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…
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.
Spring really does seem to have sprung in the March publishing schedules, stuffed to overflowing as they are with both hardback and paperback goodies. I’ve reviewed all but one of the paperbacks already so I’ll start with those. Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation featured in a multitude of ‘books of the year’ lists last year although I know opinion was divided in my part of the Twitter woods. The story of a marriage told in fragment, it’s Offill’s second novel and was quite some time in coming – her first was published in 1999. It won’t suit those wanting a plot but the writing is superb.
Probably best skip on a little if it’s linear narrative you’re after – Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World is a collection of documents relating to artist Harriet Burden all collated by I. V. Hess who introduces the book. From the start Hess warns us that Harriet is a self-confessed trickster, telling us that she had shown her installations pseudonymously, hiding behind three male ‘masks’ while planning to reveal her female identity to the resolutely masculine New York art world once the exhibitions were over. Such a short summing-up hardly does the novel justice: it’s erudite, cerebral and challenging but well worth the effort.
Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone made it on to my own ‘books of the year’ list as did several other novels out in paperback in March. Opening in 1914 it interweaves the stories of Qayyum Gul, who lost an eye at Ypres fighting in the British Indian Army, and Vivien Spencer who is working as an archaeologist in Peshawar. Just as she did with Burnt Shadows, Shamsie takes complex universal themes and humanises them through the lives, loves and passions of her characters.
Timur Vermes’s Look Who’s Back, another of my books of 2014, is very funny satire which sees Hitler waking up with a terrible headache in August 2011, more than a little bemused but soon all too plausibly back in the frame. Satire can go horribly wrong but Vermes is right on the button. Not surprisingly, it caused a bit of a stir in Germany when it was published, storming up the bestseller charts and staying there for seventy weeks.
Matthew Thomas’s richly textured portrait of a marriage We Are Not Ourselves is a fine debut, one of the best I read in 2014. On New Year’s Eve in 1965 Eileen meets Ed Leary on a blind date and when they kiss at midnight she is sure that this quiet, thoughtful man is the one she’ll marry. 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.
Just one title that I haven’t read already: Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music. I wasn’t amongst the many fans of Room, cleverly executed as it was, but Frog Music has a very appealing synopsis. Based on real events it’s set in San Francisco during the 1876 smallpox epidemic and is about three former stars of the Parisian circus now holed up in China Town: Blanche who dances at the House of Mirrors, her lover Arthur and his companion Ernest. We’re promised the unravelling of secrets, murder and intrigue in a novel which is ‘elegant, erotic and witty’.
That’s it for March paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a review on this blog for all but Frog Music and if you’d like to see which hardbacks caught my eye just click here.
Looking back over the year for these three posts it seems that many of my favourite reads were crammed into the first two months of the year. March, however, saw only one, Shot gun Lovesongs, but that may well turn out to be my book of the year. Nickolas Butler’s American smalltown gem is a gorgeous, tender novel which retains enough grittiness to steer well clear of the sentimental while wringing your heart. I hope there’ll be another Butler on the horizon soon.
After the remarkable Burnt Shadows I had been looking forward to April’s A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie as soon as I spotted it in the publishing schedules and it didn’t disappoint. Shamsie takes complex universal themes and humanises them through the lives, loves and passions of her characters. It’s a towering achievement as is Look Who’s Back in an entirely different way. Timur Vermes’ very funny satire sees Hitler waking up with a terrible headache in August 2011, more than a little bemused but soon all too plausibly back in the frame. Satire can go horribly wrong but Vermes is right on the button. Not surprisingly, it caused a bit of a stir in Germany when it was published, storming up the bestseller charts and staying there for seventy weeks.
Having started this with a prime candidate for my book of the year, I spotted another in May’s posts. With its unusual thematic structure Charles Lambert’s With A Zero at its Heart could have been too tricksy for its own good but instead it turned out to be one of the finest books I’ve read this year. Its beauty lies in Lambert’s language – his skewering of a particular sentiment with a pithy phrase, his evocation of an experience in a few striking words. Also in May was Louisa Young’s sequel to the heartrending My Dear I Wanted to Tell You – The Heroes’ Welcome. Young’s sympathetic characterisation draws you immediately into this powerful novel which looks at the aftermath of war, deftly avoiding all sentimentality. You don’t have to have read My Dear I Wanted to Tell You to enjoy The Heroes’ Welcome but you’d be missing a treat if you didn’t.
Nothing in June or July but in August I was reminded of my bookselling days by Andy Miller who I’d worked with briefly at Waterstone’s head office many years ago when the apostrophe was present and correct. The Year of Reading Dangerously in which Andy gets his reading mojo back is touching, honest and very funny indeed. Lots of sniggering in this house, and not just me. You might think ‘she would say that wouldn’t she’ but if Twitter’s anything to go by Andy seems to be having a lot of success helping people rediscover their inner reader. I’m going to leave you with another August title: The Miniaturist. Might as well get all my book of the year contenders into one post. Set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, it was inspired by. Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house in the Rijksmuseum. I’m sure you can’t have failed to notice all the brouhaha around it but believe me, it’s justified. It’s a love story, a mystery, a portrait of a great city in which greed, betrayal and corruption seethe beneath a pious Calvinist surface – altogether a very fine book indeed. I’ll leave you with that. Third post to follow soon and if you missed the first you can catch up here.
This is a book I’ve been looking forward to for some time. Novels are so often described as epics – it’s come to be a wearisome cliché – but it was a perfect fit for Burnt Shadows, Kamila Shamsie’s last novel which followed twenty-one-year-old Hiroko Tanaka from the immediate aftermath of Nagasaki in 1945 to Guantanomo Bay. Beautifully written, engrossing and peopled with characters who make the universal personal, it’s a towering achievement. So you can see why my hopes were high.
Shamsie’s new novel opens in July 1914. Twenty-one-year-old Vivian Spencer is working as an archaeologist, a few steps on from Sarah Moss’s Ally in my Bodies of Light post but still not able to vote. She is entranced by the story of Scylax, despatched to explore beyond the edge of the ancient world and given a delicately wrought silver circlet by his patron. When the excavation team returns to Europe, they find that war has broken out. A year later, exhausted by her experiences as a VAD, Vivian longs to go to Peshawar where Scylax went before her. Arrangements are made. She travels alone meeting a young Pashtun along the way. Qayyum Gul lost an eye at Ypres fighting in the British Indian Army and is returning home. The narratives of these two are interwoven as Vivian, befriended by Najeeb a bright young boy and brother to Qayyum, continues her research while teaching Najeeb Peshawar’s history. By April 1930, Najeeb has become Peshawar’s museum assistant, Vivian has returned intrigued by his insistence that the longed for circlet is to be found there and Qayyum is active in the Khudai Khidmatgar, a non-violent resistance movement. Slowly drawing her readers into the lives of these three characters – their experiences of war and of empire – Shamise builds towards the climax of her novel: the massacre of April 23, 1930 in Peshawar’s Qissa Khwani Bazaar, the storyteller’s market, a shameful episode in British history.
Just as she did with Burnt Shadows, Shamsie takes complex universal themes and humanises them through the lives, loves and passions of her characters. Vivian nurses war casualties with a stoic horror which comes close to breaking her. She slides into betrayal trying to please the father who would rather have had a son. Qayyum suffers a confusion of loyalty and antipathy when his dearest friend calls him to violent resistance. His feelings of camaraderie with British soldiers which outweigh those for his fellow Pashtuns seem at odds with his growing resentment of the Empire and its assumed superiority. Shamsie’s writing is gorgeous – the descriptions of Peshawar are evocative of heat, light, fragrance and beauty. It’s a city of stories – one in which a young woman handing out water to the protesters is transformed into an angel surrounded by glorious light – and this is a novel of stories, each one as powerful as the next. Its climax is both vivid and page-turning – the confusion and mayhem when peaceful protest becomes a massacre, powerfully portrayed. If you’re still wondering, my expectations were more than met: it’s a very fine novel indeed.
That’s it from me for a week or so. I’m off to Madrid which I hope will be as sunny as it has been here in the UK recently. Happy reading!