Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2018 #WomensPrize

Today the short list was announced for the woman’s prize for fiction. From the longlist of 13 books, six books have been chosen.

The Chair of Judges Sarah Sands had this to say:

“The shortlist was chosen without fear or favour. We lost some big names, with regret, but narrowed down the list to the books which spoke most directly and truthfully to the judges. The themes of the shortlist have both contemporary and lasting resonance encompassing the birth of the internet, race, sexual violence, grief, oh and mermaids. Some of the authors are young, half by Brits and all are blazingly good and brave writers.”

I’ve actually read and reviewed three of the six chosen titles, all of which I really enjoyed, and I would like to read Sight and The Mermaid, so overall I think it’s an impressive list, even though the prize completely ignored the outstanding novel Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.

The shortlist is as follows, beginning with the three I’ve read, then the two I’d like to, all six revealed here in biscuit form, made by @BiscuiteersLtd :

Meena KandasamyWhen I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife  – my review here

  • a literary artwork, a portrait of a writer suffering in a four-month marriage, surviving through writing, her imagination and now looking back and turning what could have destroyed her into a blazing, unforgettable novel.

Kamila ShamsieHome Fire my review here

  • a heartbreaking tragic work, a modern retelling of Sophocles’ 5th century BC play Antigone, an exploration of the conflict between those who affirm the individual’s human rights and those who protect the state’s security, set in London, told through an immigrant family struggling to distance themselves from the patterns of their ancestral past.

Jesmyn WardSing, Unburied, Sing – my review here

  • narrated from three points of view, 13-year-old Jojo, his mother Leonie and the spectre of a young man Richie, it’s a coming-of-age story about surviving a dysfunctional family, haunted by the past, and spirits that won’t rest.

Imogen Hermes Gowar, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

  • Historical fiction with a splash of magic realism, a merchant and a celebrity courtesan brought together by the arrival of a mermaid in Georgian London, 1785 – a debut novel inspired by a “real mermaid” in the British Museum.

 

Jessie GreengrassSight

  • a woman recounts her progress to motherhood, remembering the death of her mother, and the childhood summers she spent with her psychoanalyst grandmother – alongside events in medical history – emerging into a realisation. 

Elif BatumanThe Idiot

  • a campus novel, reflecting on how culture and language shape who we are, how difficult it is to be a writer, and how baffling love is.

 

***

Of the three I’ve read, I think Meena Kandasamy’s stood out the most for me, in particular because I initially avoided it, and then was blown away by how the subject was so uniquely and adeptly handled. It’s a form of autobiographical fiction, some debating whether it is indeed a novel, being based in part on the author’s life.

So what do you think of the list, do you have a favourite, or one you really want to read?

Buy any of the books on the shortlist via Bookdepository

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

As soon as I read the premise for this historical novel, I knew I wanted to read it. A tale that travels from Iceland to Algiers, inspired by a true story, one that acknowledges the power of imagination and oral storytelling from within different cultures.

Described as The Turkish Raid or Tyrkjaránið, the inspiration for the novel is based on the invasion of Iceland in 1627 by pirates from Algeria and Morocco, also known as Barbary pirates (a reference to the Barbary coast, a term used by Europeans in the 16th century, referring to the coastal aspect of the collective lands of the Berber people of North Africa). They were lead by the ambitious and cunning Dutch captain Jan Janszoon van Haarlem, commonly known as Murat Reis the Younger, himself captured and “turned Turk”.

They were referred to as Turks, as Algeria was then part of the expansive Ottoman Empire. Icelandic villagers were abducted, and taken by ship to be sold as slaves in Algiers, a request for a ransom was made to the Danish King, and a few would make it back home.

Relative to its size, Iceland, the furthest north the corsairs reached, was hit particularly hard. To lose four hundred people out of a population of around forty thousand – including most of the island of Heimaey – is by any standards a stupendous national tragedy, particularly for what was at the time the poorest country in Europe. That may be one reason why Iceland has kept painfully in its collective psyche what has largely faded from the memory of other affected nations. It may also be down to the Icelandic compulsion to write. Voluminous historical narratives were written afterwards and copied by hand. It was felt important that the nation’s great trauma should be understood and never forgotten.

The Sealwoman’s Gift follows one family, Ólafur the local pastor, his relatively younger wife Asta and two of their children, all of whom are abducted, the mother due to give birth, which she does on the ship. Initially Ólafur is herded onto a different ship, perhaps due to his advanced age, however he manages to fight his way to his wife and children, allowed to do so while others are struck down for such defiance, when his ability to calm the captives is noted by the Captain.

They voyage across the sea to Algiers where their fate awaits them. While on the ship, one of the islanders Oddrún – affectionately referred to as the sealwoman, due to her insistent belief that she was a seal who came ashore and had her sealskin stolen, forcing her to remain human – has a dream, another shared prophecy, words that are usually ignored, but given their predicament and desire for escape, are this time listened to attentively.

‘I have seen Ólafur in a great palace. He is kneeling before the king.’

She also has words for Asta, referring to Gudrún, the female character in the Icelandic myth, the 13th century Laxdaela saga.

‘Do not do as Gudrún did’

It’s not possible to write too much about what happens without spoiling the discovery for the reader, suffice to say that poverty-stricken conservative Christian Icelanders arriving in the warm, lush climate of Algiers, where, although they are enslaved, many will live in ways less harsh than what they have experienced in freedom, and children will be both born and grow up within a culture and religion unlike their home country, one that some will embrace, others will defy, awaiting the response of their king to the request for a ransom.

Those that return, in turn, face the dilemma of reacclimatising to their culture and way of life, so different to what they have experienced, the memories of their time of enslavement never far from their thoughts and the judgments of those who were not caught felt in a wayward glance.

How could she have forgotten, how could she possibly not have remembered, what it is like to live for month after month with only a few watery hours of light a day,  with cold that seeps into your bones and feet that are always wet? Is it conceivable that she never noticed before how foul the habits are here?…

Can she not have noticed how the turf walls bend in on you and bear down on you until you are desperate to break out and breathe again? Only there is no roof to escape to here but just gabled grass, and the wind would toss you off it anyway if it did not freeze you first. To think she spent more than thirty winters in a house like this, yet only now is oppressed by the way the stinking fulmar oil in the lamp mingles with the stench of the animals and the meat smoking over the kitchen fire and the ripe sealskin jackets on their hook, making her sick with longing for the tang of mint and cumin and an atrium open to the sky.

While much of the Reverend Ólafur Egillson’s story is known from journals he kept, that have been transcribed and translated and kept his story and that of the islanders alive, not much is known of the fate of his wife Asta while she was captive, an interlude that the author immerses herself in through the imagination. A fragment of engraved stone is all that remains to commemorate the life of this woman who lived an extraordinary life, the details of which she took with her to the grave.

‘History can tell us no more than it does about any woman of the time in Iceland or anywhere else, unless she happened to be a queen.’

Overall, this story provides a thrilling depiction of the terror of a pirate invasion that changed the lives of 400 islanders from Iceland, their journey across seas to Algiers, the slave markets and fates of those who survived, their children and an imagining of how they may have coped as they watched their youth grow up and become part of another culture and way of life, while older Icelanders struggled with what they retained within them of their past and the changes that would envelope them in the years that followed, in a strange new land, one that despite their suffering, also offered opportunities they would never have encountered at home.

Buy a copy now via Book Depository

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Note: Thank you to the publisher Two Roads, for providing a review copy.

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

When I look back at my absolute favourite book of the year in recent years, there is a common theme running in which an author has written a story that comes from deep within their cultural heritage; it’s there in my favourite book of 2017 Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a book that reaches back to the author’s Ghanaian heritage, in Simone Schwartz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond and in Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother. It’s even there in Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child.

This is what appealed to me immediately about the prospect of reading Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu. It promises to do the same thing, to take the reader from where we are at today in a culture and link it back to the past, from modern day Uganda to the era of when the region was ruled as a kingdom. And it succeeds brilliantly, in a way rarely seen in literature in the UK/US published today.

Kintu was discovered when a project called Kwani? launched a manuscript competition in 2012 to discover the best unpublished novels  by writers from across Africa, and to publish them for readers there. Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s excellent Stay With Me, was one of seven manuscripts shortlisted, it also went on to make the shortlist of the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017.

About the Kwani? project, one of the judges, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey said:

What we looked for as judges were manuscripts that told stories from the inside without the burden of focusing on how an imagined ‘West’ would view them.

As a result of winning that prize Kintu was published by Kwani Trust (in Kenya) before being offered to international publishers. It was published in the US (Transit Books) and the UK (One World Publications) and in March 2018 Jennifer Makumbi learned she was a recipient of a prestigious Windham Campbell Prize for Literature worth US$165,000. She is working on her second novel.

My Review:

1750 Buddu Province, Buganda

Kintu is the name of a clan, the original clan elder Kintu Kidda fell in love with Nnakato, an identical twin (the younger) and her family refuse to allow him to marry her unless he married her sister Babirye first. He refused. They resisted. He relented.

Kintu’s mind lingered on the primal conflict that led to a soul splitting into twins. No matter how he looked at it, life was tragic. If the soul is at conflict even at this remotest level of existence, what chance do communities have? This made the Ganda custom of marrying female identical twins to the same man preposterous. It goes against their very nature, Kintu thought. Twins split because they cannot be one, why keep them as such in life? Besides, identical men did not marry the same woman.

Babirye gave him four sets of twins while Nnakato was unable to conceive. When the twins, raised as if they belonged to Nnakto were adults, Nnakato finally gave birth to a son Baale. They adopted a baby boy Kalema, from Ntwire a widower who was passing through their lands, who decided to stay in gratitude to Kintu and Nnakto for raising his son in their family.

When tragedy occurs, Kintu tries to conceal it, Ntwire suspects something and places a curse on Kintu, his family and their future descendants.

The novel is structured into Book One to Book Six, the first five books focus on different strands of the Kintu clan, the first book being the original story of Kintu Kidda and his family in the 1700’s (pre-colonial era) and the latter stories are set in modern times, colonial interlopers have left their imprint, however this is not their story nor a story of their influence, except to note the impact on the kingdom.

After independence, Uganda – a European artefact – was still forming as a country rather than a kingdom in the minds of ordinary Gandas. They were lulled by the fact that Kabuku Mutees II was made president of the new Uganda. Nonetheless, most of them felt that ‘Uganda’ should remain a kingdom for the Ganda under their kubuka so that things would go back to the way they were before Europeans came. Uganda was a patchwork of fifty or so tribes. The Ganda did not want it. The union of tribes brought no apparent advantage to them apart from a deluge of immigrants from wherever, coming to Kampala to take their land. Meanwhile, the other fifty or so tribes looked on flabbergasted as the British drew borders and told them that they were now Ugandans. Their histories, cultures and identities were overwritten by the mispronounced name of an insufferably haughty tribe propped above them. But to the Ganda, the reality of Uganda as opposed to Buganda only sank in when, after independence, Obote overran the kabuka’s lubiri with tanks, exiling Muteesa and banning all kingdoms. The desecration of their kingdom by foreigners paralysed the Ganda for decades.

Each beginning of the six parts/books however narrates over a few pages, something of the story of a man named Kamu Kintu, who is seized from his home, hands tied behind his back and taken away for questioning by a group of local councillors. Overhearing someone mutter the word thief, an angry mob of villagers menace him without knowledge of the reason for his being detained and he is killed, left for dead on the road, the men who’d requested he come with them fleeing. What subsequently happens to every one of those councillors is equally mysterious, creating a thread of mystery that both links and separates the family stories that make up the novel.

We don’t find out who Kamu Kintu is or how he is connected to the families we encounter in each part, until Book Six, where the threads that tie the clan together begin to connect in the enthralling homecoming.

Throughout each family and over the years certain aspects replicate throughout the families, the presence of twins, premature death, as if the curse that was muttered so long ago continues to reverberate through each generation. Some of them are aware of the curse, remembering the story told by their grandmothers, others haven’t been told the truth of their origins, in the hope that ignorance might absolve them.

Her grandmother’s story had intruded on her again. All day at work, the story, like an incessant song, had kept coming and going. Now that she was on her way home, Suubi gave in and her grandmother’s voice flooded her mind.

Some are haunted by ghosts of the past, thinking themselves not of sound mind, particularly when aspects of their childhood have been hidden from them, some have prophetic dreams, some have had a foreign university education and try to sever their connections to the old ways, though continue to be haunted by omens and symbols, making it difficult to ignore what they feel within themselves, that their mind wishes to reject. Some turn to God and the Awakened, looking for salvation in newly acquired religions.

It’s brilliant. We traverse through the lives of these families, witness their growth, development, sadness’ and joys, weaving threads of their connections together, that will eventually intersect and come to be understood and embraced by all as the clan is brought together to try to resolve the burden of the long-held curse that may have cast its long shadow over this clan for so many generations.

One of the things that’s particularly unique about the novel, is the contrast of the historical era, 1750’s with the modern era, the historical part shows the unique way of life before the arrival of Europeans, in all its richness and detail, how they live, the power structures, the preparation for the long journey to acknowledge a new leader, the protocols they must adhere to, the landscapes they traverse. An article in The Guardian notes twin historical omissions and concludes that the novel is the better for it:

Makumbi mostly avoids describing both the colonial period, which so often seems the obligation of the historical African novel, and Idi Amin’s reign, which seems the obligation of the Ugandan novel. Kintu is better for not retreading this worn ground.

It reminded me of the world recreated by the Guadeloupean-French-African writer, Maryse Condé, in her epic historical novel Segu, another African masterpiece, set in the 1700’s in the kingdom of Segu.

I hope the success of Kintu encourages other young writers from within the vast storytelling traditions of the many African countries to continue to tell their stories and that international publishers continue to make them available to the wider reading public, who are indeed interested in these lives, cultures, histories and belief systems of old that continue to resonate in the modern-day, despite political policies and power regimes that seem to want to change them.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: Image from Martin Harris Centre via BrittlePaper.com

Further Reading

Brittle Paper: Essay – When We Talk about Kintu by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey

Africa In Words: Review – Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s ‘Kintu’ Made Me Want to Tell Our Stories by Nyana Kakoma

The East African: Article – Kintu’s ‘Africaness’ pays off for Jennifer Makumbi by Bamutaraki Musinguzi

The Guardian: Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi review – is this ‘the great Ugandan novel’? by Lesley Nneka Arimah

 

Buy a copy of Kintu via BookDepository

Note: Thank you to the UK Publisher One World Publications for sending me a copy of the book.

Man Booker International Prize 2018 long list

I like to read books that come from within other cultures, so a literature prize that brings attention to authors from outside the predominant literary cultures interests me.

The Man Booker International Prize was originally established in 2005, biannually rewarding an author for a body of work originally written in any language as long as it was widely available in English.

From 2016, the prize became a translation prize, awarded annually for a single work of fiction, translated into English and published in the UK. To highlight the importance of translation, the £50,000 prize is divided equally between the author and the translator.

The Man Booker International Prize has revealed their ‘Man Booker Dozen’ of 13 novels in contention for the 2018 prize, which celebrates the finest works of translated fiction from around the world. As with the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018, extract summaries of the books are provided via the Prize website.

The judges considered 108 books. Lisa Appignanesi, chair of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize judging panel, commented:

‘Judging this Man Booker International Prize has been an exhilarating adventure. We have travelled across countries, cultures, imaginations, somehow to arrive at what could have been an even longer long list. It’s one which introduces a wealth of talent, a variety of forms and some writers little known in English before. It has great writing and translating energy and we hope readers take as much pleasure in discovering the work as we did.’

The full 2018 longlist is as follows: Author (nationality), Translator, Title (imprint)

Laurent Binet (France), Sam Taylor(tr.), The 7th Function of Language (Harvill Secker)

Roland Barthes is knocked down in a Paris street by a laundry van. It’s February 1980 and he has just come from lunch with François Mitterrand, a slippery politician locked in a battle for the Presidency. Barthes dies soon afterwards. History tells us it was an accident. But what if it were an assassination? What if Barthes was carrying a document of unbelievable, global importance? A document explaining the seventh function of language – an idea so powerful it gives whoever masters it the ability to convince anyone, in any situation, to do anything.

Javier Cercas (Spain), Frank Wynne(tr.), The Impostor (MacLehose Press)

The Impostor is a true story that is packed with fiction – fiction created by its main character, Enric Marco. But who is Enric Marco? A veteran of the Spanish civil war, a fighter against fascism, an impassioned campaigner for justice, and a survivor of the Nazi death camps? Or, is he simply an old man with delusions of grandeur, a charlatan who fabricated his heroic war record, who was never a prisoner in the Third Reich and never opposed Franco, but simply a charming, beguiling and compulsive liar who refashioned himself as a defender of liberty and who was unmasked in 2005 at the height of his influence and renown?

In this novel – part narrative, part history, part essay, part biography, part autobiography – Javier Cercas unravels the man and delves with passion and honesty into the most ambiguous aspects of what makes us human – our infinite capacity for self-deception, our need for conformity, our thirst for affection and our conflicting needs for fiction and for the truth.

Virginie Despentes (France), Frank Wynne (tr.), Vernon Subutex 1 (MacLehose Press)

Vernon Subutex was once the proprietor of Revolver, an infamous music shop in Bastille. His legend spread throughout Paris. But by the 2000s, with the arrival of the internet and the decline in CDs and vinyl, his shop is struggling. When it closes, Subutex is out on a limb, with no idea what to do next. Nothing sticks. Before long, his savings are gone, his employment benefit is cut, and when the friend who had been covering his rent dies suddenly, Subutex finds himself relying on friends with spare sofas and ultimately alone and out on the Paris streets. But, as he is stretching out his hand to beg from strangers in the street, a throwaway comment he made on Facebook is taking the internet by storm.

Vernon does not realise this, of course. It has been many weeks since he was able to afford access to the internet, but the word is out: Vernon Subutex has in his possession the last filmed recordings of Alex Bleach, famous musician and Vernon’s benefactor, who recently died of a drug overdose. Unbeknown to Vernon, a crowd of people, from record producers to online trolls and porn stars, are now on his trail.

Jenny Erpenbeck (Germany), Susan Bernofsky(tr.), Go, Went, Gone (Portobello Books)

Newly retired Richard is considering his new life without his work as a university professor.  He spends his days cooking, pottering in his garden and walking around his home city of Berlin – a place he has lived his entire life. Following an excursion to Alexanderplatz he befriends a group of African men whose camp is being pulled down by the authorities. These asylum seekers have found their way to Berlin from all over Africa by way of Libya and then Italy. They have no ‘right’ to be in Berlin, and they must follow the protocols and rules if they have any hope in being allowed to remain.

Richard is captivated by their stories and by their predicament.  Born during World War II, he was almost lost as a baby due to the ‘chaos of war’. He grew up and worked in East Berlin until one day East and West unified and his home and horizons changed dramatically. Go, Went, Gone is a novel that explores some of the most important issues of the day of race, immigration and the question of European identity.

Han Kang (South Korea), Deborah Smith(tr.), The White Book (Portobello Books)

An unnamed narrator moves to a European city where she is haunted by the story of her older sister, who died a mere two hours after birth. As she contemplates the child’s short life she focuses on the whiteness and all it symbolises. The White Book is a meditation on colour, beginning with a list of white things. It is a book about mourning, rebirth and the tenacity of the human spirit. It investigates the fragility, beauty and strangeness of life.

Ariana Harwicz (Argentina), Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff(tr.), Die, My Love (Charco Press) – my review here

In a patch of dilapidated French countryside, a woman struggles with the demons of her multitudinous internal conflicts. Embracing exclusion, yet desiring to belong, craving freedom whilst feeling trapped, yearning for family life and yet wanting to burn the entire façade down. Given surprising leeway by her family for her increasingly erratic behaviour, she instead feels ever more incarcerated, stifled. Motherhood, womanhood, the mechanisation of love, the inexplicable brutality of having ‘your heart live in someone else’s’; these questions are faced with raw intensity. It is not a question of whether a breaking point will be reached, but rather when, and how violent a form will it take.

László Krasznahorkai (Hungary), John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet & George Szirtes, The World Goes On (Tuskar Rock Press)

A Hungarian interpreter obsessed with waterfalls, at the edge of the abyss in his own mind, wanders the chaotic streets of Shanghai. A traveller, reeling from the sights and sounds of Varanasi, encounters a giant of a man on the banks of the Ganges ranting on the nature of a single drop of water. A child labourer in a Portuguese marble quarry wanders off from work one day into a surreal realm alien from his daily toils. A collection of 21 stories from the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2015.

Antonio Muñoz Molina (Spain), Camilo A. Ramirez, Like a Fading Shadow (Tuskar Rock Press)

On 4 April 1968, Martin Luther King was murdered by James Earl Ray. Before Ray’s capture and sentencing to 99 years’ imprisonment, he evaded the FBI for two months as he crossed the globe under various aliases. At the heart of his story is Lisbon, where he spent 10 days attempting to acquire an Angolan visa. Aided by the recent declassification of James Earl Ray’s FBI case file, Like a Fading Shadow weaves a taut retelling of Ray’s assassination of King, his time on the run and his eventual capture, tied together with an honest examination of the novelist’s own past.

Christoph Ransmayr (Austria), Simon Pare, The Flying Mountain (Seagull Books)

The Flying Mountain tells the story of two brothers who leave the southwest coast of Ireland on an expedition to Transhimalaya, the land of Kham, and the mountains of eastern Tibet – looking for an untamed, unnamed mountain that represents perhaps the last blank spot on the map. As they advance toward their goal, the brothers find their past, and their rivalry, inescapable, inflecting every encounter and decision as they are drawn farther and farther from the world they once knew. Only one of the brothers will return. Transformed by his loss, he starts life anew, attempting to understand the mystery of love, yet another quest that may prove impossible.

Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq), Jonathan Wright, Frankenstein in Baghdad (Oneworld)

From the rubble-strewn streets of US-occupied Baghdad, the junk dealer Hadi collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognise the parts as people and give them a proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed. Hadi soon realises he’s created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive – first from the guilty, and then from anyone who crosses his path. As the violence escalates and Hadi’s acquaintances – a journalist, a government worker and a lonely old woman – become involved, the ‘Whatsitsname’ and the havoc it wreaks assume a magnitude far greater than anyone could have imagined.

Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), Jennifer Croft, Flights (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Flights is a novel about travel in the 21st century and human anatomy. From the 17th  century, the story of the real Dutch anatomist Philip Verheyen, who dissected and drew pictures of his own amputated leg, discovering in so doing the Achilles tendon. From the 18th century, the story of a North African-born slave turned Austrian courtier stuffed and put on display after his death in spite of his daughter’s ever more desperate protests, and the story of Chopin’s heart as it makes the covert journey from Paris to Warsaw, stored in a tightly sealed jar beneath his sister’s skirt. From the present we have the trials and tribulations of a wife accompanying her much older professor husband as he teaches a course on a cruise ship in the Greek islands, the quest of a Polish woman who emigrated to New Zealand as a teenager but must now return to Poland in order to poison her terminally ill high school sweetheart, and the slow descent into madness of a young husband whose wife and child mysteriously vanished on a vacation on a Croatian island and then appeared again with no explanation.

Through these narratives, interspersed with short bursts of analysis and digressions on topics ranging from travel-sized cosmetics to the Maori, Flights guides the reader beyond the surface layer of modernity and towards the core of the very nature of humankind.

Wu Ming-Yi (Taiwan), Darryl Sterk, The Stolen Bicycle (Text Publishing) – my review here

Cheng, a novelist, once wrote a book based on his father’s disappearance 20 years ago. One day he receives a reader’s email asking whether his father’s bicycle disappeared as well. Perplexed and amused, Cheng decides to track down the bicycle, which was stolen years ago. The search takes him on an epic quest, deep into the secret world of antique bicycle collectors via a scavenger’s treasure trove and the mountain home of an aboriginal photographer. He also finds himself caught up in the strangely intertwined stories of Lin Wang, the oldest elephant who ever lived, the soldiers who fought in the jungles of South-East Asia during the World War II and the secret worlds of the butterfly handicraft makers… The Stolen Bicycle is both a historical novel about bicycles, elephants and war, and a startlingly intimate meditation on memory, family and home.

Gabriela Ybarra (Spain), Natasha Wimmer, The Dinner Guest (Harvill Secker)

In 1977, three terrorists broke into Gabriela Ybarra’s grandfather’s home and pointed a gun at him in the shower. This was the last time his family saw him alive, and his kidnapping played out in the press, culminating in his murder. Ybarra first heard the story when she was eight, but it was only after her mother’s death, years later, that she felt the need to go deeper and discover more about her family’s past. The Dinner Guest is a novel inspired by what she found.  It connects two life-changing events – the very public death of Ybarra’s grandfather and the more private pain as her mother dies from cancer and Gabriela cares for her.

***

I haven’t read any of these books, though I am familiar with a number of the authors, I’ve read two excellent books by Han Kang, Human Acts and The Vegetarian. I’ve been meaning to read Jenny Erpenbeck for a while.

I like the sound of the novels that intertwine memoir with fiction, Gabriela Ybarra’s The Dinner Guest and Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle.

The list does feel a little too Euro-centric for my taste, with 9 of the 13 storytellers coming from Europe, it’s great to see an Argentinian author included, I did read that Charco Press discovered in an informal survey that many readers when asked to name a South American author are mentioning names who were popular 30 years ago, so they’re aiming to bring us up to speed with some exciting contemporary authors who’ve been overlooked.

I’ll be waiting to read a few of the reviews from the Shadow panel in the coming weeks and months and in the meantime continue with reading a few more from the Women’s Prize.

The shortlist of six books will be announced on 12 April at an event at Somerset House in London, and the winner of the 2018 prize will be announced on 22 May.

***

What are your thoughts on this list?

Click here to buy one of the above books via BookDepository

Women’s Prize for Fiction long list 2018 #WomensPrize

The annual Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced at midnight last night, on International Women’s Day.

No longer the Baileys Prize, this year there are three sponsors, including Bailey’s and the prize will simply be referred to as the Women’s Prize for fiction. The wider sponsorship aims to ‘build on the successes of the past and will also see the commercial possibilities to connect with a global audience’ while championing women’s creativity, celebrating excellence and keeping women’s voices centre stage.

“What is striking about the list, apart from the wealth of talent, is that women writers refuse to be pigeon-holed. We have searing social realism, adventure, comedy, poetic truths, ingenious plots and unforgettable characters. Women of the world are a literary force to be reckoned with.” Sarah Sands, Chair of Judges.

This year, I have already read three from the list, I’ll link to my reviews at the end. The long listed books follow, with extracts via the Women’s Prize:

 

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker – a post – post apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland, of “daring narrative ingenuity”

Imagine a perfect world where everything is known, where everything is open, where there can be no doubt, no hatred, no poverty, no greed. Imagine a System which both nurtures and protects. A Community which nourishes and sustains. An infinite world. A world without sickness, without death. A world without God. A world without fear. Could you…might you be happy there?

The Idiot by Elif Batuman – portrait of the artist as a young woman, inventing herself, awakening

Selin, a tall, highly strung Turkish-American from New Jersey turns up at Harvard and finds herself dangerously overwhelmed by the challenges and possibilities of adulthood. She studies linguistics and literature, teaches ESL and spends a lot of time thinking about what language – and languages – can do.  Throughout her journeys, Selin ponders profound questions about how culture and language shape who we are, how difficult it is to be a writer, and how baffling love is.

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon – a poignant perspective of community life &  the vulnerability of age

84-year-old Florence has fallen in her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits to be rescued, Florence wonders if a terrible secret from her past is about to come to light; and, if the charming new resident is who he claims to be, why does he look exactly like a man who died sixty years ago whom she fears? Florence, Elsie and Jack set to and unravel the mystery, getting them out of the home and out of their minds, that linger in the past.

Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig – a novel of love and war, colonialism and ethnicity, and the ties of blood

Based of the lives of the author’s mother and grandparents, Miss Burma tells the story of modern-day Burma through the eyes of one family struggling to find love, justice, and meaning during a time of war and political repression.

 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan – historical novel with a hint of noir thriller, set in the Depression

Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father to visit Dexter Styles, a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her father and her family. She is mesmerised by the sea beyond the house and by some charged mystery between the two men. Years later, her father has disappeared, the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where women are allowed to hold jobs that once belonged to men, now soldiers abroad. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing ships that will help America win the war. One evening at a nightclub, she meets Dexter Styles again and begins to unravel the complexity of her father’s life, and the reasons he might have vanished.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar – spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession

One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.

As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on….and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer their lives on a dangerous new course.

What will be the cost of their ambitions? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?

Sight by Jessie Greengrass – existential reflections of a pregnant woman

In Sight, a woman recounts her progress to motherhood, while remembering the death of her own mother, and the childhood summers she spent with her psychoanalyst grandmother.

Woven among these personal recollections are significant events in medical history: Wilhelm Rontgen’s discovery of the X-ray and his production of an image of his wife’s hand; Sigmund Freud’s development of psychoanalysis and the work that he did with his daughter, Anna; John Hunter’s attempts to set surgery on a scientific footing and his work, as a collaborator with his brother William and the artist Jan van Rymsdyk, on the anatomy of pregnant bodies.

What emerges is the realisation that while the search for understanding might not lead us to an absolute truth, it is an end in itself.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – uplifting story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything. One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life. Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely anything is better than…fine?

 

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy – fierce and courageous dissection of what love meant, means and will come to mean when trust is undermined by violence

Seduced by politics, poetry and an enduring dream of building a better world together, a young woman falls in love with a university professor. Marrying him and moving to a rain-washed coastal town, she swiftly learns that what for her is a bond of love is for him a contract of ownership. As he sets about bullying her into his ideal of an obedient wife, and devouring her ambition of being a writer in the process, she begins to push back – a resistance he resolves to break with violence and rape.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley – a novel about family, and a beautiful meditation on landscape

Daniel is heading north. He is looking for someone. The simplicity of his early life with Daddy and Cathy has turned sour and fearful. They lived apart in the house that Daddy built for them with his bare hands. They foraged and hunted. When they were younger, Daniel and Cathy had gone to school. But they were not like the other children then, and they were even less like them now. Sometimes Daddy disappeared, and would return with a rage in his eyes. But when he was at home he was at peace. He told them that the little copse in Elmet was theirs alone. But that wasn’t true. Local men, greedy and watchful, began to circle like vultures. All the while, the terrible violence in Daddy grew.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy – an aching love story and a decisive remonstration

Over a journey of many years, the story spools outwards from the cramped neighbourhoods of Old Delhi to the burgeoning new metropolis and beyond, to the Valley of Kashmir and the forests of Central India, where war is peace and peace is war, and where, from time to time, ‘normalcy’ is declared.

Anjum, who used to be Aftab, unrolls a threadbare carpet in a city graveyard that she calls home. A baby appears quite suddenly on a pavement, a little after midnight, in a crib of litter. The enigmatic S. Tilottama is as much of a presence as she is an absence in the lives of the three men who loved her.

It is told in a whisper, in a shout, through tears and sometimes with a laugh. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, mended by love-and by hope. They are as steely as they are fragile, and they never surrender.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt – a murder, an intimate story of a volatile household, a family devoid of love

Just after 11am on 4th August 1892, the bodies of Andrew and Abby Borden are discovered. He’s found on the sitting room sofa, she upstairs on the bedroom floor, both murdered with an axe.

It is younger daughter Lizzie who is first on the scene, so it is Lizzie who the police first question, but there are others in the household with stories to tell: older sister Emma, Irish maid Bridget, the girls’ Uncle John, and a boy who knows more than anyone realises.

 

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert – portrait of the Nazis’ arrival in Ukraine as they move towards the final solution

Early on a grey November morning in 1941, only weeks after the German invasion, a small Ukrainian town is overrun by the SS. Penned in with his fellow Jews, under threat of transportation, Ephraim anxiously awaits word of his two sons, missing since daybreak. Come in search of her lover to fetch him home again, away from the invaders, Yasia confronts new and harsh truths about those closest to her. Here to avoid a war he considers criminal, German engineer Otto Pohl is faced with an even greater crime unfolding behind the lines, and no one but himself to turn to. And in the midst of it all is Yankel, a boy who must throw his chances of surviving to strangers.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – a contemporary retelling of the classic Antigone, the idealism of youth in dangerous times

Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she resumes a dream long deferred – studying in America. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream – to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Handsome and privileged, he inhabits a London worlds away from theirs. As the son of a powerful British Muslim politician, Eamonn has his own birthright to live up to – or defy. The fates of these two families are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this searing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal – a moving story of love and loss, overcoming grief

Mona is a young Irish girl in the big city, with the thrill of a new job and a room of her own in a busy boarding house. A dollmaker, she lovingly crafts handmade dolls that she sells to collectors around the world, and provides bereavement counselling for mothers who have suffered stillbirths, miscarriages and cot deaths. On her first night out in 1970s Birmingham, she meets William, a charming Irish boy with an easy smile and an open face. They embark upon a passionate affair, a whirlwind marriage – before a sudden tragedy tears them apart.

Decades later, Mona pieces together the memories of the years that separate them. But can she ever learn to love again?

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – a portrait of a family, of hope, struggle and ugly truths

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

***

It’s an interesting list, with lots of familiar names to me, and many titles that I’ve seen reviewed by Eric at Lonesome Reader, who keeps up with reading and reviewing most of the new fiction coming out in the UK. I’m surprised not to see Ali Smith’s Winter there, nor Elizabeth Strout and disappointed not to see Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu, which I’m going to write more about soon.

I’m in the middle of reading the excellent and humorous Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon, the writing and her poignant depictions of characters are excellent. There are many on here I want to read, Sight was picked by Eric as his book likely to win the Man Booker this year and he’s pretty accurate with predictions, so I’d better read that, I’ve seen much written about When I Hit You, it’s one of those books I know is a mini masterpiece, but such a heartbreaking, soul-destroying subject to read about – still, I may have to read it now.

So which from the list are you interested in reading? Or disappointed not to see there?

Further Reading:

My Review of Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

My Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesymn Ward

My review of Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

My review of When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

Click Here to Buy A Book Now via BookDepository

Winter Sisters by Robin Oliveira

I read My Name is Mary Sutter when it first came out and was utterly entranced by Robin Oliveira’s depiction of the character of Mary, a midwife intent on becoming a surgeon in an era where women were totally blocked from pursuing such a thing. She was unable to achieve her ideal through formal channels, so she went to war, the American civil war, and there had the kind of experience few would wish her, unless, like Mary, you were being excluded from pursuing your desired profession and were driven to break through irrational barriers by equally irrational means.

In her research, the author learned that 17 young women became physicians after their nursing experiences in the civil war. While Mary Sutter is fictional, she is a truly inspired character about whom Robin Oliveira had this is say:

“And through it all there was Mary Sutter, whose story I needed to tell as a celebration of women who seize the courage to live on, to thrive, to strive, even, when men conspire to war. Mary, flawed and intelligent, careening between desire and remorse, stumbling forward out of courage and stubbornness, hiding a broken heart, but hoping to redeem something beautiful from a life humbled by regret.”

Her second novel, set in Paris was the excellent I Always Loved You, reviewed here, is about the American painter Mary Cassatt, her life in Paris, struggling to make a name while remaining true to her art, and enduring a life-long fractious relationship with impressionist painter and sculptor Edgar Degas.

When asked what made her return, in this her third historical novel, to the character of Mary Sutter, Robin Oliveira said:

Over the last few years, readers have often asked me to include Mary Sutter in a new book, but I could not think of a single circumstance that would challenge her as much as the obstacles she had faced in the Civil War. Then I learned about the age of consent. I simply couldn’t leave Mary Sutter out of it, for I had finally discovered something of equal importance for her to battle.

So now it is 1869 in Albany, New York, Mary Sutter is now Dr Mary Sutter Stipps, living in Albany, New York, where she practices in a local hospital, despite most of her male colleagues despising her (because she is a woman), she also runs a home practice with her husband William Stipp and a lesser known clinic, where a lantern is illuminated on Thursdays when she opens for ladies of the night, those who are refused treatment elsewhere.

These are the conservative years after the civil war, a period of tumultuous struggle and the emergence of women’s suffrage, meaning any freedoms women attempted to gain were often fiercely opposed and ridiculed. Mary faces opposition at every turn, but refuses to be cowered and will stand up for and insist on justice for what she believes is right and good.

On the evening this story begins, a severe winter blizzard disrupts the city, children are locked in schools for two days, businesses close, the Doctors house their patients overnight, and accidents occur – two days later as people begin to reappear, Mary learns of the deaths of close family friends, the hatmaker Bonnie and her labourer husband David and the unexplained disappearance of their daughters, Emma(10) and Claire(7).

Mary and William search for the girls everywhere, implore the police and their wider networks to help and eventually must accept they’ve gone.

At the graveside, they become acquainted with lumberlord Gerritt Van der Veer, his wife Viola, and their son Jakob. From that day on the lives of the two families become intertwined, as Mary continues her relentless pursuit of the lost girls, leading her to become exposed to the deep manipulations throughout the city and its powerful, by those out to benefit themselves who will do anything to stop those like her, trying to help and heal, without discrimination or judgement.

Book One sets up the story, introducing us to Elisabeth, Mary’s niece, a violin protegé who has been studying in Paris in the company of her grandmother Amelia, who swiftly return on hearing the terrible news, though laden with their own mysterious troubles.

Mary seeks the help of the women she’s met through the clinic, women who hear and see things she and Will would never come across, suspicions begin to arise, as they become aware of a man in hiding, injured on the night the ice cracks on the Hudson River, causing flash flooding across the city.

“I trust her Mother. She’s no opportunist. If she’d wanted money, she would have asked for it then, wouldn’t she have, if she intended to lie? And besides, none of that matters, does it, if we go looking ourselves. The brothels are the single place we haven’t looked. What harm can come from looking? I can’t understand why Captain Mantel refused. Oh damn him.The police know exactly where the brothels are. it would be easy for them.”

By Book Two the story has become riveting, complex, there are elements of the mystery to resolve, a pending court case, perceived betrayals, all set against the legal and societal background of the times they lived in, there are aspects of the law that will shock the reader, we read about the 1800’s and we are reminded of the similar treatment of victims today with regard to police procedure, questioning victims and the law that appears designed to protect the accused more than the victim.

It’s too good a read to give away anything more that happens from Book Two onwards, suffice to say I could not put this down, I was up late finishing it and thought it brilliantly woven together. It’s commentary on the hardships of women and girls, of all ages and from all classes is insightful and outrageous. Women are blocked in so many directions, in particular when they possess talent, controlled, commented on, kept by men in positions of power. Fortunately, there are exceptions, and these characters provide the faint glimmer of hope that gets us through the tough parts.

“He wanted to say, It’s either hide forever or see forever. He wanted to say, You need to choose. He wanted to say, Follow me, I’ll show you…

Every inch toward courage was a decision. Every ten feet on her own would be a triumph. The line between coercion and choice for her was the line between darkness and light. He would never push her, but she needed to choose to climb this hill. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t have the courage to climb onto the witness stand or perhaps even to walk down a street on her own.”

Mary Sutter oversteps the demarcated line of acceptable professions for women, she breaks the mould, though not without challenge and William and Jakob show themselves to be different kind of men, demonstrating the potential of working alongside women, not excluding them.

The price women pay when they overstep that societal and male control, is the story of the Gilded Age, and continues to play out one hundred and fifty years later. Indeed, the changing role of women in society, and what men will accept, remains one of the essential conflicts of our time.

Highly recommended, one of the best historical novels of the year.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

A Victorian era historical novel (London 1893) set over a single year, that follows the footsteps of the young widow Cora Seaborne, in the months following the premature of her husband, a cruel man who’d become indifferent to her, but one who’d been her companion from such a young age, he’d moulded her into what he could tolerate.

She begins to shed the layers of that stifled London life, both physically and mentally, taking her son Francis and their companion Martha to Colchester, swapping gowns and stays for a man’s tweed coat and trousers. She steps out each day taking herself on long walks in search of anything unusual and in particular remnants and fossilised objects unearthed after a recent earthquake and subsequent landslides.

In London, she had befriended Dr Luke Garret, affectionately referred to as the Imp on account of his size. He is at the forefront of medicine at the time, something of a maverick surgeon, fascinated by the potential of yet unproven surgical procedures, assisted by his friend and colleague Spencer. He is fond of Cora and their friendship continues after the death of her husband.

Katherine and Charles Ambrose, frequent visitors to Essex, unwittingly encouraged Cora’s interest in the region and in fossil remains, through various introductions, one of whom recounts to her the life and work of Mary Anning, the English fossil collector and paleontologist, whose discoveries included the first ichthyosaur skeleton. Mary Anning is the protagonist of Lisa Chevalier’s excellent novel Remarkable Creatures.

Meeting her again in Colchester, the Ambrose’s introduce Cora to the Reverend William Ransome and his wife Stella and a unique friendship develops.

Much of the novel is narrated through letters between Cora and these new friends she’s made since her widowhood and one of the subjects that arises is talk of a creature, said to have reappeared since the land was disturbed by the quake, one they’ve dubbed the Essex Serpent. Local beggar Taylor fills her in on the details of the earthquake and the sleeping legend it has awakened.

‘It had come eight years back, by his reckoning, at eight minutes past nine precisely. It had been as fair an April morning as any could remember, which later was counted a blessing, since most were out-of-doors. The Essex earth had bucked as if trying to shake off all its towns and villages; for twenty seconds, no more, a series of convulsions that paused once as if a breath were being drawn and then began again. Out in the estuaries of the Colne and the Blackwater, the sea had gathered into foaming waves which ransacked the shore and reduced every vessel on the water to splinters.’

Cora is delighted to think that modest little Essex, with its Paleozoic rock beneath their feet, laid down five hundred million years before, shrugging its shoulders, creating waves and toppling church steeples and fantasizes about finding her own ichthyosaur.

Taylor feeds her mind with tales of a creature from 1669, when it was believed a serpent came out of the Essex waters into the birch woods and commons.

‘Those were the years of the Essex serpent, be it scale and sinew, or wood and canvas, , or little but the ravings of madmen; children were kept from the banks of the river and fishermen wished for a better trade! Then it was gone as soon as it came, and for night on two hundred years we had neither hide nor hair of it ’til the quake came and something was shook loose down there under the water – something was set free! A great creeping thing, as they tell it, more dragon than serpent, as content on land as in water, that suns its wings on a fair day.’

Away from the responsibilities and expectations of womanhood and motherhood, long walks reawaken Cora’s naturalist and philosophical interests.

‘It struck her that everything under that white sky was made of the same substance – not quite animal, but not merely earth: where branches had sheared from their trunks they left bright wounds, and she would not have been surprised to see severed stumps of oak and elm pulse as she passed. Laughing, she imagined herself part of it, and leaning against a trunk in earshot of a chattering thrush held up her arm, and wondered if she might see vivid green lichen stippling the skin between her fingers.

Had it always been here – this marvellous black earth in which she sank to her ankles, this coral coloured fungus frilling the branches at her feet? Had birds always sung? Had the rain always this light touch, as if she might inhabit it?’

As Cora pursues fossils and sea creatures, her companion Martha uses the opportunity of having contact with influential men to push her social activism, intent on bringing to light the plight of the working class housing conditions, dire accommodations and landlords who continue to raise rents, not to mention hypocritical attitudes.

‘She spread open the pages and showed him a map on which the poorest of London’s housing was overlaid with plans for new developments. They would be sanitary , she said, and spacious: children would have green spaces to play in and tenants would be free from landlord caprice. But (she flicked contemptuously at the paper) to qualify for housing, tenants must demonstrate good character. ‘They’re expects to live better than you or I ever did to deserve a roof over their children’s heads: must never be drunk or a nuisance to neighbours, or gamble, and God forbid too many children by too many fathers, and had too often. You, Spencer – with your estate and pedigree – you can drink yourself wretched on claret and port and no-one begrudges you any of your homes; but spend what little you have on cheap beer and the dogs and you’ve not enough moral standing to sleep in a dry bed.’

The novel provides a snapshot of the era, with its significant scientific progress and discoveries, its social issues among the classes and between the sexes, medical progress and the conflict between men of science and men of the cloth.

For the most part I enjoyed it immensely, however, if I were to fault it, I thought the seesawing between relentless soul-searching and denial on the part of the Reverend and Cora, in coming to terms with their relationship became a little tedious. It made the second half of the novel drag a little and I notice that all the passages I noted come from the first 200 pages. However the acute sense of place and era and that traversing of issues of the time within the framework of of an engaging story make it all worthwhile.