My Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016 Wishlist

It’s almost time! The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist will be announced next Tuesday, 8th March. Once again, I’ll be shadowing the prize and for the second year running, I’ll be doing so with a panel. I’ll introduce you to the members of that panel on Friday.

For now though, here are the books I’d like to see appear on Tuesday’s list. They’re a combination of books I’ve loved and those I’m keen to read based on what I’ve heard about them so far. I’ve had to cull this list significantly to keep it to 20 books so, as usual, anything’s possible with the real one!

To be eligible, books have to be written in English and first published in the UK between 1st April 2015 and 31st March 2016. Publishers can enter three full length novels per imprint plus anything eligible by writers who have previously won the prize.

I’ve reviewed the first eleven titles – click on the covers to go to my reviews – and read the next three as well (reviews coming soon).

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The Ballroom – Anna Hope

She’d heard of it. Since she was small. If you ever did anything stupid: the asylum. For the lunatics. The paupers.

They’ll send you to Sharston, and you’ll never come out.

 

1911. Ella and John are patients at a mental asylum on the edge of the North Yorkshire moors. The morning after Ella’s incarceration she’s taken to see Doctor Fuller to be formally admitted.

‘It says here, Miss Fay, that yesterday morning you attempted to damage a machine in the factory in which you are employed.’ The doctor was looking at her again, a keenness to him now.
‘I’m not mad.’
‘Do you deny you did this?’
‘I…’
How to explain? How to speak of what she had seen – of the women and the machines and the windows that had blocked everything out. It had been so clear then but would be muddy before this man, she knew.

Before her initial assessment is complete, Ella makes a run for it, out of the unlocked front door and down the hill. She almost makes it to the lane but slips in the mud in front of two men digging a hole. Those men are Dan and John.

Dan was a sailor for twenty years. Full of tales about Norah Carney – possibly a legend – and songs of the sea, after two years John still doesn’t know why Dan’s in the asylum.

John’s an inmate because circumstances left him destitute. He turned up at the asylum after several weeks living outside.

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John and Ella’s stories progress in parallel – her slow realisation that she has no choice other than to submit to the system, making friends with a woman called Clem and working in the laundry; him continuing to dig holes, dealing with taunts about his nationality (Irish) and coming under scrutiny from the doctor – until a fortnight has passed and they meet again in the ballroom of the asylum on a Friday evening where the patients are taken and allowed to dance.

And, then, sitting at the dead centre of the asylum, forming, in so many ways, Charles had come to feel, its heart, something entirely unexpected: an immense ballroom, a hundred feet long and fifty feet wide, with a stage at one end.

Fine stained glass was set in the sixteen high, arched windows. Birds and brambles painted upon it. Summer light pooled upon the sprung wooden dance floor. Above, an arcaded gallery stretched the length of the room, the ceiling gently curved, was panelled with gold.

Charles, Doctor Fuller, is the third voice in the story. After scraping through his medical degree, bored of lectures he’d skipped to do music practice or attend concerts at Wigmore Hall, he’d applied for a job at the asylum rather than follow his father’s rigid instructions as to how he’d spend his days in order to retake his examinations and excel. When the novel begins, he’s lived in his tiny room within the asylum walls and tended to the patients for five years.

When he sees a call for papers for the First International Eugenics Congress, he goes against the superintendent and decides to write on the benefits of music and segregation, believing this might be ‘A chance, perhaps, to take his place in the pantheon of superior men’.

What’s really impressive about The Ballroom is Hope’s characterisation of her three protagonists and Clem, Ella’s friend. She creates characters so fully rounded, so utterly believable and in doing so makes you question who should be incarcerated and who should be free. Of course, by doing so through a young, poor woman, a destitute Irish man, a young, educated private patient and a middle class doctor with secrets of his own, Hope incorporates questions of class, circumstance, power and chance. It’s very difficult to read this novel and not see her themes and ideas echoed in today’s political rhetoric on those living in poverty.

There are some very dark moments in this novel – the climax continues to haunt me over a month later – but this is balanced by the developing relationship between Ella and John, the moments in the ballroom and the landscape, the Yorkshire moors almost a character in its own right, providing a taste of fresh air amidst the claustrophobia of the asylum.

The Ballroom is a beautiful, gripping, heart-wrenching, thought-provoking book. I was so enthralled, I read it in an evening, unwilling to put it down. Following Hope’s impressive debut, Wake, it marks her out as one of our best contemporary novelists.

 

Thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.

Ones to Read in 2016

2016 is already being talked about as a ‘vintage year’ in terms of forthcoming books. In the second half of the year there’s a spate of second novels from writers who published fantastic debuts two or three years ago. There’s also lots of promising looking books from more established writers. I’m looking forward to all of those but there’s the first half of the year to talk about first.

Initially, I was going to limit this list to ten books; I could’ve populated that list three times over with the wealth of good stuff coming in the next six months. So, the list’s a little longer and the books I’ve chosen to recommend are those that, for me, had the ‘wow factor’ (often for different reasons). Listed in order of publication, all publication dates are UK and subject to change; full reviews will appear on the week of publication.

Human Parts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

Human Acts centres around the student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980. Beginning with Dong-Ho working in the gymnasium where the bodies are being brought and looking for the friend he abandoned, the story moves through a variety of characters as the repercussions of the army’s suppression is felt throughout the city. Brave, brutal, brilliant.

Wow Factor: the variety of voices/perspectives (credit to Deborah Smith’s translation); the sudden switches to violent imagery

#ReadDiverse2016 #womenintranslation #translationthurs #ReadWomen

Published by Portobello Books 7th January 2016

American Housewife – Helen Ellis

A short story collection giving voice to a variety of American housewives. From the emails of two neighbours who move from passive aggressive to downright aggressive moves regarding the décor of their shared hallway to the struggling writer taking part in an antiques reality TV show to the woman allowing junior pageant participants to escape, this is a sharp, darkly funny look at women’s lives.

Wow Factor: the dark humour; the insight into people’s (often appalling) behaviour

#ReadWomen

Published by Scribner 14th January 2016

Paulina & Fran – Rachel B. Glaser

Art students, Paulina and Fran, meet at a party. Self-conscious and desperate to be liked, they (Paulina in particular) behave appallingly, feigning an air of indifference. But when they leave art school, they have to negotiate their own ways in the world and decide how much their friendship’s really worth.

Wow Factor: the dark humour; the insights into a type of female friendship and behaviour

#ReadWomen

Published by Granta 14th January 2016

If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa

Mallika gives birth to twins but only one survives: a boy, Siva. But she wanted a girl and refuses to believe her daughter’s dead. She calls Siva, Tara and flies into a rage if anyone attempts to do otherwise. Narrated by Siva, who believes his sister lives within him still, this is a beautifully written novel about trying to find your own identity.

Wow Factor: the language; the storytelling

#ReadDiverse2016 #womenintranslation #translationthurs #ReadWomen

Published by Bluemoose Books 21st January 2016

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon

If you’re on social media, you’ve no doubt heard lots about this novel already. If hype puts you off, ignore it and get stuck into this regardless. The story of a ‘normal’ street in England in the heatwave of 1976. Margaret Creasy’s disappeared and she knows everyone’s secrets. Ten-year-olds Grace and Tilly set out to find her and uncover a whole lot more in the process.

Wow Factor: the psychological insight

#ReadWomen

Published by Borough Press 28th January 2016

Rush Oh! – Shirley Barrett

Eden, New South Wales, 1908. The story of a whaling season told from the point-of-view of Mary Davidson, the 19-year-old daughter of a whaling family. There’s whales, running a family after the death of their mother and a romance with former Methodist minister, John Beck. Often funny, feminist and fascinating.

Wow Factor: the voice; the descriptions of the whales and whaling

#ReadWomen

Published by Virago 4th February 2016

Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin

The 1960s. Two girls. Mahsa, born to an Afghan mother and an American father, is orphaned after her parents are killed. When the relative she’s sent to live with discovers her relationship with a boy they send her to study in Montreal. There her love of jazz music grows and brings her a lifetime’s friendship with Katherine. Born to an American mother and a Chinese father who she never meets, Katherine sneaks out and begins playing the jazz clubs as a teenager. They lead her to a lifelong romance with an unreliable man. A gripping story of women who want more than society wants to allow them. Already a firm contender for book of the year.

Wow Factor: the language; the protagonists; the insight into relationships, marriage and family

#ReadWomen

Published by Serpent’s Tale 4th February 2016

Martin John – Anakana Schofield

Martin John is an ‘inadequate molester’. Sent to London by his Irish mother, he works, goes to visit Aunty Noanie, phones his mum regularly and circuits Euston Station looking for women he can rub up against. As his mental health deteriorates so does Martin John’s behaviour, revealed in vignettes and repetitive language. But it’s his mother’s story that will really get to you.

Wow Factor: the language; the mother’s story

#ReadWomen

Published by And Other Stories 4th February 2016

The Ballroom – Anna Hope

1911. An asylum on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. Ella Fay’s incarcerated for breaking a window in the textile factory in which she worked. John Mulligan was brought there emaciated and destitute. When John and Ella meet at the dance inmates are allowed to attend on Friday evenings if they’ve been ‘good’, a romance begins. The third wheel in the story is the doctor, Charles Fuller, who’s been at the asylum for five years. A disappointment to his parents, he decides he’s going to make his name with some research on eugenics. Gripping.

Wow Factor: the language; the treatment of the main theme

#ReadWomen

Published by Doubleday 11th February 2016

Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore)

Told over a 24-hour period from the moment Simon Limbeau’s alarm goes off and he leaves to go surfing with his friends to the point when his heart is transplanted into someone else’s body. de Kerangal tells a gripping tale of the procedure that occurs when an emergency transplant can take place. As the timeline progresses, she dips into the lives of all those involved in the procedure.

Wow Factor: the language; the dipping into the life of each character involved in the transplant

#womenintranslation #translationthurs #ReadWomen

Published by MacLehose Press 11th February 2016

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

1964. 24-year-old Eileen is thin, jagged, angry and unhappy. She lives with her retired, ex-cop, alcoholic father and works as a secretary at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys. Desperate to leave her grim homelife, Eileen dreams of moving to New York. The novel tells the story of the week before Christmas 1964, the week Rebecca Saint John comes to work at the facility. Dark and disturbing, the less you know about this book before diving in the better.

Wow Factor: the perspective; the plotting

#ReadDiverse2016 #ReadWomen

Published by Jonathan Cape 3rd March 2016

Not Working – Lisa Owens

After the day she felt an impulse to start swallowing office supplies, Claire Flannery quit her job to work out what she really wanted to do. Told in vignettes about her long-term relationship with Luke, trips on the tube, increasingly drunk nights out with friends and fall-outs with family members, Claire could be any one of us.

Wow Factor: the protagonist; the insight into a 21st Century female psyche

#ReadWomen

Published by Picador 21st March 2016

The Cauliflower® – Nicola Barker

A fictionalised biography of guru, Sri Ramakrishna. Told in fragments partly by his nephew, Hriday, but also by an anachronistic film director and another narrator. Using haiku and script as well as prose, Barker tells the story of a man elevated by faith and raises questions about the nature of worship.

Wow Factor: Barker’s unique style

#ReadWomen

Published by William Heinemann 21st April 2016

My Name Is Leon – Kit de Waal

1980. Tina gives birth to baby Jake when Leon’s nine, but she struggles to cope and when the upstairs neighbour rings social services Jake and Leon are taken into care. Initially they both go to live with Maureen, an experienced foster parent, but soon baby Jake – who’s white-skinned – has people who want to adopt him. Older, black-skinned, Leon is left with Maureen and his anger at the unfairness of the world. Searing and heartbreaking.

Wow Factor: the voice; the insight into a life of poverty, mental illness and foster care

#ReadDiverse2016 #ReadWomen

Published by Viking 2nd June 2016
Thanks to all the publishers for review copies.