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Goldsmiths Prize 2016, part 2: McCormack and Manyika

The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize 2016 will be announced this Wednesday, so hera is my second round-up of the shortlist (the first is here). Unfortunately, I ran out of time to review Rachel Cusk’s Transit, which leaves two others: first-time Goldsmiths appearances for small publishers Tramp Press and Cassava Republic.

solarbonesMike McCormack, Solar Bones (2016)

If you look Solar Bones up, be warned that the blurb contains a piece of information which is not stated explicitly within the novel until the end (though it can be deduced). It’s not really set up to be a twist as such, and I think that knowing it would change your experience of reading the book rather than spoil it per se… but I don’t need to reveal it here, so I won’t.

Anyway: we join engineer Marcus Conway as he returns to his County Mayo home, the sound of the Angelus bell from the village church ringing in his ears. Over the course of the novel, Marcus ruminates on his life and the world; as so often on this shortlist, it’s all in the telling:

this may have been my first moment of anxious worry about the world, the first instance of my mind spiraling beyond the immediate environs of

hearth, home and parish, towards

the wider world beyond

way beyond

since looking at those engine parts spread across the floor my imagination took fright and soared to some wider, cataclysmic conclusion about how the universe itself was bolted and screwed together…

This is Marcus Conway’s voice: no capital letters or full stops –therefore no strict separation of ideas – and ‘paragraphs’ linked by those chains of sentence-fragments in an unceasing flow. Whether he’s discussing his memories, the economy, or the bones of reality itself, all is part of the same whole for Marcus. As an engineer, he is able to see the workings and connections – and McCormack brings this to life within the form of his novel.

likeamule

Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016)

A few years ago, I read Roelof Bakker’s anthology Still, a book of short stories inspired by his photographs of a vacated building.  It included ‘Morayo’, a story about an old woman going into a nursing home, and what her books meant to her as a person. In a Q&A at the time, Manyika said she was working on a book-length version of the story. I always wondered what that was going to be like; and now here it is, on the Goldmsiths shortlist.

Manyika’s novel is not a direct expansion of the story, but the main character and themes are broadly the same. Morayo Da Silva is a retired literature professor, from Nigeria and now living in San Francisco. She still lives life to the full, enjoys her vintage Porsche, her books, and generally being around the neighbourhood… until she slips one day, and breaks her hip. Then she has to go into a nursing home to recover, and her old life is torn from her.

One of the central themes of Like a Mule for me is the idea that the person someone is on the inside may not necessarily be the person that others see. Morayo is such an exuberant character to us – a joy to spend time with on the page – but, as far as many of the staff in the home are concerned, she’s just another patient. There’s one scene where Morayo daydreams of a glamorous function from her old life married to an ambassador – a dream which is broken when the home staff rush to her aid because she’s left her walker behind.

In Goldsmiths Prize terms, I’d say that Like a Mule distorts the novel form primarily with its use of voice. Besides Morayo, there are chapters written from the viewpoint of several of the other characters she meets: a homeless woman, a shopkeeper, a cook in the nursing home. True, there’s nothing intrinsically unusual about that; but it’s done here in a way that feels disjointed, underlining the distance between individuals. Reading the novel allows us to bridge that distance to an extent, as we can fit the pieces together; and maybe that helps bring a sense of hope, too.

Man Booker International Prize 2016: and the winner is…

You might well have heard the news by now, but Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) has won this year’s Man Booker International Prize.

Vegetarianpb

 

As you can imagine, I’m very pleased with that result: The Vegetarian was my favourite book of last year (here’s my review for Shiny New Books), not to mention my favourite book on the MBIP longlist. I’m pleased that this win will bring it to a wider audience; and it’s good to see such a singular, uncompromising work getting this kind of recognition.

This also brings to an end our award shadowing for this year. Thanks to Stu, Tony Malone, Tony Messenger, Bellezza, Clare, Grant, and Lori for being such excellent reading companions. We chose the same book as the official jury, albeit from rather different shortlists – I’ll champion The Vegetarian to anyone who will listen, but do check out the rest of the MBIP longlist because there’s some really good stuff on there.

What next? Reports are that fiction in translation is thriving, and my hope is that Han’s and Smith’s win will open the door wider. I will continue to search for more of these remarkable books from around the world, and report back here and elsewhere (I’m quite keen to read more Korean fiction, and this reading list by Han Kang seems a good place to start). Reading experiences like The Vegetarian don’t come along every day; but there is always another one out there, waiting.

Read my other posts on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize here.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Vegetarian (2007) by Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith (2015), Portobello Books paperback

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler: MBIP 2016

 

SeethalerMy first stop on this Man Booker International Prize journey is Austria, and a book that passed me by completely prior to its longlisting. The fulcrum of Robert Seethaler’s short (150 pages) novel is Andreas Egger, who is brought to his uncle’s farm as a boy in 1902. Egger remains in the same mountain village all his life, apart from two months serving on the front in Russia and the subsequent eight years as a prisoner in the gulag. A broken leg in childhood leaves Egger with a permanent limp, but he is otherwise strong and agile. The mountains are in his bones:

Sometimes, on mild summer nights, he would spread a blanket somewhere on a freshly mown meadow, lie on his back and look up at the starry sky. Then he would think about his future, which extended infinitely before him, precisely because he expected nothing of it. And sometimes, if he lay there long enough, he had the impression that beneath his back the earth was softly rising and falling, and in moments like these he knew that the mountains breathed.

Everything in A Whole Life returns to the landscape: the encroachment of modernity is symbolised by the cable car being built in the valley, which will bring electricity and more besides. The Second World War happens largely at a distance: for Egger it’s mostly a matter of boring holes in rock, cutting wood, marking time in the camp. Towards the end of his life, thinking to broaden his horizons, Egger takes the bus to its last stop; when he gets there, he has no idea where to go – he may have spent his life in the same place, but that place is his life to a great extent.

In the latest edition of the Peirene Press newspaper, the writer Cynan Jones has an article in praise of short novels:

There’s no room for digression. No room for passenger writing. Every word is doing a job. So pay attention. A short novel is an event, not a trip.

I was reminded of this very much when reading A Whole Life: since the book’s canvas is so large in comparison to the page-count, the account of Egger’s life seems distilled to its essence. The quiet precision of Charlotte Collins’ translation underlines how deeply Egger is connected to his specific surroundings.

I was also put in mind of Angharad Price’s superb The Life of Rebecca Jones (2002; translated by Lloyd Jones, 2010), another short novel about a character who lives for much of the 20th century in the same place. The experiences of their protagonists are rather different, but both novels show lives lived fully despite being bounded geographically. The title of Seethaler’s book is apposite in more ways than one: yes, it chronicles Andreas Egger’s ‘whole’ life from beginning to end; but that life is also whole because it’s lived in the round, for good and ill.

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Is this book a shortlist contender?

I’m not sure yet. To my mind, A Whole Life is a solid nominee; but it feels more like a book that may round out my personal shortlist, rather than a shoo-in. Time will tell…

Elsewhere

Nobody else on the shadow panel has reviewed A Whole Life as yet, but you can find more reviews at Lizzy’s Literary Life, Vishy’s Blog, and A Life in Books.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

A Whole Life (2014) by Robert Seethaler, tr. Charlotte Collins (2015), Picador paperback.

Read my other posts on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize here.

Fiction Uncovered 2015

Last Thursday, the winners of this year’s Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize were announced:

  • The Incarnations by Susan Barker (Doubleday)
  • The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies (Salt)
  • Significance by Jo Mazelis (Seren)
  • The Offering by Grace McCleen (Sceptre)
  • Mother Island by Bethan Roberts (Chatto & Windus)
  • A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth (Canongate)
  • Mobile Library by David Whitehouse (Picador)

It’s an interesting selection: I’ve reviewed a couple (linked above) and will be checking out a few others.

In addition, the Fiction Uncovered website is again hosting a series of articles by guest editors (like the columns I wrote last year). Naomi from The Writes of  Woman was this year’s first guest editor; currently it’s Kate and Rob from Adventures with Words. Go and have a look.

 

Desmond Elliott Prize shortlist 2015

The Desmond Elliott Prize jury has announced its shortlist:

  • A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray
  • Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller
  • Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

This is quite a unified selection, with strong themes of family and secrets (and family secrets), and some very powerful moments. It’s difficult to guess which the judges might choose as a winner. We’ll find out on 1 July.

Desmond Elliott Prize 2015: the shadowing begins

de2015

After the translations, the debuts: like last year, I am taking part in shadowing the Desmond Elliott Prize. Here is this year’s longlist:

  • Carys Bray, A Song for Issy Bradley (Hutchinson)
  • Jessie Burton, The Miniaturist (Picador)
  • Alex Christofi, Glass (Serpent’s Tail)
  • Claire Fuller, Our Endless Numbered Days (Fig Tree)
  • Jonathan Gibbs, Randall, or the Painted Grape (Galley Beggar Press)
  • James Hannah, An A-Z of You and Me (Doubleday)
  • Emma Healey, Elizabeth Is Missing (Viking)
  • Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake (Unbound)
  • Laline Paull, The Bees (Fourth Estate)
  • Simon Wroe, Chop Chop (Viking)

First impressions? Elizabeth Is Missing was, of course, my favourite book read in 2014 (immediately ahead of last year’s Desmond Elliott winner, as it happens), so that’s my front-runner going into the shadowing. I’m also particularly pleased to see The Wake getting a nod. The biggest omission for me is Lucy Wood’s Weathering, a superb novel which I thought would be a dead cert for this longlist. Whatever else happens with this year’s Prize, I will be disappointed that Weathering is not in the mix.

Still, on we go. The links in the list above will take you to my reviews of the longlisted titles; I’ll be adding as many as I can in the weeks ahead. Finally, let me introduce you to the other members of this year’s shadow panel: El Ashfield, Dan Lipscombe, Zoe Venditozzi and Sarah Watkins.

Science fiction playing catch-up

I’ve been shadowing a lot of award lists lately: I’ve read through the longlists for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (for fiction in translation) and Desmond Elliott Prize (debut novels), as well as the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award (science fiction). Add in last year’s Man Booker (the ever-nebulous ‘literary’ fiction) and Edge Hill Prize (short story collections), and you have all my main reading interests. So I think all that reading has given me a reasonable cross-section of current UK publishing in the areas I care most about; and something bothers me – there are books on all of those lists that I like very much, and books on all of them that I don’t think deserved to be there; but, taking each one as a whole, the Clarke shortlist comes right at the bottom for me in terms of quality.

Science fiction and fantasy are where I started as a reader, and I still believe that the fantastic as a whole has a vital contribution to make to literature. So it gave me no pleasure to see the Clarke lagging behind those other awards; but it bore out a trend that I see elsewhere in my reading (most of which falls under one of the five awards’ headings) – on average, contemporary sf published in the UK is punching well below its weight. I’m reminded of a comment made by the science fiction author Tony Ballantyne in an interview that I came across when I was reviewing his novel Dream London:

I…think that the most exciting and cutting edge work in writing is being produced [in sf and fantasy]. If you look at mainstream literature, it’s about twenty years behind what we’re doing now.

I’m not convinced that this could even be true hypothetically, simply because the cutting edge is more likely to be found in pockets among various kinds of fiction, rather than in a single one. But behind Ballantyne’s remark is a firm belief that sf is leading the pack. I think that, ten or fifteen years ago, it was certainly keeping pace: writers like China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer were emerging at the same time as (say) Sarah Waters and Michel Faber. These days, however, it seems to me that sf is struggling to keep up.

It’s not that sf is lacking books at the top end of the scale; the likes of James Smythe can hold their own. It’s that, generally, it has fewer of them than the literary ‘mainstream’, and that the average seems to be lower down the scale. If I take writing quality (the backbone of any piece of fiction) as an example, even when I look at my least favourite titles from some of the award lists – such as D.W. Wilson’s Ballistics or Emma Donoghue’s Astray – they’re at worst OK; but, from the Clarke shortlist, there’s stuff in Ramez Naam’s Nexus and Phillip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise that makes me cringe.

One area for which I’d expect sf (with its imagining different ways of being) to be a natural fit is engaging with textual form. Sometimes it still is, in the work of writers like Christopher Priest, but they seem few and far between these days. When I reviewed Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn earlier this year, I noted that there was a separation between its chapters that mirrored the novel’s fragmented setting, and that this stood out as an unusual engagement with form. The thing is that, in and of itself, it isn’t a particularly radical approach to novelistic form; but it still stood out to me as being relatively rare in genre science fiction. However, if I turn to the mainstream, and a novel like Nathan Filer’s Costa-winning The Shock of the Fall, I see a patchwork of different forms and styles integrated into a standard narrative, and it feels quite commonplace. In other words, I think there’s a level of experimentation with form in the mainstream that now seems unremarkable, which would seem remarkable in genre sf. Imagine what Nexus would be like if it were actually written as though its characters’ minds were linked; instead, it’s a pretty routine thriller – and this is something I see all too often in sf.

Predicting the future is not the business of sf, but it can engage with the future and explore the kinds of issues and choices that may face us. Even here, though, contemporary sf is hit and miss: James Smythe’s The Machine is (by some distance) the title on this year’s Clarke list that explores its issues the most searchingly, but it’s also the one published as mainstream. Niall Harrison has criticised The Disestablishment of Paradise for a lack of nuance in its treatment of ecological issues. When I watched ‘Be Right Back’ in the last series of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, I was struck that a drama by a mainstream satirist was telling a robot story that examined issues of identity in a way that contemporary genre sf seemed largely to be shying away from. These are areas where sf truly can do better than the mainstream, and I only wish it would take up the challenge more often.

I’m excited to see authors like Eleanor Catton (who, to my mind, is squarely at the cutting edge of English-language fiction) and Eimear McBride emerging in the mainstream – and especially to see them winning and being shortlisted for multiple awards. But, when I look at genre sf published in the UK, I simply can’t see that they have equivalents emerging. I wish I could. All in all, though, my reading is showing me that sf has a lot of catching up to do.

Awards news

Here’s a round-up of some literary award winners, shortlists and other bits and pieces…

Costa Book Awards

The category winners were announced this week:

  • Novel: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)
  • First Novel: The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (HarperCollins)
  • Biography: The Pike by Lucy Hughes-Hallett (Fourth Estate)
  • Poetry: Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts (Jonathan Cape)
  • Children’s Book: Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse by Chris Riddell (Macmillan)

The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday 28 January. There’s also a Short Story Award, which is voted for by the public. You can read (or listen) to the shortlisted stories and vote here.

Transmission Prize

A prize for the communication of ideas, organised by Salon London. (The descriptions of the nominees here are taken from the prize’s website.)

  • Olivia Laing for her exploration of what drives writers to drink, in her psycho-geographic journey across the USA.
  • Professor David Nutt for giving us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the absolute truth about drugs.
  • John McHugo who, based on decades of experience, has created an understandable, and concise history of the Arab world.
  • Biologist Aarathi Prasad showed us how biology is redefining the rules of sex, and predicted the end of men.
  • Lloyd Bradley for piecing together 100 years of black music in the capital and giving us his sounds of London.
  • Perfumer and writer Sarah McCartney showed us how we can move both in time and our own experience through smell.
  • Barbara Sahakian who explored the ethical and moral questions surrounding neuro-cognitive enhancers, aka smart drugs.
  • Epigeneticist Tim Spector who showed us how we can change our genes, both those we inherit and those we pass on.

The winner will be announced on Thursday 6 February.

BSFA Awards

BSFA members can nominate works for this years awards until next Tuesday, 14 January.

Fiction Uncovered

Not strictly an award, but does a valuable job all the same of recognising writers who may otherwise be overlooked. It was announced today that Fiction Uncovered has received funding for another two years, with 2014’s list of titles to be announced in June. I look forward to seeing what’s on there!

2013 Man Booker shortlist

This year’s shortlist for the Man Booker Prize has been announced:

  • We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (Chatto and Windus)
  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (Granta)
  • Harvest by Jim Crace (Picador)
  • The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury)
  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)
  • The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín (Penguin)

Of course, I’m delighted that The Luminaries has made it to the shortlist (click on the link above if you’d like to read more about why it is one of my favourite books of the year). More generally, I really like this as a shortlist: there are some interesting books, and it is properly diverse and international.

As to whether I’ll read the shortlist before the winner is announced on 15 October… I might have a go, actually; after all, I’ve read the longest one already, and most of the others are relatively short. I will update the above list with links to any reviews I write. In the meantime, congratulations to all the authors and publishers concerned.

The Booker’s (baker’s) dozen 2013

This year’s Man Booker Prize longlist is out, so let’s take a gander:

  • Tash Aw – Five Star Billionaire (Fourth Estate)
  • NoViolet Bulawayo – We Need New Names (Chatto & Windus)
  • Eleanor Catton – The Luminaries (Granta)
  • Jim Crace – Harvest (Picador)
  • Eve Harris – The Marrying of Chani Kaufman (Sandstone Press)
  • Richard House – The Kills (Picador)
  • Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland (Bloomsbury)
  • Alison MacLeod – Unexploded (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Colum McCann – TransAtlantic (Bloomsbury)
  • Charlotte Mendelson – Almost English (Mantle)
  • Ruth Ozeki – A Tale for the Time Being (Canongate)
  • Donal Ryan – The Spinning Heart (Doubleday Ireland)
  • Colm Tóibín – The Testament of Mary (Viking)

I have read precisely none of those – not that that’s about to stop me from opining about the list…

Given that The Rehearsal remains my favourite of all the books I’ve read during the lifetime of this blog, I’m naturally very pleased to see Eleanor Catton on the longlist. The Luminaries has not been published yet, but it promises to be a great big tome set in the New Zealand goldrush of the 1860s, taking in astronomy, murder mysteries, and more besides. I’m really looking forward to it.

The other writer I am particularly pleased to see longlisted is Alison MacLeod. I know her more as a fine writer of short stories, but I’m certainly intrigued to read one of her novels. Unexploded, set in wartime Brighton, isn’t out yet either, so there’s not much more I can say there.

Looking at the list more generally, I think the range of author nationalities is nice to see. The Booker has perhaps been starting to look a mite parochial in recent years, having gone to well-established English authors for four years in a row. With only Jim Crace really fitting that description here, we may well see a different outcome this year.

The longlist is lighter on small-press titles than I’d have liked. There’s only really Sandstone Press (and congratulations to them on a second longlisting, following The Testament of Jessie Lamb a couple of years ago). You could add in Canongate, Granta and Bloomsbury as independent publishers, I suppose – but they’re not small presses in quite the same way. After such a strong showing for small publishers last year (And Other Stories, Myrmidon and Salt – half the shortlist), I can’t help feeling a little disappointed about that.

Which of the books would I most like to read? Taking the Catton and MacLeod books as givens… The Kills has me especially intrigued – a vast political thriller cross-pollinated with a literary mystery, which was first published as a series of enhanced ebooks with added audio and video. Five Star Billionaire and We Need New Names sound interesting. I’ve heard so many good things about A Tale for the Time Being that I really ought to give it a go… That’s a full shortlist right there.

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