This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of my favourite UK literary award, The Women’s Prize for Fiction. I still remember being excited at the prospect of this prize when it was first announced and my delight when Helen Dunmore’s A Spell in Winter was the inaugural winner of what was then called the Orange Prize. The 2020 longlist will be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2019 and March 31st 2020 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 might 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 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction:
There are some notable omissions from my list including Anne Enright’s Actress which I’m sure deserves a place but I’ve yet to read it. I may be stretching the rules a bit with Olive, Again, technically linked short stories rather than a novel but, hey, it’s my fantasy list. I’d be delighted if any one of these fifteen snags the judges’ attention – fingers firmly crossed.
What about you? Any titles you’d love to see on the judges’ list?
We’re on the home stretch, now, heading towards the end of 2019, and already anticipating the shiny and new in 2020. September, which I like to call late summer stretching that in to October weather permitting, began with Etgar Keret’s Fly Already a collection of twenty punchy, inventive short stories, some no longer than a page or two. A few of Keret’s pieces are disconcerting – more than a little wacky – others are pure comedy, often using humour to make a point, but all are memorable. The complications of humanity are sweetly satirised and even the rich, who come in for some thoroughly justified lampooning, are treated with a sympathetic understanding. It’s a hugely enjoyable collection, full of surprises. I’d not heard of Keret before although I gather he’s acquired an international reputation. Richly deserved, if Fly Already is anything to go by.
October saw two novels that exemplified beautifully crafted, immersive storytelling, the first of which was Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House. It’s the story of an unusual house, almost a work of art, and the obsessions it sparks. It’s also the story of the Conroys, the family whose history is indelibly marked by this house whose huge glass windows leave them exposed to the world. Patchett’s writing is smoothly polished but it’s her storytelling, laced with an elegant wit, that kept me gripped, wondering what would happen to these characters whose lives are hedged around with secrets and silence, who seem to fall under the influence of this house even when trying to resist it. Altogether a treat: a book to curl up with, well turned out, absorbing and satisfying. I would love to have seen it on the Booker longlist, at the very least.
I’m sure the Conroys’ house was as important to them as the eponymous work in Neil Hegarty’s The Jewel was to its creator. Ostensibly the story of an art heist, Hegarty’s novel explores a multitude of themes through the stories of the theft’s three principle players – the thief, the art historian charged with displaying the piece and the specialist called in to help solve the crime. The result is a richly textured novel whose astutely observed characters have all endured tragedy and misfortune. This is Hegarty’s second novel and it did that rare thing: exceeded the high expectations raised by his fine debut, Inch Levels. I’m already looking forward to his third.
November’s favourites were heralded by a book for which I had even higher expectations, and once again they were fulfilled. This year saw the return of the irascible yet essentially warm-hearted Olive Kitteridge, familiar to fans of Elizabeth Strout’s eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning book published in 2008. Olive, Again takes the same form, comprising thirteen closely-knit short stories in which Olive is often the central character, sometimes a co-star and occasionally a bit-player. Ordinary everyday day life is filled with events unremarkable to others but extraordinary to those who live through them. Epiphanies are had. Time passes. Olive grows old but not always alone. It’s a triumph. I’m deeply suspicious of sequels but delighted that Strout took me back to Crosby to meet Olive again. My hope is that Frances Mcdormand, who was such a thoroughly convincing Olive in HBO’s miniseries, is already practicing her lines.
Karina Sainz Borgo’s It Would Be Night in Caracas tells the story of a woman in a very different set of circumstances. Now middle-aged, Adelaida grew up against a backdrop of the Bolivarian Revolution. Food shortages have become starvation for many and a source of wealth for others. Abductions are commonplace, gunshot frequent, medicine hard to come by and expensive. When an opportunity presents itself, Adelaida finds herself engaged in the unthinkable in a determined effort to escape the city’s mayhem. Borgo’s novel effectively humanises the horrors taking place on the streets of Caracas through the story of one woman. Publishers’ lists are full of dystopian fiction, often depicting post-apocalyptic events, but if you want to see what a real dystopia looks like, this is it. In the here and now
Rather fittingly, given that I’ve read so many of them over the past few years, I’m bringing 2019’s favourites to a close with a novella. Written in clean bright prose Hanne Ørstavik’s Love tells the story of a mother and her son on the eve of his ninth birthday, a milestone she’s forgotten and he’s convinced she’s secretly planning to celebrate. Over the course of a frigid Norwegian night – each of them outdoors, unbeknownst to the other – their paths will almost cross several times, both returning home to a day which will be far from what either of them might have anticipated. Altogether a very polished, powerful piece of writing, beautifully expressed.
And if I had to choose? That would be a challenge I’d rather not take, but if push comes to shove I’d have to plump for The Dutch House, The Jewel and Olive, Again, although don’t ask me to rank them. As ever, the trimming down to just twenty-four was a painful process, particularly dropping Faces on the Tip of my Tongue, Lot and Echoes of the City, all of which are superb. I hope your year has been as filled with literary excellence as mine.
Just one more review to come before devoting the rest of my posting year to looking forward, previewing some of the delights publishers have in store for us in January 2020. In the meantime, all the above titles link to a full review on this blog should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the first three instalments of 2019’s favourites they’re here, here and here.
What a joy to spot a new Elizabeth Strout in the publishing schedules and an even greater one to find that it’s about the irascible yet essentially warm-hearted Olive Kitteridge from Strout’s eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning book published in 2008. Olive, Again takes the same form as the original, comprising thirteen closely knit short stories in which Olive is often the central character, sometimes a co-star and occasionally a bit-player.
I like you, Olive… … I’m not sure why, really. But I do
Strout’s book opens with Jack Kennison, recently widowed and on his way to the next town to buy whiskey in order to avoid bumping in to Olive. Readers already acquainted with her might assume it’s to avoid her judgemental gaze but the tentative relationship between these two has stalled and Jack wants to spare them both embarrassment. As with Olive Kitteridge, Strout takes us into the lives and homes of several inhabitants of Crosby, Maine where Olive taught maths and lived with her husband, Henry, for decades. Olive is far from the most popular of Crosby’s residents. Apparently short on empathy and with no patience for modern social niceties such as baby showers, she’s unwavering in approaching the unapproachable, visiting a middle-aged woman who may be dying when her friends are too scared to face her. The very idea of Olive at a baby shower might well discombobulate those who’ve met her before but when a pregnant guest goes into labour it’s the no-nonsense Olive who saves the day. Her uncompromisingly brusque exterior hides a practical humanity and she’s generous in her honesty when she gets things wrong.
He would never have imagined it. The Olive-ness of her, the neediness of himself; never in his life would he have imagined that he would spend his final years with such a woman in such a way
Small details fill in Olive’s life for readers who’ve not read her first outing or those of us who can’t quite remember it all and are cursing ourselves for not finding the time for a reread. The sharp characterisation, dry humour, understated prose interspersed with occasional passages of quietly lyrical descriptive writing are all present and correct. Strout trusts her readers to infer and draw their own conclusions. Her themes are pleasingly familiar: small town life, loneliness, regret, love, the complications of human relationships, and ageing as unflinchingly explored as Olive would demand. Ordinary everyday day life is filled with events unremarkable to others but extraordinary to those who live through them. Epiphanies are had. Time passes. Olive grows old but not always alone. It’s a triumph. I’m deeply suspicious of sequels but delighted that Strout took me back to Crosby to meet Olive again. My hope is that Frances Mcdormand, who was such a thoroughly convincing Olive in HBO’s miniseries, is already practicing her lines.
Viking: London 2019 9780241374597 304 pages Hardback
I’m relieved to say there are sufficient attention-grabbing titles for a two-part November preview, although there’s no contest as to which one tops my list. As fans will already know, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again sees the return of Olive Kitteridge. Olive is both the star of the show and a bit player in these closely linked stories set in the small town of Crosby. The ‘spiky, obdurate and disarmingly human anti-heroine Olive Kitteridge [returns] for a fine chronicle of late love and generational division, set in the coastal Maine community that Strout has made her own’ promise the publishers and they are entirely right. Review to follow next month.
From a book by a thoroughly seasoned writer to a debut with Shannon Pufahl’s On Swift Horses set in 1950s San Diego where newlywed, Muriel, works as a waitress picking up tips from the denizens of the Del Mar racetrack but unwilling to split her winnings with her husband. It’s Lee’s brother who Muriel wants to share her good luck with but he’s patrolling the Las Vegas casinos where he meets and falls in love with Henry. ‘Through the parks and plazas of Tijuana and the bars and beaches of San Diego, On Swift Horses mesmerisingly charts the journeys of Muriel and Julius on their separate quests for freedom, new horizons and love’ say the publishers. Very much like the sound of this one.
Moving west, Daniel Handler’s Bottle Grove begins with a wedding in a forest followed by what sounds like a raucous party. ‘Set in San Francisco as the tech-boom is exploding, Bottle Grove is a sexy, skewering dark comedy about two unions–one forged of love and the other of greed–and about the forces that can drive couples together, into dependence, and then into sinister, even supernatural realms’ say the publishers. I’m a little worried about that mention of the supernatural but I like the setting and the promise further on in the blurb that everyone has a secret.
Parties are on the agenda in Binnie Kirshenbaum’s Rabbits for Food, which begins on New Year’s Eve when writer, Bunny, finally falls to pieces. Once admitted to a classy New York psychiatric hospital, Bunny refuses all meds and instead begins to write a novel about her fellow patients and what’s brought about her own breakdown. ‘Rabbits for Food shows how art can lead us out of-or into-the depths of disconsolate loneliness and piercing grief. A bravura literary performance from one of America’s finest writers’ according to the publishers. I have to admit I hadn’t heard of Kirshenbaum before but this does sound interesting.
I enjoyed Ben Lerner’s 10:04very much when I read it back in 2015 but didn’t get on at all well with Leaving the Atocha Station. The Topeka School is about Adam Gordon, a senior at Topeka High School in 1997, who seems to be good at just about everything but whose efforts to include the class loner end disastrously. ‘Deftly shifting perspectives and time periods, The Topeka School is a riveting story about the challenges of raising a good son in a culture of toxic masculinity. It is also a startling prehistory of the present: the collapse of public speech, the tyranny of trolls and the new right, and the ongoing crisis of identity among white men’ says the blurb which sounds extraordinarily ambitious to me.
I’m finish with a book by the only British author in the batch – Sara Hall’s collection, Sudden Traveller which comprises seven stories whose settings range from Turkey to Cumbria. ’Radical, charged with a transformative creative power, each of these stories opens channels in the human mind and spirit, as Sarah Hall once more invites the reader to stand at the very edge of our possible selves’ say the publishers rather grandly. Jon McGregor has sung her previous work’s praises as has David Mitchell and Jessie Burton. I think it’s about time I read some of her stories.
That’s it for the first part of November’s preview. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that’s snagged your attention. Part two soon…