There are lots of debates to be had about Book Prizes and there have been years when I’ve missed them all together (usually due to being really disappointed by a rubbish long-list book). This year however, I’m very excited. The Bailey’s prize has a really good shortlist which means I can happily get caught up in the hype!
Firstly, in case you’re as confused as I was, the Bailey’s prize is actually the Orange prize. Like the Booker becoming the Man Booker and the Whitbread becoming the Costa Awards, it goes to show that Shakespeare was right when he (nearly) wrote ‘a prize by any other name would smell as sweet’. It doesn’t matter that I prefer oranges to Baileys (and I know that the Orange prize wasn’t actually sponsored by the fruit, but I always liked to think that it was), the important thing is that there is still a prize that goes some way to addressing the huge male bias in other major awards. The Orange was started in 1992 because in 1991 there wasn’t a single female writer on the Booker shortlist. I don’t like the idea of special treatment and I think positive discrimination is problematic but I also find that statistic shocking. Since then the Orange, like all literary prizes, has done a great job of bringing a huge amount of publicity to a small number of novels. Personally, I think this is a good thing; there are so many books published it can be hard to decide what to read in a given year. Shortlists are a sensible place to start, so see below for my ideas about and hopes for the Bailey’s 2015 prize.
I read this in 2014 because I really really enjoyed ‘The Little Stranger’. My hope was that this would be another Gothic horror, and so I was slightly disappointed when it turned out to be more of a crime novel. Still, Sarah Waters is a great prose writer and this book doesn’t disappoint either in the language or, another of her many strengths, in the period detail. Set in the early 1920s, ‘The Paying Guest’ makes you aware of quite how hard ‘woman’s work’ was in the days before modern appliances. Most of my favourite moments came from descriptions of hard physical house-work, something you realise is missing from so many period narratives. As for the story, the paying guests in the title are lodgers, helping a respectable but struggling mother and daughter deal with a post-war, post-servant economic reality. The boarding couple seem like a good enough solution to the problem until their growing relationship with the daughter starts to threaten the precarious status quo on Campion Hill. It’s not ‘The Little Stranger’, but it is a very good book and I’m so pleased to see it on the shortlist.
I reviewed Shamsie’s last novel, ‘Burnt Shadows’, for ‘The Big Issue’ in 2009 and ever since then I’ve felt slightly proprietorial about her (feeling pleased if her books are prominently displayed in shops and so on). I felt a burst of pride when I heard rumours that ‘A God in Every Stone’ might be longlisted for the Booker, followed by disgust when it wasn’t. Of course, this was all without having read it. I have read it now though, and my previous opinion still holds! It’s a wonderfully intelligent book that breaths new life into the tired genre of WWI literature. The heroine is an over-educated middle class woman (her father, ‘a man without sons, had turned his regret at that lack into a determination to make his daughter rise above all others of her sex’). The hero is the Pathan, Qayyum Gul, wounded at Ypres and increasingly conscious of his status as second class British citizen. Both are outsiders, and both show how overarching historical events impact on individuals. What can I say, it’s an excellent book and fully deserves a much longer review.
This book really stood out because, frankly, it’s very rare for books set inside hives with bee heroines to find their way into literary fiction prize lists. The main character is Flora 717 and she is exceptional, capable of speech and clear communication (with other bees that is). ‘The Bees’ feels like a dystopian novel, with every bee having its set place in the hierarchy and disobedient actions, speech or thought being punishable by death. It’s also something of an action adventure as Flora 717 navigates the hive, discovering its secrets and risking death to ensure its survival. This seems a lot like the wild-card in the shortlist, but it’s also an enjoyable and evocatively-written piece of imaginative fiction in its own right.
This book, so far, has won the Goldsmiths Prize (2014), the Costa Novel of the Year Award (2014), the Saltire Society Literary Book of the Year Award (2014) and was shortlisted for the Man Booker (2014) and the Folio Prize (2015). Ali Smith is a heavy-weight contender for the Baileys and I’ve been saving this book for months because I’m so confident it will be great I want to keep if for when I’m feeling down and need to read a sure-fire literary hit. The one thing I know about it is that it has two time settings (1460s and 1960s) and some editions have the early time frame first while some have it the other way round. It’s such a great literary game and I love the ‘two for the price of one’ reading experience it promises because, of course, the book will be different depending on which part you read first. A major theme is art, see the Renaissance early time setting, and the novel concerns a fresco which is covered up, and revealed, over time. Currently, my copy has pride of place on my ‘to be read pile’ and my life is better just for knowing it’s there, I haven’t even peeked in to see which time frame I’ll be getting first.
OK, I have to admit that I haven’t read this yet, and I’m a bit intrigued as it’s much more of an unknown option. Reviews have been very mixed (on Goodreads anyway), though that does mean there has also been a vocal group who love it. So far I know that it has a great title and was also shortlisted for the Folio and Goldsmiths prizes. I plan to read and review it in the near future…
This is the bottom of the list simply because I haven’t read it and don’t even have a copy yet, in fact, I should probably admit here that I’ve never read a single book by Anne Tyler. On the other hand, I know that she is prolific and highly acclaimed (winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1989). With a bit of luck, this novel will introduce me to a new favourite author. Until then, my hunch is that she’ll win for the simple and personal reason that I’ve never managed to read an Orange winner before the prize was announced, there’s always at least one I didn’t get round to and that’s always the winner – good luck Anne Tyler!