The longlist for my favourite UK literary award, The Women’s Prize for Fiction, is due to be announced next Monday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2018 and March 31st 2019 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in predicting what took the judges fancy but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. I’ve followed the same format as previous years, 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 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction:
Several of my favourite writers are listed here – Kate Atkinson, Amy Bloom, Siri Hustvedt, Georgina Harding – but I’d be delighted if any one of these fifteen snags the judges’ attention. We’ll see. Any titles that you’d love to see on the judges’ list?
That’s it from me for a few days. We’re off for what could be our last weekend as European citizens abroad. I may need tissues. Back next week to tell you all about it.
There’s an embarrassment of paperback riches in March, several of which were among my books of 2018. This first batch begins in the ‘30s with Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley about a young woman who turns up in the village of Elmbourne and inveigles herself into the affections of a vulnerable fourteen-year-old girl. Naïve yet intelligent, Edie’s flattered by Constance’s attentions but not savvy enough to examine her motives. Harrison sets her novel against a febrile background: suspicion of change, economic hardship and fear of the other leave Elmbourne prey to the shadowy forces of fascism gathering throughout Europe. As with all of Harrison’s novels, there’s a plethora of gorgeous descriptive passages to enjoy.
Kate Atkinson’s Transcription follows Juliet Armstrong who finds herself caught up in the machinations of MI5, far beyond the mundane transcriptions she’s recruited to produce in 1940. Atkinson is a masterful storyteller, whipping the carpet from beneath her readers’ feet several times during Juliet’s journey through the Secret Service’s labyrinthine corridors. As ever, there’s a good deal of dry, playful wit to enjoy but some serious points are made about idealism and national interest. Engrossing storytelling, engaging characters, sharp observation and sly humour – all those sky-high expectations that greet the announcement of any new Atkinson novel were met for me. And there’s another Atkinson in the offing this year: Big Sky, a Jackson Brodie novel. Hurrah!
Amy Bloom’s White Houses is also set in the ‘40s. Spanning a weekend in April 1945, shortly after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, it tells the story of his wife Eleanor and Lorena Hickok, the woman who joined them in the White House and with whom Eleanor had a long and passionate affair. Bloom narrates this elegantly spare novella through Hick’s dry, earthy sometimes humorous voice, painting a picture of ‘30s and early ’40s America through the lens of her experience. It’s an extraordinarily intimate portrait, both of the two women and of Roosevelt’s presidency. I’ve yet to read anything by Bloom I’ve not loved. Her writing is both deft and empathetic, pressing all my literary buttons. Such a cool jacket for the paperback edition, too.
Set just over a year before the attack on Pearl Harbour pulled the United States into World War Two, Louise Levene’s Happy Little Bluebirds keeps us in the ‘40s. Multilingual Evelyn is pulled out of Postal Censorship and sent to Hollywood to assist a British agent who needs a translator but when she gets there HP – Saucy to his friends – has bunked off. Like all the best satire, serious points are made: the constant hum of casual racism, the contrast between the largesse of Hollywood life and the austerity of wartime Britain are all slipped into the narrative. That said, Levene’s novel is a thoroughly enjoyable romp and the ending is all you’d expect from Hollywood.
Set in the early ’90s, Elaine Castillo’s America is Not the Heart is about a Filipino community in California, and I’m ashamed to say that before I read it I knew next to nothing about the Philippines’ troubled history. Castillo explores that history through the story of Hero who comes to live with her uncle and aunt after being released from a prison camp, finding a second home with Rosalyn who knows nothing but the city of Milpitas where she lives. Castillo’s novel wasn’t without flaws for me – I could have done with a glossary – but it’s both entertaining and enlightening.
I’m ending this first batch of paperbacks with Sam Byers’ Perfidious Albion, set in the near future, which I’ve yet to read but which will no doubt depress me. Set in a small English town, post-Brexit, it depicts a country in the grips of fear and loathing thanks to a few opinions aired too stridently, political extremism on the rise and the revelation of secrets threatened. ‘Smart, satirical and honed to frightening acuity, Sam Byers’s writing offers up a black mirror to Britain post-Brexit in this frighteningly believable and knowingly off-kilter state-of-the nation novel’ say the publishers. I do love a state-of-the-nation novel but given the state of my particular nation I may just put my head in the sand although humour is promised, presumably of the dark variety.
That’s it for the first selection of March paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my reviews for the first five and to a more detailed synopsis for the last one. If you’d like to catch up with March’s new titles, they’re here and here. Second paperback instalment soon…
This instalment leapfrogs over June, much of which was spent on a lengthy railway jaunt which took me from Amsterdam to Warsaw. July saw the start of a long and lovely British summer, and two excellent debuts beginning with Jen Beagin’s smart, funny, Pretend I’m Dead, about twenty-four-year-old Mona who cleans houses for a living, falls hard for a junkie who disappears then takes herself off to Taos. Nothing much happens in Beagin’s novel: it’s all about the characters, not least Mona from whose sharply sardonic perspective the novel unfolds. Little bombs are dropped into the narrative revealing a childhood that has led her to jump to dark conclusions about her clients. There are some great slapstick moments and it’s stuffed with pithy one-liners. I loved this novel with its dark, witty and confident writing. Can’t wait to see what Beagin comes up with next.
Sonia Zinovieff’s Putney also explores the fallout of childhood abuse through Ralph who’s aroused by Daphne’s boyish beauty when she is nine and he is twenty-seven. It’s the ’70s and Daphne is the child of bohemian parents caught up in their own affairs, looking anywhere but at what is happening under their noses. Forty years later, Ralph is oblivious to Daphne’s chaotic, rackety life while she works on a collage commemorating her time with him in a flat a mere stone’s throw away from her childhood home. This subject could so easily have been mishandled. Salacious details, stereotypical characters, black and white judgements – it’s a minefield but Zinovieff explores her subject with consummate skill in a thoroughly accomplished novel, both thought-provoking and absorbing. I take my hat off to its author for tackling such a tricky subject with compassion and intelligence.
August got off to a much more lighthearted start with Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage which tells the story of Mattie, once met never forgotten, picking it up in 1928, ten years after British women who met a property qualification were enfranchised. For many in the women’s suffrage movement the battle’s over but not for Mattie. Evans’ novel is an absolute treat. Her story romps along replete with period detail, wearing its historical veracity lightly while exploring themes of social justice with wit, humour and compassion. For those of us struggling with the current political climate, Old Baggage is a happy reminder that things can get better.
Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley could be said to be a counterweight to that hope. Set in the early ‘30s it’s about a young woman who turns up in the village of Elmbourne and inveigles herself into the affections of a vulnerable fourteen-year-old girl. Naïve yet intelligent, Edie’s flattered by Constance’s attentions but not savvy enough to examine her motives. Constance’s romantic views of the countryside reveal a nostalgia for a world that never existed rather than concern for those who live there. Harrison sets her novel against a febrile background: suspicion of change, economic hardship and fear of the other leave Elmbourne prey to the shadowy forces of fascism gathering throughout Europe. As with all of Harrison’s novels, there’s a plethora of gorgeous descriptive passages to enjoy.
September began with a novel that I’d have to had to find a hat to eat had I not enjoyed it. Kate Atkinson’s Transcription follows Juliet Armstrong who finds herself caught up in the machinations of MI5, far beyond the mundane transcriptions she’s recruited to produce in 1940. Atkinson is a masterful storyteller, whipping the carpet from underneath her readers’ feet several times during Juliet’s journey through the labyrinthine corridors of MI5. As ever, there’s a good deal of dry, playful wit to enjoy but some serious points are made about idealism and national interest some of which rang loud contemporary bells for me. Engrossing storytelling, engaging characters, sharp observation and sly humour – all those sky-high expectations that greet the announcement of any new Atkinson novel were more than met for me. Bring on all the prizes.
You’d think I might end on that high note but there’s one more September title: Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall is a powerful exploration of controlling violence and its consequences, all wrapped up in a tense, atmospheric piece of storytelling. Together with three students and their professor, seventeen-year-old Sylvie and her parents, Bill and Alison, spend the summer living as Ancient Britons in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall. Bill’s menacing control of both Sylvie and Alison pervades the book offset with a degree of waspish humour and gloriously evocative descriptions of the summer landscape. The climax is horrifying: hard to read yet impossible to tear yourself away from it. Another in the succession of novellas that have so impressed me.
That’s the end of summer which I found particularly hard to let go this year although autumn put on a pretty good show, both for weather and books.
All links are to my reviews on this blog. If you’d like to catch up with the first two books of the year posts they’re here and here. And for those of you who’re flagging, it’s the home straight on Monday.
Both Melissa Harrison’s previous novels are notable for their vividly evocative descriptions of the English countryside, the kind of thing readers are treated to in the very best nature writing. This combined with a dollop of sharp social observation made At Hawthorn Time stand out for me. All Among the Barley goes several steps further with a powerful piece of storytelling set in the early ‘30s when a young woman turns up in the East Anglian village of Elmbourne, inveigling herself into the affections of a vulnerable fourteen-year-old girl.
The Mathers have worked Wych Farm for generations. Edie has known little else for her entire fourteen years. She caught diphtheria as a young child, almost dying from it, and it seems that her mother is determined to keep her safe at home. She’s a bright child, more often found reading than doing her chores, too clever to have made much in the way of friends. In 1933, the year of the most beautiful autumn Edie can remember, times are troubled as the Depression bites. Edie knows little of that but she does know that her father is in the grip of worry about grain prices and that John, the farm’s horseman, and he are at political loggerheads. When Constance FitzAllen appears in the village, asking questions and professing a love for the old rural ways, Edie senses that life could be something other than the occasional trip to the cinema with her mother, visits to her grandparents and a future of marriage with babies soon to follow. As the farming year wears on, harvest becomes the urgent focus, all hands put to bringing it in and safely storing it. Almost in celebration, Constance calls a meeting in the village pub, promising free beer with dramatic results.
Harrison unfolds her story through Edie who is looking back to the events of over half a century ago. Naïve yet intelligent, Edie is the perfect narrator for this story, flattered by the attentions of Constance but not savvy enough to examine her motives. Constance’s romantic views of the countryside are neatly conveyed, revealing a nostalgia for a world that never really existed rather than concern for those who live there. Harrison sets her novel against a febrile background: suspicion of change, economic hardship and fear of the other leave Elmbourne prey to the shadowy forces of fascism that are gathering throughout Europe. I’m not suggesting that those times exactly mirror our own but it was hard to read this novel without the spectre of the EU referendum and its fallout popping up in my mind. For those feeling less doomy about all that, there are a plethora of gorgeous descriptive passages to enjoy. Here are two favourites:
The woods and spinneys lay in our land like treasure, the massy hedgerows filigreed with old-man’s-beard and enamelled with rosehips and black sloes
The glory of the farm then, just before harvest: acres of gold like bullion, strewn with the sapphires of cornflowers and the garnets of corn poppies and watched over from on high by larks
An impressive novel, then. Harrison seems to go from strength to strength.
Almost time for the 2018 Man Booker judges to announce their longlist to readers, not to mention publishers, waiting with bated breath to see if their favourites are amongst the chosen few. This year’s a special one. As I’m sure you all know, It’s the prize’s fiftieth anniversary which has been celebrated with a string of events, culminating in the coronation of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient as the Golden Man Booker ten days ago. There’s also been a little celebration over at Shiny New Books where contributors have been writing about their own favourites.
Regular readers will know that any similarity between my wish list and the 2018 Man Booker judges’ longlist is likely to be entirely coincidental. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2017 and 30th September 2018 and have been written in English. Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Their list will be revealed on Tuesday 24th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order, with links to my reviews.
It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here published before 30th September – I’m reasonably sure that Patrick deWitt’s French Exit would make my cut and William Boyd’s Love is Blind is due in September– but I’m sticking to novels I’ve read. And if I had to choose one? That would be Kate Atkinson’s Transcription but no doubt the judges will disagree with me on that yet again.
What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?
Much jostling for position at the top of August’s list of new titles, three of which I’ve already read but not yet reviewed. I’m starting with Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free which is up there up there alongside Ingenious Pain and Pure, his two best novels for me. Set in Somerset just after the turn of the eighteenth century, it’s about Captain John Lacroix whose health has been so devastated by the disastrous campaign against Napoleon in Spain that he goes on the run rather than return to the front once recovered. ‘Taut with suspense, this is an enthralling, deeply involving novel by one of Britain’s most acclaimed writers’ say the publishers and I’d have to agree.
Patrick Gale’s Take Nothing with You is also set in Somerset, this time in 1970s Weston-Super-Mare where ten-year-old Eustace finds a passion for the cello when his mother signs him up for lessons with a glamorous teacher. Lessons of another kind are learned when Eustace enrols on a holiday course in Scotland, apparently. ‘Drawing in part on his own boyhood, Patrick Gale’s new novel explores a collision between childish hero worship and extremely messy adult love lives’ according to the blurb. I’ve long been a fan of Gale’s writing, going right back to The Aerodynamics of Pork in the ‘80s.
Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley is also a coming-of-age novel with much to say about the dangers of nostalgia and nationalism. Set on a Suffolk farm in 1933, it’s about Edie, to whose family the farm belongs, and Constance, who arrives from London to record the area’s traditions and beliefs. Edie finds herself attracted by their visitor’s sophistication but it seems Constance may have a secret or two. I’m a great fan of both At Hawthorn Time and Clay but Harrison’s surpassed herself with this one.
Claire Fuller’s previous novels Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons were a delight and I’m pleased to report Bitter Orange turns out to be one too. In the summer of 1969, Frances is drawn into a relationship with her fellow tenants of a crumbling country mansion: ‘But as the hot summer rolls lazily on, it becomes clear that not everything is right between Cara and Peter. The stories that Cara tells don’t quite add up – and as Frances becomes increasingly entangled in the lives of the glamorous, hedonistic couple, the boundaries between truth and lies, right and wrong, begin to blur. Amid the decadence of that summer, a small crime brings on a bigger one: a crime so terrible that it will brand all their lives forever’ says the blurb, neatly setting the scene.
I’m ending this batch with the winner of last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, an award of which I’ve learned to take notice. Described as a darkly comic thriller, Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square is about Jean Mason whose friends and acquaintances tell her she has a doppelgänger. Jean sets about tracking down her likeness, becoming obsessed with this other woman who has been seen haunting Bellevue Square. ‘A peculiar collection of drug addicts, scam artists, philanthropists, philosophers and vagrants–the regulars of Bellevue Square–are eager to contribute to Jean’s investigation. But when some of them start disappearing, she fears her alleged double has a sinister agenda. Unless Jean stops her, she and everyone she cares about will face a fate much stranger than death’ according to the publishers. As is often the case with Canadian books, I first came across this one at Naomi’s excellent Consumed by Ink blog.
That’s it for the first selection of August’s new novels. As ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis should you wish to know more. Second instalment soon but not before my Man Booker wishlist…
Melissa Harrison’s first novel was one of those titles surrounded by an insistent flurry of pre-publicity buzz which can be counter-productive, putting me right off the book. Consequently, it took me quite some time to get around to reading the copy I was sent but it has to be said that sometimes the buzz is justified which proved to be the case with Clay. There’s been quite a lot of interest over the past few years in nature writing thanks to the likes of Kathleen Jamie and Robert MacFarlane but Harrison is the first writer I’ve come across to incorporate it into fiction, and she does it beautifully. Just as she did with Clay, Harrison’s new novel looks at the relationship between humans and nature, this time through the lens of modern village life.
It opens with a dramatic prologue: two cars in a head-on collision, their contents spilled across the road. It’s clear that there are casualties but we don’t know who or how many. The rest of the novel takes us from early April, with its intimations of the joys of spring to come, to that May morning car crash just outside the village of Lodeshill. Once a thriving agricultural settlement, there are just a few farms left here now. Jamie might have preferred to apprentice himself to the local gamekeeper but instead turns to the enormous distribution centre built to take advantage of the old Roman road with its access to the motorway. Now in his nineties, his grandfather remembers the old ways and makes sure Jamie knows all about them. Howard and Kitty are incomers from Finchley. Howard, a roadie turned haulage contractor, feels like a fish out of water in the rural retirement that Kitty has longed for, and wonders why his wife has started going to church. Jack tramps the road to Lodeshill, on probation from his latest stint in prison for trespassing. Once a protestor – veteran of Twyford Down and the early Greenham days – he now lives off the land picking up farm-labouring jobs where he can and avoiding the police. Harrison paints a picture of modern rural life through the stories of these five characters, each with their differing relationship with nature.
Each chapter begins with notes from Jack’s journals, observations of spring’s progress. The descriptions which follow are often lyrically poetic, capturing moments in nature in a way which Kitty longs to do in her painting but can’t quite manage. These provide the back drop for the characters’ stories. Lots of issues are addressed here – a farmer’s suicide, Jamie’s soulless distribution job, the decline of the village pub, the dormitory village with its retired incomers – and at times it seemed that Harrison’s novel might descend into a dissection of the countryside’s woes but it’s handled deftly enough to avoid clunkiness or sentimentality with a nice thread of tension set up by the prologue. Although At Hawthorn Time doesn’t quite match Clay for me it offers an unusually clear-eyed view of modern village life for us townies. A little like The Archers before the new script team got their hands on it.
Spring’s on the horizon at last here in the UK and with it comes a fair few temptations in the publishing schedules, several of which stand out for me. Melissa Harrison’s debut, Clay, was much praised for her lyrical descriptions of nature when it was published in 2012. I didn’t get around to it until recently but the writing is very beautiful, all wrapped up in a poignant story. I’m hoping for more of the same with At Hawthorn Time which follows four villagers through one spring month in which their lives intersect. Ali Smith picked Clay as one of her books of the year, apparently, should you need more encouragement.
Also eagerly anticipated is Liza Klaussman’s second novel Villa America. Her debut, Tigers in Red Weather, was one of those books about which there was a great deal of pre-publication brouhaha, justified in this case. It was set in a slightly Gatsbyesque world – although at the end of the Second World War – and this new novel actually features the Fitzgeralds entertained, alongside the likes of Picasso, dos Passos and Hemingway, by Gerald and Sara Murphy in their villa on the French Riviera until a stranger arrives and the dream shatters.
Christine Dwyer Hickey’s writing inhabits a much more work-a-day world. She’s one of those quietly accomplished writers whose books are to be savoured. In her last novel, The Cold Eye of Heaven, an old man looks back over his life as he lies dying. Memory is also a strong theme in The Lives of Women as Elaine, home from New York to live with her invalid father, watches his neighbours move out remembering the way in which an American divorcee shattered the dynamics of this small estate back in the ‘70s, teaching the women to drink Martinis and loosen their grip on their wifely duties. It sounds excellent.
Set in another small community but entirely different by the sound of it, Christopher Bollen’s Orient is compared to both A. M. Homes and Lionel Shriver in the publisher’s blurb – no pressure, there then. Set on Long Island in the eponymous small town much visited by artists and rich New Yorkers fleeing the city heat, it sounds like a thriller. When a local takes in an orphaned drifter, strange things begin to happen arousing the town’s suspicions. Thrillers aren’t usually my cup of tea but I’m a sucker for smalltown American novels.
There may well be a touch of the thriller about Mark Henshaw’s The Snow Kimono. On the same day a retired Parisian police inspector receives a letter from a woman who claims to be his daughter he finds a stranger waiting for him at his apartment. Professor Tadashi Omura tells Inspector Jovert his extraordinary life story which has surprising parallels with Jovert’s own. It sounds intriguing and comes from Tinder Press who seem to have developed a sharp eye for talent.
I wonder if Watertones will be piling up copies of Vesna Goldsworthy’s Gorsky featuring as it does a bibliophile Russian oligarch. Said oligarch is planning to woo the already-married Natalia with a spanking new mansion in ‘Chelski’. At the heart of the house is to be a large library stocked with first editions from the Russian literary canon. It’s narrated by the Serbian immigrant bookseller commissioned to track down these treasures, no matter how expensive they might be. The impoverished bookseller – is there any other kind? – finds himself in a glittering yet dangerous world.
That’s it for April. A click on a title will take you to Waterstones website where a more detailed synopsis will be revealed. Happy reading!