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.
Starting 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)
It 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.
‘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).
‘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.
Something 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)
Like 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!