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.
One of the best commercial novels I read last year was Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us. It explores the idea that our lives are shaped by chance and random acts as much as by the choices we make, following three possible lives for a couple who meet when they’re nineteen. I loved the idea and, for me, Barnett’s debut more than delivered the goods. Elizabeth Baines’ short story collection inhabits similar territory, niftily overturning apparent certainties, often in a series of small revelations and delivering the occasional killer punch.
The opening eponymous story sets the tone nicely as our panicky narrator watches several versions of her own life fly by while listening to the stories of a driver who seems more intent on telling them than keeping her eye on the road. With its many references to plot and character, ‘Used to Be’ read to me like a riff on writing and the many turns a story can take in a writer’s imagination. Ambiguity and misinterpretation abound in these stories. In ‘That Turbulent Stillness’ a passionate young woman, caught up in the idea of a romantic life with a handsome young man from the wrong side of the tracks, suddenly realises she doesn’t understand him at all. ‘Looking for the Castle’ sees a woman reluctantly revisiting her unhappy childhood only to find that her memory of it doesn’t quite match its reality while the strained relationship between two sisters has been stretched to breaking point by the secret one has kept from the other in ‘Clarrie and You’.
The second part of the collection kicks off with ‘Possibility’, an ambitiously structured story that switches between three very different passengers on a train, exploring the way each deals with the tragedy that befalls it. It’s a story that could easily have fallen on its face but each character’s distinctive voice coupled with the vivid immediacy of Baines’ writing carries it right through to its chilling conclusion. Endings are a bit of a feature of this second section: ‘Falling’ sees a young woman fall twice, each one changing her life, then a third time at which point Baines neatly pulls the rug from underneath her readers’ own feet; ‘The Choice Chamber’ follows two choices a young woman might have made only to have you puzzling over its ending which made me smile but which I’m still not sure about. As with its first, the collection’s final story, ‘Tides or How Stories Don’t Get Told’, strongly echoes the central theme as a woman reflects on her life thinking that her schooldays ‘can be a jovial realist tale or a misery memoir, depending on my mood’. There are several quotations I could have picked in which Baines neatly sums up her theme but here’s my favourite: ‘your life might go one way, or a completely different other’. Most of us like the idea of certainty – it makes us feel safe – but as this thoughtful collection reminds us there’s precious little of it in life, although sometimes – as in fiction – that makes it more interesting.
That’s it from me for a week. I’m off to Vienna later today where I will try not to eat too much cake but will probably fail.
My 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.
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 11follows 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.
Despite the uncertainty of the weather here in the UK I seem to have veered off into summer reading territory this week with the previous post on The Sunlit Night and now this one. Laura Barnett’s new novel stands out a mile in the publishing schedules as that precious thing: a strong commercial novel, cleverly put together with an intriguing structure and a cast of nicely rounded characters. It explores that old Sliding Doors idea of the role chance plays in out lives unfolding three different versions of the possible lives led by Eva and Jim who meet – or don’t meet – in Cambridge, aged nineteen.
Eva cycles along the Backs early one morning in 1958. She’s in a tearing hurry, late for a supervision, when she swerves to avoid a small dog. A young man walking in the opposite direction stops to help with the ensuing puncture/sprained ankle/registers her wobble as she collects herself having successfully avoided the dog. From each of these three possibilities, Barnett spins a story with varying degrees of involvement between Eva and Jim. Marriages, children, friends, lovers, work, joy and sorrow – all vary in their permutations throughout the three versions but the connection between Eva and Jim remains a constant in one form or another as we follow them from that morning in 1958 to 2014 when the novel ends with another much more significant event that pulls together all three narratives.
It’s a daring structure for any novel let alone a debut and could easily have turned into a clunky exercise in creative writing but Barnett manages to keep all her plates spinning nicely. The chapters are short, clearly labelled with the version and date which you’ll need to keep track. At first it felt too much like hard work but once you let go of that straining after what was said and who was who in each version’s instalment it becomes thoroughly engrossing, exerting an insistent pull to see what happens next in each interpretation of Eva and Jim’s stories. There are constants threaded through – Jim’s artistic talent, fulfilled or frustrated as is Eva’s writing; Jim’s mother’s bipolarity; overlapping friendships and acquaintances – but other than that it’s the bumpy ride of life and its many side routes that Barnett explores with insight and compassion. The whole concept is beautifully illustrated by Jim’s eponymous triptych which shows small variations on the same theme dismissed by his partner as ‘Like a Spot the Difference’ but for him it’s about ‘the many roads not taken, the many lives not lived’. Those of us who accept the randomness of chance have all had our ‘what if’ moments and I’m sure it must have been explored before in fiction but I can’t think of anything quite like The Versions of Us off the top of my head. Do let me know if any occur to you.
Quite a mixed bunch for this second batch of June goodies. I’ll start off with what is probably my most commercial choice as we edge towards summer reading: Laura Barnett’s enticing sounding The Versions of Us which explores that old Sliding Doors idea of the role chance plays in our lives. It unfolds three different versions of the possible lives led by Eva and Jim who meet in Cambridge in 1958, aged nineteen. Each version hinges on a pivotal moment, a snap decision or random event. I like the sound of this very much – if handled deftly it could well be an excellent summer read.
Will Cohu’s Nothing But Grass doesn’t sound like the cheeriest of reads but it has the elements of an absorbing novel. Set in a small village riven with dark secrets – always the best kind – it begins with the murder of one workmate by another seemingly for no other reason than a fit of irritation. It’s a ‘portrait of a tarnished Albion’, apparently, with a strong vein of dark humour running through it. Cohu is the author of The Wolf Pit, an exploration of his rural childhood. This is his first novel – let’s hope it’s not autobiographical, too.
Sophie McManus‘ The Unfortunatessounds like the kind of absorbing summer read you can sink into and forget about everything else. It’s about the wealthy Somners who face a difficult future, both financial and otherwise, as the matriarch of the family wastes away from a rare disease and her son goes to the bad. It’s described as ‘a rollicking wide-ranging story – of pharmaceutical drug trials and Wall Street corruption; of pride and prejudice, of paranoia and office politics, of inheritance, influence, class, power.’ I’m looking forward to some comeuppance, in fiction, at least, if not in real life.
Tod Wodicka’s The Household Spirit sounds like a bit of light relief after that. Howie and Emily have been neighbours in upstate New York since Emily was born. Each is very different from the other: Emily is outgoing and irreverent while the desperately shy Howie has been a recluse since his wife and daughter moved out. He’s a little worried about Emily who seems to have taken to gardening at night. What to do? Lifelong neighbours they may be but they’ve never exchanged a word. It’s described as a ‘poignant, big-hearted, and often humorous novel’ which might mean horribly sentimental but the premise is intriguing enough to give it a try.
Gerbrand Bakker’s an author I’ve been meaning to get around to for some time. June, his appropriately named new novel, is set over the course of one hot summer’s day in 1969 when all are gathered to greet Queen Juliana apart from Anna Kaan and her little daughter, Hanne, who arrive just as the Queen is about to leave. The queen graciously acknowledges them both – a golden day, then, but later Hanne is knocked down by a speeding baker’s van. The novel explores the effects of tragedy on both the family and its community.
Finally, Jean-Paul Didierlaurent’s The Reader on the 6.27 has been described as ‘Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore meets Amelie’ which could either mean that it’s wonderful or overly whimsical tosh but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Guylain hates his job at a book pulping factory, consoling himself every day with reading aloud the pages he’s saved from the pulping machine on the 6.27 train. When he discovers the diary of a young woman who seems as lonely as he is, he begins to fall in love. See what I mean about the possibility of whimsical tosh? We’ll see. It’s published under the usually reliable Mantle imprint so I’m willing to give it a try.
That’s it for June. If you missed part one you can catch up here, and a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis at Waterstones website should you be interested.