Tag Archives: Significance

Books of the Year 2015: Part 4

Cover imageMy fourth and final selection begins with an award-winning novel. After differing with both the Baileys and the Man Booker judges I’ve finally found a set I can agree with: the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. Of course, they’d made their minds up in June and I only got around to reading Jo Mazelis’ utterly engrossing Significance in October. 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. By showing events from so many points of view, she draws her readers into a rich tapestry of interpretation and misinterpretation. A gripping first novel, thoroughly deserving of its prize.

October’s other treat was Zimbawean author Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory. Within the first brief paragraph, Gappah manages to hook you with both a grisly death and the announcement that Memory, our narrator, was sold to a strange man by her parents. She’s now on death row for the murder of Lloyd, the white man she went to live with when she was nine years old. Gappah teases out the threads of Memory’s past, slowly revealing her story, warning us that ‘It’s hard for the truth to emerge clearly from a twenty-year fog of distant memory’ then delivering a devastating denouement. A multitude of well-aimed barbs are shot at modern Zimbabwe, all served up with a helping of acerbic humour in the form of prison banter and Memory’s acidic wit.

We’re all over familiar with ‘dazzling debuts’, ‘stunning achievements’ and the like so that when a book comes along that is truly original, absolutely dazzling, those descriptions ring hollow. Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither comes into that category for me and two sets of literary judges agreed: it’s on the Costa First Novel shortlist and it won the Rooney Prize for Irish literature. It’s the story of fifty-seven-year-old Ray who on one of his weekly shopping trips spots a notice in the window of the local junk shop showing a dog as ugly as he thinks himself. Ray claims One Eye from the dog pound and soon the two are inseparable. Over the course of a year Ray tell his sad story to the only friend he’s ever had. As its title suggests, Baume’s novel is told in wonderfully poetic, sometimes musical language. She paints vividly gorgeous word pictures of the natural world, weaving observations of the changing seasons through Ray’s narrative. It’s the saddest of stories but without a hint of sentimentality.Cover image

My final choice is entirely different. Way back in the mid-‘90s, Jonathan Coe published What a Carve Up!, a wickedly funny satire on Thatcherism in which the Winshaw family had their fingers in a multitude of nasty pies. Twenty years later and they’re back. Beginning in 2003, Number 11 follows ten-year-old friends Rachel and Alison over a decade during which many of the roads they travel will lead back to the nefarious shenanigans of the Winshaws. Number 11 bears several familiar Coe trademarks: intricate plotting, comic misunderstanding and arcane film references. It’s a very funny novel but, as with all good satire, its subject is deadly serious: the ever more gaping divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Honourable mentions to Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last,  Jo Bloom’s Ridley Road, Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors and Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us.

And if I had to choose one? Impossible as ever – last year it was a three-way between Shotgun Lovesongs, With a Zero at its Heart and The Miniaturist. This year looks like a four-way between Weathering, A God in Ruins, Spill, Simmer, Falter Wither and The Mountain Can Wait.

That’s it for my reading year highlights. What about you? What are your 2015 favourites?

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.