Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Minor spoilers ahead.
The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain
Gustav Perle lives in Matzlingen, Switzerland, with his beloved Mutti. The second World War has just ended. His father, Erich, is dead – a hero, his Mutti says, but Gustav doesn’t know anything about him, not why he died or what he was like when he was alive. Gustav adores Mutti, but she spends a lot of time ignoring him, or crying. When Anton Zwiebel joins the local kindergarten, Gustav has a friend for the first time in his short life. The rest of Rose Tremain’s poised and beautiful book is dedicated to the story of Anton and Gustav’s friendship, and to the story of the truth of Erich and Emilie Perle’s marriage.
It has been said that The Gustav Sonata is about neutrality, and it is, sort of, but the word I thought of most when I was reading it was “caring”, which is another way of talking about neutrality. The book is intensely focused on care: giving care, receiving care, in the sense of love and attention, is at the heart of Gustav and Anton’s relationship. It is also Gustav’s problem. He is pushed into adulthood early by a lack of care from his mother Emilie (who tells him frequently as a child that he must “master himself”); he is forced into a caregiving role vis-à-vis Anton by Anton’s parents, who are kind to Gustav but surprisingly willing to place the burden of Anton’s emotional well-being on a pre-adolescent’s shoulders. Meanwhile, Gustav’s family history is characterised by a generational withholding of care: Emilie, his mother, was constantly chastised and neglected by her mother, Irma, and the book’s second section, on the Perle marriage, charts the decline of care between two people in a way that illuminates everything about Gustav’s life. Meanwhile, excessive care damages people: Anton is hurt by it – his major adult relationship is passionate, but deeply abusive – and the affair between Erich Perle and his boss’s wife is unhealthy in its obsessiveness.
Tremain plants her thematic seeds carefully and tends them throughout the novel, so that resonances spring up at you as you read. Switzerland’s political neutrality, the destructive neutrality of one human being towards another, and Erich Perle’s rejection of official neutrality in order to save refugees are all tied together. Tremain writes like Kate Atkinson: her prose is accessible and clear without making the treatment of her subject light or superficial. The ending could, I think, be more delicate and also more believable: there is never any sense of sex in Gustav’s life, either before or after the final revelation of Anton’s love, and I think it is a disservice to deny him this. If it’s intentional, it isn’t leaned on enough to make the intention clear. But this is a question of verisimilitude versus thematic coherence – whether something is entirely believable versus whether it reinforces the novel’s general concerns – and so my reservation is pretty minor.
Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood
Atwood’s novel is the fourth in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that seeks to “retell” some of the most famous of the plays as novels set in the present day. Some of these have been more successful than others; Atwood’s, I think, is the best so far. The reason it works is because she fully acknowledges the existence of The Tempest inside the world of her novel, which frees her: she doesn’t have to pretend, like Jeanette Winterson and Howard Jacobson, that the uncanny similarities between her characters and the plot of Shakespeare’s play is mere happenstance. She can delve right into those parallels, explore them explicitly, instead of making us wonder why no one in the book has yet noticed how unlikely this all is.
Her Prospero is Felix Phillips, a disgraced and deposed theatre festival director now going by the name Mr. Duke and teaching a theatre course in the local prison. Miranda – brilliantly – is dead (because the late plays are all about dead daughters, losing daughters, coming to terms with grief); she died of meningitis as a three-year-old, a horribly plausible scenario. After twelve years of living in hiding from his former associates, Felix chooses his method of revenge: he will stage his own production of The Tempest at the prison, and take down the men who betrayed him—now high-ranking politicians—along the way.
Whether this revenge fantasy would actually work or not (and I admit it would rely heavily on excellent timing, which usually doesn’t work out in real life), you have to admire the way Atwood takes on the play. Felix walks his convict players through The Tempest with a thorough thoughtfulness that I found genuinely illuminating. It might, I suppose, be considered a little academic, but the tone is always that of an interested and informed person talking to other interested people; Felix neither talks down to nor bamboozles his actors, and by extension, he doesn’t do these things to us. The Tempest is a play uniquely well-suited to prison. Felix and Atwood allow us to watch the dawning awareness, among the convict-actors, of the story’s relevance, and it is a gorgeous, shiver-inducing thing. The only major concern I had was when Atwood ventriloquised the rap songs that the actors invent to make the play more contemporary: would it sound like a White Lady Author “doing” street? Answer: sort of, but mostly, I think, because raps look awful written down. When I did them in my head, they…well, they worked. Though I don’t envy whoever does the audiobook.
The Woman Next Door, by Yewande Omotoso
Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are next-door neighbours in an upmarket area of Cape Town. Hortensia is black, married to a white British husband; Marion is white (and racist, which we’ll learn about later.) They are eighty years old, they have both run successful businesses—Hortensia as a textile designer, Marion as an architect—and they hate each other. The Woman Next Door is an account, if not quite of how they become friends, then of how they come to hate each other a little bit less.
Marion’s racism is breathtaking. She’s a woman of her generation—apartheid was her normal. Her housekeeper, Agnes, is a black South African who is expected to eat from separate containers and use separate (and inferior) toilet paper. Agnes spends no energy in contesting any of this; she simply, quietly, gets on with the business of being a real human with some level of agency. When Marion eventually discovers that Agnes has stopped using the toilet paper bought for her, she is shocked and dismayed, until Agnes reveals that she’s simply paying for her own bogroll. But Marion’s relief is shortlived: it turns out that Agnes has started buying better-quality stuff than Marion allows herself. This scene is the sort of thing Omotoso excels at, the delicate dance of social oneupmanship. She tells a little bit too much more than she shows, though I think that’s a common misstep with social comedy.
The biggest stylistic hiccup with The Woman Next Door is the occasional register clash, or what feels like it. Omotoso uses words like “peeved” and “messed up”, which sound either euphemistic or childish, or both, and represent a linguistic cautiousness I wouldn’t expect from two old women who, we’re told, can “cut the legs off people” with their words. In general, on the sentence level, this book isn’t going to set you aflame. I do think its political content is sly and significant; the kinds of people who will read a book blurbed by Helen Simonson are not necessarily going to respond well to polemic, but Omotoso does slip in commentary. There’s a subplot about reparations in the form of a land claim (which I’d have liked a lot more of) and another about the descendant of a slave who lived on the farm where the neighbourhood now stands. I’m pleased that these points are present; they might find an audience that would otherwise have missed them. It’s also a book about old women, and about friendship, and we don’t get many books about old women; as Naomi said, more please. I like it fine, and will probably recommend it to quite a few bookshop customers. I’m just not sure it’s a shortlister.
The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. The Gustav Sonata is published by Vintage and is now in paperback; Hag-Seed is published by Hogarth and is available in hardback; The Woman Next Door is also published by Vintage and is also now in paperback.