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:
I’m a frequent visitor to Naomi’s Consumed by Ink. She often whets my appetite for Canadian novels that seem right up my street but for some reason rarely find their way to the UK. I was particularly taken by her review of Katherena Vermette’s debut last year and delighted to find it was to be published here. It’s about an indigenous family, already contending with a history of violence and loss, faced with an appalling sexual assault on one of their daughters.
Woken by her teething baby, Stella looks out of her window one moonlit night and sees an act of violence she thinks is a rape. She rings the police but when she looks again there’s no sign of the assailants or their victim. When the police finally arrive – the younger one keen, the older one dismissive of this crime committed on the strip of land which divides the up and coming white neighbourhood from the indigenous – the only evidence is a pool of blood. Next morning, thirteen-year-old Emily is rushed to hospital by her mother’s partner after collapsing. Later that day, her best friend Ziggy is brought in, beaten about the face. Emily has been the victim of a horrible crime on the way home from a gang party she and Ziggy had stumbled into, finding themselves out of their depth. As the police try to piece together what has happened to these two friends, a picture of a community emerges in which most men are either absent, feckless or violent, and damaged women either survive or go under.
The Break was never going to be an easy read but such is Vermette’s skill that she succeeds in drawing her readers into this story in which domestic and sexual violence is more common than not. The novel’s perspective shifts from character to character, effectively unfolding the events leading up to the attack and its investigation while creating a multi-layered portrait of the tight-knit community to which Emily belongs. Vermette is careful with her characterisation, no black and white caricatures here including the perpetrator. She meticulously reveals the low buzz of racism, the particular difficulties faced by people of mixed race and the pull of one culture over another but her strength lies in her portrayal of women and the bonds between them despite the harshness of their lives. All this may sound unremittingly dark but Vermette’s story is riveting, her characters convincing and there is hope in the form of young men who find ways to avoid the lure of drink and drugs, looking out for their younger siblings. A tough read, then, but a rewarding one thoroughly deserving of the Margaret Atwood endorsement adorning its jacket.
The second batch of February’s new titles is something of a mixed bag. I’ll begin with Tyler Keevil’s No Good Brother which sounds like a slice of adventure. Two brothers – one honest, the other not – set off on a journey to settle a debt with a notorious gang which will take them across land and sea dogged by customs officials, freak storms and a distinct sense of luck running out. ‘Quick-witted and beautifully observed, No Good Brother is an exquisite portrait of brotherly love and loyalty, examining the loss of innocence and the ties that bind us’ say the publishers. An uncharacteristic choice for me but the blurb’s put me in mind of Patrick deWitt’s wonderful The Sisters Brothers.
Joseph Cassara’s The House of Impossible Beauties sounds altogether different. Set in New York City from the late ‘70s to the early ‘90s with AIDS on the horizon, the novel was inspired by the House of Xtravaganza and follows a group of gay and transgender young adults around the drag ball scene. Apparently, it was inspired by the documentary ‘Paris is Burning’ which I haven’t seen but the book sounds right up my alley.
I’m not so sure about Jessie Greengrass’ Sight but her short story collection, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, was so highly rated that it seems worth investigating. It follows a woman through her preparations for motherhood as she remembers the death of her own mother and the time she spent with her psychoanalyst grandmother. Significant medical discoveries are woven through her memories, apparently. ‘Wonderfully intelligent, brilliantly written and deeply moving, Sight is a novel about how we see others, and how we might know ourselves’ say the publishers.
This next one comes garlanded with praise from Margaret Atwood, no less. Katherena Vermette’s The Break tackles the tricky subject of female violence. A young mother living close by the eponymous strip of land on the edge of a Canadian town spots a girl in trouble and calls the police but when they turn up, they can find nothing. Their investigation reveals a string of wrenching stories about the people surrounding the girl. ‘Through the prism of one extended, intergenerational family, Vermette’s urgent story shines a light on the power, violence and love shared between women of all cultures, creeds and age’ say the publishers which sounds very ambitious but Naomi over at Consumed by Ink, whose opinion I trust, was hugely impressed as you can see from this review.
I’m ending February’s new titles on a gentler note with an author whose previous work I’ve enjoyed very much. Judith Hermann’s Letti Parkis a collection which explore the way in which random encounters with strangers can change our lives profoundly. Both Hermann’s novel Where Love Begins and Alice, her set of interlinked short stories, are fine examples of subtle, quietly effective writing so hopes are high.
That’s it for February. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with the first part of the preview it’s here. Paperbacks to follow soon…