Bailey’s Prize Shortlist 2016: Book Reviews

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Each year, since 1996, the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction has celebrated excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women throughout the world. It remains the UK’s most prestigious annual book award for fiction written by a woman.

The Prize is a great platform for women writers. Previous winners include Ali Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith and Eimear McBride so its shortlists and winners are always greatly anticipated.

The winner of the 2016 award will be announced June 8, 2016. But until then, here are my thoughts on the shortlist…

Baileys Prize 1

Anne Enright: The Green Road

If you’re looking for a book to take your heart into its hands and then break it, look no further.

The Green Road follows four adults who return to Ireland when their difficult mother announces she’s selling the family home. Rosaleen is a woman who has always struggled with displays of maternal affection, or even demonstrating basic interest in her children’s lives. As a result, her four children have grown up emotionally and, for some, physically distant from her.

Her sons, Dan and Emmet, fled overseas – to New York and Mali, respectively – with little, if any, contact with a woman they consider to be their mother in only name. Rosaleen’s two daughters, however, have remained in Ireland, and battle daily with the challenges both in their own lives and in their responsibilities towards a woman, their mother, who brings little but pain into their lives.

The beauty and the tragedy in this book are in its truthfulness. Family bonds are always complicated. We don’t get to choose our family, but we remain forever connected to them. And The Green Road is one of those tenderly painful depictions of life where big events happen but nothing changes. Because, of course, we don’t change. We never really learn any lessons. We just continue on. And life continues on regardless.

This is tender, beautiful writing.  And, I suspect, everyone will find echoes of their own family within these pages.

Baileys Prize 2

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies

Oh, this book really is glorious. It’s ferocious, in fact.

An accidental killing starts a metaphorical fire that blazes its way through those living in the margins in contemporary Cork. The Glorious Heresies takes it all on – and takes no prisoners: poverty, austerity politics, the Church, gangland killings, casual violence, drugs, misogyny, sex work, alcoholism, domestic abuse…

At the heart of the story is Maureen, the woman who accidentally killed a man. Unfortunate. But given her son is Jimmy, Cork’s most feared gangster, getting rid of the body shouldn’t be hard. Only her and Jimmy are estranged – they certainly don’t see eye to eye. And the clean-up all gets a bit complicated when Georgie, the girlfriend of the dead man, comes looking for her boyfriend, and the bloke Jimmy orders to dispose of the body – Tony – starts to unravel with the pressures of his alcoholism and the trauma.

The plot is big, complex, but this is brave writing, too. This is Lisa’s debut novel and, straight up, she tackles what writers are always taught to treat with caution – revolving points of view. Throughout the book, the story unfolds from the point of view of each of the characters. Far from being disconcerting, this is brilliantly handled as the complex, multi-layered plot unfolds in all directions, the repercussions of this one event rippling out wider and wider.

And each character is complex, multi-dimensional and full of contradictions. They are fully fleshed out and real. This is great writing. I half feel sorry for Lisa that she has a debut this good – I hope the pressure to match this in her next book isn’t overwhelming. But this is dynamic, vivid writing about desperate, desperate lives.

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Hannah Rothschild: The Improbability of Love

Ah, well, I suppose there’s always one in every shortlist that’s a bit controversial and, for me, The Improbability of Love is that one here. Simply put, this isn’t a great book. It’s not terrible – it’s just that it doesn’t hang together particularly well.

Crucially, its tone is all over the place – this book doesn’t know whether it’s a Bridget Jones-esque light romance, or a hard-hitting dark drama on Nazi war crimes and confiscated art. Further to that, every character is a one-dimensional cliché with no depth or complexity.

The central plot surrounds Annie, a naïve ingénue, who stumbles across a painting in a junk shop that she buys for a boyfriend. Only her boyf is a terrible one, obvs. He stands her up because Annie is a loser in love and, instead, she’s stuck with this unwanted painting. Only said item could well be a long lost masterpiece. Hence this becomes the launch off point for a journey through the machinations of not just the art world, but also an understanding of man’s love of art through the ages.

That Hannah Rothschild is an important figure in the art world, I already knew. And certainly she lays out much of her knowledge here, which I expect is what has impressed so many. But the volume of information, for me, cannot hide over the fact that the plot isn’t strong. Nor does it gloss over Hannah’s difficulty in situating this in the real world. Her pop culture references are a bit all over the place – she refers to joggers using ‘personal stereos ‘(I cannot remember for the life of me when I last used a personal stereo); one character is the biggest selling rap artist in the world but his given moniker M. Power Dub-Box implies a writer out of touch. And don’t even get me started on the description of Damien Hirst as ‘the David Beckham of the art world.’

And, obviously I know a bit about art myself, and a key frustration for me is that the painting is a character in the book – running a quiet narration on what is passing in front of it. A nice idea but I have to say I was really disappointed that, despite the artist behind the painting being so poor he could barely afford a canvas, the painting still spoke a plummy Queen’s English accent. Somewhat reinforcing art’s elitist character. But also nonsensical given its provenance.

A bit of a missed opportunity. A good beach read but not a gripping novel.

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Elizabeth McKenzie: The Portable Veblen

This is such an unusual story and, such is the quality in the execution, that you can’t help but admire the vision and skill from writer, Elizabeth McKenzie. The story revolves around Veblen, a woman who is about to be married. Only her husband-to-be, Paul, is a domineering, controlling man. Veblen diminishes herself to keep the relationship on an even keel – a pattern she learnt growing up with her domineering, controlling mother.

As an outlet, Veblen thinks animals talk to her. More specially, squirrels. Her subconscious finds its outlet this way, as if the squirrels are telling what, deep inside, she knows to be true.

But, like ripples in a pond, this book reverberates out through both Veblen’s and Paul’s family as we begin to see the layers of trials and experiences that have shaped these people, that have defined who they have become. And this is the book’s power, for what is it that makes us who we are? And for those of us struggling to be heard, how do we find our voice?

It’s worth noticing that some of the blurb on the book’s cover jacket focuses on its subplot – that of the medical economy and capitalism. You see, Paul has created a key innovation in medical science that could propel him to great success. I would point out that this is a very clever and interesting subplot – but that it isn’t the main story, which instead focuses on Veblen.

The book has also been referred to as ‘riotously funny’. Again, I’m not sure if I’ve read a different book from others but please don’t think The Portable Veblen will have you rolling in the aisles. There are moments when it is light-hearted, but that’s not the same as hilarious.

Instead, for me, this is a beautiful, beautiful book that takes a soul-searching and heart-warming look into self-awareness, dysfunctional families and finding inner strength.

RUBY

Cynthia Bond: Ruby

Well. I haven’t read a book with a voice this strong, this distinctive, in a while. Ruby is Cynthia Bond’s debut novel – she spent ten years working on it – and she has crafted an unflinching study of violence and injustice in the Deep South.

Set in the 1960s, Liberty is a small town in Texas, steeped in segregation and oppression. But here, the white men and women are outside the frame – their influence felt but never seen. Instead Cynthia focuses on the black community who live in poverty on the edge of woodland and lakes, and – specifically – she focuses on Ruby, a woman who has suffered all her life at the hands of the men in the town. Now Ruby exists on the margins of this community, mocked for her apparent insanity, and feared and desired in equal measure because of her explicit sexual behaviour.

For great swathes of this book, the central themes seem to be of female trauma and suffering. And Cynthia pulls no punches in her depiction of this. At times the horrific imagery can be hard to take, but not only is this essential writing, Cynthia’s prose is extraordinary.  It captures the fever both in the town and the madness in its inhabitants. And yet at times, its poetic brilliance rises above the pain to depict something of immense beauty.

As an example, ‘Inside the old house Ruby was sleeping, which was rare. Ruby did not sleep – much. For her mind tangled like a fine gold chain, knotted, she was certain, beyond all repair. Still she tried each day to trace the links, only to lose them again and again.’

As we unravel the threads of Ruby’s apparent madness, trying to understand its source, the curtains are pulled back on the vicious and violent power structures that mar this community. Female obedience is secured by the men through beatings and rape of all women, irrelevant of their status as daughters, sisters or mothers.

Yet there are dangerous spirits afoot in Liberty too. Call it voodoo, call it magic but the woods hold secrets. Could the Dybou, the cursed spirit that stalks Ruby, be part of her mental illness? Or are the dark spirits real? Do the spirits of the next world hold clues to events that happened in this one?

This is evocative writing – the heat of the midday sun and the suffocating still air of the woods is as palpable as the blood that flows from the split lips on every woman. But if you can stay true through the violence you will find this is a novel about female courage in all its forms. It is an examination on how oppressed women find their strength, whether it be through God or through madness.

The blend of hatred and violence with spirituality and feverish religious beliefs is intoxicating and terrifying. But the biggest impact the book makes is its framing of the endemic nervous breakdowns in the women of this small town as an understandable response, even a management strategy, for the level and ferocity of male violence they experience. Misogyny is the sea these women are forced to swim in. Is madness an understandable response?

Like the dark spirit, the Dybou that lurks in the shadows of the woods, this book gets under your skin. Ruby is superb in absolutely every way.

A Little Life

Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life

A Little Life has been one of the most talked about books in the past couple of years – and it has divided critics and audiences alike. I can see both sides but, for me, there is so much more to admire in this book than there is to criticise.

The story follows the lives of four men in modern-day New York, all friends – Malcolm, Willem, JB and Jude. We follow them from their early twenties to their late fifties, witnessing all their challenges and successes, both professional and personal. But at the heart of this story is Jude, the most private and secretive of the four men, who is clearly struggling with the physical and mental scars of a troubled childhood, the details of which are slowly revealed throughout the book.

It is the spirit and languid pace of the writing that impresses most. This book is 700+ pages long and in a book of that length, you expect pace to ebb and flow, with passages of dynamic activity balanced with slower phases. Yet Hanya has bravely abandoned that convention for a gentle pace that never speeds up, yet encourages a deep excavation of these characters lives and their experiences – their personal highs and their private lows – and allows Hanya not only the space and time to weave her vast tapestry of these characters lives, but also how they have impacted all those around them.

What we have here is a very deep examination of the many facets of the human heart and the human experience. All these characters are flawed (and, interestingly, largely unlikeable) yet as the story unwinds, we see so much of our own contradictions and failings in these men. It is that mirror to our own feelings (though our specific experiences may be different) that has given this book its reputation as an extraordinary literary achievement.

Its scope is vast – 700+ pages is a hell of a length (and one that always should be earned) and covers almost all of these men’s lives. Had this book been 550 pages long, I would agree with those that consider it almost flawless. But the last 150 pages almost prove its undoing with spurious and unnecessary sub-plots that add little to either plot or character development. And for most of these pages, Hanya is in narrative mode – that law of ‘show, don’t tell’ is abandoned and we are told what happened, what each character thought or felt, rather than discover for ourselves.

By the last few pages of this book, though, its power is back and by the end I had tears rolling down my cheek. That is no mean achievement. For what is profound is the central message of this book: that everything is temporary. We are all just passing through. For all our suffering and our moments of joy, in the big scheme of things we all have little lives.

And even within our own lives, nothing endures. Not friendship, not love. Nothing in our lives is permanent except the scars and experiences that define us. That Hanya captures this spirit is remarkable, and how she executes it is deeply affecting.

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2 comments

  1. Posted by Victoria, at Reply

    Thank you for your comment, Bronwen. Yes, I agree. You do get the feeling that with all that investment Hanya put into her characters that she meant that every part of our lives and our experiences has meaning. It is a very beautiful book.

  2. Posted by Bronwen swinnerton, at Reply

    I agree with much of your review. I found the gentle pace quite comforting, especially in the more difficult sections. And I felt that one of the central themes was that every ‘little life’ matters and when the detail of anyone’s little life are revealed their little life is no longer little. I took this as a reaffirmation of everyone in the world mattering. I adore this book.