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Significance by Jo Mazelis: A Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize 2015 winner

Cover imageFiction Uncovered was set up in 2011 with the aim of promoting British writing. Last year with the support of a charitable foundation it became the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize.  It’s an unusual award in that there are eight winners including, this year, Jo Mazelis’s Significance. I’m more than a little late to the party with this one – the winners were announced back in June – but I’m glad I finally turned up. With its intricate plotting and many-layered narrative Significance turns out to be completely engrossing.

Unhappy in her relationship, Lucy has reinvented herself and run away to France. She’s booked into a hotel but is drawn back to the restaurant in a nearby small town she visited on her first evening. When she sees a young man on the pavement outside staring fixedly ahead she decides to investigate. He’s unresponsive and she learns from the man’s brother that he’s mentally disabled. Uncharacteristically, Lucy follows the brother to a bar where their overheard exchange startles an elderly English couple. Lucy moves on to another bar, unsettled at finding herself the only woman in the place. A little the worse for wear, she drops her cardigan in the street without noticing it. A young black man spots it and runs after her. Hearing footsteps, she dodges into an alley. Knowing that he’s frightened her, he decides to leave the cardigan spread on a bush outside the bar. Each of the many seemingly inconsequential acts leading up to Lucy’s death is observed by someone, all of whom are convinced their own version of events is correct. There’s a crime but this isn’t a crime novel: it’s a study in human nature and the way we interact and observe each other.

Mazelis leads us down a multitude of cul-de-sacs and wrong turnings, filling in the back stories of each of her characters no matter how peripheral they might appear. Given my predilection for pared back prose, you’d think this would be the kiss of death for me but patience pays off with this novel. By showing events from so many points of view and telling us her characters’ stories, Mazelis draws her readers into a rich tapestry of interpretation and misinterpretation. Her characters are sharply observed. They engage in internal debates on all manner of things from feminism to art. Assumptions are made by one character about another’s behaviour only to be proved entirely wrong when seen from the other point of view. It’s all beautifully done. Hints and clues are scattered through the novel – often red herrings – but when we do finally learn the killer’s identity it’s delivered almost in an aside. By then it’s hardly the point – the lives of Mazelis’ characters are so involving that it’s what happens to them that matters. The ending is suitably ambiguous, open to interpretation. A gripping first novel, thoroughly deserving of its prize, and there are still seven other winners to explore.