TagGoldsmiths Prize

#GoldsmithsPrize2021: little scratch by Rebecca Watson

Sometimes you have to start reading a novel before you realise what makes it unconventional. Then there are books like little scratch that just look unconventional on the page. To see what I mean, look at the sample page in this review at the Glasgow Guardian.

The words scattered across the pages of little scratch are the thoughts of a young woman who works as an assistant at a news organisation. The novel takes place over one day: the narrator gets up, goes to work, spends the evening with her partner (“my him”) at a poetry reading. Ordinary enough, perhaps – but the telling makes all the difference. 

Rebecca Watson’s writing places the reader right into the ebb and flow of her protagonist’s thoughts. A conventional paragraph may give way to two columns of prose (external dialogue on one side, internal thoughts on the other), to a swarm of words, to any number of patterns… This woman’s mind is restless, and we feel that. 

Among all the protagonist’s thoughts, it’s clear that she dwells on something in particular – the itch that she longs to scratch. There are glimpses of this in the way she’s wary around men: for example, in one scene the woman is walking to the train station, and the prose becomes a grid of the word ‘walking’, apart from a few words that reflect what she sees from the corner of her eyes. A man is driving up: “is he going to say something?” There is a real sense of dread here. 

The woman’s inner turmoil grows throughout the day. She wants to be able to say out loud what happened to her, but she can only say it internally. Watson keeps the tension up to the very end. little scratch is her debut novel, and it leaves me intrigued to see where she goes next. 

Published by Faber & Faber.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

#GoldsmithsPrize2021: Assembly by Natasha Brown

The protagonist of Natasha Brown’s debut novel is an unnamed Black British woman who works in the banking industry. She’s been invited to assembly at a local school to talk about her job. However, she’s ambivalent about this: the finance sector gave her opportunities for social mobility that her parents and grandparents didn’t have – but shouldn’t things be different for these schoolchildren? 

…it didn’t sit right with me to propagate the same beliefs within a new generation of children. It belied the lack of progress – shaping their aspiration into a uniform and compliant form; their selves into workers who were grateful and industrious and understood their role in society. Who knew the limit to any ascent. 

Then again, she wouldn’t have been invited to the school in the first place were it not for her career:

Any value my words have in this country is derived from my association with its institutions: universities, banks, government. I can only repeat their words and hope to convey a kind of truth . Perhaps that’s a poor justification for my own complicity. My part in convincing children that they, too, must endure. Silence, surely, was the least harmful choice.

This kind of reflection animates Assembly, as the protagonist considers whether she really wants to do what it takes to get ahead, in a system and society that continue to oppress her. 

But I’m getting ahead of the novel here. Assembly begins with snippets of her colleagues’ behaviour that the protagonist feels she must excuse so she can keep going. Then there’s one side of a conversation with an EU national who tries to make a well-meant comparison about the two of them being made to feel unwelcome in the UK, but still ends up talking about where the protagonist is “really” from. My sense is that this is where the book starts because these are the building-blocks of what the protagonist experiences. 

As a novel, Assembly is pared back so there’s no chance for readers to get comfortable. It changes style and form as it goes, to fit whatever the protagonist wants to say. For example, later on, she describes instances of racism as a series of figures; and the prose turns more essayistic as she discusses the persistence of colonialism. 

Brown’s novel is then an assembly of different pieces, just as the protagonist assembles the self she presents to the world. As the book goes along, she finds a way to take more control over her story, which is reflected in how the prose changes. The reader is kept close to her, and the novel builds to a powerful crescendo. 

Published by Hamish Hamilton.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Goldsmiths Prize shortlist 2021

For me, October means the Goldsmiths Prize. Last year was the first time I’d managed to read the whole shortlist, and it was such an adventure. I was looking forward to this year’s shortlist, and it turns out to be full of books that I want to read:

  • Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett (Jonathan Cape)
  • Assembly by Natasha Brown (Hamish Hamilton)
  • A Shock by Keith Ridgway (Picador)
  • This One Sky Day by Leone Ross (Faber & Faber)
  • Sterling Karat Gold by Isabel Waidner (Peninsula Press)
  • little scratch by Rebecca Watson (Faber & Faber)

As of this post, I have read two: I loved Keith Ridgway’s previous novel, Hawthorn & Child, so I was always going to read A Shock. It didn’t disappoint, and I’m glad it has been recognised here. I hadn’t got along with Isabel Waidner’s work previously, but I anticipated that Sterling Karat Gold might make this prize and/or the Republic of Consciousness. So I decided to get ahead, and I really enjoyed it.

Of the other four nominees, the only author I’ve read is Leone Ross. Her short story ‘The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant’ left a deep impression on me, so I’m looking forward to reading a full-length novel of hers. I know Claire-Louise Bennett’s name from the reputation of her previous book Pond. Assembly and little scratch are debut works that I’ve heard very good things about. It’s all looking positive to me.

As always, I will link to my reviews of the books in the list above as I post them.

#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.

Goldsmiths Prize 2019, part 1: Haddon, Levy, Main

Here are my thoughts on half of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

The Porpoise by Mark Haddon (Chatto & Windus)

Newborn Angelica is the only survivor of a plane crash. She is raised by her wealthy father Philippe, who over the years grows protective and possessive of her – dangerously so. When Darius, a friend’s son, gets too close to the truth, Philippe tries to kill him. Darius escapes on The Porpoise, a schooner that a friend is looking after – and a couple of days later, he wakes as Pericles in ancient Greece.

Angelica tells herself the story of Pericles as a form of protection – and reshapes reality in doing so. Characters’ identities shift and the novel’s focus changes as Angelica reaches for the story she needs to help her get through what’s happening. Haddon’s writing is propulsive and engaging… a fine start to the shortlist.

[Link to publisher]

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton)

In 1988, historian Saul Adler is knocked down by a car while his girlfriend Jennifer is photographing him on the Abbey Road crossing. Jennifer ends the relationship when Saul asks her to marry him, and he seeks solace in a research trip to East Germany. While there, Saul finds himself falling for his translator, Walter, but it’s a relationship that will remain beyond reach.

There are certain details in this scenario that don’t sit right, not least that Saul appears to have advance knowledge of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Any doubts about what Saul has been telling us will only increase in the novel’s second half. It’s 2016, and Saul has apparently been knocked down on Abbey Road again, but this time it has put him in hospital. His mind keeps drifting back to 1988, blurring past and present…

The Man Who Saw Everything becomes a hall of mirrors, as it won’t quite resolve into a single interpretation of ‘what actually happened’. There’s also an interesting sense that Levy is looking back from a precarious present to a time when great change was on the way. The feeling of uncertainty extends from Saul’s individual life to the broader sweep of history within the novel. It’s quite electrifying to read.

[Link to publisher]

Good Day? by Vesna Main (Salt Publishing)

Well, this is a lot of fun. It consists mostly of dialogue between a husband and wife, Reader and Writer. She’s writing a novel about Anna and Richard, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is under strain from Richard’s infidelity. Each day, the ‘real’ couple discuss the Writer’s novel and her characters, often with differing views: for example, the Reader is more sympathetic to Richard, the Writer more defensive of Anna.

The Reader is concerned that people will think that the Writer’s novel is based on their own lives. The Writer insists it’s not, though that doesn’t stop her incorporating the odd detail. The sense grows that a conversation about the Writer’s and Reader’s relationship is going on by proxy (and sometimes more directly than that) as they talk about her novel.

Good Day? turns the structure of a typical novel inside out, and the experience of reading it is also transformed. The tale of Anna and Richard is disconcertingly fluid, because it hasn’t yet been settled – and the tale of the Writer and Reader is just out of our reach. There are also some nice touches that made me smile: it’s common enough for an author to incorporate one of their previously published short stories into a novel, but I’ve never seen it done quite like this… and I shall say no more about that!

[Link to publisher]

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