Tag Archives: Jane Harris

My wish list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018

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. The judges are restricted to twelve on their longlist but given that this is my indulgence I’ve decided to ignore that and include two extra that I couldn’t bear to drop. 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:

The End We Start From                   The Lie of the Land               Conversations with Friends

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Johannesburg                                        Home Fire                                   Sugar Money

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The Ninth Hour                                    The Life to Come                                 Sisters

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The Break                                                Asymmetry                  Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves

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All Day at the Movies                           Before Everything

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I’ll be happy if even one of these takes the judges’ fancy. A click on a title will take you to my review should you want to know more..

How about you? Any titles you’d love to see on the longlist?

Books of the Year 2017: Part Four

Cover imageFor anyone wondering if these posts are ever going to end, we’re nearly there. Patrick McGrath’s The Wardrobe Mistress was the highlight of September’s reading for me. Set against the background of East End fascism in 1947, still bubbling away despite the suppression of the Blackshirts, McGrath’s novel explores the anguish of grief through Joan, widow of the late lamented Charlie Grice, star of the West End. McGrath is a master storyteller, unfolding his tale of grief and madness against the vividly evoked background of a frozen London struggling with the continuing depredations of post-war austerity.

October saw novels from two of my favourite writers, the first by Jane Harris eight years after the wonderful Gillespie and I. Based loosely on true events, Sugar Money tells the story of an attempt to bring a group of slaves back from Grenada to Martinique in 1765, restoring them from British to French hands. The star of the show is the novel’s twelve-year-old narrator, Lucien, a bumptious sardonic smart Alec in counterpoint to his quietly resourceful brother charged with what he knows is a foolish and dangerous task. A rattling good yarn which manages to entertain while never losing sight of its subject’s horrors.

Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour couldn’t be more different. McDermott is one of those quietlyCover image brilliant authors whose work often seems underrated to me. Set in early twentieth-century Brooklyn, her new novel is the story of Annie, rescued from poverty by the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor when her husband commits suicide leaving her pregnant and bereft. It bears all the hallmarks I’ve come to expect from a McDermott novel: understated yet lyrical writing; empathy in spades; astutely drawn characters, all gathered together to form a quietly glorious whole infused with gentle humour. A treat to savour.

My third October choice is Alex Christofi’s Let Us Be True. I was a little lukewarm about this book when it arrived but it turned out to be absorbing, insightful and beautifully written. Largely set in Paris during the middle of the twentieth century, it’s the story of Ralf who becomes smitten with Elsa and remains so for decades after their brief affair ends. With a light touch, Christofi explores the way political events can shape ordinary lives through the framework of Ralf and Elsa’s relationship, a vivid backdrop to their stories told from each of their perspectives. A smart, thought-provoking novel which ends, I’m pleased to say, on a hopeful; note.

Cover imageNovember’s star was also a surprise. The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao spans twenty or so years in a Brazilian housewife’s life, beginning in the 1940s. Euridice is a clever girl who excels at everything. Her older sister Guida is the worldly one, beautiful and flirtatious. Left with parents who pin all their hopes on her when Guida disappears, Euridice marries a respectable banker who fails to understand her brilliance. One day, out of the blue, Guida knocks on Euridice’s door. Euridice’s story is expertly told, liberally laced with a smart, playful humour sharp enough to flag the serious side of this salutary tale about the dangers of becoming a good girl. An absolute treat which rounds 2017’s favourite reads off nicely.

And if I had to choose? Usually it’s a struggle but this year there’s no contest: Jon McGregor’s beautiful Reservoir 13,  a gorgeous book that will stay with me for some time.

If you’d like to catch up with the previous three 2017 books of the year posts they’re here, here, and here. A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review. Time to look forward to what’s on offer in January next…

Sugar Money by Jane Harris: Well worth the wait

Cover imageThere seems to be something of a trend in fiction at the moment, although perhaps three novels are too few to be called that. First came Colson Whitehead’s Man Booker shortlisted The Underground Railroad followed by Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and now Jane Harris’ Sugar Money, all exploring the history of slavery. I’ve yet to read the first two, leapfrogging over to Harris’ novel having waited eight years since the wonderful Gillespie and I. Based loosely on true events, Sugar Money tells the story of an attempt to bring a group of slaves back from Grenada to Martinique, restoring them from British to French hands.

In December 1765, the war between France and Britain recently over, Father Cléophas has hatched a plan to rescue his friary’s finances, employing a mixed-race slave to help execute his scheme. Emile was once a slave on Grenada before he was sold on leaving his brother – more than ten years his junior – with the friars who took him to Martinique. Lucien is a cocky young twelve-year-old. Emile does everything he can to prevent his younger brother from accompanying him on what he thinks of as a foolish and dangerous mission but Lucien is determined to show he’s just as smart and brave as the brother he quietly idolises but constantly mocks. These two cross the sea, finding their way to the Fort Royal hospital where they are greeted by many that remember them including Emile’s beloved Céleste. Emile has three days to persuade the hospital slaves to return to Martinique. Some are eager, perhaps foolishly so imagining a paradise of ease and freedom, others are more circumspect, many are weak and infirm. On the third night, they set off, hoping their masters will be distracted by Christmas celebrations. What ensues is a fraught and arduous journey on which Lucien will finally become the man he thinks himself to be.

Harris structures her story as a lost slave narrative, written by Lucien and discovered on the death of his abolitionist employer. Lucien is an engaging and entertaining narrator, a bumptious sardonic smart Alec in counterpoint to his quietly resourceful brother whose intelligence and integrity have won him great respect. Harris’ writing is as striking as I remember it in both The Observations and Gillespie and I. Lucien reels off a string of colourful flourishes: Father Cléophas is as ‘slippery as a worm in a hogshead of eel’; Emile is ‘a closed-up box within a box with locks; ‘say what you like about my brother but his eyes so sharp he could see two flea fornicating on a rat in the dark’. Harris uses her narrator’s voice to leaven her sober theme with a good deal of humour while laying bare the barbaric brutality of slavery fueled by greed and corruption. Ratcheting up the tension as the slaves make their way to the port, she had me racing through the final sections of her novel, hurtling towards the finishing line in the hopes that all would be well. A rattling good yarn which manages to entertain while never losing sight of its subject’s horrors.

Books to Look Out for in October 2017

Cover imageThere are three titles competing for top of my October wish list. Hard to choose which to grab first so I’m plumping for the one I’ve been waiting for the longest: Jane Harris’ Sugar Money. It’s been eight years since Gillespie and I was published, a novel which features a superbly unreliable narrator, and eleven since The Observations which I included in my Blasts from the Past series. Gillespie and I leapt the second novel hurdle with flying colours so hopes are high for Harris’ third, set in eighteenth-century Martinique where two brothers have been instructed to return to their home island of Grenada to smuggle back forty-two slaves from a hospital plantation. ‘With great characters, a superb narrative set up, and language that is witty, bawdy and thrillingly alive, Sugar Money is a novel to treasure’ say the publishers encouragingly.

Sticking with the long gap between novels theme, my second choice Is Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach published seven years after the excellent A Visit from the Goon Squad. It opens in Brooklyn against the backdrop of the Great Depression, with young Anna Kerrigan taken by her father to the house of a rich man. Years later, Anna works in the shipyard during the war, earning the money that has kept her family since her father’s disappearance. When she meets the man she remembers from her childhood she begins to question what has happened to her father. ‘Mesmerizing, hauntingly beautiful, with the pace and atmosphere of a noir thriller and a wealth of detail about organized crime, the merchant marine and the clash of classes in New York, Egan’s first historical novel is a masterpiece, a deft, startling, intimate exploration of a transformative moment in the lives of women and men, America and the world’ say the publishers which sounds very ambitious but given Egan’s past novels may well not be an exaggeration.

In any other month Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour would have had no competition in topping my list. I’m an ardent fan as regular readers may have gathered. McDermott excels at that pared-back yet lyrical prose that I love – I’ve yet to read anything by her I’ve not enjoyed. Thankfully she’s a little more prolific than Harris and Egan although it’s been four years sinceCover image Someone, her last novel. Set in Brooklyn, her new book follows three generations of an Irish immigrant family in the ‘40s and ‘50s. A man takes his own life, leaving his young wife pregnant. Sister St Saviour offers her work in the convent’s laundry, saving her from destitution but although never spoken of, her husband’s suicide remains a stigma. ‘In prose of startling radiance and precision, Alice McDermott tells a story that is at once wholly individual and universal in its understanding of the human condition. Rendered with remarkable lucidity and intelligence, The Ninth Hour is the crowning achievement of one of today’s finest writers’ say the publishers whetting my appetite further.

And now for something entirely different. Gabe Hbash’s Stephen Florida is about a college student, an amateur wrestler with his eye set on a championship. Not a premise that would usually appeal but the publishers‘ description is an intriguing one: ‘Profane, manic and tipping into the uncanny, this is Florida’s chronicle of loneliness, obsession, and the drive to leave a mark. With echoes of The Art of Fielding and the film Foxcatcher, Gabe Habash’s daring, revelatory debut journeys into the mind of a young man teetering between control and rage, grief and elation, genius and insanity’. That reference to The Art of Fielding was inevitable, I suppose, but it did catch my eye.

Tony Peake’s North Facing has as its backdrop the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when the world appeared to be on the point of catastrophe. Rather than simply telling the story of the American/Russian face-off, Peake’s novel views it through the lens of a group of South African schoolboys, one of whom is discovering his sexuality and the politics of his troubled country. Now in his sixties and drawn back to Pretoria, Paul recalls that time which saw both the Sharpeville massacre and the arrest of Nelson Mandela. I’m particularly drawn to this novel after reading Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg, set on the day after Mandela’s death.

Cover imageMy final choice is Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste. Set in Japan, it’s about a disillusioned man with a criminal record who makes the titular paste for the pancakes sold in the confectioner’s where he works. When an elderly disabled woman enters the shop, offering to teach him her own recipe, a friendship begins. The publishers describe Sukegawa’s book as ‘a quietly devastating novel about the burden of the past and the redemptive power of friendship’ which sounds very appealing.

That’s it for October. A click on any title that’s piqued your interest will take you to a more detailed synopsis. Paperbacks soon…

Blasts from the Past: The Observations by Jane Harris (2006)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

There seemed to be something of a vogue for Victorian novel pastiches a decade or so ago. May be it was the turn of the twentieth century that sparked it off or maybe it was Sarah Walters’ success which began with her first novel, Tipping the Velvet. I’m not a huge fan of what almost became a genre in itself but I read Jane Harris’ first novel The Observations for a work assignment and loved it mainly because of Bessy, its wonderfully sassy narrator.

Only fifteen years of age and Bessy already has a past as colourful and inappropriate as the yellow satin gown she wears to walk from Glasgow to Edinburgh in search of work. To escape unwanted male attention, she takes the turning for Castle Haivers and is soon employed by its mistress Arabella who asks her for a record of her Cover imagedays working as a maid. When she finds the reason for this puzzling request in the Observations, Arabella’s record of experiments she has conducted in an attempt to find the perfect servant, Bessy is appalled at her own character assessment and decides to take revenge setting in motion a chain of events that she will bitterly regret. Narrated in Bessy’s sly, earthy, often very funny, voice, Harris’ novel is part ghost story, part mystery, and ultimately a heartening tale of redemption.

Harris followed The Observations with the equally brilliant Gillespie and I which features a quintessentially unreliable narrator, always a favourite device of mine. There’s been nothing from her since – six years ago now – but I’m still hopeful.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?