Bailey’s Short List!

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It’s taken me a while to get over my shock and disappointment that ‘A God in Ruins‘ and ‘Rush Oh!‘ did not make it onto the Bailey’s shortlist this year.  Both were engaging, thought-provoking and insightful reads and on seeing a shortlist filed with titles I had yet to open I was tempted, frankly, to call the whole thing off.

I’m pleased I didn’t.  I’ve been steadily working my way through the shortlist, and while more detailed reviews are one their way, May Day is a good time to summarise my views on the six now in line for the prize.

imgresStarting with an American novel, ‘Ruby’ is mostly set in Liberty Township in Texas, though with a brief glimpse into the heady 1950s New York scene.  It is the only historical novel on the list and also the only book to contain strains of magic realism.  Comparisons to Toni Morrison have been made by other reviewers and are justified by the presence of embodied evil that haunts the blood-drenched location.  The beautiful heroine is tormented to the limits of her personality and Bond never negates her traumatic past as she explores the possibility of redemption through love.  It’s a beautifully written, but not an easy read, with distressingly believable scenes of institutionalised and ignored, even condoned, abuse.  It does however set the tone for a prize that is dominated by graphic presentations of the cruelty inflicted on the most vulnerable in society.  (You can read my full review here)

imgres-1It was no surprise to see Enright’s ‘The Green Road’ making it past the long-list.  Not only did the author win the Booker for her last novel about a dysfunctional family whose children are gathering together, but ‘The Green Road’ has already been prominent in the prize lists preceding the 2016 Bailey’s.  ‘The Green Road’ follows the children of Rosaleen Madigan as they try to create lives and identities that will allow them to function independently of their overbearing mother.  They travel the globe, embracing selfish excess or destructive self-sacrifice, but when Rosaleen insists on their returning for an important Christmas together, it seems that their attempts at maturity will struggle to survive the force of her still powerful will.  Beautifully structured, with each chapter following a different member of the family, the sections of this book work equally well as short stories.  Combined together, it’s not hard to see why the novel has achieved such critical acclaim and is the bookies’ favourite to win.

imgres‘The Glorious Heresies’ gives a very different view of modern Ireland.  Set in post-crash Cork, the story weaves its way around drug dealers, prostitutes and gangsters.  The down and out, the depressed, the hopeful and the hopeless are tied together, little knowing quite how inextricably their lives are enmeshed.  The novel begins with a sex scene, as the fiercely intelligent but terribly messed-up Ryan is ready to ‘become a man’ with his adored girlfriend.  At the same time, across town, a little old woman has just killed an intruder in the ex-brothel home provided for her by her crime-lord son.  Tying these two plots thematically is the fact that the ageing Maureen had to give up said son and leave Cork after getting pregnant out of wedlock; her own criminal behaviour suggests that a motherless upbringing didn’t manage to save her child from certain lawless tendencies.  If this sounds confusing, just be grateful I haven’t mentioned the other plot-lines.  I’m saving them (some of them anyway) for a full and enthusiastic review, because there is an energetic joy to this frenetic novel, in which the crashing story-lines brilliantly echo the characters’ chaotic lives (the full review is now written and you can read it here).

imgres-2 ‘The Portable Veblen’ takes us back to the US, and begins with that traditional literary conundrum, what’s a poor girl to do when her adoring, ambitious and successful boyfriend proposes and provides a diamond ring almost too weighty to wear?  The rest of the novel is spent explaining why Veblen is finding this decision so difficult.  I’ve already mentioned the preponderance of books dealing with abuse and trauma on this year’s shortlist; Veblen’s mother is a narcissist and a hypochondriac and her father is in a psychiatric home.  Meanwhile her fiancee has his own problems, mostly stemming from unresolved anger towards his hippie parents and mentally disabled brother.  Oh, he also lost an uncle in the Vietnam war and is now working for a huge pharmaceutical company to develop a neurosurgical tool for the military.  McKenzie brings humour and a light touch to a huge number of issues in 21st century America, helped not a little by her heroine’s personal obsession with ekorn (that’s ‘squirrels’ in Norwegian by the way, a fact I learned from appendix C; I promise you, this book contains more facts about squirrels than you could possibly imagine).  You can read my full review here.

imgres-1Something of a wildcard choice, ‘The Improbability of Love’ is one of the fattest books in the pile, but it’s also probably the fastest read.  Taking inspiration from a Watteau painting, the novel explores the influence of art, both in the market place and in the bedroom.  In fact, the ‘masterpiece that launched a whole genre‘ is a character in his own right, a pretentious and precious but ultimately warm-hearted entity that fits perfectly into a book filled with the bitchy and eccentric fraternity of the super-rich.  The whole novel takes on the tone of Watteau’s work, in which beautiful people fall in love and when shadows appear on the horizon they can easily be covered up with varnish.  Even the presence of an alcoholic mother and the legacy of the Holocaust cannot subdue what is essentially a romantic romp through the very highest levels of the art world.  (Click here for my full review)

imgres.jpgLike many book-prize followers, I read ‘A Little Life’ when it was long-listed for the Man Booker last year.  Since then, it has featured on numerous ‘top read’ lists from 2015 and remains one of the most provocative, and divisive, novels of recent years.  Starting by telling the story of four close friends, the emotional weight really starts to hit when the book delves into the terrible sufferings of the secretive Jude.  This is not a book for the faint-hearted, and is the most graphic and detailed of a short-list that doesn’t shy away from human cruelty.  To be honest, the structure, which balances almost unbelievable successful adult lives with the near-unreadable misery of Jude’s youth, did not work for me.  For an excellent review that brilliantly explores all the reservations that I had, I strongly recommend Findingtimetowrite; for reviews that will show you quite how important this novel was to so many readers last year, check out what Savidgereads and Literary Ramblings etc feel about it.

I have, as always, much more to say about the list and detailed reviews of many of these books are on the way.  In the meantime, what are your views?  Do think the shortlist got it right?  Which author do you want to see carrying off the prize?  There’s just over a month until the winner is announced, and so much reading and discussing to be had first!

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20 Responses to Bailey’s Short List!

  1. Ste J says:

    Being out of touch with any of the prizes all these books are new to me, some fascinating books to explore here though. I wonder why cruelty in society seemed to be a factor though.

    • I think it struck me because of the graphic abuse depicted in ‘A Little Life’ and ‘Ruby’ (which were the first shortlisters that I read). The whole selection is very varied though, I look forward to hearing which ones you pick up.

  2. heavenali says:

    I haven’t read any of the short list (or the long list) perhaps not surprising as I read so many older books. I do have The Green Road sitting on my tbr which I am looking forward to.

    • I tend to use these prizes as a way of cherry-picking recent publications; like you, I’m generally more attracted by older books, so it’s good to have the judging panels do the initial selecting for me!

  3. MarinaSofia says:

    I rather like the sound of The Glorious Heresies – sounds very energetic – but I have yet to read any of the others (other than A Little Life – thank you for your kind mention of my review).

    • I think it shows that my personal favourites were GH and Ruby … I’ve been thinking a lot a about the shortlist as a whole though, because it does present an interesting snapshot of what the judges think is important in women’s writing in 2016.

  4. Oh you are inspiring me all over again! I have duly got my mitts on all 6 shortlisted books and just like you feel deeply indignant that the Atkinson has not made it further than the longlist (the only explanation I can give is that the panel wanted to open the competition out to newer authors). Can’t believe you have read them all already, I really do have to get my act together and crack on to have a hope of getting them all under my belt by the time the results are announced. Thanks for the link to A Little Life – and now am tempted to add ‘Rush Oh’ to my To Buy list after your review… look forward to reading more of your detailed thoughts on ‘Glorious Heresies’ – am still hoping to read more Irish works over the forthcoming months so this would be a double whammy! x

    • Rush Oh! is great – really recommend it. Glorious Heresies is also really engaging and entertaining, a wonderful insight into a place I’ve never visited and yet could picture perfectly after reading the novel.

  5. BookerTalk says:

    I’ve read two of these – A Little Life and The Green Road. Must admit to being surprised the latter is the favourite. It has some wonderful sections (those involving the gay son in USA in particular) but at the end I felt it fell away somewhat

    • The information was from William Hill’s because, while I don’t gamble, I’m always interested in what those in the business have to say about book prizes. I think they may have been banking on Enright’s previous success and known track record…

  6. I have just finished Rush Oh! so know how you feel! I can’t say that I find too many on the short list tempting but I will have a closer look at your thoughts – maybe I might change my mind!

    • I’m not sure there’s anything on the shortlist that’s better than ‘Rush Oh!’ but there are a couple that I think are as good (in different ways). I’m still gathering my thoughts about them all for all the detailed reviews that I’ve promised…

  7. Elle says:

    This was great! I completely agree with you about the abuse in A Little Life and Ruby (although what struck me about Ruby was that it contained just as much abuse as A Little Life, but condensed into a shorter page-span. Reading it certainly felt like a much crueler, more traumatic experience, to me.) I also thought The Improbability of Love was frothy (and outrageously poorly proofread), and was hugely impressed by The Glorious Heresies. I suspect it’s unfair to back it against The Green Road, as I haven’t yet actually read the latter, but it would be such a coup…

    • I think that the abuse in ‘A Little Life’ is so terrible is seems almost unbelievable. ‘Ruby’ on the other hand is terrifyingly believable and I think it’s one of the key differences between the two books; one might contain magic and the other be realist, but ‘Ruby’ nonetheless has the heft of history behind it which made it (for me) a much easier book to get into.

      • Elle says:

        Yeeesss. It’s definitely rooted in a historical and human context, instead of the randomized evil that Yanagihara writes about.

  8. curlygeek04 says:

    I loved loved loved Veblen, but that’s the only one on the shortlist I’ve read. I need to read Rush Oh! next. I would have liked A God in Ruins to make the shortlist.

  9. Rachel Bishop says:

    I loev, love, love great biographies. You have some good ones here that I have found! Thanks! I am currently reading Jon Knokey’s Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of American Leadership. It’s a great read on his life and what made him such a great leader of our country. Love books like this!

    • I’ll make a note of it! I did get into American literature in a big way with my NY reading last year, so this sounds like a wonderful way to continue it and take my American reading in a new N-F direction.

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