Here we go again and in my middle-aged way I can’t believe it’s that time already. The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist is due to be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2015 and March 31st 2016 qualify for the award. It’s one of the few prizes I pay much attention to these days so I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to see listed. What follows is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. The most striking thing I’ve noticed while compiling the list is the number of excellent novels I’ve read by women published in 2016 – and it’s only February. I’ve followed the same format as last year, restricting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog for all but His Whole Life which I’ve read but not yet reviewed. So, in alphabetical order here’s my wish list for the 2016 Baileys Prize:
I’d like to think that a few of these are dead certs but long years of hoping that Kate Atkinson will be garlanded with every prize going has taught me that there’s no such thing. Others, like Merritt Tierce’s superb debut, are rank outsiders but as with dead certs you never can tell.
What about you? I’d love to know which books you’d like to see the Baileys judges plump for, dead certs or rank outsiders.
Anna Hope’s debut was one of those novels in the tidal wave of fiction set around the First World War back in 2014. Set in 1920, Wake stood out for me as being a cut above the others with its exploration of the way in which women’s lives had been affected by the war. I enjoyed it very much and was eager to read Hope’s next book, ever mindful of that tendency for second novels not to match excellent debuts. Thankfully, The Ballroom bucks that particular trend with its story of Ella and John, two inmates in an asylum, and the doctor who oversees their care over the course of 1911.
Charles Fuller has been employed more for his musical than his medical abilities. Sharston is run along progressive lines for its time. Its superintendent believes that a regime of self-sufficiency, gender segregation and music will help improve the mental health of his patients. Charles and his small band of musicians provide the accompaniment for the weekly dance in the beautiful ballroom on the only occasions that male and female inmates are allowed to meet. Ella has been newly admitted by Charles, having smashed a window in the mill that employed her as a spinner. Furious at her incarceration, she seems entirely sane soon realising that the only way to prove it is to keep her head down. Illiterate yet bright she strikes up a friendship with Clem a young woman of an entirely different class, committed by her family after her refusal to eat as a protest against their marriage plans for her. When finally picked for Friday’s dance, Ella feels awkward and clumsy but it is there that she meets John, admitted for ‘melancholia’ after the loss of his family and livelihood. When John learns of Ella’s yearning for freedom he offers to record what he sees in his work in the fields. These two find their way to a relationship which will have profound repercussions, not only for them but for Clem and Charles.
Hope alternates the narratives of these three characters, gradually unfolding their stories against a backdrop of national strikes, George V’s coronation and the genesis of what became the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act. Her descriptions of the asylum and its poor benighted inmates are both chilling and humane. Running through this compassionate novel is society’s perception of sanity and insanity, as relevant today as it was in 1911. Hope succeeds in engaging her readers’ sympathies for Charles whose initial embracing of the more progressive theories of his beloved Eugenics Society is eclipsed by his tortured personal experience until he’s brought to unthinkable actions. It took me a little while to find my way into The Ballroom despite its dramatic opening but once I had I found myself gripped by it, not to mention horrified at times – the Eugenics Society’s more moderate views felt uncomfortably close to today’s tabloids’ strident voices. It’s an engrossing novel, sobering in its revelation of the theories surrounding mental illness not so very long ago and made all the more so by the author’s note which tells us that it was ‘inspired by the true story of her Irish great-grandfather’.
Top of the list of my second batch of February books to look out for has to be Anna Hope’s The Ballroom. Her debut, Wake, was one of those novels in the tidal wave of fiction that dealt with the First World War and its aftermath back in 2014. I liked it very much and have hopes for this one which is set in the summer of 1911 in an asylum on the edge of the Yorkshire moors where men and women meet briefly once a week to dance. ‘A tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which’, according to the publishers. I suspect this one will be hyped to the skies but it may well live up to it, or close at least. Lovely jacket too – almost a match for the gorgeous Wake cover.
I’ve long been a fan of Julie Myerson’s fiction all the way back to Sleepwalking but the last one or two novels seemed a little formulaic to me. The synopsis of The Stopped Heart sounds as if it may well be in the same vein. A good deed to a stranger, a century ago, seems to have left its mark on the apparently idyllic cottage where a couple are trying to make a fresh start after the loss of their child. ‘The perfect place to forget. To move on. But in TheStopped Heart, the past never dies.’ say the publishers. Hmm… Not at all sure about that but once more for old time’s sake, I think.
At one stage I was convinced that Tim Parks had a huge alimony bill, either that or a substance abuse problem, so great was his output. It turned out to be neither as the happily married, sober Parks revealed in his moving memoir on his driven nature and inability to stop working, Teach Us to Sit Still. His new novel, Thomas and Mary,is about a long-married couple who are facing the prospect of separating. Billed as ‘a love story in reverse’ Parks’ novel chronicles Thomas and Mary’s marriage from its first heady days in what the publishers have described as ‘a fiercely intimate chronicle of a marriage’. Sounds quite appealing to me.
Entirely different, Sunil Yapa’s debut, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, is set in Seattle against the backdrop of the 1999 World Trade Organzation protest. Victor, the estranged son of Seattle’s police chief, finds himself homeless after a family tragedy. On a day that will see the city under siege from protesters, Victor and his father are set on a collision course. This one could go either way but it has an unusual setting and that’s an eye-catching title.
I’ve seen Paraic O’Donnell’s The Maker of Swans talked about on Twitter – not always a good thing – but a striking jacket and an intriguing synopsis has piqued my interest. Once a man of note with extraordinary gifts, Mr Crowe has given himself over to earthly pleasures, living in faded grandeur with his ward, Clara, and his manservant. When he commits a crime of passion he draws the attention of the head of the secret society to which he belongs, attention that’s soon diverted to Clara who, it seems, may be able to save them all. Sounds like it might be just the ticket for long dark evenings, if done well.
That’s it for February. Lots of reasons to wrap up warm and stay inside. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis and If you’d like to catch up with the first set of February titles they’re here. First batch of paperbacks next week.