Baileys Prize Shortlist Wishes

This is what I would put on the Baileys Prize shortlist if it were all up to me (which, obviously, it should be). The shadow panel has reached a group decision (with, I might add, a minimum of contention, though we’ve had some amazing and impassioned discussions about the various merits of each book), and our (un)official shadow shortlist will be posted tomorrow (Sunday). For now, though, here’s what I’d have:

The Power, by Naomi Alderman (my review)

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What it’s about: One day, all over the world, women and girls discover that they have a power: they can harness and discharge electrostatic energy. From this apparently gimmicky premise, Alderman spins the stories of four people—three women and a man—who are affected by the new global order.

Why I picked it: For the ease with which it rises above those charges of gimmickyness. Alderman isn’t positing this for the sake of a cool premise; she’s interested in the most fundamental aspects of what makes human civilisation possible. The title is very apt: this book might seem to be about gender, but really what it’s about is power, and whether it is even reasonable to suggest that humanity is capable of creating a society where power is shared equally. It is the book from the longlist that most haunts me even now, weeks after reading it.

The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill (my review)

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What it’s about: Velvet doesn’t know that she’s a natural horse rider until a summer trip courtesy of the Fresh Air Fund. For two weeks, she stays with Ginger, a childless artist in her late forties, and Paul, a professor at a small college in upstate New York. Across the road, there’s a stables. It’s there that Velvet meets Fugly Girl, a seriously damaged mare, learns to ride, and becomes invested in salvaging Fugly Girl’s spirit.

Why I picked it: For the strength, compassion, and rejection of stereotyping that Gaitskill brings to her character work. Velveteen is one of the most impressive fictional creations I’ve come across all year: a pre-teen of Puerto Rican descent when we meet her, she grows over the course of several years into a beautifully complex fourteen-year-old, full of age-appropriate longing to fit in and to meet boys, as well as distinctly mature concerns about her physically abusive mother Silvia, and, above all, a driving passion for horses. Silvia is almost completely inexplicable to soft, middle-class Ginger: a woman who tells her only daughter that she’s ugly, a woman who hits her kids, a woman who loves her kids so hard that she can’t show them any love. And Ginger is well-meaning, kind, and often very wrong, a refreshingly sharp take on white liberalism.

The Sport of Kings, by C.E. Morgan (what I wrote; scroll down)

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What it’s about: The book follows the Forge family, one of Kentucky’s oldest racing dynasties, as Henry Forge attempts to create the perfect racehorse, and to retain control of his own family—specifically, headstrong daughter Henrietta. Meanwhile, Allmon Shaughnessy, a black ex-con, is hired at the Forge farm and must come to grips with Forge’s racism, his own past, and his interest in Henrietta.

Why I picked it: This book bites off more than most other books even glanced at this year (yes, I know that metaphor is mixed, thank you). Morgan wants to talk about everything: racism in America, drug-dealing, heredity, the mythos of the Old South, parenthood, the line between madness and dedication. If the novel is occasionally baggy, that’s because there’s a lot in it, and for my money, she integrates her themes pretty damn well. It was among the most ceaselessly entertaining and moving of the longlist contenders, and I like ambition.

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx (my review)

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What it’s about: Much like The Sport of Kings, Barkskins focuses on the growth of an industry in America—in this case, logging—through the lens of family—in this case, the Sels and the Duquets, over the course of about four centuries.

Why I picked it: Did I say that I like ambition? Well, I do. Is this book flawed? Hell yes. Is that because it’s too long? Hell yes. Is it too long because Proulx is trying to make a point about time and legacy and the importance of taking the long view? Precisely. Is that point conveyed through characters who—sometimes—we get to know and love, with a staggering array of background detail that makes the whole thing (if you like detail) like a gorgeous tapestry, or (if you don’t like detail) like a metastasizing mess? Yes, it is. Ultimately I think one’s reaction to Barkskins comes down to whether you’re willing to forgive its sins in deference to what it’s trying to achieve, and in awe at what it actually does achieve. I’m willing.

First Love, by Gwendoline Riley (what I wrote; scroll down)

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What it’s about: Neve is a young writer married to older writer Edwin. Over the course of scarcely two hundred pages, we learn about her marriage, her background, and her needy, manipulative, intensely deluded mother.

Why I picked it: First Love was not a book that I actually enjoyed reading, which is exactly why I’ve chosen it: Riley is so good at dialogue, at evoking tension and venom and the nuances of love and hate that often characterise parental and marital relationships, that you have to just stand back in awe. It ain’t pretty, but it’s a hell of a stylistic achievement.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien (my review)

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What it’s about: Framed by a ’90s-set device where eighteen-year-old Ai-ming tells her family’s history to Marie, the daughter of a family friend, the book spans seventy years in the middle of the twentieth century in China. It covers the effects of the Cultural Revolution on a family, focusing especially on three young musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory, and the ways in which they bend or snap under ideological pressure, depending on their personalities.

Why I picked it: It’s by far the most sophisticated book on the longlist, and could stand as an example of a book that not only attempts the breadth and depth of Barkskins and The Sport of Kings, but fully succeeds—and in fewer pages. Thien’s characters are always people that we care about, and the dilemmas they face are so profound—how do you maintain integrity as an artist under oppression? Is there even a good reason for creating art when people are being killed daily for no reason?—and dealt with in such a mature fashion. I almost wish it hadn’t been as good, because it’s already done well on the Canadian and British prize circuit and it’s time for someone else to have the spotlight, but goddamn, the universal praise is well deserved.

Stay tuned for the shadow panel’s shortlist, to be revealed tomorrow chez Naomi (The Writes of Woman)

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Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish

She was using both hands to hold up the triangular pizza slice, which kept buckling in the middle, like a corpse being carried to a helicopter.

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There are some words that have become meaningless in criticism. Many of the adjectives blazoning my copy of Preparation for the Next Life can be found on that list: “extraordinary”, “compelling”, “masterful”, and so on. There are others, too, though, in the blurbs that preface the book itself, and they’re less common—”superlucid”, “breathless momentum”, “a low centre of gravity”, “heat-seeking precision”—as though the authors of these reviews were trying, consciously or unconsciously, to replicate the power of the prose that had left them so breathless, moving so unstoppably. Perhaps the most overused word of all, in contemporary media at least, is “tragedy”. Preparation for the Next Life is a tragedy too: not the fall of a great man, but the remorseless crushing of an unlucky one. Though our male protagonist, Brad Skinner, isn’t the only one; there’s also his lover, Zou Lei, an ethnic Uighur from northwest China whose dialect is so obscure that no one, in all of the Chinese fast-food joints that employ her throughout the course of the novel, can understand it. She learns Cantonese, English, even Spanish: anything to survive.

Skinner has done three tours of Iraq. He’s twenty-three. The year is never explicitly stated, but from textual clues, we can guess he was serving before the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, which means the novel is likely set before 2006, when the convictions occurred. One of Lish’s greatest accomplishments is conveying a sense of a city—a whole country—skittish and on edge as a direct result of 9/11. Having lived through that time only as a child (an obnoxiously information-hungry child, but nevertheless), I find novels set in the half-decade or so after 9/11 particularly fascinating; they allow me to fit pieces of my personal and social history into a wider context. They let me understand things that I couldn’t understand at the time, the reelection of George W. Bush being only one of them. In Preparation for the Next Life, there’s a sense of simmering rage and hate among native-born Americans that entirely passed me by when I was nine. Zou Lei, briefly in prison on immigration charges, sees the result of that hate:

They showed her what was going on on the top tier, in the cell that no one ever came out of. They had a project they’d been working on. It was a woman lying in a bunk. The deputies gave her to us. We take care of her. Right after 9/11 they put her in a cell with like fifteen guys. She was in Al Qaida for real. I don’t know how they could get it up because she’s so nasty. …Zou Lei looked at the woman. She couldn’t tell if she was breathing. They told her she was Lebanese, a mom.

They’ve both been through different sorts of hell: Skinner through executions and firefights and his buddy’s brains splattering on his boots, Zou through living in one motel room with eight other women, working fourteen-hour days, loneliness, and a language barrier. But whereas hell starts to break Skinner down, Zou pushes back. Lish doesn’t give us much time inside her mind, but he gives us plenty of time behind her eyes: we see what she sees, and her reactions are what we’re given to know of her mental state. The picture that grows is of a woman simultaneously practical and innocent, determined and courageous yet still capable of affection and silliness. Quietly, Zou Lei is a revelation, and revolution, in the annals of women-written-by-men, particularly ethnic minority women written by white men.

She was not the mother type. When she collected their empties one day and took them to the redeemer, it was because she was enterprising, not because she felt she should clean up after him. With the dollar and change she made, she bought a chicken skewer and saved it for them to eat together, half each, the meat cold by the time she had walked there with it through the small houses covered in Spanish graffiti. She was logging all these miles and it was good.

She’s not the mother type, but she loves him, and he doesn’t scare her. This is a good thing, because the shit that has happened to Skinner would scare almost anyone; indeed, it scares him, and it makes him, in turn, someone who gets angry and loud and who has sweating, screaming nightmares. Lish writes these as he writes everything, in a kind of steady, quiet declarative that is all the more affecting for being measured. (There is one particularly bad scene involving Jimmy, the son of Skinner’s landlady, an ex-con whom we know is bad news right from the start. Jimmy commits an atrocity which is reported in this solemn, solid, unflinching style, and reading it shook me up so badly that I had to put the book down and wander around the flat for a while, trying to think of something else.) Yet there’s no sense of the gratuitous. It’s one of the most sympathetically generous novels I’ve ever read; Lish has no stake in the business of judging people. You get the sense that he’s just trying to get down on paper what actually happened, and that sense of precision in reportage makes the whole thing feel that much more real. Zou Lei goes on a nighttime run, near the end of the book, which takes at least three hours—she goes clear out of Queens, all the way to Great Neck—and you just know that Lish had to have walked that route in order to be able to describe it in such unwavering detail.

The detail is the other thing that makes this book so good: there’s an unswerving accuracy to the descriptions of street shopfronts and the details of back-street geography that makes the whole novel feel almost documentary. It’s set during the summer, and you can almost feel the heat and the texture of the air on your skin:

A Mazda with silver rims spun around the corner and drove away under the shadow of the elevated tracks. All down the block, Guatemalans were cooking a hash of gray brains, black sausage and corn on the cob at their generator-powered trucks, the women in aprons and ball caps holding tongs, arranging a ring of pig’s heads turned to leather masks by roasting, black holes where the eyes were or had been before they were cooked out. An inside-the-animal smell.

None of this detail contributes to the plot, but it’s not there for plot. It’s there to give this book a firm anchorage in reality. People sometimes say of a book that you could crawl inside it and live there. Usually they’re talking about epic fantasy, but the idea applies equally to Preparation for the Next Life. The events of this book matter so profoundly to the reader because you know that it’s only this precise iteration of them that’s fiction. Things like this happen all the time in New York City, in America, in Iraq, in liminal mountainous countries.

The fate of Zou’s and Skinner’s relationship is, as you might expect, not a happy one; I won’t go into it, partly because spoilers aren’t necessary to write a comprehensive review but partly because I sort of can’t bear to. We end, as we started, with Zou Lei, following, as so many have, Horace Greeley’s advice: “Go west.” She goes west, to the “next life” of the title—the constancy of migration, moving from job to job, town to town, apartment to apartment, identity to identity. But there’s also the “next life” that Skinner finds. Hamlet’s undiscovered country, after all, was death. Skinner doesn’t seem to have a choice, by the end, but Zou does. She’s a desert woman; she grew up under huge skies. Though nothing about the ending is clear or definitive, you suspect that out there, in Phoenix, she might find something like freedom.

Thanks to Margot Weale at Oneworld for the review copy. Preparation for the Next Life was released in paperback in the UK on 4 February.