The BBC National Short Story Award Shortlist: Sarah Hall

The BBC National Short Story Award always highlights some absolute gems. This year there are three womxn on the shortlist: Jan Carson, Sarah Hall and Eley Williams. I had the pleasure of speaking to all three of them about their short stories. You can watch my interview with Jan Carson here. My interview with Eley Williams will be posted on Friday.

Sarah Hall is the author of five novels and three short story collections. Her novels The Electric Michelangelo and How to Paint a Dead Man were both nominated for the Booker Prize and in 2013 she won the BBC National Short Story Award with ‘Mrs Fox’. This year she became the only writer to have been shortlisted four times for the BBC National Short Story Award

I spoke to Sarah Hall via phone. We discussed family units, coercive control and political and societal structures.

There’s so much within ‘The Grotesques’. For you, did it start with the characters or the ideas? Is there an image that sparks things?

Like any short story, it’s a combination. I tend to store these things away in my brain and they accumulate and begin to work with each other. I have a background in art history and the images are obviously there. The story starts with this terrible image of a vagrant man who has been subject to this awful class joke by wealthy students, but the idea of grotesques was always very interesting to me. The idea that there’s a kind of horror and disgust and comedy combined. Wherever there’s cognitive dissonance, I’m very interested. Each of my short stories seems to have something of that in it, so there’s a repellent thing, an empathetic thing and a sympathetic thing as well with these characters. What’s behind the face? And it is a mask; it’s a presentation to the world. If you start with that idea and think about human beings, that’s quite interesting. What’s presented to the world? How are messages conveyed? 

There was a lot in the press at the time about the growing gap between rich and poor and a return to the disparity between those with power and entitlement and those without it. That’s the background of the story; the political and social layer. Then it’s always very interesting to examine the psychology of a family unit, or any unit, where there are power structures that mirror what might be going on in the bigger scheme of things. So, you have this inner story of a family unit where there’s covert control; there’s a presentation to the world in one way; there’s something going on behind masks, and the main character is very lost in this world. She’s stunted. There’s a paralysis to her development and you realise later she’s much older than you think she is. Short stories are great for layering in these meanings. 

I’m interested in the psychology of it as well. In all the stories I write there is generally a kind of psychology being examined or being questioned. A very good friend of mine is a psychologist, so I always send my stories to him and we talk about how it all works and the character dynamics.

My main family unit is quite small, but I come from quite a big family with loads of cousins, so I’m interested in the idea of controlling a unit. I’ve written about this in novels as well. It’s not just the family, it could be a female army. How do you get individuals to be loyal to a unit? In some ways there’s a bit of mind control going on. When do you give up your individuality for the good of the group? Whether that’s an army or a family or whatever it is that makes you feel like you belong and function best inside it. That theme has always been there in my work; the idea of the individual in the society somehow.

There’s a lot in the story about the narratives we create, whether that’s within a group of people or the individual narrative we present to the group. How does this fit with the class dynamic in ‘The Grotesques’?

I think it’s true that your existence in life is about the story that you tell yourself about your life, or your perception of it. We can see that written quite starkly in politics now. The idea that you can just say, ‘I don’t agree with your version of events’, ‘That’s a false truth’ or ‘That didn’t really happen’, even if it’s a fact. This undermining of the very essence of what has happened is very interesting to me. There’s a lot of that goes on in families, that I’ve noticed. The shifting sands. It is about power. It’s about maintaining a position of authority within a family or getting people to do what you want them to do. Or it’s the sense of keeping a unit together by scapegoating. The scapegoat is a very important image in the story. To cohere any unit – a country, a family, a couple – often there is this notion of the other, the scapegoat. All the dysfunction of that unit is put onto something outside to make the unit cohere. The thing that keeps people together is this story about this is us and how we do it and the goodness of us and our righteous superiority and this is the bad that’s outside that we have to attack and that makes us join together even stronger. When you notice that going on, in politics, in families, it’s fascinating. Even capitalism. A very good friend of mine is a philosopher and he’s just written a book about scapegoating capitalism by saying capitalism is this terrible thing. It is, but it has been created by us and it facilitates our darker commercial motives and operating systems of having and having not, so we can scapegoat these things and say ‘oh, that’s a terrible thing’, but it’s created by us. I quite like these honest examinations in stories of holding onto power. A kind of selfishness. Those observations are always fascinating and they’re everywhere. It’s how we operate now.

There’s a sense that the family are middle class do-gooders. The narrator thinks about what her mother would’ve done if she’d seen Charlie-bo, the vagrant man. The nuance in the characters, which considers the idea of the version of their lives they tell themselves, is interesting.

I suppose I’ve become interested in liberalism and what that means now. Whether it’s authentic. Because liberalism can dismiss a lot of stuff and forgive a lot of stuff in some ways. True liberalism is not what we think it is, so I think this questioning of what that means politically, and in our lives, is very interesting. I would consider myself, hopefully, a true liberal. But that means holding people to account, not excusing them. I’m horrified of the loss of a liberal party in Britain – not because I’d necessarily vote for them, or I think they should be voted into office – but just the idea that we’re no longer really questioning – or maybe we are again – what liberalism really is and what it should do. So, you’ve got this family who are, outwardly facing, very left-wing, in some ways, but actually are as power hungry or controlling as the very right-wing structures that seem to control things; because of money, because of having, because of entitlement, because of the wheels behind the wheels. It’s interesting to me that you can be outwardly facing one thing but operationally very different. I do see that in politics as well; the sense of the loss of authenticity in politics. It’s back to this shifting sands of what things mean and what they don’t mean and what you say you are and what you’re actually doing. That dissonance and discrepancy. That notion of things seeming to work together, and we allow it to work together in our brains, but the meaning is lost. Things cancel each other out in some ways. That’s what I was hoping for with this particular family unit. There’s obviously a very strong matriarch and an absent father figure. He’s left the family, or he’s been kicked out of the family. You only really hear about the dad at the end; is he going to come and say happy birthday? He’s passed that message on through someone else. What has happened to this girl so her father’s passing on happy birthday messages through somebody else? It’s horrific. 

Once you become a parent, it’s not unlimited power, but you have to be very careful in thinking this child is my child but actually this child isn’t. This child is a borrowed person, who I’m looking after for a while, and they are their own person. How do you helpfully create individuation rather than enmeshment for your own purposes? You need to really question yourself as a parent. We maybe do it too much now and certainly my mum’s generation didn’t do it; they spent less time with their kids, and they worried less about it. Now we spend more time with our kids, and we worry more about it. What’s going on there? Once you get into the bracket of having children rather than not, you have to take these things on, I think. You really have to work through the minefield of being a benefactor or an influence on that small, vulnerable person. 

The woman in the story appears to be a girl, but she’s thirty. You meet her and you think she might be a teenager; she’s out doing chores for her mum. And in the end, the sad thing is, her choice is almost to stay in the safe unit where she’s defined as somebody else. This is the damage of a certain kind of family unit and perhaps it’s being the youngest one in that family unit as well and being vulnerable. Again, I’ve seen it in large families and extended families; you can see the pecking order. You can see where somebody’s influence has become dangerous. And the results of that are tragic. 

There’s ambiguity to the story as well. Dilly’s collecting things from town and she’s sitting by the river and she zones out. Towards the end you hear this news of the body that’s been dragged out of the river and, in one scenario, has she killed herself to escape because she knows that the face underneath all the faces is hers? And that’s awful, but at the same time, she’s given herself up to this way of being. She has access to a psychiatrist down the road but doesn’t actually say anything. She gets no help; not that any help was really intended. There are choices we make about our identity, in realising that we’re a product of certain upbringings or certain expectations, and what do we do about it once we’re aware of it? Becoming aware of it is the key, isn’t it? You can be a product, or you can become aware of the things that have made you and start to question them. Or decide that questioning them is too difficult. So that’s the real interplay for her. And that’s where we are, I suppose, now, isn’t it? We have access to psychiatry and psychology, but to what extent are people aware of who they are and who they want to be and what mistakes they’re making and what repetitions they’re making? That’s really interesting. That’s always fascinating. Progress. How do you progress in your life? 

I really felt that sense of Dilly being trapped at the end. That she felt as though she had to give herself up to it. There was a sense that everyone knew everything about her. The psychiatrist knows her mum and Dilly’s family are setting up a job for her with an acquaintance. There’s a sense of it being nepotistic. She can get the help because she’s part of the structure, but also being part of that structure traps her in it. 

That’s is. It’s about those mechanisms. I did it in The Carhullan Army as well. If you’re training someone to resist interrogation and torture, you do certain techniques on them to make sure they can withstand it. Some of these things are to do with food restriction and again, it’s like Dilly who’s really restricted from eating. You see this a lot, don’t you? In ‘Case Story 2’, the story that I wrote for Madame Zero, there’s a kid who’s being raised in a commune and he’s anorexic. He’s only eating three snails a day. It’s a system of control. In the story it broke my heart to write the part where Dilly gets an extra scone and the relief she feels. That level of control is through very simple, but fundamental means. Her position is terrible. 

It’s really supposed to be a psychological minefield and that’s the great thing about short stories; you can present these scenarios that are psychologically mined and people walk through and they’re setting stuff off in themselves. That’s the ideal for a short story. I think it’s supposed to take you into a zone that’s full of conflict, and you bring to it your own morality or disquiet or scenario or understanding of things or questioning of things. Hopefully the two things meet. It’s dark territory really. 

I wanted to talk about the setting because it’s set in Cambridge – 

Well, it’s not, it’s an amalgamation. The Corpus Clock is in there, so people think it’s Cambridge and that’s obviously lifted from Cambridge. But as many people have read it and said it’s Oxford, it’s Norwich, and it’s an amalgamation of those places. The setting is a very rich and entitled university town, so that limits it to a few places, but the bridges are renamed and mixed up and there are places in Norwich, where I live, that are in there. St. Giles, places like that. Some people though it was Oxford too because there’s a patisserie and the landscape, but those two towns have similarities, obviously. 

Were you thinking about how the setting ties to political ideas, for example the Bullingdon Club, that class of political leaders?

Definitely there are those. Like in The Wolf Border there are the political class that I don’t know much about really. I’ve seen it a bit. That is of interest to me, the wheels that operate and the immense wealth and the immense power; the snowball wealth in this country. We cannot think this is a true liberal democracy because it isn’t. We might be doing a good impression of it at certain times, we might hope that’s what we are, and we want to become more that way, but that isn’t how this country functions really. It’s quite hard to get at that in literature. Again, a short story can touch on it in one layer and ask questions about it. 

The family in the story have got no association with the colleges really. The mother might have come from a working class town somewhere in the country, so there’s a sense of pulling up to the middle class. I suppose that has interested me, because my mum’s generation came out of that Thatcher zone of thinking. It split people; there was a kind of violence to thinking ‘I have to pull away from my working class roots; I don’t want to be that, I must be middle class. I have to disavow everything that’s gone before and recreate myself into this’. Or the digging in of pride; ‘there’s nothing wrong with being working class’. There’s a violent split that was performed in that period and since then. I have been thinking about what’s going on now. How do we define ourselves in terms of class and self-perceive what that means? The story is in some ways asking questions about that too. About what you leave behind. What you recreate yourself as and why? And the violence that performs on you and on others, in some ways. None of these questions are in any way really answered in the story, but then a short story doesn’t have to answer questions, I don’t think. It just has to ask them. It’s a hard thing to write about and there are no rights and wrongs. Why wouldn’t you aspire? That’s a good thing, but if some self-loathing is brought in then that’s an extremely damaging thing. But at the same time, again with liberalism, what’s it trying to excuse? At what point is there agency – individual agency or community agency. I’m just interested in these stories that swirl around. I’m from Cumbria, which is a region which probably should be independent. Lots of counties or regions should devolve, I think, because they’ve got very little to do with London or other parts of the country.

This is your fourth shortlisting for the BBC National Short Story Award. What’s your secret? Did you celebrate and, if you did, how?

It’s a surprise. It was a surprise the three other times as well!

I’ve been really bad at celebrating. It’s been a really rough ride over the last few months. These things happen and I should take the time, but with who? And how? Also, I’m a bit of a workhorse. I think you’ve got to get on with it and ignore the good and the bad. I am actually delighted, I really am. Short stories feel harder. It’s not my métier. There’s something about the structure, there’s something about the content of short stories that seems to suit my preoccupations and make me a better writer in some ways. I really like the form. I hope they’re working and it’s really nice to think they are working. 

I’ve judged that prize. It’s very hard. You don’t get hundreds of brilliant short stories written. On the other hand, people that have somehow caught hold of something about the form are able to accomplish things that are in some ways more exciting and satisfying than novels. When you’re judging a short story prize and you get those ones in and think ‘oh my god, this is like a gymnast’, other short story writers are able to perform these amazing literary feats that you can’t really do in a poem or in a novel, and it’s really exciting. I don’t know what the key is really; I’m still trying to work it out. I do love doing it; I love short stories. I wanted to be a poet when I first started; I’ve written novels, but something about me and short stories come together, hopefully. 

Who are your favourite short story writers? Who do you read and take inspiration from?

It’s always difficult to mention other writers. In Britain, Jon McGregor and Tessa Hadley are doing brilliant things. Helen Oyeyemi is a brilliant short story writer. And they’re all doing different things. They’re able to innovate or seem like a classicist but actually be really subversive underneath, which is great. The form allows for that. 

There are writers that I like and think are really brilliant, but in some ways it’s the individual stories. Again, having judged something, you might only ever write ten brilliant short stories in your lifetime and the rest are pretty good, but ten were brilliant. There are brilliant novelists who’ve written a couple of brilliant short stories and you think okay, something arrives at some point that has to be a short story and it’s brilliant. You’re waiting for that oddity to come along.  

The winner of the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University will be announced on 6th October on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. The shortlist anthology is out now from Comma Press and the stories are available to listen to on BBC Sounds.

The Booker Prize Longlist 2020

For the first time, I’ve read (almost) all the books by womxn on the Booker Prize longlist. Almost because I haven’t read Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light. The reason for this is purely because I have the other two parts of the trilogy in paperback, so I’ll be buying and reading part three next year (I assume, there’s no listing for it at the moment) when I might also treat you to my rant about publishers who change cover designs during the publication of a series.

As for Mantel’s potential third successive Booker win, which dominated initial coverage of the longlist, I’m all for it. I think amongst Mantel’s recent success, it’s been forgotten that Mantel is (1) a womxn, (2) from a working-class background, who (3) wrote nine novels, a short story collection and a memoir, all of which are excellent and were largely ignored by the big prizes until she (4) wrote a big, historical fiction novel about a man in Tudor England. If it was a male writer up for a historic third win, I wouldn’t have to spell out why he was worthy. Anyway, having read all the other novels by womxn on the longlist, I don’t think Mantel’s got in the bag at all; there are some superb books here.

What’s interesting about the longlist are the number of novels which tell stories that have been hidden or remained unpublished. Not only the historical fiction of The Shadow King and How Much of These Hills Is Gold but also Burnt Sugar and its mother/daughter relationship, and Such a Fun Age with its young, Black female protagonist who just wants to live her life. There’s also significant consideration of how societies are organised and how we choose (or are forced) to live. Plenty of calls for urgent change here.

It’s the first time I’ve felt compelled to read of all the books by womxn on the Booker Prize longlist and it was a joy. This year has highlighted a list of gems, all of which are very much worth reading.

The New Wilderness – Diane Cook (Oneworld)

Somewhere in the not too distant future, Bea’s daughter Agnes is ill. When a doctor suggests that moving out of the smog-ridden, overcrowded, filthy city might be the answer, Bea allows her husband Glen’s dream to come true. Glen wants to be part of a study that involves living in the Wilderness, a refuge for wildlife. Twenty people are placed in the last wilderness area left, given a Manual on how to behave, and allowed semi-regular contact with the Rangers, including distribution of mail from friends and family.

The novel begins at a point where the Community have already spent several years living in this terrain. Although they claim to do everything by consensus, leaders have emerged, relationships have strengthened and strained, and some of their number are dead. The Rangers tell them they’ve camped too long at one particular spot and send them on a route they’ve never crossed before. 

The world Cook creates in The New Wilderness is a microcosm of society. There’s a clear hierarchy from the Administration to the Private Lands (which may or may not exist) to the Rangers to the Community to those living in the city. The rules might be bullshit and are a contradiction to living life in what’s supposed to be a wilderness, highlighting that all rules are created by societies to keep people in their places. There’s also some fetishisation of consumer goods that the Community are supposed to have relinquished.

Alongside this, Cook uses the relationship between Bea and Agnes to look at mothers and daughters. As Agnes grows in age and confidence, their relationship becomes more complex and more challenging. Bea doesn’t agree that she’d do anything for her daughter – moving to the Wilderness has pretty much cost Bea her relationship with her own mother – and isn’t sure she’s doing the right thing anymore. 

There’s a good narrative pace to the book and enough intrigue to propel the reader through it, as well as some interesting characters and set pieces. A good debut. 

This Mournable Body – Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber)

The question of who can, and who cannot, who does and who does not succeed, returns to echo ominously, bringing bitterness back into your soul.

Tambudzai’s life is not going well. In her 30s, she’s unemployed and living in a hostel. The woman who runs the hostel wants to throw Tambudzai out for being too old, concerned she’ll lose her license. Tambu finds a room in a big house run by a widow, which is deteriorating, and plans to marry one of the widow’s sons. Eventually she’s offered a job as a project manager that comes with accommodation, working for Green Jacaranda Getaway Safaris, a start-up dealing in environmentally friendly entrepreneurship solutions

What connects each of these moments in Tambu’s life are the structural issues which consistently prevent her from progressing, despite having been educated at a white school, gaining a university degree and doing what she sees as playing by the rules, even when it means ignoring others in danger. There’s a horrific scene near the start of the novel where Tambu watches her hostelmate Gertrude as she’s attacked and has her skirt ripped off. 

‘Tambu,’ she whispers, singling you out.
Her mouth is a pit. She is pulling you in. You do not want her to entomb you.

This isn’t the only moment of violence against women; there are several, both physical and emotional. 

The novel’s set during the time that Mugabe was redistributing farming lands controlled by whites to landless Black Zimbabweans. The white people in the novel are mostly represented by Tracey Stephenson, who was Tambu’s rival at school and later her boss at an advertising agency – where the white workers claimed Tambu’s work as their own – and then at Green Jacaranda, which Tracey runs. It doesn’t matter what Tambu does or where she goes, she can’t escape Tracey and will never rise above her. Tracey complains about her own disempowerment while constantly working to ensure that Tambu is kept in her place.

Dangarembga writes the novel in second person. This serves to distance Tambudzai from herself and her decisions; she can’t face what she’s doing in order to try and create a better life for herself – she’s educated, it shouldn’t be this hard and, of course, it wouldn’t be if she wasn’t a Black woman. It also makes the reader complicit, which is interesting, and I suspect will work differently on each reader depending on their race, gender and class. It makes for a sometimes uncomfortable reading experience, which is entirely the point. 

On a sentence level too, the writing is superb. The book begins There is a fish in the mirror. It’s metaphorical, a representation of Tambu’s face at that point, but it serves to disorientate us and to introduce a number of animal metaphors, including frequent use of snakes, to show Tambu’s emotional and physical state. 

This Mournable Body is the final book in a trilogy that began with Nervous Conditions. I haven’t read the earlier books and, while I’m sure I’ve missed things I’m unaware of, that didn’t affect my reading of this novel. I could easily write an essay on the issues Dangarembga considers in this book alone. If I was awarding this year’s prize, this would be my winner. This Mournable Body is a masterpiece.

Burnt Sugar – Avni Doshi (Hamish Hamilton)

There was a breakdown somewhere about what we were to one another, as though one of us were not holding up her part of the bargain, her side of the bridge. Maybe the problem is that we are standing on the same side, looking out into the emptiness. Maybe we were hungry for the same things, the sum of us only doubled that feeling. 

Antara’s mother, Tara, has dementia; she wanders around at night, asks Antara to phone people who are dead, and eventually doesn’t recognise Antara at all. They have a complex, antagonist relationship. When Antara was small, her mother left her husband, Antara’s father, because she felt stifled in his parents’ home, and joined an ashram. Run by a guru who promoted free love and took some of the women as his lovers before casting them off, Antara was neglected by her mother, instead becoming close to a woman called Kali Mata. Now, Antara seems to want a conventional life; she’s married and has discussed the possibility of children with her husband. However, she works as an artist; her most recent project being one in which she copied the face of a man over and over again.

The damage Antara’s mother rendered has left Antara in a position where she both loves and hates her mother. She wants to take care of her as she deteriorates, while also wanting to hurt her. It’s deliberately unclear whether some of Antara’s actions are because she wants the thing she is pursuing or because she knows it will hurt her mother; perhaps that she’s her mother’s daughter makes any distinction impossible. 

The epigraph to the book is a quotation from Lidia Yuknavitch’s superb memoir The Chronology of Water. Yuknavitch is one my favourite writers so I figured I was in for a treat as soon as I opened Burnt Sugar and I was right. Doshi’s depiction of Tara and Antara’s relationship shows how complex, interdependent and toxic the mother/daughter dynamic can be. There are few good portrayals of this type of motherhood in literature; it’s refreshing to see another excellent one. 

The Shadow King – Maaza Mengiste (Canongate)

These aren’t the days to pretend you’re only a wife or a sister or a mother, she says. We’re more than this.

Set during the Second Italo-Ethiopian war, The Shadow King, tells the story of Hirut, a servant working for the landowner and soldier, Kidane, and his wife Aster. Kidane took Hirut in when her parents died and his interest in her provokes jealousy from Aster, who is grieving the death of their child. Beginning in a claustrophobic domestic setting, the scope of the novel widens when the Italians invade Ethiopia. It’s clear early on that neither Hirut nor Aster will be content with supporting the men as they wage war; Hirut is furious when Kidane takes the gun her father gave her and donates it to the cause, and – in a superb set piece – as Empress Menen gives a speech calling on women to ‘express their solidarity’ against acts of war, Aster dresses in her father-in-law’s uniform; A woman dressed as a warrier, looking as fierce as any man

The narrative roves between a number of other characters including Ettore Navarra, a Jewish-Italian photographer; Ferres, a highly educated, expensive sex-worker and spy; Carlo Fucelli, leader of the Italian invasion, and Haile Selassie, initially in Addis Ababa and then in exile in Bath, England. There is also a chorus which comments and advises. Their appearance works alongside increasing references to Greek mythology, as the behaviour of some of the characters echoes those from the epic journeys. This movement is skilfully done, creating an engaging picture of the various battles – physical and psychological – that take place.

The novel’s title refers to an incident at the centre of the book where Hirut recognises the similarity between a peasant musician called Minim (‘nothing’) and Haile Selassie. In order to motivate and encourage the soldiers, Aster and Hirut dress Minim and train him to act like the emperor. Hirut becomes his guard. This isn’t the only shadow over the story though; many of the characters act in particular ways due to stories, advice and traits that have been passed down to them. Mengiste shows how ideas of masculinity and femininity are moulded in this way and the damage these gender constructs wield. She also considers how Ettore’s family have been forced to create a narrative and a different life due to anti-semitism and the impact this has on him when he’s seen as other in all the contexts he’s placed in.

Huge in scope and ambition, The Shadow King is an absorbing narrative through which Mengiste writes back into history the presence of female soldiers (including her own great-grandmother) in the Second Italo-Ethiopian war. A triumph. 

Such a Fun Age – Kiley Reid (Bloomsbury)

Emira, a young Black woman, is months away from her 26th birthday and the loss of parental health insurance cover. She works two part-time jobs as a typist for The Green Party and as a babysitter for a wealthy white couple. She’s at a friend’s birthday party when the couple call her for emergency cover while the police deal with an incident at their house. Emira takes two-year-old Briar to Market Depot to distract her. A middle-aged white woman tells the security guard there’s something suspicious about Emira, out late at night dressed for a party holding a white child, and the security guard accuses Emira of kidnapping Briar. The incident is filmed by a white man who later agrees to delete the video after emailing a copy to Emira.

What unfolds is a story of white people attempting to out-woke each other while ignoring the wishes of the young Black woman they think they’re trying to protect. Emira’s boss Alix wants to befriend Emira and make her part of the family, while the man Emira dates – Kelley Copeland, who is also the man who filmed the video – seems to fetishise Black people. However, this is as much a tale of class as it is race; Emira is the first in her family to gain a degree, but at 25 she doesn’t earn enough to have benefits included in her work package. In various ways, Emira’s friends, Alix, Alix’s friends and Kelley all attempt to push Emira into doing something more with her life, while Emira can’t imagine leaving a job in which she cares for the little girl she loves. 

This is a smart, compelling and smoothly written novel. The sections where Reid interweaves conversations characters are having with the interruptions of a small child are deftly handled. Alix and Kelley are recognisable and, by the end of the novel, decisively skewered by their own behaviour, while Emira, the character everyone else seems to think is lost, shows that it’s possible to be content without grand ambition. 

Redhead by the Side of the Road – Anne Tyler (Chatto & Windus)

44-year-old Micah Mortimer has a steady life. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone. He works as a superintendent at the building he lives in and runs his own tech company, mainly sorting out the computer woes of elderly women. He has a girlfriend – Cass, a teacher – who he sees several nights a week. 

Two things happen to disrupt Micah’s quiet existence: Cass thinks she’s going to be thrown out of her apartment and when Micah doesn’t suggest she move in with him, Cass is annoyed, and Brink, the son of Micah’s first girlfriend shows up unexpectedly, thinking that Micah might be his dad.

Like many of Tyler’s novels, this could be described as a quiet book. While nothing much appears to happen, Micah is forced to recalibrate his entire view of himself and his life so far – the redhead of the title doesn’t exist, it’s a fire hydrant that Micah repeatedly mistakes for a small person while running without his glasses on. There’s a superb set piece of a dinner with Micah’s family that is vintage Tyler and much to admire in the novel as a whole.

Love and Other Thought Experiments – Sophie Ward (Corsair)

Rachel and Eliza are a couple. When the novel begins their flat has an ant infestation and they are thinking about having a baby. Lying in bed one night, Rachel dreams she’s been bitten and wakes up. She becomes convinced that an ant has crawled into her eye. Eliza thinks Rachel is mistaken and Rachel connects this to her belief that Eliza doesn’t want a baby because she thinks Rachel will be a bad mother. They have the baby and the ant takes up permanent residence inside Rachel. From there the book develops in unexpected ways.

Each chapter begins with a summary of a philosophical theory, then the story that follows illustrates that theory. As you’re reading the chapters seem to be loosely interlinked stories, but the connection between them becomes clear towards the very end. The book moves between perspectives, time periods and genres. To say too much would spoil what a clever, intriguing journey this takes you on, but I will say that the ideas reminded me of Speak by Louisa Hall and the structure of The Shore by Sara Taylor and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  Definitely worth a read if genre-bending time travel is your thing. 

How Much of These Hills Is Gold – C Pam Zhang (Virago)

Set in the North American goldrush, How Much of These Hills is Gold is largely told through the perspectives of Lucy and Sam, 12 and 11-years old respectively. Their Ba is dead and, as the novel begins, they set out to bury him somewhere he might regard as home. The problem is that Ba never settled, always in pursuit of the gold that would make the family rich. This journey bookends the novel. In the middle, we get the story of the family, particularly that of Lucy’s education, followed by Ba’s ghost telling the true tale of how him and Ma met, rather than the version that’s become the family story.

The book’s concerned with who’s allowed to tell a story and how they choose to, or are allowed to, tell it. Ba’s section particularly serves as a corrective to the rich, white men’s tales of who found gold and who it belonged to. Zhang also considers race and gender. We would describe Sam as trans, and his story illustrates that trans people have been present (and erased from many narratives) for a long time. His trajectory, when contrasted to Lucy’s, highlights similarities and differences between the way they are treated. 

The novel reinserts non-white people, specifically Chinese people and, to a lesser extent, indigenous North Americans, back into a part of history from which they’ve largely been erased, reasserting their agency and complexity.  Zhang does all this while pulling off a page-turning, immersive story of the American West complete with cowboys, shooting, stealing, a rotting corpse and the question of what it means to be family. How Much of These Hills Is Gold is superb.

Review copies provided by the publishers as listed except This Mournable Body, Such a Fun Age, and Love and Other Thought Experiments which are my own copies.