CategoryAwards

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison

The winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize was announced last Wednesday, and it was the one I hadn’t finished reading at the time. So first of all, congratulations to Mike Harrison on his win — I’m pleased he’s had this recognition. Now on to the book itself. 

On the face of it, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again would seem the most conventionally written novel on the Goldsmiths shortlist — there are no contrasting voices or unusual layouts here. But what Harrison does, gradually and comprehensively, is to undermine the basic qualities that we might expect a conventional novel to have. Coherence, progression, resolution… all dissipate as you look at them more closely. 

Harrison’s two protagonists are caught in the midst of something strange, not that they seem to notice. Shaw is getting back on his feet following a breakdown. He moves into a small room in a damp London house. He meets one Tim Swann combing through the soil in a cemetery, and later discovers he lives next door. Tim offers Shaw a job in an office on his barge, obscure administrative tasks and trips to niche shops that are barely hanging on:

The internet was killing them. The speed of things was killing them. They were like old-fashioned commercial travellers, fading away in bars and single rooms, exchanging order books on windy corners as if it was still 1981 — denizens of futures that failed to take, whole worlds that never got past the economic turbulence and out into clear air…

In one sense, then, the ‘sunken land’ of the title refers to people and places worn down by austerity. 

The novel’s second protagonist is Victoria, with whom Shaw is having an intermittent affair. Victoria has moved from London to the Midlands, to work on renovating her late mother’s home. She finds the people quite distant, and seemingly more knowledgeable about her mother than she is. She becomes sort-of friends with Pearl, a waitress, who lives in a house whose rooms seem to shift and where people come and go without warning. 

You would never know there was anything unusual about Victoria’s life, though, if you judged by the banal emails she sends to Shaw (not that he usually reads them). Failures in communication are a recurring feature of this novel, whether it’s Victoria and Shaw not telling each other what’s really going on in their lives, or Shaw’s struggle to connect with his mother, who has dementia and can never get his first name right.

A breakdown of communication is one thing, but this is also a novel where the world itself fails to come together. Images of water abound, and there are rumours of humans being born with the appearance of fish. Tim Swann researches such fringe phenomena, and there are hints at a unifying explanation of all the book’s strange happenings. But when one’s actually reads Tim’s writings, the semblance of coherence disappears:

Stories reproduced from every type of science periodical appeared cheek-by-jowl with listicle and urban myth. These essentially unrelated objects were connected by grammatically correct means to produce apparently causal relationships. Perfectly sound pivots, such as ‘however’ and ‘while it remains true that’, connected propositions empty of any actual meaning…

The same goes for Sunken Land more broadly. Whatever’s really going on here, it’s not within the sight or comprehension of our protagonists — and therefore of us. If there’s a promise of escape from (or for) this sunken land, it will be fulfilled somewhere else. Harrison’s novel is unnerving because there are echoes of motion throughout, but ultimately what we experience through its characters is stasis.

Published by Gollancz.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: Bina by Anakana Schofield

I can’t help associating Anakana Schofield with the Goldsmiths Prize. I read her for the first time when her previous novel, Martin John, was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths in 2016, and now here we are again with Bina.

Like Martin John, Bina was a minor character in Schofield’s first novel Malarky (you don’t need to have read Malarky to enjoy Bina – I hadn’t – but there are several references to the earlier book). In Malarky, 70-something Bina was arrested for taking a hammer to an aeroplane at a protest. Now she spends much of her time in bed, with medical waste in her garden, and assorted activists camping outside the house as the threat looms of being arrested again.

I described the novel Martin John as being organised to create meaning for its protagonist rather than the reader. Bina runs along similar lines: although its narrator wants to tell her story and be heard, she’ll do it in her own time and her own way. This involves scribbling on the back of receipts and whatever paper she can find, which explains why some sections break down into short single-sentence paragraphs on the page. Bina is a choppy novel to read, reflecting its main character’s restless mind.

Bina’s account revolves around three characters: her late friend Phil (Philomena), the protagonist of Malarky; her ex-lodger Eddie; and the mysterious Tall Man, who recruited Bina for something that I’m not going to reveal. These characters exist in the novel more as shadows than presences (at least, so I found). Their stories grow out of oblique snippets (such as Bina commenting that she found Eddie in a ditch), and only gradually does it become apparent what has been going on in Bina’s life, and how the dark the book will grow.

Bina is subtitled “A Novel in Warnings”; Bina herself is clear what she’s about:

I’m only telling you this to warn you. I’ve better ways to waste my time than mithering on here. I’m a busy woman. Of that be certain. People think old women have nothing to do but stand around. They’re very wrong and very ignorant and do take that last combination of wrong and ignorant as another warning. If people think you have time to stand about, let them know otherwise, by not standing about. Take off! Take off when they least expect it.

So, Bina has several types of warnings for her readers: warnings not to do certain things, to walk away from certain situations – but also not to make assumptions about people or overlook those left in the margins.

My abiding memory of Bina is of a deeply affecting book. I didn’t realise how much it had affected me until the end. Those stories unfolding obliquely within the novel got under my skin, and I hadn’t noticed. But I’ll remember that feeling, long after turning the final page.

Published by Fleet.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

The lover: a Chinese woman who moves to London to study for a PhD. At a picnic one day, she sees a man picking elderflowers. She meets him again at a book club, and they get talking. From such random moments, love blossoms.

The discourse: a chronicle of the woman’s new life and an examination of her love, inspired by Barthes’ book of the same name (which I haven’t read). It’s told in a series of short chapters, snapshots in time.

Each chapter of Xiaolu Guo’s latest novel begins with a brief passage of dialogue that appears in the text later on. For me, this affects the experience of reading in two key ways. First, it emphasises the fragmented structure: you recognise the dialogue when you read it again, and the chapter seems to revolve around it, to become a self-contained piece. Second, the dialogue starts to feel more like a performance.

We end up with a love story that’s ragged in form rather than smooth. This is appropriate, because the experience of moving to London is far from smooth for Guo’s protagonist. There are immediate issues such as unfamiliar terminology (the word ‘Brexit’ appears everywhere when our narrator moves over, but not in her dictionary) and loneliness (“What were we supposed to do at night in our rented rooms, if we didn’t drink or watch sports?”).

As time goes on, the stumbling-blocks evolve, becoming subtler and, in some ways, more profound. The narrator would like to put down roots, but her partner is much more at ease with a transient lifestyle – at one point, they move into a houseboat, but it’s not her idea of home. The protagonist’s boyfriend is German-Australian, with family in both countries, while her parents have both passed away. Unlike her, he is at home in multiple cultures, and comfortable moving between them.

Language itself is a contested space for Guo’s narrator. In one chapter she’s at a New Year’s Eve party where her partner is conversing in English and German, and she can’t follow it:

I thought, even though I speak English, and I can read and write in English, still, I feel monolingual. Really, I had only one language. And even worse, I could not possess this language…Whatever I spoke, whether it was my borrowed English language or my native Chinese Mandarin, I didn’t feel I had that language in me. That language spoke for me, instead of my speaking it.

So perhaps we could see this lover’s discourse as her essay at working through her feelings, taking possession of what it is to live in this place, with this language. Guo’s novel is a love story which puts love to the test, because that’s what its protagonist needs in order to find solid ground in her life.

Published by Chatto & Windus.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: Mr. Beethoven by Paul Griffiths

In 1823, Beethoven was commissioned to compose a biblical oratorio in the United States of America. He didn’t live to take up the commission… but what if he had? That’s the question posed by music critic Paul Griffiths in his latest novel.

I like it when historical fiction acknowledges the constructed nature of history. Mr. Beethoven goes much further than that. We begin with Beethoven on a ship headed for Boston – yet Griffiths emphasises that this is not how things were, but a plausible alternative:

It would be possible to work out which vessel this might have been, in whose dining salon these people were delving into their cabbage soup with greater or lesser pleasure. Suppose the year was 1833, as could well have been the case…

In this way, Griffiths is able to take his novel apart and rebuild it as he goes. The sense that this all provisional, contingent, raises the hairs on the back of one’s neck. There’s a brilliant chapter which rehearses a conversation between Beethoven and his librettist, Reverend Ballou, three times. In the first two versions, the composer says the same things but Ballou’s dialogue changes, giving the scene a completely different tone. In the third version, Beethoven doesn’t understand Ballou at all. Which is the ‘correct’ conversation? Take your pick.

Communication is one of the first problems that Beethoven encounters. Griffiths imagines a girl named Thankful, who uses Martha’s Vineyard sign language to interpret for him. But there’s still inevitably a distance between the composer and the world around him. All of Beethoven’s dialogue in the novel has been taken directly from his letters. Of course, it’s then out of context, which has the effect of making Beethoven seem to be at a slight remove from reality. It’s subtle but unnerving.

The subject of Beethoven’s oratorio is Job. As Thankful listens to the performance, she reflects on its meaning: “It is about this universe in which God is omnipotent. And it is about a larger universe in which God is powerless, helpless.” I’m struck that Mr. Beethoven puts its author in a similar position: totally in control over what’s between the covers in one sense, but at the mercy of history in another. If the author is like God, then – as Robert says in his review at The Bobsphere – Beethoven in this novel is like Job, undergoing his own trial of faith (in himself as much as anything).

Mr. Beethoven is a novel that twists language and history to explore what might have been, but also to expose the inherent fragility of any fictional account. I must mention as well that this is a beautifully made volume from Henningham Family Press. I’m pleased to see it highlighted by the Goldsmiths Prize.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: Meanwhile in Dopamine City by DBC Pierre

A few days before the Goldsmiths shortlist was announced, I saw an episode of the game show Pointless which had a round on Booker Prize winners. When Vernon God Little was revealed as one of the answers, both presenters said something along the lines of, “I read a few pages of that but it wasn’t for me.”

This was pretty much the impression I had of DBC Pierre’s work, without having read any at all: that his writing was ‘turned up to 11’, and that he probably wasn’t someone I’d ever have cause to read. Then he was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths, and here we are.

Meanwhile in Dopamine City is set in an unspecified country that feels like the USA in some ways and Australia in others. In a town owned by the Company, Lon Cush holds out against the ever-greater encroachment of technology and social media on all areas of life. That is until he slaps his nine-year-old daughter Shelby-Ann, having jumped to the wrong conclusions about what she was doing. Lon is forced to obtain smartphones for himself and Shelby, so the authorities can keep an eye on them.

Pierre’s prose is indeed busy. For example: “Frogs fell quiet under the catmint and sea holly as he pulled the gate shut behind him, lifting it on its hinges to dampen the squeak. He went up three steps and billowed into his house like a sailor in a black-and-white bar scene.”

After Lon gets his smartphone, the novel becomes even more striking, because the text splits into two columns: a first-person voice in the left, and a newsfeed on the right that links to it in some way. I presume that this is meant to evoke the distraction of using a smartphone, but actually I found it something of a respite! Pierre’s default prose style is enough on its own to convey that sense of constant diversion.

I must admit that I lost track of the plot as the novel went on, but I don’t think that matters too much. It’s the texture of Pierre’s book that makes it for me, and the ideas at work within, such as the Universal Fluid Score, a single giant algorithmic rating that determines social standing. Meanwhile in Dopamine City shines brightest as an experience of being caught in a hyper-connected world, with all its promises and dangers.

Published by Faber & Faber.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Goldsmiths Prize shortlist 2020

It’s time for the Goldsmiths Prize, for “fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form.” What an intriguing shortlist we have this year:

The only one of these I’ve read so far is The Mermaid of Black Conch (review linked above). I hadn’t really thought of it in connection with the Goldsmiths, but now I think about its variety of voices, I can see that it deserves its place.

There are two books that I’m especially pleased to see on the shortlist. I first read Anakana Schofield when her previous novel, Martin John, was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016. I loved that book and can’t wait to see what Bina is like. M. John Harrison is an author I always find challenging and compelling: it took three attempts before Viriconium clicked, but when it finally did… The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is a book I’ve wanted to read, and I’m happy it has been recognised by the Goldsmiths.

Elsewhere on the list, I enjoyed Xiaolu Guo’s UFO in Her Eyes a few years ago, so I’m looking forward to reading her again. I don’t really know anything about Paul Griffiths or Mr. Beethoven, but I have heard of Henningham Family Press through keeping an eye on the small press scene. It’s a two-person operation which I hear publishes some beautiful books – consider me intrigued.

Which leaves the book I’m not sure about, Meanwhile in Dopamine City. I’ve never really felt like reading DBC Pierre, whose work seems to be an acquired taste. Well, you never know.

The winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize will be announced on 11 November. I may not get through the whole shortlist by then, but I am planning to read and review them all. It should be fun.

#InternationalBooker2020: the shadow winner

A message from the shadow panel…

The official announcement of the winner of the 2020 International Booker Prize has been postponed until later in the summer, to give readers more time to get and read copies of the novels.

But our shadow jury of bloggers and reviewers of translated fiction has already completed our reading and re-reading, so it seems fitting to announce our Shadow Winner on the original date of May 19th.

As a reminder our own shortlist was, in alphabetical order of the original author’s name:

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (Farsi – Iran), tr. Anonymous (Europa Editions)
The Other Name: Septology I-II by Jon Fosse (Norwegian – Norway), tr. Damion Searls (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (Spanish – Mexico), tr. Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (Japanese – Japan), tr. Stephen Snyder (Harvill Secker)
Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano (French – France), tr. Sophie Lewis & Jennifer Higgins (Peirene Press)
The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (Dutch – Netherlands), tr. Michele Hutchison (Faber & Faber)

We were collectively impressed with all of these books, indeed all six had their champions among us.

And three books in particular were so close in our deliberations and our voting that it was almost tempting to go one further than last year’s anglophone Booker judges.  But instead we’ve kept with one winner, but decided to acknowledge two books as Runners-Up.

Runners-Up:
The Other Name: Septology I-II
and
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree

Jon Fosse’s “slow prose”, unfolding his story in one long, flowing stream that reads with great fluidity, took us deep inside his narrator Asle’s mind and thoughts. And we were caught up in the heady mixture of Persian myth, story-telling and magic realism of The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, a true ode to literature and to the deeply soothing role books and stories play in our survival of trauma.

But the winner of our 2020 Shadow Jury Prize is:
Hurricane Season, written by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions

Comments from some of our judges:

Hurricane Season is an appropriate title for a novel that roars into the unsuspecting reader’s mind, with its long and winding sentences, and its refusal to flinch from the brutalities of its world.”

“There is anger, pain, and the understanding of the role literature plays when it comes to compassion and empathy.”

“As author M. John Harrison said of Melchor’s novel ‘…she had shown me things I needed to be faced with.’ and expanded my understanding of lives so very different from my own.”

“It unflinchingly portrayed a world apart from us and artfully created another layer of distance from subject through the use of mythologized violence. That she both creates distance and ‘makes us look’ simultaneously was incredibly powerful for me.”

“Melchor’s prose, in Hughes’s stunning translation, is raw, brutal and so, so necessary.”

“As readers and intrepid voyagers down Melchor’s Dante-like vision, we are like riveted inmates, incarcerated either by law or by economics or gender, who stand to witness the depravity, despair and pain being inflicted upon this part of the world. The real evidence and reward here is not in unmasking the Witch’s killer or killers or in finding out why this happened, the true recompense of Melchor’s novel is to pay tribute by listening to the dead’s testimony,‘there is no treasure in there, no gold or silver or diamonds or anything more than a searing pain that refuses to go away.’”

And our congratulations extend to the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions who provided two of our top three, and also now have two Shadow Prize wins in three years.

Now it’s over to the official jury for their decision.

#InternationalBooker2020: the shadow panel’s shortlist

A message from the shadow panel…

Our shadow jury of bloggers and reviewers of translated fiction has completed our reading of the International Booker 2020 longlist, and has chosen our own Shadow Shortlist.

In alphabetical order of the original author’s name our chosen six books are:

  • The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (Farsi – Iran), tr. Anonymous (Europa Editions)
  • The Other Name: Septology I-II by Jon Fosse (Norwegian – Norway), tr. Damion Searls (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
  • Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (Spanish – Mexico), tr. Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
  • The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (Japanese – Japan), tr. Stephen Snyder (Harvill Secker)
  • Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano (French – France), tr. Sophie Lewis & Jennifer Higgins (Peirene Press)
  • The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (Dutch – Netherlands), tr. Michele Hutchison (Faber & Faber)

Firstly, we would like to congratulate the judges on choosing a very strong longlist. There are some stunning books on the list, and almost all of them, including those that missed out on our shortlist, had their champions among us. The books didn’t always make for an easy read – some are quite graphic in their depiction of violence – but certainly a thought provoking one.

You will see that four of our choices overlap with those of the official jury.

The Adventures of China Iron impressed many of us, but couldn’t quite squeeze on to our list. Instead we chose the cleverly connected short stories from Faces on the Tip of My Tongue.

When we were predicting books on the longlist The Eighth Life was the novel we most expected to see given its undoubted popularity both in the Anglosphere but also internationally. And we had expected it to make both the official and our shadow shortlist. Somewhat to our surprise, it missed out on both – the magic of the hot chocolate clearly doesn’t work on everyone.

We were though more surprised, and disappointed, at the exclusion of The Other Name from the official list – Jon Fosse’s trademark slow prose is stunning, and it makes for a very different reading experience from the others on the list. It is a timeless novel, and we fear the jury’s not unreasonable focus on novels relevant for the Covid-19 era may have counted against it. But with the next volume due in the autumn perhaps Fosse will make next year’s shortlist and he’s also overdue the Nobel Prize.

At the other end of the spectrum, the officially shortlisted Tyll didn’t spark much enthusiasm in our panel. But the one provoking the strongest reactions was Serotonin: several of the books on our shortlist are brutal or visceral but parts of Houllebecq’s novel simply felt gratuitous. Only three of our judges finished reading it and none of those were terribly impressed by its inclusion on the longlist.

We’ll now embark on the period of further re-reading, reflection and to choose our winner. We wonder if we and the official jury will see eye to eye as we did in 2018, or reach a different view as we did last year.

Thanks to shadow panellist Paul Fulcher for writing these words.

Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist

/They’ve announced the shortlist for this year’s Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize:

Congratulations to all the nominees! The list includes both of the poetry collections I reviewed as part of the blog tour – links to my posts are above.

#InternationalBooker2020: the shortlist

The International Booker Prize shortlist was announced today:

  • The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar, translated from the Persian by an anonymous translator.
  • The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Camara, translated from the Spanish by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh.
  • Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann, translated from the German by Ross Benjamin.
  • Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes.
  • The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.
  • The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison.

(Links are to my reviews.)

That’s a good shortlist. I’m not a great fan of Tyll, but I wouldn’t argue with the rest. The Memory Police is probably my favourite.

The shadow panel will be announcing our shortlist next week. I wonder how similar (or different) it will be to the official one.

© 2021 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: