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.
Another very tasty batch of paperback treats to keep the dreary British winter at bay, kicking off with a writer who seems very underrated to me. Christine Dwyer Hickey’s The Lives of Women tells the story of Elaine who has come back to Ireland where her widowed father is wheelchair-bound after surgery. She’s lived in New York since she was sixteen but this is only her second visit home. Hickey slowly unfolds the tale of what lies behind Elaine’s long absence as she looks back to the 1970s and the tragedy that overshadowed her last Irish summer. Dwyer’s writing is quite beautiful – spare yet lyrical. If you haven’t yet read anything by her I hope you’ll give this one a try.
Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days tells the story of another woman looking back to a summer in the ‘70s but is entirely different. Peggy is the daughter of a German concert pianist and an English man. Ute is about to go on tour for the first time in many years while James and his North London Retreater friends play at being survivalists. After a murderous row with one of them, James tells Peggy that they are off on holiday to ‘die Hütte’ where Ute will meet them later. After a summer of repairing the derelict hut James delivers some devastating news: the rest of the world has been destroyed. It’s a wonderfully inventive, very powerful novel. I gather that Fuller has a new one in the works, to be published late 2016/early 2017. A treat to look forward to.
Judith Claire Mitchell’s A Reunion of Ghostsis another tale of a supremely dysfunctional family written in the form of a memoir which is to be the suicide note of the remaining Alters. Lady, Vee and Delph have grown up imbued with the knowledge of the family curse. Their great-grandfather Lenz first synthesised chlorine gas, used in the First World War. Both he and his wife Iris committed suicide, as did their son Richard unable to live with the misery of guilt by association. The third generation continued the family tradition. Now it’s the turn of the fourth then something entirely unexpected happens. Not to everyone’s taste, I suspect, but I thoroughly enjoyed this funny, irreverent novel.
I’m looking forward to Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations set several years on from 2001. Anne, once a documentary photographer, meets her beloved grandson, a captain with the Royal Western Fusiliers and fresh from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Both have secrets which begin to emerge, taking them on a journey back to the old Blackpool guesthouse where Anne once had a room. I haven’t read an O’Hagan for some time but this one sounds interesting.
I’m not at all sure about this last choice: T. Geronimo Johnson’s Welcome to Braggsville. The Washington Post called it ‘The most dazzling, most unsettling, most oh-my-God-listen-up novel you’ll read this year’ but it’s a book which I suspect will resonate much more with American readers than with British. When D’aron Davenport inadvertently reveals that his small Southern town plays host to a Civil War Reenactment every year, his liberal fellow students see red and descend on Braggsville to stage a dramatic protest. ‘A literary coming-of-age novel for a new generation, written with keen wit, tremendous social insight and a unique, generous heart, Welcome to Braggsville reminds us of the promise and perils of youthful exuberance, while painting an indelible portrait of contemporary America.’ say the publishers. Certainly worth investigating.
Quite an embarrassment of riches for January, in all. As ever, if you’d like more detail a click on the first three will take you to my review and to Waterstones website for the second two. If you’d like to catch up with the first batch of paperbacks they’re here, and the hardbacks are here and here.
That’s it from me for a week or so. A very happy Christmas to you all. I hope it will bring you a least something that you’d like, be it a book, time with family and friends or perhaps a little to yourself.
This second batch of 2015 goodies covers April and May, and is made up entirely of women writers. No plan there – just the way this particular cookie crumbled. I’ll begin with The Shore, Sara Taylor’s beautifully packaged debut which appeared on both the Baileys longlist and the newly resurrected Sunday Times/ Peters Fraser Dunlop award shortlist. Taylor’s novel is made up of a set of interconnecting stories spanning a century and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of three small islands off the coast of Virginia. The Shore is the name given to the islands, all within a stone’s throw of each other, and the novel focuses on the two families who dominate them – one impoverished the other prosperous – both intertwined through marriage. Taylor’s writing is striking, her characters believable and her storytelling entrancing. Can’t say better than that.
My second April book is Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, commissioned as part of an exhibition by the Mexican juice factory that appears in the novel. Inspired by the nineteenth-century Cuban practice of employing a ‘tobacco reader’ who read to the workers to relieve their boredom, Luiselli arranged for her fiction to be read to the juice factory workers in instalments, incorporating their suggestions into the next episode just as Dickens did with his serialised novels. Ostensibly the somewhat outlandish story of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, aka Highway, who has one aim in life – the perfect set of gnashers – the novel’s really about the art of storytelling. Often witty and fantastical, it’s a brilliantly original piece of work and translator Christina MacSweeney’s Chronologic is a wonderful finishing touch, putting Highway’s life into context and illuminating his many allusions.
Christine Dwyer Hickey is the kind of author about whom there’s not a great deal of brouhaha – no fanfare of Twitter trumpets heralding her next novel or drip feed of showy publicity – which in some ways is a relief and in others a shame. I’m not sure she has the readership she deserves. Written in precise, quiet and unshowy prose The Lives of Women, follows Elaine, back from the States on her first visit home in many years, as she remembers the summer back in the ‘70s which has shaped her adult life. The story’s an old one – and sad – but told with great skill and the hope of redemption. If you’ve not yet come across Hickey, I hope you’ll try one of her books. I rate her enough to have included her on my Man Booker wish list but, as with the Baileys, the judges failed to agree with me.
A God in Ruins has recently made its way on to the Costa shortlist, although for the life of me I fail to understand why it wasn’t on the Man Booker longlist at the very least. It was the one title I’d have bet my shirt on. Beginning in 1925, it’s the story of Teddy, brother of Ursula Todd whose many lives were lived in Life After Life. In her author’s note Atkinson says she likes ‘to think of it as a “companion” piece rather than a sequel’ and indeed that’s how it reads. Atkinson flashes forward and back seamlessly, deftly tossing observations from the future, literary allusions, thoughts on nature, riffs on trivia such as the unthinking cruelty of parents when naming their children, into her narrative and stitching it all together beautifully. It’s a wonder from beginning to its intensely moving end.
I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here – or perhaps proving my incompetence as a literary prize judge, not that I’m likely to become one – but here’s yet another novel that appeared on my Man Booker wish list but not on theirs. The Mountain Can Wait is sad story of Tom Berry and his son who has knocked down a young woman in the early hours after a party then fled. Sarah Leipciger’s writing is remarkable: she’s nailed that stripped-down, spare simplicity which conveys so much in a single phrase, and she’s a mistress of ‘show not tell’. The sense of place is strikingly vivid: in just a few words she made me feel that I was striding around the Canadian bush. It’s a beautifully expressed novel, one of the finest debuts I’ve read this year.
Rounding off this second selection is Jane Smiley’s Early Warning, the second instalment of her The Last Hundred Years Trilogy which reflects the twists and turns in America’s fortunes from 1920 until an imagined 2020 through an Iowan farming family. The first part,Some Luck, made it on to last year’s books of the year posts for me – and many others – so I was looking forward to seeing what happens to the Langdons next. It opens in 1953 with a funeral neatly passing the baton on to the next generation and finishes in 1986 with a revelation which offers another pleasing twist in the lives of the family. Published here in the UK in October, Golden Age completed the trilogy, and suffice to say it’s the equal of the other two.
That’s it for the second selection. A click on a title will take you to my review and if you’d like to catch up with the first post, it’s here. More to follow shortly when yet another Man Booker unfulfilled wish will be aired.
Just before last year’s Man Booker prize winner announcement I wrote a rather disenchanted post about it so you might think that I’ve cast off my world weariness, given the title above. Not entirely, I’m afraid, but I did have to think about it when the lovely people over at Shiny New Books asked if I’d like to contribute a few punts for this year’s longlist. They only wanted two or three, but it got me thinking about other titles that I’d like to see longlisted. I’ve restricted myself to books that I’ve read and like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Theirs will be revealed on Wednesday 29th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions – in no particular order, with links to my reviews:
I’ve been pipped to the post on this by Jackie over at Farm Lane Books whose format I’ve stolen, not for the first time. Interestingly we only overlap on two although if I’d read Anne Enright’s The Green Road I’m pretty sure it would have appeared here. And if you’d like to see which of the above I came up with for the Shinies plus other contributors’ hopes here they are. Let me know which titles you fancy for this year.
Christine Dwyer Hickey is the kind of author about whom there’s not a great deal of brouhaha – no fanfare of Twitter trumpets heralding her next novel or drip feed of showy publicity – which in some ways is a relief and in others a shame. I’m not sure how many readers are acquainted with her quiet, measured prose although the jacket of her latest novel suggests that Last Train from Liguria was a bestseller. I’d like to think that was the case and that The Lives of Women, with its long, slow reveal of a tragedy and the shadow it casts, will meet with similar success. It certainly deserves to.
Elaine has come back to Ireland where her widowed father is wheelchair-bound after surgery. Nearly fifty, she’s lived in New York since she was sixteen but this is only her second visit home. One day, up in the attic exploring a leak, she spots workmen in the old Shillman house and is catapulted back to the summer in the ‘70s which triggered her departure. Along with several other families, Elaine lived with her anxious, over protective mother and her silent, aloof father on the small middle-class estate to which she’s returned. A little diffident and recuperating from a virus at the beginning of the summer, Elaine looked forward to gossipy visits from her best friend Agatha. While Elaine was in hospital her lonely mother had become friends with Mrs Shillman, acquiring a drink habit into the bargain. The arrival of Serena and her daughter Patty with their odd American ways added spice to the lives of the estate’s bored housewives. Serena befriended their teenage daughters, overseeing them with a liberal hand. As the summer wore on, the teenagers did what teenagers do while the women drank and socialised. Towards its end a tragedy played out which affected all who had a part in it, Elaine most of all.
Hickey alternates her narrative between the first-person present day and the third-person ‘70s, emphasising the distance Elaine has put between herself and the summer which shaped the rest of her life. Her writing is precise, quiet and unshowy, making it all the more striking: ‘On a ship babies and women always come first, in the suburbs, they always, always come last’ perfectly describes the departure of the men to their important lives leaving the women at home with little to do. Hickey takes her time revealing the summer’s events, leaking small details, occasionally springing larger surprises as if Elaine is circling the facts until she can face them. It’s all beautifully done: when the event itself is reached it’s hardly a surprise but that isn’t the point. The story is an old one – and sad – but told with great skill and the hope of redemption. If you’ve not yet come across Hickey, I hope you’ll try one of her books. She’s well worth your time.
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!