I tend not to get caught up in literary prize fever these days but there is one for which I make an exception – The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction whose longlist is due to be announced next Wednesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2016 and March 31st 2017 qualify for the award. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably to predict who the judges will select but truth be told I much prefer to indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they might favour. This year there will be fewer titles on the judges’ list – they’re restricted to twelve – but given that this is my indulgence I’ve allowed myself three more. I’ve followed the same format as 2016 and 2015, restricting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog apart from one yet to be posted. In no particular order then, here’s my list of wishes rather than predictions for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017:
Who knows which of these, if any, will appear on next week’s list but for what it’s worth they’ve they’ve earned their place on mine. A click on a title will take you to my review for all but Birdcage Walk which I’ve read but not yet reviewed. Next year, of course, the prize will be called something else as it’s in search of a new sponsor: let’s hope they find one soon.
What about you? I’d love to know which books you’d like to see the Baileys judges plump for, predictions or wishes welcome.
Someone at Oneworld has a very sharp editorial eye, or maybe there’s a whole team of them. They managed to bag both the last two Man Booker Prizes, first with Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings then Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. They also published Sweetbitter, one of my favourites from 2016, and The Prison Book Club, an equally impressive piece of non-fiction. Jacqueline Woodson’s elegant, slim novella is another triumph. It’s a book of memory, the story of a teenage girl in the ‘70s which unfolds when a chance meeting after her father’s funeral catapults August back into her past.
August and her brother lived in rural Tennessee until she was eight and he was four when their father took them back to the tough Brooklyn neighbourhood where he grew up. They miss their mother but August comforts her brother, telling him that someday she will join them. Day after day they watch the goings-on in the street from their apartment window, forbidden to leave the house by a father grown fearful after fighting in the Vietnam war. August sees three girls playing, skipping and laughing together on the summer streets. She longs to be a part of their group and, one day, she will. Smart, beautiful Sylvia, whose parents see a bright future ahead of her, welcomes August into her friendship with Gigi and Angela, both talented but less privileged. These four will form an alliance against the world, a refuge from the insistent hum of male attention, until cracks begin to form. By the time of her father’s funeral, August is an anthropologist, an Ivy League graduate who has studied death rituals throughout the world – successful but no longer in touch with the friends who had meant so much to her.
August tells her story in her own voice, unfurling the past in fragments as memories so often do. Woodson’s writing is strikingly beautiful – poetic and often impressionistic yet capable of packing an emotional punch with a single sentence or phrase. Small details, slipped in, slowly reveal why August jumps off the subway before her stop rather than greeting her old friend. It’s a narrative infused with heart-wrenching loss: ‘I thought of my mother often, lifting my hand to stroke my own cheek’ remembers August who comforted her brother as she combed his tangled hair telling him to imagine that hers are ‘Mama’s hands’. Woodson’s portrayal of female friendship is equally arresting: ‘I had Sylvia, Angela and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying Here. Help me carry this.’ Another Brooklyn is a gorgeous book – deeply moving, peopled with vividly drawn characters and beautifully expressed. It will be with me for some time.
The second part of February’s preview begins with its feet firmly planted in the US – New York to be precise – before nipping over to continental Europe for the last two titles. I’m not sure why but Tim Murphy’s Christodora has been on my radar for quite some time, probably something to do with Twitter but I don’t remember a huge amount of brouhaha about it. The Christodora of the title is an apartment building in Manhattan’s East Village whose inhabitants the novel follows from the 1980s to the 2020s: ‘Christodora recounts the heartbreak wrought by AIDS, illustrates the allure and destructive power of hard drugs, and brings to life the ever-changing city itself’ as the publishers put it which sounds right up my New York city loving alley. Of course it could be a sprawling mess but I’ll certainly be trying it out.
Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers is set in 2007, the year before the global financial crash. Recently arrived from Cameroon, Jende Jonga and his family have high hopes for their new life in America, all the more so when Jende becomes a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior partner at Lehman Brothers. The fates of the two men’s families become closely interlinked and the Jongas begin to believe that the American Dream might be within their grasp until it becomes clear that both the Edwards family and the world of finance have distinctly rocky foundations. ‘Faced with the loss of all they have worked for, each couple must decide how far they will go in pursuit of their dreams – and what they are prepared to sacrifice along the way’ say the publishers. The financial crash offers fertile ground for fiction just as 9/11 did, and this sounds like an interesting take on it.
Jaqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn takes us across the bridge to August’s old neighbourhood where she bumps into a long-lost friend triggering memories of the 1970s when ‘beneath the hopeful veneer, there was another Brooklyn, a dangerous place where grown men reached for innocent girls in dark hallways, where ghosts haunted the night, where mothers disappeared. A world where madness was just a sunset away and fathers found hope in religion’ says the publisher which sounds more than a little melodramatic but this one’s from Oneworld who have been coming up with some very fine titles over the past few years, not least the last two Man Booker winners.
Lutz Seiler’s award-winning Kruso takes us to Hiddensee – a Baltic island legendary as a destination for idealists and rebels against the East German state – where in 1989 a young student has fled a dreadful tragedy. Once there, he gets a job washing dishes at the island’s most popular restaurant and becomes friends with the eponymous Kruso to whom the seasonal workers seem to be in thrall. ‘As the wave of history washes over the German Democratic Republic, the friends’ grip on reality loosens and life on the island will never be the same’ say the publishers.
Finally, we’re off to Copenhagen for Dorthe Nors’ Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. As you might infer from the title, Sonja is learning to drive. It’s all a bit of a struggle, something she should have done years ago when she was eighteen just like her sister whose life seems settled and perfect. ‘Dorthe Nors’ examines the absurdity of modern life, the complexity of human desire, and the ache of loneliness and disappointment in a novel shot through with flashes of humour’ according to the publishers which sounds very appealing to me and I do like Copenhagen.
That’s it for February’s new books. A click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis for any that snag your attention and if you’d like to catch up with the first part of the preview it’s here. Paperbacks soon…