Here it is! The official shortlist for 2015. It shares three books with the Shadow Panel shortlist. If you click a cover, it will take you to my review of the book. Congratulations to all the shortlisted authors.
Twenty books, five weeks, six readers and a lot of discussion later (some of it heated – ask six passionate readers how they each feel about a book and prepare to stand back!), here’s the Shadow Panel’s choices for the shortlist. (In alphabetical order by author.)
If you click on the books, they will take you to my reviews. My reviews of all the longlisted books are linked to here. Let us know what you think of our decisions. The official shortlist is announced tonight across all the Bailey’s Prize social media channels at 7.15pm.
Anne Tyler’s latest novel tells the story of the Whitshank family. The book begins in 1994 with Abby and Red receiving a phone call from their son, Denny, who tells Red he’s gay. We soon discover this is one of many things Denny will say and do for which his only motivation might be annoying his parents.
“How would I know where he was calling from? He doesn’t have a fixed address, hasn’t been in touch all summer, already changed jobs twice that we know of and probably more that we don’t know of…A nineteen-year-old boy and we have no idea what part of the planet he’s on! You’ve got to wonder what’s wrong there!”
A page later, Red’s reminding Abby that Denny got a girl pregnant before he left school and bemoaning the day he married Abby, the social worker.
Denny’s the third of four children – Amanda and Jeannie are his older sisters and Stem his younger brother.
He was far more generous, for instance, than the other three put together. (He traded his new bike for a kitten when Jeannie’s beloved cat died.) And he didn’t bully other children, or throw tantrums. But he was so close-mouthed. He had these spells of unexplained obstinacy, where his face would grow set and pinched and no one could get through to him. It seemed to be a kind of inward tantrum; it seemed his anger turned in upon itself and hardened him or froze him.
The first chapter of the book is a potted history of Denny’s life, we are told about his many failures and few successes and how Abby and Red feel about their son. But this is not a book about Denny – although he does bookend the novel – it’s a book about the whole family and the second chapter takes us back to Red’s father, Junior, and the house he built.
By chapter three we’re in 2012 and Abby begins to disappear. Not just physically but also from conversations taking place when she’s present. Red stops attending to the house he’s always loved and their children begin to wonder whether it’s time for them to move somewhere else. When they refuse, Stem and his wife Nora move in.
What Tyler does so well here is show the tensions between the parents and the children who’ve invaded their house – particularly between Abby and her daughter-in-law, Nora – and between the siblings who each think they should be responsible for their parents’ welfare, particularly Denny, who reappears.
The novel then moves backwards in time; firstly to Abby and Red’s courtship and then back further to Red’s father, Junior, and how he met and eventually married Red’s mother, Linnie Mae.
Linnie Mae’s a particularly great character, seemingly a bit of a simple country girl, she manipulates situations to her satisfaction, those around her only realising what she’s done when it’s far too late to respond.
There was nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks. None of them was famous. None of them could claim exceptional intelligence. And in looks, they were no more than average…But like most families, they imagined they were special.
Anne Tyler’s speciality is making ordinary people seem special. She highlights those moments that seem to be generic family happenings – fights between grown siblings that come from seething tensions and then seem embarrassing moments after they’ve happened; antagonism between parents and children at various stages of their lives; the changes in relationships as people age and situations change. A Spool of Blue Thread is classic Tyler.
Thanks to Chatto and Windus for the review copy.
There are a number of preview lists in the media at the moment. Rather than tell you what’s coming up, I’ve been reading 2015 titles since October so I can recommend books I think you should watch out for in the first half of 2015. Bar the bottom three titles – which are by three of my favourite writers and therefore, highly anticipated by me – I’ve read everything included on here; all of these books are very good and some are superb.
Full reviews will follow on the week of publication. All publication dates are UK and subject to change.
An Untamed State – Roxane Gay
On a visit to her parents in Haiti, Mireille is kidnapped in front of her husband and baby son. When her father holds out on paying the ransom, she’s subjected to brutal attacks. Her family will have to come to terms with the consequences but Gay clearly makes the personal political and An Untamed State is also about the treatment of women by men; the relationship between Haiti and America, and poverty versus wealth. This is an incredible book, if I read many better this year, I’ll be surprised.
Published 8th January by Corsair Books
Hausfrau – Jill Alexander Essbaum
Anna, an American, has lived in Dietlikon, a quiet suburb of Zurich for nine years but she’s never felt as though she belongs despite being married to a Swiss man and having had three children there. When her therapist suggests she attend a German language class, she meets Archie and begins an affair. Essbaum interweaves lessons about language and passivity with Anna’s thoughts and behaviour and adds her work to a line of women going against society’s expectations.
Published 26th March by Mantle
A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler
The Whitshank family could be any family on the surface – Abby and Red and their four children, son Denny causing problems and disappearing for long periods until someone needs him. The novel begins with Abby’s story and her descent into forgetting things before moving to how her and Red met and then to his parents and their story. A number of family secrets are revealed along the way and Tyler writes families as only she can – with a keen eye and an acute understanding of how the bonds between family members work.
Published 10th February by Chatto & Windus
The Gracekeepers – Kirsty Logan
Callanish is a gracekeeper, someone who performs the burial of the dead. North and her bear are part of the Circus Excalibur, a circus that sails around performing – there is no place on what’s left of the land for them. But North is betrothed to the son of Red Gold, the circus owner, who wants them to have a house on land and restore his family line to the earth. Not everyone likes his plan though and North and Callanish’s paths are going to cross and set them on a different course. Logan builds upon the promise she showed in her short story collection, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales. The Gracekeepers places her somewhere between Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood.
Published 7th May by Harvill Secker
The Ship – Antonia Honeywell
London is burning. The British Museum is occupied. The Nazareth Act is in force and if you can’t produce your identity card in seconds you’re going to be shot. Lalla’s mother has tried to show her some of the reality but she’s sheltered by her wealthy father, Michael Paul, who’s been building a boat and selecting the people who will travel on it. When her mother’s shot, the boat sets sail but where are they going and what will Lalla discover along the way? A thoughtful, genre crossing, page turner.
Published 19th February by W&N
Vigilante – Shelley Harris
Jenny Pepper’s fed up of tidying up after her graphic designer husband, Elliot and teenage daughter, Martha. When she’s on her way to her friend’s fancy dress party as a superhero and prevents a mugging, she gets a buzz from acting as a vigilante protecting other women. Add to this the graphic novel designed by Elliot, containing a female victim with an unrealistic body; the graffiti picture of a girl in the uniform of the school Martha attends, and a man who’s attacking girls in Martha’s year and Jenny has a purpose in life. Hard to put down.
Published 8th January by W&N
Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller
Peggy’s father is a member of the North London Retreaters, discussing strategies for surviving the end of the world. While her mother, professional pianist, Ute, is on a tour of Germany, Peggy’s father tells her Ute is dead and takes her to live in die Hütte somewhere in Europe. The structure of the novel moves between Peggy’s present when she has returned to London and her mother and her time in die Hütte and how she and her father survived. Fascinating and terrifying.
Published 26th February by Fig Tree.
The Vegetarian – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)
When Yeong-hye begins to have nightmares about meat and murder she decides to turn vegetarian, something highly unusual in South Korean society. It strains her relationship with her husband and her father but makes her highly attractive to her brother-in-law. Told in three linked novellas, each from a different point of view, The Vegetarian becomes odder and more unnerving as Yeong-hye deteriorates mentally and physically.
Published 1st January by Portobello Books.
The Chimes – Anna Smaill
Simon goes to London with his bag of objectmemories, and the name and tune of a woman his mother told him to find. Lives are run by The Order who tell them Onestory every day and erase their memory with Chimes every evening. There is no writing, no shared stories and communities are difficult to forge; music rules everything. But Simon has a purpose, he just needs to remember what it is. An extraordinary story told in a brave and unusual way.
Published 12th February by Sceptre.
Before the Fire – Sarah Butler
Stick and Mac are leaving Manchester for Spain. Stick’s had enough of the memories of his sister, dead in a fire; his father who left him and his mother after his sister’s death and now has a posh house with his new wife and kids, and his mum’s OCD which is giving them both sleepless nights. But the night before they’re due to leave, Mac’s attacked and now Stick’s going nowhere and life looks a whole lot worse, especially as the 2011 riots are about to take place. A great addition to working class literature.
Published 12th March by Picador.
The Shore – Sara Taylor
Some families just don’t work out. The Shore is a collection of three islands off the coast of Virginia. There live a group of people related to each other. The book begins by introducing Chloe and Renee, daughters of Ellie and Bo. There’s been a murder and people in the local store are gossiping about it. By the end of the first chapter, there will have been three. The book then goes on to tell the stories – past and future – of those related to this central family. The reader travels back to 1876 and Medora and forward to 2143 and Simian. Ambitious with plenty to say about the treatment of women.
Published 26th March by William Heinemann.
The Hourglass Factory – Lucy Ribchester
Frankie George, reporter for the London Evening Gazette, is sent to write a profile of Ebony Diamond, trapeze artist and suffragette, but that evening, Ebony disappears and a woman mistakenly identified as her is murdered. Weaving a murder investigation with the activities of the suffragettes, The Hourglass Factory is a satisfying, multi-strand story with some serious points to make about women and gender roles.
Published 15th January by Simon & Schuster
All This Has Nothing to Do With Me – Monica Sabolo (translated by Georgina Collins)
When MS interviews XX she hires him because he’s quirky, tall, young and a mess. MS falls into an obsessive, largely unrequited love which she fuels by keeping notes about XX and taking ‘mementos’ from their after-work drinks. These are documented in diary entries, emails and photographs. The book then moves to tell the story of MS’s childhood and her parents. Sabolo interweaves her own photographs and uses her own initials in this novel which seems to blur the boundaries of fiction and autobiography in a similar way to Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton.
Published 9th April by Picador.
And the three I haven’t read but am very much looking forward to:
A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson
In A God in Ruins, Atkinson turns her focus on Ursula’s beloved younger brother Teddy – would-be poet, RAF bomber pilot, husband and father – as he navigates the perils and progress of the 20th century. For all Teddy endures in battle, his greatest challenge will be to face living in a future he never expected to have.
I’ve been reading Kate Atkinson’s novels since Behind the Scenes at the Museum won the Whitbread Award (now the Costa) in 1995 and she’s never disappointed.
Published 5th May by Doubleday.
The Wolf Border – Sarah Hall
For almost a decade Rachel Caine has turned her back on home, kept distant by family disputes and her work monitoring wolves on an Idaho reservation. But now, summoned by the eccentric Earl of Annerdale and his controversial scheme to reintroduce the Grey Wolf to the English countryside, she is back in the peat and wet light of the Lake District.
The earl’s project harks back to an ancient idyll of untamed British wilderness – though Rachel must contend with modern-day concessions to health and safety, public outrage and political gain – and the return of the Grey after hundreds of years coincides with her own regeneration: impending motherhood, and reconciliation with her estranged family.
The Wolf Border investigates the fundamental nature of wilderness and wildness, both animal and human. It seeks to understand the most obsessive aspects of humanity: sex, love, and conflict; the desire to find answers to the question of our existence; those complex systems that govern the most superior creature on earth.
Hall’s been my favourite female novelist since I read The Electric Michelangelo; I think she’s one of the UK’s greatest.
Published 26th March by Faber & Faber
The Story of My Teeth – Valeria Luiselli (translated by Christina MacSweeney)
Gustavo ‘Turnpike’ Sanchez is a man with a mission: he is planning to replace every last one of his unsightly teeth. He has a few skills that might help him on his way: he can imitate Janis Joplin after two rums, he can interpret Chinese fortune cookies, he can stand an egg upright on a table, and he can float on his back. And, of course, he is the world’s best auction caller – although other people might not realise this, because he is, by nature, very discreet.Studying auctioneering under Grandmaster Oklahoma and the famous country singer Leroy Van Dyke, Highway travels the world, amassing his collection of ‘Collectibles’ and perfecting his own specialty: the allegoric auction. In his quest for a perfect set of pearly whites, he finds unusual ways to raise the funds, culminating in the sale of the jewels of his collection: the teeth of the ‘notorious infamous’ – Plato, Petrarch, Chesterton, Virginia Woolf et al.Written with elegance, wit and exhilarating boldness, Valeria Luiselli takes us on an idiosyncratic and hugely enjoyable journey that offers an insightful meditation on value, worth and creation, and the points at which they overlap.
I reviewed Luiselli’s debut novel, Faces in the Crowd, back in 2012 and it was one of my books of the year. I’m looking forward to entering her strange, clever world again.
Published 2nd April by Granta.
Thanks to Mantle, Chatto & Windus, Harvill Secker, W&N, Fig Tree, Portobello Books, Sceptre, Picador, William Heinemann and Simon & Schuster for the review copies.