March Superlatives

In March the Baileys Prize longlist was announced and I started duties as part of the prize’s shadow panel, which involved reading all of the longlisted books I hadn’t already gotten to. This amounted to ten (well, nine and a half; I’d already read part of The Lesser Bohemians), plus some reading for work that included a couple of thrillers, some social realism, and some historical fiction. Overall, it’s been a very good, if exhausting, reading month: eighteen books finished. This is productive even for me.

best thriller: Sand, Wolfgang Herrndorf’s newly released novel that combines the black humour of Greene with the social observation of Ian Fleming, but better written. It’s nasty, funny, irresistibly engaging, confusing, and utterly nihilistic. (review)

best surprise: I read Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone because there was a damaged paperback copy at work that we couldn’t sell or return. I was expecting a basic story about dysfunctional, miserable WASPs. Instead, I got a book and a writer capable of articulating the complex motives behind emotions with such precision that I wanted to underline bits—and I never underline bits. Highly, highly recommended.

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cut nearest to the bone: Polly Clark’s debut novel, Larchfield, is about a young pregnant poet, Dora, who moves with her husband to Helensburgh, a small community in Scotland. W.H. Auden, she learns, used to teach at the local school. When Dora has the baby, a combination of neighbourly malice, loneliness, and loss of personal identity drives her to seek solace in learning about Auden’s experiences in Helensburgh. Curiously, neither working at Mumsnet nor talking to friends with babies has brought home to me as clearly as Larchfield did what a thoroughly frightening, isolating, relentless undertaking motherhood is. It seriously, seriously scared me about having children. (I think there is a longer post in this—in how fiction represents motherhood, and in how that particular thematic obsession in literature by and about women is received by women like me—young, childless, starting to wonder—but I’m leaving it for now.)

solidest thriller: Being the most solid of something is not the same as being the best at something, but Jane Harper’s The Dry is a good example of a crime novel that will please pretty much everyone. It is what people usually mean when they say “well-written”: nothing clunks or stands out; the plot is gory enough to be interesting without relying on the torture porn that seems to be the crime genre’s stock-in-trade these days; the villain is believable, and you don’t see the reveal coming from a mile away. Also, it’s set in a small Australian farming community, which is a fairly unusual setting and gives the book a sense of uniqueness. If you like decent crime, pick it up.

Mantel for the easily distracted: Sarah Dunant’s take on Renaissance Italy and the Borgias, In the Name of the Family. I found that she covers much of the same thematic ground as Mantel does—autocratic power, the role of the church in government, moral compromise in exchange for a measure of safety—but does so with a little more zip to her plotting. Highly recommended. (review)

most meh: I feel bad about saying this. There’s nothing wrong with The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain’s Baileys Prize-longlisted novel about a young boy growing up in post-war Switzerland and his lifelong friendship with talented pianist Anton. It just felt aimless. The writing is very lucid and the characterisation sympathetic, but it faded from memory more and more as I compared it to other longlisters. (review)

best Shakespeare rewrite: Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood. This is, without a doubt, the most successful installment of the Hogarth Shakespeare project so far, not least because Atwood acknowledges the existence of her source material (The Tempest) within her novel, and thus is allowed to write a book that stands on its own and can explicitly examine The Tempest’s preoccupations. Not Atwood’s best novel, but really good for Shakespeare nerds. (review)

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best reread: I got ill over a weekend and read American Gods by Neil Gaiman all over again, and it was great. It’s still the best of his books, I think (maybe a close contender with Neverwhere; I’d have to read the latter again to decide.) His take on modern gods—the sharp businessman Mr. Wednesday (Odin), the dapper and shrewd Mr. Nancy (Anansi), undertakers Jacquel and Ibis (Egyptian underworld gods Anubis and Thoth)—remains fresh and clever, and he conjures the menace of Americana like no other author I know.

most cute: This is definitely damning with faint praise, I’m afraid. I did like Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door; her portrayal of two elderly, crotchety neighbour ladies, one white and one black, is irresistibly charming, and she does engage with serious political and historical ideas. But the flavour the book left in my mouth was The Help meets Alexander McCall Smith, where people are mildly chastised for their prejudice but mostly let off the hook, and everything is okay at the end. I wanted more than that. (review)

most intelligent: Pretty much all of the books I read this month were intelligent, so this is kind of a crap category. But Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien, engages on such a high level with questions of ethics and art-making and agency in Mao’s China that it leaves much of its competition in the dust. I can’t help feeling a Baileys win would be somehow unfair (it’s already won the Giller, and been Booker Prize-shortlisted; let someone else have a go), but it would be very richly deserved. (review)

hardest punch to the gut: The Power, by Naomi Alderman. Alderman takes a simple premise—what if girls and women had the ability to discharge electricity from their bodies?—and uses it to explore some of the deepest questions about what human civilisation even is. If Thien is interested in the cerebral, Alderman is all about the fundamental. This book shook me. It’s a big deal. (review)

best sex: Unsurprisingly, Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians. Never have I encountered an author who understands so clearly that sex isn’t interesting because of who put what where, but because of who feels what when, and why. In other words, she maps sex as an emotional experience—and she also explores what sex is like when emotions are missing, and isn’t judgmental about it. (review)

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should have been on the Baileys longlist: For all my days, there are some things I will never understand about prize lists. The omission of Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border in 2015 was one of them; the omission of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First this year is another. It’s a short, choppy, odd little novel, just like its subject: Margaret Cavendish, seventeenth-century Duchess of Newcastle and first female science fiction writer in the Western world, as far as we know. I loved it for its utter idiosyncracy—the prose so full of sharp, well-chosen images—for the efficiency with which Dutton sketches Margaret for us (it’s a very short book and by the end of it we know her as we do a dear friend), and for the lack of sentimentality with which she closes it. Seek this out.

most missed opportunity: Little Deaths by Emma Flint is a historical noir that deals with the hideous misogyny of 1960s New York in the context of an investigation into the murders of two children. Flint rouses our fury that the police are so much less interested in really investigating than they are in punishing Ruth Malone, our protagonist, for being separated for her husband and sexually active—but she never makes us feel complicit in that kind of judgment, and if she’d done that, it would have been a more powerful novel. (review)

full marks for ambition: The 700+ page opus from Annie Proulx, Barkskins. Telling the stories of the descendants of René Sel and Charles Duquet from the 1690s to the present day, it also encompasses Manifest Destiny, forest management, racial prejudice, and legacy. It flounders at points, and it’s too damn long, but overall it’s well worth the time. (review)

most classically Womens Prize?: Not that I want to slag off novels about relationships, marriages, infertility, and the staggering hypocrisy of the way society treats men vs. the way it treats women, but this is well-worn ground and exactly the sort of thing the Women’s Prize seems to go for sometimes. Stay With Me, Ayobami Adebayo’s Nigeria-set novel, covers all these points and introduces a bit of melodrama in the form of death and war. It’s good enough but may turn out to be forgettable. (review)

best find: Mick Herron, whose first entry in the Slough House series of spy thrillers, Slow Horses, isn’t just good for a genre novel—it’s good for any kind of novel. Herron is the Tana French of espionage writers: his grasp of the way language flows is absolute, he trusts his readers, he’s funny, his dialogue is on point. Plus the story—group of disgraced spooks find themselves trying to save a boy whose beheading is scheduled to occur live on the Internet in 48 hours—is a cracker, not least because the details of the boy’s abduction are (not to spoil anything for you) so precisely not what you initially think they are. There are three more in the series thus far, and I’m in it for the long haul.

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most unexpectedly genre-bending: Black Water, Louise Doughty’s first book since the acclaimed Apple Tree Yard. It’s sort of a spy thriller, but the protagonist isn’t a spy; it’s sort of a love story, but the love is complicated by reality and history; it’s sort of a historical political novel, but the present day takes up two-thirds of the book. It’s mostly set in Indonesia and its protagonist is part-Indonesian, part-Dutch, which made a nice change from the Anglo-American-centricity of other books with a similar focus. Doughty too knows how to grip a reader, and knows how to construct a sentence that hangs together and transitions nicely to the next sentence. This is just out in paperback, and I’d highly recommend it.

what’s next: Who knows?! I’m posting my personal Baileys Prize shortlist tomorrow, and the shadow panel is posting our (un)official shortlist choices on Sunday. After that, this project will be more or less wrapped up, and I have well over twenty-five books (reading copies; damaged copies we can’t sell that we’re allowed to take home; etc.) waiting to be prioritised, so it’s not like I’m out of choices…

Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 6: Adébáyò

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. Spoilers ahead.

Stay With Me, by Ayòbámi Adébáyò

31349579(Quick note: I tried to put the proper accent marks in Adébáyò’s name, but some of the vowels have marks both above and below the letters, and WordPress’s symbols dictionary isn’t advanced enough to handle that, apparently. I’ve done my best. Of interest to some readers may be that the US jacket for Stay With Me makes no effort at all to reproduce the accent marks, while the UK jacket has all of them.)

Stay With Me is, in its most elevator-pitch description, about infertility. (It actually isn’t, quite, but we’ll talk about that later.) Yejide and Akin Ajayi have been married for several years. It is the early 1990s and both are degree-holding Nigerians living in Ilesa; Yejide owns her own business, a hair salon, and Akin is a banker. Yet they remain childless. Akin’s family is growing restless. As the book opens, Yejide is presented by her in-laws and husband with a fait accompli: Akin has taken a second wife, the much younger Funmi. Though she will be technically of lower rank than Yejide, the hope is that she will be able to bear a son—ideally many—to carry on the family’s name. We also learn, through a flash forward to 2013, that Akin and Yejide somehow become estranged, and remain so for decades. Adébáyò spends the rest of the novel flipping us back and forth between the events of the early ’90s that destroyed the Ajayis’ marriage, and the opportunity for reconciliation that arises in the chapters set in 2013.

The first half of the novel is the strongest, although it is treading on familiar ground. It does not, of course, occur to anyone that the problem might not be with Yejide’s womb but with Akin, and her family and in-laws’ patronising, dismissive, often downright cruel attitudes towards her are painted vividly. Yejide herself is a force of nature: infuriated with everyone who has sanctioned the match between Akin and Funmi, she prepares a meal for the matchmakers and the new bride that is significantly less glorious than protocol demands—which also happens to bring them all down with explosive diarrhoea. Her rage has deep roots: her mother was a nomad whom her father never married and who died in childbirth, and she was raised by stepmothers who considered her the child of a whore. This is rarely played for sentiment or even dwelt upon very heavily, but it explains everything about Yejide that might otherwise seem excessive: her passionate attachment to the ideal of a family, her refusal at one point to accept that she is having a phantom pregnancy, her explosive temper, and her strength of will. Where Akin is mostly passive and rational, often asking her to calm down, she is presented as an active, aggressive, emotional dynamo.

SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD – It is because of this that the book’s twist and development works as well as it does (and whether it works particularly well is another question, but this is why it works at all.) We learn partway through the novel that not only has Yejide’s affair with her brother-in-law Dotun been fully engineered, without her knowledge, between Dotun and Akin—so that she can get pregnant—but that the reason it is necessary is because Akin is impotent. He has known this for decades, but has lied to Yejide (a virgin before their marriage) about what constitutes “normal” sex, and so she has spent their entire relationship believing that Akin’s inability to achieve an erection has nothing to do with her failure to conceive. Whether it’s at all plausible that a woman pursuing a degree in Nigeria in 1985 would be so painfully ignorant about the logistics of sex—and I’m perfectly willing to accept that it is plausible; I simply don’t know—is a potential problem, but the thematic perfection of this twist is in its reversal of that earlier established dynamic between Yejide and Akin. We’ve thought, all this time, that she’s the one making choices (albeit desperate ones, like paying a faith healer and lugging a goat up a mountainside for a fraudulent fertility ceremony). Instead, she has been acted upon, without her knowledge or consent, all this time: not just for the duration of their marriage, but for as long as they have known each other. And by extension, so have we.

After this revelation, which is pretty melodramatic in itself, things get more melodramatic. (Oh, there’s also a sort-of-murder—if I were a prosecuting lawyer I’d call it something like second-degree manslaughter.) When Yejide conceives, the first baby dies, apparently a random victim of SIDS. Her second and third children are both born with sickle-cell disease. There is more death. There is a military coup. There is another coup.

This is the source of my other problem with the book, which is the war. I appreciate that if your novel is set in Nigeria in the early ’90s, you’re going to have to handle civil war; the problem is that reading protocols (at least for literary fiction) prime us to think of civil war as a Big Deal, a Major Theme. We expect civil war either to be the whole point of a book (for which, see Half of a Yellow Sun) or we expect its relatively small impact to be part of a more satirical or nihilistic general flavour (as in Beauty Is A Wound, where atrocity’s commonplaceness dulls individual horrors, and where that’s exactly the point.) Instead, in Stay With Me, we get the coups and the war as a kind of wallpaper; fighting is what prevents Yejide from reaching Akin and her third baby at a crucial point in the plot, but there’s no sense that the conflict is thematically important. In a way this is in the novel’s favour—Adébáyò isn’t writing a political novel, but a domestic one—but under other circumstances, I would have suggested that, if your novel isn’t political, it’s possibly not necessary to introduce a civil war. Adébáyò, however, is trapped by history. You can’t write a novel set in this time and place and pretend nothing happened, but then you have to make the conflict seem relevant to the story you’re trying to tell, and it just isn’t here.

All of this makes it sound as though I didn’t enjoy the book very much, which isn’t the case. It’s a very affecting page-turner about the way that men and women relate to one another, especially in situations where their capabilities are equal but the expectations surrounding them are wildly different. Yejide and Akin struggle to balance tradition and the demands of their relatives and heritage with their own awareness of modernity, in terms both of medical science and of relationships. Their struggle is sympathetic and engaging, and the book’s ending—though a little unbelievably sunny—satisfied. I can’t help thinking, though, that I’ll have forgotten about it in a few months’ time; it will have blurred together with other depictions of domestic turmoil and gendered hypocrisy. That doesn’t make it a bad book; it’s just not enough to shortlist it.

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. Stay With Me is published by Canongate and is available in hardback.

Baileys Prize Longlist 2017

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Aahhh, the Baileys Prize longlist announcement! Its timing is a boon to readers and booksellers alike: at the beginning of March, the next year’s big hitters mostly aren’t out yet (the first round will come in May) and last November’s surge of pre-Christmas publications has probably already been devoured by the serious and/or professional reader. March in books is like March in vegetables; you just have to lump it til spring starts. Except for the Baileys Prize, which provides a much-needed shot of excitement and, sometimes, impetus to check out titles you may have overlooked.

This year I am following the prize as part of the Shadow Panel, along with Naomi, Eric, Antonia, and Meera. This was also the first year in which I recognized every single title on the longlist, which is probably due to the fact that I’ve been paying ever closer attention to books news.

It is not as diverse as it might look. Most of the listed authors are established; only three are non-white. I’m not sure what constitutes a “small” or “independent” publisher – Serpent’s Tail are independent but have serious literary bona fides, as have Granta – but it’s interesting that none of these publishers are new to me either. In the past there has generally been at least one or two wild cards; none of these entries surprise me hugely.

What surprises a little bit is a host of absences: Idaho by Emily Ruskovitch. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton. Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn. I suppose this only goes to show that the state of English-language writing by women is flourishing – the longlist has 16 books on it instead of 12, which also supports this theory – but still, their absence is notable. (Especially given the presence on the list of Barkskins, which has provoked extremely tepid reactions from virtually every book person I know.)

Most appalling in its absence is Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. What possible excuse can there be for leaving it off?

Anyway. I’ve read six and a half of the longlistees (including most of the big ones, hurrah!), which is good because we only have three weeks to the shortlist announcement. The full list is below; links are to my reviews, where they exist.

Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò (Canongate) – read after announcement; review

The Power by Naomi Alderman (Viking) – read after announcement; short review

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (Hogarth) – read after announcement; short review

Little Deaths by Emma Flint (Picador) – read after announcement; review

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill (Serpent’s Tail)

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant (Virago)

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Faber & Faber) – read after announcement; review

Midwinter by Fiona Melrose (Corsair) – reviewed in a Superlatives post

The Sport of Kings by CE Morgan (4th Estate) – reviewed in a Superlatives post

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso (Chatto & Windus) – read after announcement; short review

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill (riverrun) – tried to start three times, couldn’t bring myself to care about any of it, ended up abandoning

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail) – read twice, and discussed in a Superlatives post

Barkskins by Annie Proulx (4th Estate) – read after announcement; review

First Love by Gwendoline Riley (Granta) – reviewed at Shiny New Books

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (Granta) – read after announcement; short review

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus) – read after announcement; short review


Which book are you most excited for? Is there a book I haven’t read that you think I should get to without delay? Any notable omissions or inclusions you’re furious about?

January Superlatives

For the first time ever, I have signed up to a year-long Goodreads Reading Challenge. Don’t ask me why. My target is 150 books, which should be achievable since I read 141 last year (possibly my highest total since records began back in 2007). This month I read 17, which, Goodreads informs me, puts me 5 books ahead of schedule. Thank goodness their algorithms are keeping track of the maths for that, because I wouldn’t know how.

best short story collection: Virgin by April Ayers Lawson is an extremely technically impressive collection; she’s one of those young American writers whose prose is planed smooth and wouldn’t look out of place in The New Yorker. I can’t say that this collection moved me very deeply, but that’s not always a bad thing. Her take on fundamentalism and sexual awakening is interesting and well worth the read.

best comfort rereads: Split, this one, between Tana French’s Broken Harbour and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. I’m now leaning on French’s murder mysteries for mental distraction in busy times; Broken Harbour focuses on the murder of almost an entire family in an Irish ghost estate, one of those places that was half-built during the Celtic Tiger boom and then abandoned by the contractors during the recession. It’s terrific, and terrifying, on the psychology of being broke and jobless. I Capture the Castle probably needs no introduction; I read it after a week of consuming media mostly about death and torment, longing for comfort and uplift. It delivered, as it always does.

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best tragedy: His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet. It’s full of horrible petty officials oppressing hardworking Scottish crofters, and unreliable narration, and raped sisters, and dead sheep, in a way that recalls Britain’s seemingly unshakable love of the historical costume drama. However, it’s all done with an extremely skillful voice. I can entirely see how this swayed the Booker Prize jury, and why it’s been the best-selling of last year’s shortlist.

best state-of-the-nation novel: Laura Kaye’s terrific debut, English Animals, about a young Slovakian woman whose experience working for a rich but struggling English couple reveals the prejudices of this country with wondrous slyness. Appropriate post-Brexit, but full of truths that apply not just to this immediate moment, but to English culture throughout the ages.

party I was late to: How had I not read Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s collaboration, Good Omens, until now? It’s a wonderful, hilarious, generous novel about the Antichrist (as you would expect), featuring a no-nonsense witch named Anathema Device, a Satanic Nun of the Chattering Order of St Beryl (who later becomes a businesswoman running corporate management courses), a Witchfinder named Newton Pulsifer, and a demon/angel duo who don’t actually want the world to end at all. Its cult status is fully deserved, and I loved it.

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best escapism: You’d think this would be one of my comfort rereads, but no! This month I read volume 1 of Brian Vaughan’s and Fiona Staples’s graphic novel Saga. It starts with a childbirth scene. The cover features a breastfeeding woman. There is an interracial couple from opposite sides of a galactic war. There is a sarcastic teenage ghost and a spider-lady assassin and an animal called Lying Cat (which I particularly like; it’s blue and has pointy ears and croaks the word “LYING” whenever anyone tries to fib in its vicinity.) I can’t wait to order volume 2.

best city novel: Chibundu Onuzo’s second novel, Welcome to Lagos. It follows a group of unlikely comrades—from two soldiers who reject their colonel’s acts of cruelty in the Nigerian Delta, to a runaway middle-class wife, to a chancing teenager with radio dreams named Fineboy—as they try to live without money, papers or qualifications in a city that chews people up and spits them out. There’s a political plot, too, but I thought it was most effective in its portrait of how ordinary people build trust between themselves.

Annual Winter Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities, which I somehow managed to escape secondary school without ever having read. More interesting, I think, for its dissection of how revolutionary fervour can turn into a massacre of the innocent than for its nominal plot (noble self-sacrifice tugs my heartstrings well enough, but I resent it).

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best intellectual romp: Joanna Kavenna’s bizarre, inventive, beautiful novel A Field Guide to Reality. Set in a sort of otherworldly Oxford (where there are still waitresses and the Cowley Road, but the colleges are named things like Pie Hall and Nightingale Hall and there’s a Unicorn Street), it shifts between the thirteenth century and the present day, and deals with ideas about light and optics, perception, grief, and the nature of reality. It handles huge questions with a kind of boundless, sarcastic creativity that I really enjoyed. It also contains gorgeous illustrations by Olly Ralfe. Highly recommended, especially if you like slightly weird shit.

best anti-Tr*mp reading: The Good Immigrant, a crowdfunded collection of essays about the experience of being an ethnic minority in Britain. This is one of those books that makes you more aware of things: the way you look at people in public, the way you hold your body on the train or the words you use to friends and coworkers, and the consequences those actions might have. Some of the essays are more creative and interesting than others, and there are a few that felt theoretical in a way detrimental to engaging with them, but I’m happy to admit that this may be my problem.

best “commercial” read: Katie Khan’s Hold Back the Stars, which doesn’t do much with its sci-fi window dressing but which does tell a touching love story, and might very well get readers who wouldn’t normally be keen on genre more interested.

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induced worst case of location envy: The Enchanted April, obviously. I’d seen the film (it’s one of my mum’s favourites) but not read the Elizabeth von Arnim novel it’s based on until now. It follows four Edwardian women, each unhappy in their own way, who together rent an Italian castle for a month, and the ways in which sunshine and liberty change their lives. You might be thinking of it as an early Eat Pray Love, but it’s much less solipsistic, and much more charming. The garden descriptions are sublime.

most nightmarish: Julia Scheeres’s memoir of child religious, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, Jesus Land. It is unrelenting. I had several problems with it, one of which was the way she recounts experience at the expense of analysis (ask me about this if you’re not sure what I mean; explaining would take a while) and another of which was the way that she keeps foregrounding her own experience while maintaining that this is really a book about her adopted black brother David. Still. Oof.

categorically, not-a-shadow-of-a-doubt, best fucking book this month: The Underground Railroad. Y’all will know about this by now: Oprah loves it, Obama loves it, it won the National Book Award. If I know some of you, you’ll be avoiding it purely because of the attention it’s been getting. Don’t do that with this book. Do it with all the others, but not with this one. It’s too good, too heartbreaking, too well constructed, too evocative and simultaneously subtle and clear, too much of a body slam, too likely to make you think deeply and for long about why America’s present looks as it does, for you to put it off. It’s that rare thing, a novel that both invests you in its characters and story and effortlessly incorporates wider thematic concerns. I can barely talk about it without worrying that I’m not doing it justice. Just read it, for heaven’s sake.

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most disproportionately affecting: First Love, by Gwendoline Riley, which I’ll be reviewing for Shiny New Books. Telling the story of a walking-on-eggshells marriage and glancing back at wife Neve’s childhood and early adult life, it’s one of those books that doesn’t have a clear-cut moral, but which simply provides a kind of snapshot. I ended up mentally turning it over and over, finding each time that I understood more about the characters and their decisions. It’s an extremely insightful novel.

best murder mystery: Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novel The Pledge is being republished by Pushkin Vertigo next month. I’m also reviewing it for Shiny, so I won’t say too much here – just that the story of Inspector Matthäi’s doomed obsession with the murderer of schoolchild Gritli Moser is exactly as calculated an affront to the conventions of the detective novel as the publicity material says.

up next: A couple of proof copies for February remain to be read: Dorthe Nors’s Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, about a middle-aged woman learning to drive, and Rick Bass’s collected stories, For A Little While. I also REALLY want to read some of the books longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize (for best book by a BAME author in the UK), and am looking forward to picking my first!

Capsule reviews: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh + This House Is Not For Sale, by E.C. Osondu

Once again, my eyes are bigger than my stomach, metaphorically speaking—I requested an arseload (that’s a technical term) of pre-pubs that were all releasing at the beginning of March, and despite my best efforts with a color-coded Google Sheets spreadsheet, I am at least a week behind on reviewing. Capsule reviews to the rescue! (The great virtue of capsule reviewing these two books in particular is that there is so much to be said about them, and enjoyed about the experience of reading them, that I can just give you the tiniest sense of it, and then you can go buy them and enjoy them for yourselves.)

Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh (Jonathan Cape)

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You probably know a good deal about this already, so I’ll keep it brief. The plot: Eileen Dunlop’s mother is dead, her father a neglectful alcoholic. She’s twenty-four years old, a virgin, and works as a secretary in a boys’ prison outside an unnamed New England town (she calls it X-ville.) “This is the story,” she proclaims early on, “of how I disappeared.” The week before Christmas, the charismatic Rebecca St John comes to work at the prison as a child psychologist. Her beauty and mystery completely captivate Eileen, and lead her to commit a dreadful crime.

There are a couple of brilliant things about this book. One is the character of Eileen herself, who is undeniably very, very strange. Her relationship to her own body is one of mingled fascination and disgust. She finds herself revolting, almost wallowing in the idea of other people’s revulsion. The very notion of sex seems both ridiculous and defiling, but at the same time, she’s obsessed by it. She doesn’t masturbate, but she’s something of an emetophile, taking copious amounts of laxatives in order to empty her body into a state of vacant, semi-conscious ecstasy. Reading Eileen’s comments on her own physicality (which she makes, as she narrates the whole novel, from a position of adulthood, nearly sixty years in the future) is an intensely disturbing experience, but it rings so true. Teenage girls are still taught that their bodies are shameful, that they take up too much space, that their smells and sounds and tastes and very existences are somehow foul. Eileen captures the adolescent awkwardness of it (“Breathing was an embarrassment”) while also going far, far beyond the norm.

Rebecca St John, as the villain (or something like it), is simultaneously utterly false and utterly compelling. Her description–coppery hair, lithe and stylish–made me think of her as a physical cross between Daphne from Scooby-Doo, and Erin Winters from John Allison’s Scary Go Round comics. She’s a cardboard siren, but that’s absolutely the point: Eileen is such a naif that Rebecca’s attention bowls her over completely, even though we see both the calculation and the ease of deception. Rebecca barely needs to try. Eileen’s half in love with her, even though she goes to tremendous lengths to assure us that she’s not a lesbian.

The other brilliant thing about Eileen is the pacing. You know something awful is going to happen, because you’ve been told so from the very beginning, but you’ve got no idea what it is. The way that older, narrating Eileen mentions Rebecca (“I wonder if she’s married now”) makes it clear that she doesn’t kill her, but also that when she runs away, Rebecca’s not with her. Those two obvious avenues of plot being closed, the novel has to twist pretty hard, which it obligingly does. When you finally realize what’s going on, as in the best noir and thrillers, you think, “Oh, of course!”, but you also hadn’t quite guessed it. (Or I hadn’t. Although I am notoriously bad at this sort of thing.) The action is drawn out over the course of a week, and since it’s told in retrospect, you get little hints from the narrating Eileen, but it’s still a pretty sharp surprise when the point that everything has been building to finally arrives. I read it with my pulse racing. Writing a book that actually does that is hard. Moshfegh’s imagination is a dark and unapologetic place. I hope she writes another novel soon.

This House Is Not For Sale, by E.C. Osondu (Granta Books)

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From freezing New England to sweltering Nigeria: E.C. Osondu’s second book is sold as a novel, but feels much more like a collection of short stories. vignettes concerning the inhabitants of the Family House in an unnamed city (though, given its topography, it’s probably Lagos). The self-mythologising that surrounds the house, and the family that lives there, starts on page one, when we learn “How the House Came to Be” through a kind of Just So Stories parable: a man who gives a king the secret to long life is given the land as a reward, and eventually, the king builds him a handsome mansion there. But the gift is two-edged: sure, it’s to say thank you, but it’s also so that the king can keep an eye on the man. He’s to be killed in the event that the king dies of anything other than simple old age. That dynamic–of debt and power, bestowing and withholding–defines the Family House from its inception.

The narrator is a little boy who lives there. We know almost nothing about him, though he refers to the patriarch as Grandpa. He does not intrude much into his own stories: instead, he’s a preternaturally observant child, watching the currents of favour, disfavour, money and prestige flowing through the Family House’s rooms. Grandpa can give, and Grandpa can take away. He bestows wives upon husbands (women are commodities); he takes cruel retribution upon a woman accused of stealing from him. He does provide shelter, clothing, and a livelihood for many of his poorer family members and hangers-on from “the village”, but those gifts are always Faustian bargains. If you receive anything from Grandpa, you belong to him.

Increasingly, the book features a Greek chorus of voices–disembodied, floating in the text–which belong to the neighbours. There are murmurings about the Family House, as well as about its individual denizens. People’s reputations rise and fall. The general chatter of the neighbourhood is characterised by hypocrisy: when someone is on the upward swing of popularity, their praises are sung far and wide, but if they challenge Grandpa, or behave in a deviant manner, they’re publicly denigrated. There’s very little room for difference here, although sometimes accommodations are made. Baby, a brain-damaged young woman, is married off to a prosperous female trader named Janet; the arrangement is that Janet provides for her as a husband would, while at the same time any children that Baby bears by other men will be generally considered to belong to Janet, not Baby. It’s a curious combination of pimping and problem-solving. In the event, Baby disappears after the wedding (she claims to have been kidnapped by witch doctors) and returns several months later in a state of disarray, prompting Janet to seek an annulment. Meanwhile, a prodigal son returns from America with a degree (in what, no one can quite grasp) and begins to throw “salons” frequented by community outliers such as “Man-Woman” the hairdresser. Unable to countenance the growing gossip about his son’s predilections, Grandpa quietly orders him away again, with the understanding that he can never return.

It’s a very slim book–I finished it in a day–but an oddly powerful one. There’s a lot of pain in it, but you get an excellent sense of the interconnectedness of family relationships, the importance of supporting your own and the power that accrues to people who are in a position to lend others a hand. Of course it corrupts; we shouldn’t be surprised that Grandpa has turned into a tyrant. He is paying the piper, after all. The book ends as the narrator and his cousin, Ibe, watch the house being bulldozed. The bulldozer runs out of electricity, which is blamed on the many layers of curses that cast-off family members (mostly women) have laid upon the house over the years. But a battery is found; time marches on; the balance of power shifts. The Family House, with its complicated freight of cruelty and community, warmth and hatred, inevitably comes down.

Thanks very much to Joe Pickering at Cape, and Natalie Shaw at Granta, for the review copies. Eileen and This House Is Not For Sale (in paperback) were published in the UK on 3 March.

Books to Review in 2016

This Christmas, I had imagined, was going to be a relatively bookless one, and on Christmas Day my suspicions were confirmed by the fact that I only received one book (the D.E. Stevenson volume that my mother traditionally gets me as “safe reading”, in this case a sweet story about a grande dame and the property she leaves to her nephew, Celia’s House). Oh well, thought I; I’ve already sent loads of request emails to publishers and there’ll be plenty of pre-pub copies when I get back, plus the spreadsheet of releases throughout the year, and the Women’s Prize project. I’m sure I’ll stay busy.

Then, on Boxing Day, my father said, rather shrewdly, “You only got one book this year, yes?” I confirmed this. “Are you sad about that?” he inquired. I confirmed that I was, a bit. And my dad said, “Well, why don’t you write me a list.”

So I did, and he bought me three more. Then, when I returned to England, the Chaos presented me with my Christmas present: Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy in its entirety. Then we went to his parents’ place for the weekend and I bought more books. Not to mention that I already had seven pre-pubs piled up on the shelf.

2016 is going to be a great year, you guys.

The next few months:

American Housewife, a sharp, dark collection of short stories by Helen Ellis, is first up to be reviewed, shortly to be followed by Merritt Tierce’s story of small-town single mother and drug addict Marie, Love Me Back, and Shirley Barrett’s whaling love story Rush Oh! I’m also hoping to snag copies of The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee, The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, Dinosaurs On Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin, and The Heart Is A Muscle the Size of a Fist, by Sunil Yapa. That gets me into at least February in new releases. *pauses to wipe sweat from brow*

The Women’s Prize for Fiction project:

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At the moment, I’ve got copies of Larry’s Party by Carol Shields, A Crime In the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne, The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville, When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant, and The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. Most of these are from the ’90s and I’m excited to discover early work by writers who, like Shields and Grenville, are now very well known, but whom I didn’t come of age reading.

Aaaaall the rest:

*deep breath*

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Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie (reading the first one now). Birthday Letters, by Ted Hughes. Faber Selected Poems by Sylvia Plath. Collected Poems 1934-1953, Dylan Thomas. The Cutting Season, by Attica Locke (I read Black Water Rising on the plane back to the UK, on New Year’s Eve. I read the whole damn book in under six hours. It was that good.) Under the Udala Trees, by Chinelo Okparanta (“Nigerian lesbian coming-of-age story” on a blurb kind of does it for me). Celia’s House, by D.E. Stevenson (of course). A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki (at last). A Manual for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin (awkwardly behind-the-times). And I still want to attack A Notable Woman, the Mass Observation diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt, despite having the volume in hardcover and it being about 900 pages long and weighing as much as a good-sized cat.

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I am in love with Larousse editions. In LOVE with them, do you hear.

I also brought back two of my AP French lit texts (Candide and Maupassant’s Pierre et Jean), and bought Manon Lescaut and Lettres persanes while visiting the Progenitors Chaotic. (They aren’t chaotic, you understand…oh never mind.) I am hoping against hope that 2016 is the year I start reading in French again. It’s about time.

The Best of the Best: Happy 20th Birthday, Women’s Prize for Fiction!

You have to say “Women’s Prize” because it used to be the Orange Prize and now it’s the Baileys Prize, but the spirit of the endeavor–an award for the best novel written by a woman in any given year–is twenty years old, and that’s definitely worth celebrating. To commemorate the occasion, the Baileys Prize organizers threw a bash to celebrate the Best of the Best of their last decade, much as they did in 2006 to celebrate their first decade. That year, the book chosen as the best out of all the Women’s Prize-winning books was Andrea Levy’s Small Island, about Jamaican immigrants in 1940s London, which I own but which lives with the Revered Ancestors and which I haven’t yet read. This year, amazingly, they were letting proles like me into the ceremony, so I bought a ticket, checked with The Chaos, bought another ticket (let no one say that men can’t possibly be interested in literature by women), and headed to the ceremony at the Piccadilly Theatre on Monday night.

I was only ten minutes early, but the organizers had decided to do open seating and the line snaked down the stairs and into the bar. After collecting a ticket from an efficient, friendly, beardy man at the front desk, I headed down into the heat and crush of the queue. A couple of ladies in front of me fanned themselves with programmes, and we exchanged the banal, cheery complaints that slightly uncomfortable English people are so good at. There were so many women–my age; older; white; black; Asian–and a fair few men (mostly white and middle-aged, but none of them looking as though they’d actually been dragged there.) The queue started to move pretty quickly, and I was rather pleased that the seating had been opened up, because it meant I could find us seats in the same row but with a clear view of the entire stage.

(A quick list of Things That Aren’t The Point But Which I Enjoyed Immensely Anyway: the fact that Stanley Tucci was doing one of the readings. Kate Mosse’s incredible, on-point, floor-length floral formal jacket. The way that Shami Chakrabarti always looks as though she’s humoring you simply by being here (I need to figure out how to do that with my face).)

Also, this absolutely fab picture of Mosse and Chakrabarti being like “Hey girl.” “Hey.” “What’s good?” “It’s all good.” “Yup.”

The evening’s template was, roughly, as follows: the chair of the judging panel from each year from 2006-2015 introduced that year’s winning book, explaining why they’d chosen it and what made it exceptional, after which one of four actors read out a five-minute extract from the novel. It was simple, but effective, and the actors were brilliant: Stanley Tucci (I know! I know!) was dry and ironic, which made his readings from On Beauty and May We Be Forgiven especially biting. Sia Kiwa, currently appearing in The Book of Mormon, was a bit less captivating, but managed to convince me by the end of the evening. Almost certainly the best was Prasanna Puwanarajah, who did beautiful, nuanced readings from The Road Home and The Song of Achilles, the latter so wonderful that the entire audience sat in a tense silence you could almost have touched. Sheila Hancock also did something rather extraordinary, which was to capture regional accents without parodying them: a Midwestern/Southern hybrid in an extract from Home and an Irish drawl in a reading from A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. 2015’s winner, How to be both, was read by both Sia and Sheila, a clever little conceit as the book consists of two interchangeable parts.

The most obvious and striking thing about these readings is how diverse novels by women are. Winners of this prize are funny, they’re serious, they’re traumatic, they’re sly, they’re sarcastic, they’re observant. Anyone who claims any kind of limitation for writing by women is a fool; the evidence was right there in front of us. This stuff is alive: Zadie Smith’s perfectly-tuned conversation between a sulky adult man and his concerned, slightly overbearing mother; Barbara Kingsolver’s depiction of plaster-mixing; the moment in Rose Tremain’s The Road Home where a celebrity chef is casually, unpardonably cruel to the only woman in his kitchen. (Prasanna was reading this, and the entire theatre gasped, audibly, when he got to it.) It is all top-drawer.

The judges were brilliant too: Muriel Gray with her Irish accent and spiked bleached hair and drainpipe jeans and stratospheric heels; Fi Glover, who  made a Peter Andre reference from the mic; Liz Calder, who was there on behalf of Bettany Hughes and is one of the fiercest, coolest biddies in publishing… It was genuinely inspirational.

2007’s winner, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, was declared the Best of the Best, which I had sort of been expecting. I’ve not read it, but I’ve read her third novel, Americanah (shortlisted last year), and it was exceptional; without a doubt, one of the top twenty books I’ve ever read, and maybe in the top ten. She’s a thoughtful, conscientious, enormously skilled writer: her abilities and her ambition match. It’s hard to beat that.

Moreover, I have a new reading project: read all the books that have won the Women’s Prize. Of the twenty, I’ve read On BeautyA Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, How to be both, and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, which won in 2002. I’ve also read other works by some of the writers who’ve won it (Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees; Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead) but not the winning books themselves. Hearing the extracts from each one piqued my curiosity; even the ones that didn’t appeal based on the jacket copy or cover design suddenly seemed intriguing. Delightful to have (yet another!) reading project, as November darkens…

Beyond Poe and Lovecraft: Scary Stories by Not-White Guys

The end of October means the approach of Halloween, which means that in the book-reading corner of the Internet, everyone is sharing their favorite creepy reads. In this as in most other areas of Western culture, white dudes comprise a disproportionate part of the feted canon. It’s not that writers like Poe, Lovecraft, Stephen King and Wilkie Collins (to name but a few) aren’t good; they absolutely are. But the problem is that any fool can find them. Making a list with these guys on it isn’t exactly hard. It’s not like people of colour have never written ghost stories, so why don’t they get onto lists? Herewith, nine of the creepiest, most supernatural books by black American, black African, South American and Native American writers. I’ve tried to stick with ones that I’ve read, or at least ones by authors whose other work I’ve read, but I’d love any additional recommendations, particularly by Asian authors…

Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Obviously. A baby murdered by her mother to save her from a life of slavery haunts the family that she never knew. A classic, and skin-crawlingly scary to boot: it’s not so much the supernatural elements, more the knowledge that the horrors of slavery that Morrison’s heroine Sethe lives through were real.

The Famished Road, by Ben Okri. Set in colonial Nigeria, this novel won the 1991 Booker Prize and is the story of a “spirit-child”, Azaro, who tries to break a promise to the spirit world. The way that our physical reality slips and slides into a metaphysical reality is where Okri derives the creepiness.

The Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi. In a similar vein, The Icarus Girl is about a little girl, Jessamy, from a biracial family, who discovers that her new best friend, TillyTilly, might be more than imaginary, and less than well-meaning. As a writer, Oyeyemi’s interest in the sinister potential of tradition and folk tale to shape our lives has continued to develop–her most recent novel, Boy Snow Bird, transplants that interest to New England.

Fledgling, by Octavia Butler. It is about a young black amnesiac female vampire, I don’t know what else you can possibly want. (Oh: polyamory. There’s also polyamory.)

Tell My Horse, by Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston lived in Haiti and participated in voodoo ceremonies there, which she wrote about in this book. Atmospheric, accurate, and utterly without voyeurism—Hurston wasn’t just observing, but taking part—it’s dark and fascinating.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutuola. I’m not sure why Gabriel Garcia Marquez has such a monopoly on “magical realism”, because the African writers on this list are chock-full of it. Tutuola’s novella draws on Yoruba folk legend to tell the story of an alcoholic trawling the realms of the dead for his long-lost bartender, and meeting some rather horrible people along the way.

The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende. An epic of a witchy family in Latin America over three generations; like One Hundred Years of Solitude, but without the passivity of the inhabitants of Macondo, and with more interesting women.

Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie. The story of Robert Johnson, supposedly the world’s greatest blues guitarist, who was said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play, drives this haunting, heartbreaking novel about a group of guys (and two girls) from a Native American reservation who decide to form a rock band. You could call this magical realism too: Johnson and Big Mom, the local medicine woman/facet of Godhead, slide in and out of the story, although our protagonists are mostly pretty firmly planted in the real world. (Read this even if you’re not interested in a creepy/magical/supernatural Halloween-y type experience. It’s an exceptional book.)

Wizard of the Crow, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. A Kafkaesque black comedy about a man who claims, out of exasperation with his neighbors, to be a wizard, only to find that he’s threatened the supremacy of his homeland’s tinpot dictator. The weird, shifting realities in this book mirror the horrors of Beloved: this stuff is scary not because it’s supernatural, but because it actually, unbelievably, happens.

I’m moving to London (at last!) on Saturday, and packing all this week, so I may not see you back here before end-of-the-month superlatives. If not, I hope you have a safe and hyperglycemic Halloween.

May the Grand Pumpkin visit you all.

Man Booker Shortlist Feelings

Image from the Guardian

This is totally brilliant–the two Man Booker longlisted books that I’ve managed so far are also on the shortlist! That’s nearly half my work already done (although I doubt that I will actually be able to manage the entire shortlist by the date of the announcement, I’ll give it a try)!

A quick rundown:

A Brief History of Seven Killings (link to review) was one of the best books I’ll read all year. I said I didn’t think it would win, but I’m now having to reconsider–obviously the judges have some sense of taste and discretion. It’s a magisterial exercise in controlling a sprawling plot and maintaining two dozen-odd separate voices; the only thing that I thought might challenge its place on the shortlist would have been a judicial tendency to prefer the contemporary-realism on offer from most of the white/Anglo writers. With most of them out of the way, the most plausible challenger to this book’s ultimate victory is A Little Life.

The Fishermen (link also to review), by Chigozie Obioma, is impressive too, albeit in a totally different sort of way. Control of voice is still the key to its success; having a child narrator who isn’t obnoxious and still gives the reader the information she needs is hard, and Obioma does it. He also integrates themes of classical tragedy and postcolonial trauma in a way that never feels forced or showy. I doubt this will win, though, pitted against the other big beasts on the list.

A Spool of Blue Thread has now made it onto both the Man Booker and Baileys Prize shortlists, which means there has got to be something to it, but I still can’t bring myself to be more than marginally interested in it, given a plot blurb. If it wins, I’ll read it and get some sense of what this is all about; if not, I won’t seek it out. I’ve never read any Anne Tyler before; maybe if I had, I’d be more keen.

A Little Life is the least surprising presence on the shortlist. Pretty sure it was Yanagihara’s contest to lose from the get-go; now it’ll be interesting to see if her book has a different effect in the context of a smaller, more focused list. This is the one I most want to have read by the time of the announcement.

Satin Island‘s inclusion surprises me. As I think I said before, the premise seems entirely slick and heartless, a bit cynical and ironic and po-mo, a sort of dying gesture towards the cult of David Foster Wallace. I’m still not about to back it for the win, but perhaps there’s more to it than its summary would make it seem.

Finally, we have The Year of the Runaways, which I expect will stand or fall as a book based on its ability to make us care about a very current-events sort of premise, and as a contestant based on its ability, again, to measure up to James and Yanagihara’s books. I know next to nothing about it, but it might be the feel-good entry. Or it might be brilliant! Anything is possible.

I’m genuinely shocked to see that Lila isn’t on the list. Marilynne Robinson writes beautiful prose that conveys humane, complex ideas; if there’s a better description of what a good novelist does, let me know, but I rather think she fits that one. If anything was almost guaranteed to be on the shortlist, it was Lila. I wonder whether that’s the very reason the judges left it off. You’d like to think not, but there are all sorts of behind-the-scenes decisions being made…

Anyone have any other feelings about the shortlist? Anyone read some, most or all of the books? Anyone think they can confidently predict a winner?!