The Bailey’s Prize – A Guide to the Shortlist

The Bailey’s Prize is announced this week. At this point the only thing that’s certain is the five judges are going to have a tough time choosing a winner; the shortlist is exceptional. Here’s my guide to the six remaining books (if you click on the covers it’ll take you to the full reviews):

 

Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze’s enduring love but also a tale of racial inequality and the West’s racial narrative.

Best for: A new perspective and a cracking love story.

Any flaws? I loved it so but I could see why people might find it slightly too long.

 

 

 

Burial Rites is a fictionalised version of the story of Agnus Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland.

Best for: Incredible descriptions of the Icelandic scenery; giving a voice to a marginalised woman.

Any flaws? The conversations Agnus has with the Reverend Thorvadar become an expositional device towards the end.

 

 

The Lowland is the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, and their lives. Initially the action takes place in Calcutta and then moves to America. There is also a third character, a woman, Gauri, who becomes central as the novel progresses.

Best for: Incredible layered prose that builds into something spectacular.

Any flaws? A slow starter.

 

 

The Undertaking tells the story of Peter Faber and Katharina Spinelli’s marriage. It’s 1941 and Peter is a soldier fighting at Stalingrad. Katharina is the daughter of a family of Nazi sympathisers.

Best for: The dialogue is superb; the viewpoint is unflinching and relates without condemning.

Any flaws? It’s grim, oh so very very grim.

 

 

 

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is a coming-of-age tale of an unnamed Irish girl who tells her story to her younger brother who is dying from a brain tumour.

Best for: Fragmented prose which builds images in an almost poetic way. It’s like nothing you’ve read before.

Any flaws? It’s grim; the darkest book on the list. It will leave you broken.

 

 

The Goldfinch is Theodore Decker’s story following his mother’s death in a terrorist bombing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It follows him through New York, Vegas and Amsterdam along with the painting from which the book takes its name and Theo takes from the museum.

Best for: A cracking good yarn you can immerse yourself in.

Any flaws? The ending’s ludicrous.

 

The Winner? For me, it has to be Americanah; it’s an incredible book – a book that changed my perspective while making me will the lovers on.

However, if I was in the judging room and forced to compromise, The Lowland and A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing would be my alternative choices.

The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist

It’s here! The six shortlisted books are:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah

Hannah Kent – Burial Rites

Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland

Audrey Magee – The Undertaking

Eimear McBride – A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

(Click the titles for links to my reviews.)

First thought: Oh my goodness, no The Luminaries followed by yessssssss for Americanah and The Undertaking. Four of my wishlist are on, including the two that for me had to be there. Very much looking forward to the debate over these six for the next few weeks.

My Bailey’s Women’s Prize Shortlist

On Monday 7th April, the judges of the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction will announce their shortlist. Trying to second guest the books those five women will decide to put through to the second round of the prize is not my aim here – I would no doubt be wrong on several counts. However, having read sixteen of the longlisted books and partially read three (at the time of writing), were I to be one of the judges fighting for the books I love to be included, these are the six I’d be fighting for (click on the covers to read my reviews):

I was stunned to discover that the longlist included two of the best books I’ve ever read. Stunned because the older you become and the more you read, the less often a book is the ‘best’ book you’ve ever read. However, Americanah is an incredible book. It has a fresh, direct tone; its subject matter is intelligent and thoughtful but doesn’t detract from the love story at its core; it’s quite an achievement. The Lowland is a masterpiece. Skilfully written with carefully layered sentences and ideas of loss at its centre, it’s deeply affecting.

The Luminaries makes the list because it combines a cracking detective story with a interesting structure. When I reached the second half of the book, the plot and the decreasing length of the chapters meant I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.

Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing is another novel with an interesting structure – the present day story is told forward, while the past is presented to us in reverse. This leaves the reading feeling like a detective looking for the protagonist’s motive and being wrong-footed at several points.

Then I have two debuts: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is an incredible piece of literature. Again, the sentences are layered, although in this case they are staccato and dense – an odd juxtaposition that you have to completely immerse yourself in. This could have been a fairly straight-forward (although very grim) coming-of-age story but the style and structure transcend it. The Undertaking also transcends a genre, in this case, war fiction. Two things make this a good book as opposed to a good debut – the use of dialogue and the point of view. The novel’s mostly dialogue, not an easy thing to write, and it works; it’s snappy and clear, while leaving room for ambiguity of meaning. Point of view wise, this is a story of a family of Nazi sympathisers and a soldier in the battle of Stalingrad. Again, this was a book that felt fresh.

It’s worth pointing out here that of the nineteen longlisted books I’ve read (or partially read at the time of writing) there isn’t a bad one amongst them. I was going to post some ‘near misses’ too but I found myself wanting to post all of them. The full list of my reviews is here (hopefully this will be complete shortly); I’m sure there’s something there you’ll enjoy.

Now for the excitement of waiting for the actual shortlist…

 

(The only book I haven’t read any of is Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam as I want to read the whole trilogy.)

The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri

Because I follow a lot of bookish people on Twitter, I often see conversations about books that people have ‘given up’ on. What they mean by this is they’ve tried the book in question and decided that it’s not for them. The number of pages usually cited as being an appropriate number upon which to make a decision is fifty. I mention this because I have commented in reply to this idea that I don’t give up on books. I don’t say this in an attempt at virtuousness, I sometimes think that it’s a fault on my part – what if I’m missing out on something? – is the question in my head and more often, it’s the ending of a novel that I find disappointing, not the opening.

The other reason I open my review of The Lowland with this thought is that I almost did give up on it. I began reading it last October as I was shadowing the Man Booker Prize shortlist with some of my students. The week I’d scheduled it for was a busy one and all of us arrived at the meeting not having finished reading it. I was on p87 and up to this point had found it too episodic; just as I was becoming interested in the events of the section I was reading, the novel moved on. I found it disjointed and the mostly simple and compound sentences that made up the short paragraphs stilted. I put it down and moved on to the next book, not giving up on it but not considering a time I would return to it either, despite people whose opinions I trust (including guest blogger Jacqui) insisting it was a very good novel.

And then The Lowland was longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize and as I shadow the prize, attempting to read all the eligible books, I knew I had to return to it. I picked it off the shelf on Thursday evening. By Saturday lunchtime, I’d finished it and it was undoubtedly the best book I’ve read so far this year.

The Lowland is the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan who live in Calcutta with their parents. When the novel begins, they are thirteen and eleven-years-old respectively. But [Subhash] had no sense of himself without Udayan. From his earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there. There, in the second chapter of the novel is the Tolly Club, the private members’ club where the wealthy of Calcutta go to play tennis and golf, to ride or swim, to drink tea or cocktails. The boys have never seen inside the club due to the wall that was raised to prevent spectators, a wall that they’ve decided to scale. They visit regularly until the evening they are caught by a policeman and thrashed. It would take several days for the welts to go down.

Personality wise the boys are opposites; Udayan is brave and unrestrained, while Subhash tries to ‘minimize his existance’. However:

In spite of their differences one was perpetually confused with the other, so that when either name was called both were conditioned to answer. And sometimes it was difficult to know who had answered, given that their voices were nearly indistinguishable. Sitting over the chessboard they were mirror images: one leg bent, the other splayed out, chins propped on their knees.

But by their late teens, the differences between the boys are becoming more pronounced and politics is the cause.

In 1967, a peasant revolt occurred in Naxalbari, in the Darjeeling District. Landowners illegally evicted villagers from land they’d cultivated. The peasants burned deeds and records and occupied land while carrying red flags and shouting ‘Long live Mao Tse-Tung’.

Subhash and Udayan listen to news of the events on the radio. When the West Bengal cabinet capture and kill the rebels, they have differing reactions:

Sounds like it’s over in any case, Subhash said.
Udayan paused before leaving. This could only be the beginning, he said.
The beginning of what?
Something bigger. Something else.

It’s the beginning of Udayan’s involvement in the Naxalbari movement and the two brothers growing apart. Eventually, Subhash leaves to study for a PhD in America. While Subhash is away, Udayan marries a woman – Gauri – who is also involved in the movement and then he is killed. Subhash returns to Calcutta and takes Gauri, pregnant with Udayan’s child, as his wife. Subhash goes back to America, believing they can begin a new life together.

The majority of the novel focuses on the aftermath of Udayan’s death, the consequences of which reverberate for decades. The narrative moves between Subhash and his parents but also focuses on Gauri and it is her story which interested me the most. It’s the tale of an immigrant trapped in a country not her own, in a marriage not her own, with a child she never planned to have. The claustrophobia she experiences is skilfully conveyed through Lahiri’s precisely chosen lexis. Gauri’s plight and the choices she makes are deeply affecting.

The Lowland spans almost an entire lifetime, showing the trajectories that life can take, some chosen, others forced upon the characters. Its scope feels simultaneously broad and narrow – it plays out across three continents while focused on one small family and considers themes both universal and personal – politics, women’s rights, education, marriage.

Lahiri’s writing feels similar; it is precise while conveying clear emotions and beliefs in a few, often simple, words. For example, when Gauri marries Subhash:

But even as she was going through with it she knew that it was useless, just as it was useless to save a single earring when the other half of the pair was lost.

Or when Subhash and Gauri attend at a dinner party at the house of a colleague of Subhash:

The women seemed friendly. Who where they?
I don’t remember the names, she said.

Lahiri layers her narrative, returning to events and ideas at intervals which allow events and ideas to illuminated bit by bit. Her words deserve to be savoured.

A few years ago, a university tutor told me that the idea of not being able to get into a book was nonsense; some books have a different rhythm and pace to you and you need to learn to breathe with them, to set your pace to theirs. I’m glad I managed to adjust my pace to that of Lahiri’s; The Lowland is a masterpiece.