The longlist for my favourite UK literary award, The Women’s Prize for Fiction, is due to be announced next Monday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2018 and March 31st 2019 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in predicting what took the judges fancy but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. I’ve followed the same format as previous years, limiting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog. So, in no particular order here’s my wish list for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction:
Several of my favourite writers are listed here – Kate Atkinson, Amy Bloom, Siri Hustvedt, Georgina Harding – but I’d be delighted if any one of these fifteen snags the judges’ attention. We’ll see. Any titles that you’d love to see on the judges’ list?
That’s it from me for a few days. We’re off for what could be our last weekend as European citizens abroad. I may need tissues. Back next week to tell you all about it.
There’s an embarrassment of paperback riches in March, several of which were among my books of 2018. This first batch begins in the ‘30s with Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley about a young woman who turns up in the village of Elmbourne and inveigles herself into the affections of a vulnerable fourteen-year-old girl. Naïve yet intelligent, Edie’s flattered by Constance’s attentions but not savvy enough to examine her motives. Harrison sets her novel against a febrile background: suspicion of change, economic hardship and fear of the other leave Elmbourne prey to the shadowy forces of fascism gathering throughout Europe. As with all of Harrison’s novels, there’s a plethora of gorgeous descriptive passages to enjoy.
Kate Atkinson’s Transcription follows Juliet Armstrong who finds herself caught up in the machinations of MI5, far beyond the mundane transcriptions she’s recruited to produce in 1940. Atkinson is a masterful storyteller, whipping the carpet from beneath her readers’ feet several times during Juliet’s journey through the Secret Service’s labyrinthine corridors. As ever, there’s a good deal of dry, playful wit to enjoy but some serious points are made about idealism and national interest. Engrossing storytelling, engaging characters, sharp observation and sly humour – all those sky-high expectations that greet the announcement of any new Atkinson novel were met for me. And there’s another Atkinson in the offing this year: Big Sky, a Jackson Brodie novel. Hurrah!
Amy Bloom’s White Houses is also set in the ‘40s. Spanning a weekend in April 1945, shortly after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, it tells the story of his wife Eleanor and Lorena Hickok, the woman who joined them in the White House and with whom Eleanor had a long and passionate affair. Bloom narrates this elegantly spare novella through Hick’s dry, earthy sometimes humorous voice, painting a picture of ‘30s and early ’40s America through the lens of her experience. It’s an extraordinarily intimate portrait, both of the two women and of Roosevelt’s presidency. I’ve yet to read anything by Bloom I’ve not loved. Her writing is both deft and empathetic, pressing all my literary buttons. Such a cool jacket for the paperback edition, too.
Set just over a year before the attack on Pearl Harbour pulled the United States into World War Two, Louise Levene’s Happy Little Bluebirds keeps us in the ‘40s. Multilingual Evelyn is pulled out of Postal Censorship and sent to Hollywood to assist a British agent who needs a translator but when she gets there HP – Saucy to his friends – has bunked off. Like all the best satire, serious points are made: the constant hum of casual racism, the contrast between the largesse of Hollywood life and the austerity of wartime Britain are all slipped into the narrative. That said, Levene’s novel is a thoroughly enjoyable romp and the ending is all you’d expect from Hollywood.
Set in the early ’90s, Elaine Castillo’s America is Not the Heart is about a Filipino community in California, and I’m ashamed to say that before I read it I knew next to nothing about the Philippines’ troubled history. Castillo explores that history through the story of Hero who comes to live with her uncle and aunt after being released from a prison camp, finding a second home with Rosalyn who knows nothing but the city of Milpitas where she lives. Castillo’s novel wasn’t without flaws for me – I could have done with a glossary – but it’s both entertaining and enlightening.
I’m ending this first batch of paperbacks with Sam Byers’ Perfidious Albion, set in the near future, which I’ve yet to read but which will no doubt depress me. Set in a small English town, post-Brexit, it depicts a country in the grips of fear and loathing thanks to a few opinions aired too stridently, political extremism on the rise and the revelation of secrets threatened. ‘Smart, satirical and honed to frightening acuity, Sam Byers’s writing offers up a black mirror to Britain post-Brexit in this frighteningly believable and knowingly off-kilter state-of-the nation novel’ say the publishers. I do love a state-of-the-nation novel but given the state of my particular nation I may just put my head in the sand although humour is promised, presumably of the dark variety.
That’s it for the first selection of March paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my reviews for the first five and to a more detailed synopsis for the last one. If you’d like to catch up with March’s new titles, they’re here and here. Second paperback instalment soon…
This instalment leapfrogs over June, much of which was spent on a lengthy railway jaunt which took me from Amsterdam to Warsaw. July saw the start of a long and lovely British summer, and two excellent debuts beginning with Jen Beagin’s smart, funny, Pretend I’m Dead, about twenty-four-year-old Mona who cleans houses for a living, falls hard for a junkie who disappears then takes herself off to Taos. Nothing much happens in Beagin’s novel: it’s all about the characters, not least Mona from whose sharply sardonic perspective the novel unfolds. Little bombs are dropped into the narrative revealing a childhood that has led her to jump to dark conclusions about her clients. There are some great slapstick moments and it’s stuffed with pithy one-liners. I loved this novel with its dark, witty and confident writing. Can’t wait to see what Beagin comes up with next.
Sonia Zinovieff’s Putney also explores the fallout of childhood abuse through Ralph who’s aroused by Daphne’s boyish beauty when she is nine and he is twenty-seven. It’s the ’70s and Daphne is the child of bohemian parents caught up in their own affairs, looking anywhere but at what is happening under their noses. Forty years later, Ralph is oblivious to Daphne’s chaotic, rackety life while she works on a collage commemorating her time with him in a flat a mere stone’s throw away from her childhood home. This subject could so easily have been mishandled. Salacious details, stereotypical characters, black and white judgements – it’s a minefield but Zinovieff explores her subject with consummate skill in a thoroughly accomplished novel, both thought-provoking and absorbing. I take my hat off to its author for tackling such a tricky subject with compassion and intelligence.
August got off to a much more lighthearted start with Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage which tells the story of Mattie, once met never forgotten, picking it up in 1928, ten years after British women who met a property qualification were enfranchised. For many in the women’s suffrage movement the battle’s over but not for Mattie. Evans’ novel is an absolute treat. Her story romps along replete with period detail, wearing its historical veracity lightly while exploring themes of social justice with wit, humour and compassion. For those of us struggling with the current political climate, Old Baggage is a happy reminder that things can get better.
Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley could be said to be a counterweight to that hope. Set in the early ‘30s it’s about a young woman who turns up in the village of Elmbourne and inveigles herself into the affections of a vulnerable fourteen-year-old girl. Naïve yet intelligent, Edie’s flattered by Constance’s attentions but not savvy enough to examine her motives. Constance’s romantic views of the countryside reveal a nostalgia for a world that never existed rather than concern for those who live there. Harrison sets her novel against a febrile background: suspicion of change, economic hardship and fear of the other leave Elmbourne prey to the shadowy forces of fascism gathering throughout Europe. As with all of Harrison’s novels, there’s a plethora of gorgeous descriptive passages to enjoy.
September began with a novel that I’d have to had to find a hat to eat had I not enjoyed it. Kate Atkinson’s Transcription follows Juliet Armstrong who finds herself caught up in the machinations of MI5, far beyond the mundane transcriptions she’s recruited to produce in 1940. Atkinson is a masterful storyteller, whipping the carpet from underneath her readers’ feet several times during Juliet’s journey through the labyrinthine corridors of MI5. As ever, there’s a good deal of dry, playful wit to enjoy but some serious points are made about idealism and national interest some of which rang loud contemporary bells for me. Engrossing storytelling, engaging characters, sharp observation and sly humour – all those sky-high expectations that greet the announcement of any new Atkinson novel were more than met for me. Bring on all the prizes.
You’d think I might end on that high note but there’s one more September title: Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall is a powerful exploration of controlling violence and its consequences, all wrapped up in a tense, atmospheric piece of storytelling. Together with three students and their professor, seventeen-year-old Sylvie and her parents, Bill and Alison, spend the summer living as Ancient Britons in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall. Bill’s menacing control of both Sylvie and Alison pervades the book offset with a degree of waspish humour and gloriously evocative descriptions of the summer landscape. The climax is horrifying: hard to read yet impossible to tear yourself away from it. Another in the succession of novellas that have so impressed me.
That’s the end of summer which I found particularly hard to let go this year although autumn put on a pretty good show, both for weather and books.
All links are to my reviews on this blog. If you’d like to catch up with the first two books of the year posts they’re here and here. And for those of you who’re flagging, it’s the home straight on Monday.
Regular readers will know that I’m an ardent Kate Atkinson fan, always keen to put her novels at the front of any queue for literary prizes although more often than not left discombobulated by the judges’ seeming determination not to hand them over. Perhaps Transcription will buck that trend although it was conspicuous by its absence from the Man Booker longlist. It follows Juliet Armstrong who finds herself caught up in the machinations of MI5, far beyond the mundane transcriptions she’s recruited to produce in 1940.
Eighteen-year-old Juliet is a bright young woman plucked from her dull government department job and given what appears to be a similarily prosaic task by MI5: transcribing conversations between Godfrey Toby, posing as a Gestapo agent, and a collection of disgruntled fifth columnists, pleased with themselves at being singled out. Juliet proves adept at her work, her only frustration the puzzling behaviour of her boss, Perry, who seems bent on little more than hand-holding and dry pecks rather than the seduction she’d welcome. Soon, Juliet graduates to full-blown spying in an operation to infiltrate a far more influential ring of Nazi sympathisers than the everyday anti-Semites who meet with Godfrey in Dolphin Square. Flush with success, although chastened by the consequences of overreaching herself, Juliet and the rest of Godfrey’s team continue with Dolly and co until their cover is blown with disastrous results. Ten years later, Juliet is working at the BBC when she spots Godfrey who refuses to acknowledge her. Resurrecting her old spying skills, Juliet becomes embroiled in paranoid speculation as all sorts of faces from the past pop up. Things may not be entirely what they seem, including Juliet.
Transcription switches between 1940 and 1950, telling Juliet’s story from her own perspective. Atkinson is a masterful storyteller, whipping the carpet from underneath her readers several times during Juliet’s journey through the labyrinthine corridors of MI5. Even the apparently straightforward ending is ambiguous given the convolutions that have come before.
‘Oh, my dear Juliet,’ he laughed. ‘One is never free. It’s never finished.’
As ever, with Atkinson there’s a good deal of dry, playful wit to enjoy, particularly in Juliet’s observations of Perry:
A girl could die of old age following a metaphor like this, Juliet thought. ‘Very nicely put, sir’ she said.
‘You were missed.’ (Oh, be still, my beating heart, she thought.) ‘No one makes as good a pot of tea as you do, Miss Armstrong.’
Comedy aside, Transcription has some serious points to make about idealism and national interest some of which rang loud contemporary bells for me. Engrossing storytelling, engaging characters, sharp observation and sly humour – all those sky-high expectations that greet the announcement of any new Atkinson novel were more than met for me. I loved it. Bring on all the prizes.
My heart sings with joy at the prospect of several books in September’s publishing schedules. You’ve probably already heard of at least one of them: Kate Atkinson’s Transcription whose announcement made my literary year. Wartime spy, Juliet Armstrong, has moved on from MI5 to the BBC ten years after she was recruited in 1940 but finds herself confronted with her past. ‘A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence. Transcription is a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy’ say the publishers and, having already read it, I’d say they’re right. Still mystified as to why Atkinson didn’t win all the prizes for A God in Ruins.
Hard to follow that, I know, but I’ve learned to prick up my ears when a new Sarah Moss is announced. In Ghost Wall, Sylvie is spending the summer with her parents in a Northumberland hut where her father is intent on re-enacting Iron Age life. ‘Haunting Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a young woman sacrificed by those closest to her, and the landscape both keeps and reveals the secrets of past violence and ritual as the summer builds to its harrowing climax’ say the publishers which sounds a world away from Bodies of Light and The Tidal Zone.
Sally Rooney’s quietly addictive Conversations with Friends was a surprise inclusion on my 2017 books of the year list. The more I read it the more it grew on me. Her new novel, Normal People, follows Connell and Marianne, both from the same small town but from very different backgrounds, who win places at Trinity College Dublin. ‘This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel’ say the publishers promisingly.
Nihad Sirees’ States of Passion sees a Syrian bureaucrat seeking shelter in an old mansion where he hears stories of an all-female society, passions and subterfuge set against the backdrop of the golden age of Aleppo. ‘Sirees spins astonishing literary beauty out of this tangled web of family secrets, and he writes with great humour and warmth about the conflict between past and present in this surprising and unique novel about a lost world’ according to the publishers.
Catherine Lacey’s second novel, The Answers, came with Margaret Atwood’s seal of approval which must be both a blessing and a curse for an author, setting the bar a tad high. She’s followed it with Certain American States, a collection of twelve short stories which explore loss and longing, apparently. The Answers was stuffed full of smart writing so I’m hoping for the same with this collection although perhaps not the caustic humour given those themes.
That’s it for the first batch of September’s goodies. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have caught your eye. Part two also anticipates some stonkingly good titles although perhaps none to equal Transcription…
Almost time for the 2018 Man Booker judges to announce their longlist to readers, not to mention publishers, waiting with bated breath to see if their favourites are amongst the chosen few. This year’s a special one. As I’m sure you all know, It’s the prize’s fiftieth anniversary which has been celebrated with a string of events, culminating in the coronation of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient as the Golden Man Booker ten days ago. There’s also been a little celebration over at Shiny New Books where contributors have been writing about their own favourites.
Regular readers will know that any similarity between my wish list and the 2018 Man Booker judges’ longlist is likely to be entirely coincidental. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2017 and 30th September 2018 and have been written in English. Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Their list will be revealed on Tuesday 24th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order, with links to my reviews.
It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here published before 30th September – I’m reasonably sure that Patrick deWitt’s French Exit would make my cut and William Boyd’s Love is Blind is due in September– but I’m sticking to novels I’ve read. And if I had to choose one? That would be Kate Atkinson’s Transcription but no doubt the judges will disagree with me on that yet again.
What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?