidated bungalow, left empty since her death. Stumbling upon the almost perfect corpse of a robin, Frankie decides to photograph it, to make it part of an art work, a project that might rescue her from her overwhelming unhappiness and loneliness. An unsettling, deeply affecting novel.
Tom Malmquist’s In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is also deeply affecting. Labelled as a piece of autofiction it’s about the death of his partner a few weeks after the premature birth of their daughter, beginning with Karin’s emergency hospital admission and ending with their daughter’s first day at pre-school. Stunned by grief and exhausted by lack of sleep, Tom finds himself caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare in which he must prove himself to be Livia’s father. The novel plumbs the depths of Tom’s grief through which shine flashes of joy as he learns how to take care of his beloved daughter. An intensely immersive, heart-wrenching book which I hope proved cathartic for its author.
That’s it for the first batch of March paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my review if you’d like to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with new March titles they’re here. More paperbacks soon, none of which I’ve read.
It’s been three years since Kamila Shamsie’s last novel, A God in Every Stone, a book I confidently expected to appear on the following year’s Baileys longlist. This year’s Man Booker judges have followed suit, longlisting Home Fire which I’m sure would have appeared on my own wishlist had I read it in time. It’s a retelling of Antigone – those who know their Sophocles won’t be expecting a happy ending.
On her way to begin a PhD in America, Isma is waylaid by the British border authorities and subjected to a humiliating interrogation. Once there, she settles into a pleasing routine, setting up her laptop in a local café most mornings. Her nineteen-year-old sister regularly Skypes her from home in London. Aneeka’s twin brother Parvaiz also appears online, a frequent but silent presence. One day Isma recognises a handsome young man in the café. He’s the son of the British Home Secretary, a Muslim known to be a hardliner, determined to clamp down on extremism no matter how unpopular it makes him. Eamonn and Isma become comfortably familiar with each other but Isma is careful not to reveal her history until she trusts him. Her father died when she was a child, a terrorist on his way to Guantánamo. Hers is a family used to secrecy, tightly knit and even more so after the death of her mother when Isma took the upbringing of the twelve-year-old twins upon herself. When Eamonn offers to take a package home for her, he decides to deliver it in person, meeting Aneeka with whom he becomes smitten. To his surprise, she returns his interest and an affair begins but Aneeka has an ulterior motive – a determination to bring her beloved brother back from Syria.
Shamsie excels at taking complex themes and humanising them. She structures her novel into five sections, shifting perspective between each of her principal characters so that we are presented with a rounded view of how this tragedy has come about. Her characters are carefully fleshed out and entirely credible, each with a different experience of what it is to be a Muslim in the twenty-first century Western world. Parvaiz is far from a caricature jihadi – a young man who sees his sisters forging ahead in their respective studies but finds his own talents frustrated, easy prey to the older man who flatters and ingratiates himself, grooming him and leading him towards a hell that six months later he’s desperate to escape. Shamsie’s writing is both beautiful and lucid, her depictions of political maneuvering and the media’s lurid sensationalism sophisticated and believable. Tensions between what the state expects and requires, and the pull of familial love are explored in a story which kept me gripped to its dramatic end. This is a very fine novel, perhaps her best yet and thoroughly deserving of its place on the Man Booker longlist.
If you’d like to read another review of Home Fire, Claire over at Word by Word has reviewed it here and Heavenali here.
September’s preview starts with Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone, a book I’ve been hoping to see in translation since MarinaSofia over at Finding Time to Write mentioned it earlier in the year. In it Erpenbeck explores the opening of Germany’s borders to refugees and the effects of their arrival on German society through Richard, an academic who lives in Berlin. The novel is ‘a passionate contribution to the debate on race, privilege and nationality and a beautifully written examination of an ageing man’s quest to find meaning in his life’ according to the publishers. I very much enjoyed Erpenbeck’s TheEnd of Days which told the story of the Eastern European twentieth century through a woman whose fate is constantly reimagined rather in the way that Kate Atkinson does with Ursula Todd in Life After Life.
Not so very far away, Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with the Stained-glass Windowbegins in 1989 when a soprano at the Lviv opera is shot dead while leading her fellow citizens in a protest against Soviet power. She leaves an eleven-year-old daughter who tells the story of their family both before and after the shooting. ‘Just like their home city of Lviv, which stands at the crossroads of nations and cultures, the women in this family have had turbulent lives, scarred by war and political turmoil, but also by their own inability to show each other their feelings. Lyrically told, this is the story of a young girl’s emotional, sexual, artistic and political awakening’ say the publishers. This is such an interesting period in that part of the world, the repercussions of which are still being felt today.
Since its longlisting for this year’s Man Booker the publication of my next choice has been brought forward to August but I can’t bring myself to let it go unmentioned. In Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, a young woman realises her dream of studying in America but can’t stop worrying about her twin siblings: the headstrong Aneeka in London, and Parvaiz who seems intent on following the same path as his jihadist father. Then the son of a powerful British Muslim politician enters the sisters’ lives: ‘Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Two families’ fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this searing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love? A contemporary reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone, Home Fire is an urgent, fiercely compelling story of loyalties torn apart when love and politics collide’ say the publishers a little melodramatically. It’s been quite some time since Shamsie’s last novel, A God in Every Stone, and I’m sure that the Man Booker longlisting will only have added to the anticipation for this one, published tomorrow.
Which can also be said about Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl. There was a bit of a literary stir back in 2013, the year Messud’s The Woman Upstairs was published in the UK, when an interviewer asked her why her narrator was so unlikeable. Messud gave a somewhat waspish response – and who can blame her? How tedious fiction would be if every character was nice. Her new novel looks at female friendship through two women who have been friends since nursery school but whose paths diverge leaving one of them feeling cast aside. ‘Disturbed, angry and desperate for answers, she sets out on a journey that will put her own life in danger, and shatter her oldest friendship. Compact, compelling, and ferociously sad, The Burning Girl is at once a story about childhood, friendship and community, and a complex examination of the stories we tell ourselves about childhood and friendship’ say the publishers which sounds right up my street.
I’m not so sure about Estep Nagy’s We Shall Not Sleep, a debut set in the summer of 1964. The Quicks and the Hillsingers have shared a small Maine island for generations but despite two intermarriages the families have little to do with each other. This year things look set to change. ‘We Shall Not All Sleep is a richly told story of American class, family, and manipulation–a compelling portrait of a unique and privileged WASP stronghold on the brink of dissolution’ according to the publishers. I like the sound of that but not so much the mention of violent games and sadistic older brothers which appears further on in the very detailed blurb.
My last choice for September is set in a bleak, hungry and frozen London in January 1947. Patrick McGrath’s The Wardrobe Mistress tells the story of Joan whose actor husband, the great Charlie Grice, has died. Persuaded against her will to attend a benefit performance of Charlie’s last play, Joan is shocked to see her husband’s eyes staring back at her from his understudy’s face. Grief-stricken, she seeks comfort with the young actor but discovers a dreadful secret. Anyone who’s read McGrath’s previous fiction will be expecting more than a touch of the gothic and it sounds as if they won’t be disappointed.
That’s it for September titles. A little thin this year, given that it’s the beginning of the run up to Christmas in the publishing year but I’m sure October will be jam-packed with goodies. Paperbacks soon…