CategoryJones Cynan

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘The Edge of the Shoal’ by Cynan Jones

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

loved Cynan Jones’s 2014 novel The Dig, found it vivid and unflinching. I was hoping for something similar from ‘The Edge of the Shoal’ (a story drawn from Jones’s most recent novel, Cove). I wasn’t disappointed.

The unnamed protagonist of Jones’s tale is in a kayak off the coast, catching fish and about to scatter his father’s ashes, when something goes terribly wrong. After that, his goal is to reach land. It can be summarised succinctly, but the experience of it is so much richer, thanks to Jones’s pin-sharp description and a prose that breaks apart and re-forms like waves on the sea.

What I’ve written there feels at once inadequate and just enough to capture it. ‘The Edge of the Shoal’ is simply that kind of story. 

Listen to a reading of ‘The Edge of the Shoal’. 

My favourite books read in 2014

As I write this, I’ve read 158 books in 2014, which is probably a record for me, and certainly more than I intended. I’ve already talked on the blog about taking stock of my approach to reading; I have been thinking about that further, and you’ll see some changes fairly soon. But let’s wrap up this year first.

2014 was going to be the year when I read more translations, which I did; though I didn’t manage to stick to the elaborate plan I had. I may as well report back on the goals I set myself. The idea was that two-thirds of my reading would be ‘non Anglo-American’ (including Anglophone writing from outside the UK and US). I achieved 43% on that score, with 35% of my reading being in translation. I also aimed for gender parity in my reading this year, but didn’t quite get there: not counting anthologies, 41% of the books I read were by women.

Already, though, I can feel the limitations of this sort of number crunching. Don’t get me wrong: as a reader, it’s valuable to me to know what I read (and all too easy not to pay attention). But the essence of reading is individual responses to individual books.

On that note, here’s my list of favourites for the year. All books I’ve read for the first time this year are eligible, regardless of when they were first published. I traditionally limit myself to twelve, so naturally some very good books have been left off. I compile this mostly by instinct, so the countdown is just for fun – all these books are warmly recommended.

Matthewson12. Janina Matthewson, Of Things Gone Astray (2014)

A novel of fantastical losses: lost buildings, lost ideas, lost selves. Matthewson achieves a careful balancing act: the novel is dream-like without being too whimsical; and fantasy reflects reality without being reducible to simple metaphors. Of Things Gone Astray creates a world all of its own, one that takes time to shake off.

11. Yoko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor (2003)
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2008)

I read three of Ogawa’s books this year; the one that makes my list is a departure from the others, but its measured wistfulness really worked for me. It’s the story of a woman who goes to work for an elderly professor, and how they bond through mathematics even though he has little short-term memory. Ogawa contrasts the transient human world with the eternal web of numbers.

10. Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird (2014)

Oyeyemi is always a skilled sculptor of the fantastic; this may be her subtlest work to date. She draws on the iconography of Snow White to tell the story of a girl named Boy, and a black family passing as white, in 1950s America. The use of the fairytale changes the rhythms of Oyeyemi’s novel, highlighting the complexities of the real world.

9. Ray Robinson, Jawbone Lake (2014)

This is a novel of disruption: a Land Rover disturbing the tranquillity of an English lake; a father’s abrupt suicide shattering his family’s world; the language of a gangster thriller intruding on realist prose. Jawbone Lake is a study of grief and a thriller that treats ‘thrills’ as strange and unknowable. After Forgetting Zoë, it’s also a fine demonstration of Robinson’s versatility as a writer.

Price

8. Angharad Price, The Life of Rebecca Jones (2002)
Translated from the Welsh by Lloyd Jones (2010)

A novel about Price’s great-aunt, and the valley in which she spends her long life. This is a meditative study of the passing of time and a life that’s ultimately well lived. Though Rebecca’s life may be limited geographically, it’s shown to be intellectually rich – which is just as valid to her as any other sort of experience.

7. Nina Allan, The Race (2014)

Allan has become one of my favourite science fiction writers over recent years, and this – her first novel – is the single best piece of her work that I’ve read. The Race begins as a tale of genetically enhanced greyhounds, then mutates into a broader novel of thwarted lives. It exhibits Allan’s keen eye for landscape, and is finely calibrated enough to know the weight of all its fantastic words.

6. Naomi Wood, Mrs. Hemingway (2014)

Two novels into her career, Wood is developing an intriguingly stylised approach to historical fiction. The Godless Boys placed her characters in the distorting world of an artificial alternate history; this time the distorting factor is marriage to such a larger-than-life figure as Ernest Hemingway. Wood creates an intricately patterned dance from the chaos of her subjects’ lives.

5. Joanna Kavenna, Come to the Edge (2012)

Kavenna gives free rein to characters without inhibitions in this dark comedy of rural apocalypse which begins when a woman decides to ‘resettle’ some evicted locals in the often-unoccupied second home of a banker. Come to the Edge has a relentless, driving energy, and is very much concerned with the sound of its prose.

The Dig4. Cynan Jones, The Dig (2014)

Jones’s novels tend towards the short and stark; this tale of a grieving farmer and a badger-baiter is no exception. It’s an unflinching and very physical tale, whose imagery continues to haunt me.

3. Agota Kristof, The Notebook (1986)
Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (1989)

There are some expressions that it’s easy to use without thinking when describing books – such as ‘spare prose’. Well, the prose of The Notebook is so spare that it hurts. In what may be wartime Hungary, twin boys describe their project to harden themselves physically and emotionally, and the cruelties they inflict on themselves and others in the process. Their account becomes a timeless nightmare, and I’ll be looking out for Kristof’s two sequels next year, to find out how it continues.

2. Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013)

I was a latecomer to reading McBride, which was my loss (or was it just the right time?): I found her novel every bit as powerful as it promised to be. This is a book whose form and style are integral to its project (a quality I’m coming to value more and more in fiction): its shifts in language are part of what the book means. As a character study, t’s remorseless – and all the better for it.

Elizabeth

1. Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing (2014)

To say that Healey’s debut works is both a promise and a warning. Its protagonist has dementia, and searches for her friend in a constantly renewing present; while a thread set seventy years earlier fills the gaps in a picture that only the reader can see. Elizabeth is Missing inspired a rawer, deeper reaction in me than any other book I read all year; it’s a reaction that seemed to come out of nowhere, and I find that fascinating to contemplate. This is actually something I’d like to explore on here next year; but more about that later…

Want to know what I liked most in previous years? Take a look at my other ‘favourites’ lists: 2013; 201220112010; and 2009.

Fiction Uncovered 2014

This year’s list for Fiction Uncovered (now the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize has been announced. The judges – writer Matt Haig; journalist Arifa Akbar; Greg Eden of Waterstones; Sam Jordison of Galley Beggar Press; and Julia Wharton of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation – selected eight novels by established British writers. I had a preview of the winning titles, and have read most of them; so let me give you a run-down…

Ben Brooks, Lolito (Canongate)

Lolito

We start with one of the two books I haven’t read. Ben Brooks is the youngest author on the list, at age 22. Lolito is the story of a teenage boy who goes to meet in reali life an older woman whom he first encountered online.

Bernardine Evaristo, Mr Loverman (Penguin)

Mr Loverman

The tale of septuagenarian Barrington Walker, who’s in a secret relationship with his old friend Maurice. I reviewed Mr Loverman on the blog last year.

Lesley Glaister, Little Egypt (Salt)

Little Egypt

I reviewed an earlier book of Lesley Glaister‘s, Nina Todd Has Gone, for Laura Hird’s website back in 2009 (you can read the review here via the Wayback Machine). Little Egypt concerns the secrets of two Egyptologists and their children; I’ve reviewed it for the Fiction Uncovered website.

Cynan Jones, The Dig (Granta)

The Dig

I’ve previously reviewed Cynan Jones’s novel Everything I Found on the Beach; like that book, The Dig is a short, stark character study. It focuses principally on two characters: Daniel, a sheep farmer somewhere in Wales, who’s trying to cope with the loss of his partner; and “the big man”, who clears farms of rats and tops up his income with badger-baiting.

The Dig is an intensely physical and visceral book. Daniel is preoccupied with the processes of his farm; there’s a sense throughout that this is a kind of ritualistic displacement activity. The big man carries on his badger digging in the knowledge that he’s only a step or two ahead of the police. Jones describes the activities of both men in vivid detail, because that is what’s important to his characters. The resulting novel is unflinching and powerful.

Gareth R. Roberts, Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? (The Friday Project)

Billy Parks

Appropriately enough for the season, Gareth Roberts’s second novel is about football. Billy Parks was a star player left on the bench when England failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1973. Forty years on, he’s an alcoholic (though he won’t admit that to himself), estranged from his daughter, and getting by on tales of his glory days. But now Billy finds out that “the Service” has given Alf Ramsey and his colleagues on the Council of Football Immortals the chance to relive ten minutes of that fateful match. Sir Alf will be able to choose someone else to go on the pitch; that could be Billy, if he can pull himself together long enough to prove his worth.

I have to say: I’m not a great fan of football, but I really enjoyed this book all the same. I don’t need to like football to engage with a novel about it; I just need the novel to make me understand what it means to the characters, and Roberts absolutely does that. For the young Billy Parks, playing football is the thing that comes naturally to him, the thing that can help him transcend his circumstances; time and again in the novel, we feel how vital this is.

I was expecting Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? to be mostly a romp, and it does have its fair share of amusing moments. But it’s also bittersweet, with a real gravitas: Billy never really appreciates how deeply his father was scarred by his experiences building railways in Burma, nor how much his mother depended on him. It’s the cutting reality of Billy’s personal life, set against the headiness of his success on the pitch, that gives Roberts’s novel its power.

Naomi Wood, Mrs. Hemingway (Picador)

Mrs Hemingway

I’ve already reviewed Naomi Wood‘s novel about Hemingway’s wives, here. It’s still one of the highlights of my reading year so far.

Gerard Woodward, Vanishing (Picador)

Vanishing

This is another one I haven’t read, but I gather that its protagonist is an artist and camouflage officer in World War Two – and an unreliable narrator.

Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (Jonathan Cape)

Finally, one of my favourite books from last year, the tale of a woman who;s run away from the past only to find that the present may be under threat.

Book notes: Connell, Jones, Thomas

Rebecca Connell, Told in Silence (2010)

Rebecca Connell’s second novel, Told in Silence, is a portrait of a family with secrets; no one is all that they appear to be to others. Violet Mason was eighteen, working as a legal secretary and just about to start university, when she fell in love with – and married – a thirty-year-old lawyer named Jonathan Blackwood. Now twenty-one, Violet is a widow, living with Jonathan’s parents, Harvey and Laura, and making tentative steps towards regaining a normal life. Then, at Harvey’s birthday party, an old friend of Jonathan’s, the darkly attractive Max Croft, arrives on the scene; Violet finds herself drawn to Croft, but he brings with him a suggestion that Jonathan’s death may not have been accidental, as Violet believes – and that someone close to home may be responsible.

Told in Silence turns on the gradual revelation of new sides to characters and their relationships, first in Violet’s narration of the present day (and flashbacks to her life with Jonathan), then in Harvey’s written account addressed to his son. It begins with Violet herself, who presents a determinedly ordinary face to the world, one that masks all she has been through. The Blackwoods are not quite the happy couple that Violet sees. Jonathan may be the character of whom we see the most sides, even though (or perhaps because) we always encounter him at one remove. Connell’s unfurling of her characters’ secrets keeps the pages turning and builds up her novel’s momentum, which then leads with a certain amount of inevitability towards an ending that’s both open and quite apposite. Told in Silence is a tense read that asks how sure we can be that we truly know someone.

This review also appears on Fiction Uncovered.

Link: Rebecca Connell’s website

Cynan Jones, Everything I Found on the Beach (2011)

Hold is a Welsh fisherman, trying his best to help out Cara and Jake, the widow and son of his late friend Danny. The chance discovery of a body on the shore presents him with a risky opportunity, for the dead man was carrying packages of drugs; Hold decides to go ahead and deliver them, so he can use the money for Jake’s and Cara’s benefit. Alongside Hold’s story, we read of Grzegorz, a Polish man who came to Britain hoping to improve his lot, but now stuck working in a slaughterhouse and picking cockles to make ends meet for his young family; and we follow the criminals heading for Hold, who have doubts and worries of their own.

Everything I Found on the Beach is a quiet book, muted of palette and careful in its use of detail. The depictions of place seem to have had the specificity wrung out of them, which contrasts effectively with the very precise depictions of process – and appropriately so, because what the characters are doing is more significant to them than where they are. Cynan Jones establishes some interesting points of comparison between the lives of his characters: the methodical nature of Hold’s work as a fisherman finds echoes in both Grzegorz’s job at the slaughterhouse and life in his shared home, though the two men’s attitudes towards their situations are subtly different. Likewise, while Hold is questioning whether he really wants to go through with delivering the drugs, the criminals themselves are examining their place in the world.

All in all, Everything I Found on the Beach is a quietly evocative study of lives changed by some drastic choices.

Link: Parthian Books

Mike Thomas, Pocket Notebook (2010)

Jacob Smith is a police firearms officer with a foundering marriage, a steroid addiction, and aggressive tendencies. Unable to save the victim of a car crash, Jake takes his frustrations out on a drunk he’s arrested for a public order offence, which is what first brings him to the attention of his senior officers. As time goes on, Jake faces growing pressure; he’s being investigated for his behaviour at work, his dealer wants paying, and Jake’s erratic personal life sees him lusting after at least three women other than his wife. Something has to give… and indeed it does.

Pocket Notebook is a simply stunning debut from Mike Thomas, himself a serving police officer. The rapid-fire narrative style captures superbly the whirlwind of thoughts inside Jake’s mind, painting the officer as a man constantly on edge. Thomas intersperses Jake’s narration with extracts from the regulation notebook in which he records his activities; this device creates an effective contrast between the chaotic energy of Jake’s thoughts and the more formal structure of the notebook – a structure occasionally (and increasingly) interrupted by reminders that Jake is not the fine upstanding copper he appears (or did at first) to the outside world.

Yet, for all that he may be an antihero, Jake is not an entirely unsympathetic character. We see that he does have admirable qualities, such as concern that some of the people he encounters don’t mess up their lives; it’s just that Jake is so far gone down the road he has taken that those qualities can’t hope to balance the darker aspects of his nature. And it is the latter that Thomas portrays so well as Jake loses his grip on reality, convinced all the while that what he does makes sense. Thomas draws the reader so fully into his protagonist’s mindset that it takes a while to adjust after leaving Jake’s side. Pocket Notebook marks Mike Thomas out as a major new voice whose work deserves our attention.

This review also appears on Fiction Uncovered.

Link: Video interview with Mike Thomas

© 2019 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: