Hooray! Prize season is upon us yet again, and I’ve been steadily working my way through the Bailey’s Shortlist. I will say upfront that I personally think the winner should be Yewande Omotoso’s superb novel ‘The Woman Next Door‘, which was one of top reads for 2016, but inexplicably did not get past the Bailey’s longlist. Working with what the judges have chosen, I have strong, and mostly positive feelings about the shortlist and in the reviews that will follow I’ll be working though which book I’d personally pick if I could have my say on 7th June.
Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s novel begins with the protagonist Yejide writing ‘I must leave this city today and come to you.‘ The ‘you’ in question is Akin, her husband, but it will take the whole novel to understand why the couple have separated and exactly what the reunion means. ‘Stay with Me’ deals with universal themes, such as love, family and loss, but is also highly specific to its 1980s Nigerian setting. This means that the trauma of infertility leads to ‘solutions’ including polygamy and witchcraft. Though we begin with the most committed and loving of couples, inner forces (like Sickle Cell disease) and external conflicts (it’s Nigeria in the 1980s) combine to put unbearable stress on Yejide and Akin. A powerful and accomplished debut.
When I write my full review I will expound further on the importance of not dismissing this book as retreading Feminist dystopian plot-lines you’ve seen before. I nearly did – and I couldn’t have been more wrong. In Alderman’s latest novel, teenage girls suddenly find what it’s like to be physically more intimidating than their male counterparts. Whatever ‘the power’ is, it is soon spreading to women around the world. Through four protagonists, Alderman follows her premise through to its violent, disturbing and wonderfully realised conclusion. Even before I was completely sold on the concept, I was won over by the accomplished skill of Alderman’s prose. Then the story started to work on me; now I would be very happy for ‘The Power’ to win.
It was great to see Linda Grant on the shortlist once again. Her excellent ‘When I Lived in Modern Times’ won the (then Orange) Prize for Fiction in 2000 and throughout her career she has been a familiar figure at awards ceremonies. In ‘The Dark Circle’, once again her acute ability to bring a historical period to life is coupled with believably complex characters from the past. In this case, the setting is a terrifyingly claustrophobic 1950s TB sanatorium. The characters’ dark journeys though illness and institutionalisation are traced with humour, sympathy and real insight. Like the best historical fiction, the novel both explains and critiques the era in which it is set, while holding important messages for our own times. A highly recommended read.
I was so excited to see ‘The Sport of Kings’ on the Bailey’s Longlist. This doorstopper first caught my eye when it was published in 2016, because the cover, title and premise were just so enticing. 2016 being what it was, I never quite got round to reading it, and here the Bailey’s Prize was, telling me my initial impression had been right all along! ‘The Sport of Kings’ is a sprawling, ambitious epic about horse rearing, heredity, racism, the American South, the American dream (and so on, you can see how the themes merge together, each evoking and yet subtly undermining the next). ‘The Sport of Kings’ has all the ingredients for a Great American Novel, and I can see it being a favourite to win on the day.
‘First Love’ is a deceptively slim novel, whose title in no way prepares you for the angst it contains. The narrator Neve, is a writer married to an older man. At the start of the book, this sounds almost idyllic; for at least one paragraph we learn of the affection between the couple. As Neve’s story continues though, the pet names and the ‘other names‘ become less and less comfortable. Moving fluidly between Neve’s present and her memories, we learn of the destructive relationships in her past and see how these are echoed in her current situation. This may be the shortest book on the list, but it is a far from easy read, as every insult and opportunity for neglect hits and lasts. Enjoyable is certainly the wrong word, but I can see this book finding fans amongst those with a high tolerance for and appreciation of writing about the subtleties of poisonous relationships.
I actually read ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ last year, when I was convinced it was going to win the 2016 Man Booker Prize. It may have lost out in the end to ‘The Sellout’, but Thien’s novel went on to make a highly respectable showing on end of year ‘best read’ lists. It takes as it’s topic China’s cultural revolution, following a the fate of musicians through a combination of realist and fable-like narratives. The plot and characters are interesting in their own right, but the real draw of this novel is the setting, which is powerfully evoked, educating and translating the horrific events for a Western audience. It’s an excellent introduction to a period of recent history rarely explored in contemporary English language fiction and I wouldn’t be surprised if Thien will soon be able to add ‘Bailey’s Prize winner’ to her list of accolades.
I’ll be reviewing as many of these books in more detail as I can in the run up to the prize-giving. In the mean time, which have you read and which do you want to win? Do you think the Baileys got it right in their final year with this sponsor for the Woman’s Prize for Fiction?