The prize season fast approaches, with both the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction and the International Foreign Fiction Prize announcing their longlists at the end of this week. Just after midnight on Friday 6th March I believe for all you eager beavers. I'm excited as always, because LISTS, and also because I anticipate this will be a good year for the Baileys Prize, with Ali Smith, Sarah Waters, Lucy Wood, Sarah Moss and Sarah Hall all with eligible novels.
The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction has got in early by releasing its longlist last Thursday. It isn't one that I've followed much before, except for feeling pleased when Wolf Hall won the inaugural award in 2010, but I very much like the sound of the 15 books on this year's longlist. The judges apparently had a bumper crop of 124 entries this year (40% up on last year), a sign of the rude health of historical fiction at the moment. This is actually the first year that the longlist has been released - previously they have leapt straight to the shortlist - another sign of the growing interest in the genre. The shortlist will be announced on 26th March, and the winner will scoop their £25,000 on 13th June.
I don't plan to read all the books - that would be madness - but I'm planning to dip in and out (of this and the other two lists) over the coming months. I thought it would be interesting to take a quick tour of the titles.
The synopsis for this is rather oblique - dark love story, unadultered evil - so I won't copy and paste here, but I understand that it's a revisit to the Holocaust (after Time's Arrow, 1991). The story is told in the first person by three narrators: the Commandant of a concentration camp, a Nazi bureaucrat and a Jewish prisoner. By all accounts it's a return to form for Amis after Lionel Asbo, which sounded just awful. I have to admit that I'm not all that motivated to try it. Amis is one of those writers who I generally find unpalatable and objectionable, both in his fiction and in his non-fiction commentary. I noted in several reviews that the only major female character in the novel - the Commandant's wife - is 'more of a symbol than a presence' and I switched right off. Can anyone recommend it and encourage me to give it a go?
Jack McNulty, a former UN observer, has worked around the world and seen extraordinary things but, as he contemplates his return to Ireland after many years, his memories are dominated by his tumultuous marriage to Mai Kirwan. A great beauty with a vivid mind, Mai was also an elusive and troubled soul, stuck in a marriage that couldn't last.
The Temporary Gentleman is a powerful account of one man's attempt to come to terms with the savage realities of the past.
Confessions: I haven't read The Secret Scripture yet, although I have read (and admired on this blog in 2006) Barry's Booker listed A Long Long Way. It makes me feel underqualified to anticipate this book, which is his third novel about the McNulty family. It addresses some themes that I find very alluring though - class, post-colonialism, post traumatic experience - so perhaps it would be ok to read it out of order?
The first out of four books on the list that I have already read. I thought it was an accomplished debut, and particularly good at drawing the reader into the world of 17th century Amsterdam, but that it did its characters a disservice by focusing on the mysterious miniaturist herself. I would have preferred to spend more time riddling through the social mores of the period. You can find my extended thoughts here.
It has been incredibly popular and successful - and is being translated into 31 languages as we speak - so I imagine that it will also appear on the Baileys Prize longlist this week.
Cornwall, 1920, early spring.
A young man stands on a headland, looking out to sea. He is back from the war, homeless and without family. Behind him lie the mud, barbed-wire entanglements and terror of the trenches. Behind him is also the most intense relationship of his life. Daniel has survived, but the horror and passion of the past seem more real than the quiet fields around him. He is about to step into the unknown. But will he ever be able to escape the terrible, unforeseen consequences of a lie?
Somehow this book passed me by last year when I was on the hunt for First World War centenary novels, which is a shame because it pushes buttons for me. Plus I haven't read enough Helen Dunmore, despite the fact that her A Spell of Winter is a favourite and a book I often recommend. I'm definitely going to read this one ASAP.
VIPER WINE by Hermione Eyre (Jonathan Cape)
At Whitehall Palace in 1632, the ladies at the court of Charles I are beginning to look suspiciously alike. Plump cheeks, dilated pupils, and a heightened sense of pleasure are the first signs that they have been drinking a potent new beauty tonic, Viper Wine, distilled and discreetly dispensed by the physician Lancelot Choice.
Famed beauty Venetia Stanley is so extravagantly dazzling she has inspired Ben Jonson to poetry and Van Dyck to painting, provoking adoration and emulation from the masses. But now she is married and her “mid-climacteric” approaches, all that adoration has curdled to scrutiny, and she fears her powers are waning. Her devoted husband, Sir Kenelm Digby – alchemist, explorer, philosopher, courtier, and time-traveller – believes he has the means to cure wounds from a distance, but he so loves his wife that he will not make her a beauty tonic, convinced she has no need of it.
From the whispering court at Whitehall, to the charlatan physicians of Eastcheap, here is a marriage in crisis, and a country on the brink of civil war.
Sounds pretty great, right? I have this downloaded onto my Kindle already and it will probably (no promises!) be my next digital read. Worth noting that Eyre is also shortlisted for The Golden Tentacle Kitschie, for 'progressive, intelligent and entertaining' speculative fiction.
IN THE WOLF’S MOUTH by Adam Foulds (Jonathan Cape)
Set in North Africa and Sicily at the end of the last war, In the Wolf's Mouth follows the Allies' botched 'liberation' attempts as they chase the Germans north towards the Italian mainland. Focussing on the campaigns of two young soldiers – Will Walker, an English Field Security Officer, ambitious to master and shape events, and Ray Marfione, a wide-eyed Italian-American infantryman – the new novel from Adam Foulds contains some of the best battle writing of the past fifty years. Particularly eloquent on the brutish, blundering inaccuracy of war, this is a sensual, intimate experience: the immediacy of the prose uncanny and unforgettable.
I really quite enjoyed Adam Foulds' The Quickening Maze, his previous foray into historical fiction. In the Wolf's Mouth sounds like an incredibly different book - best battle writing of the last fifty years? I can't say there is much in that description that fires me up, but I do like the thought of Foulds' turning his poetic gaze to such grim subject matter.
MR MAC AND ME by Esther Freud (Bloomsbury)
It is 1914, and Thomas Maggs, the son of the local publican, lives with his parents and sister in a village on the Suffolk coast. He is the youngest child, and the only son surviving. Life is quiet - shaped by the seasons, fishing and farming, the summer visitors, and the girls who come down from the Highlands every year to gut and pack the herring.
Then one day a mysterious Scotsman arrives. To Thomas he looks for all the world like a detective, in his black cape and hat of felted wool, and the way he puffs on his pipe as if he's Sherlock Holmes. Mac is what the locals call him when they whisper about him in the inn. And whisper they do, for he sets off on his walks at unlikely hours, and stops to examine the humblest flowers. He is seen on the beach, staring out across the waves as if he's searching for clues. But Mac isn't a detective, he's the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and together with his red-haired artist wife, they soon become a source of fascination and wonder to Thomas.
Yet just as Thomas and Mac's friendship begins to blossom, war with Germany is declared. The summer guests flee and are replaced by regiments of soldiers on their way to Belgium, and as the brutality of war weighs increasingly heavily on this coastal community, they become more suspicious of Mac and his curious behaviour.
I've always meant to read Esther Freud, for the entirely shallow reason that she is called Esther and my experience of Esthers has always been...erm...positive. This sounds like a great and enigmatic introduction to her work, and also another First World War novel. Was I asleep when all these centenary books were being published? I'll be watching out for this next time I'm in Waterstones, especially because I have a sneaky feeling it might also find its way on the Baileys longlist.
ARCTIC SUMMER by Damon Galgut (Atlantic)
In 1912, the SS Birmingham approaches India. On board is Morgan Forster, novelist and man of letters, who is embarking on a journey of discovery. As Morgan stands on deck, the promise of a strange new future begins to take shape before his eyes. The seeds of a story start to gather at the corner of his mind: a sense of impending menace, lust in close confines, under a hot, empty sky. It will be another twelve years, and a second time spent in India, before A Passage to India, E. M. Forster's great work of literature, is published. During these years, Morgan will come to a profound understanding of himself as a man, and of the infinite subtleties and complexity of human nature, bringing these great insights to bear in his remarkable novel. At once a fictional exploration of the life and times of one of Britain's finest novelists, his struggle to find a way of living and being, and a stunningly vivid evocation of the mysterious alchemy of the creative process, Arctic Summer is a literary masterpiece, by one of the finest writers of his generation.
Galgut has been shortlisted for the Booker prize twice in recent years and so I've almost read him lots of times. I'm pretty sure I have one or two of his books lurking on the old TBR pile. Somehow I never get around to them, and I'm rather ashamed to admit that it is probably my notorious bias against male writers. Since I haven't read A Passage to India yet either perhaps this is not the book to start with.
Love, love, loved this when I read it last January. I'll point you to my post about it for more gushing praise.
It was one of my best books of 2014. Nuff said.
Everyone knows the date of the Battle of Hastings. Far fewer people know what happened next...Set in the three years after the Norman invasion, The Wake tells the story of a fractured band of guerilla fighters who take up arms against the invaders. Carefully hung on the known historical facts about the almost forgotten war of resistance that spread across England in the decade after 1066, it is a story of the brutal shattering of lives, a tale of lost gods and haunted visions, narrated by a man of the Lincolnshire fens bearing witness to the end of his world. Written in what the author describes as 'a shadow tongue' - a version of Old English updated so as to be understandable for the modern reader - The Wake renders the inner life of an Anglo-Saxon man with an accuracy and immediacy rare in historical fiction. To enter Buccmaster's world is to feel powerfully the sheer strangeness of the past.
I read this when it was on the Booker list last year, and really wish that I had written about it at the time. It's a fascinating experiment in how language can be used to express alienation, historical distance and loss, and likely the most determinedly 'authentic' novel on this list. It is also probably the most experimental, which is an interesting combination. It has that unusual publication history too, having won its place in print via the crownfunding publisher Unbound. Well worth a try if you want something challenging and unlikely.
THE UNDERTAKING by Audrey Magee (Atlantic)
Desperate to escape the Eastern front, Peter Faber, an ordinary German soldier, marries Katharina Spinell, a woman he has never met; it is a marriage of convenience that promises 'honeymoon' leave for him and a pension for her should he die on the front. With ten days' leave secured, Peter visits his new wife in Berlin; both are surprised by the attraction that develops between them. When Peter returns to the horror of the front, it is only the dream of Katharina that sustains him as he approaches Stalingrad. Back in Berlin, Katharina, goaded on by her desperate and delusional parents, ruthlessly works her way into the Nazi party hierarchy, wedding herself, her young husband and their unborn child to the regime. But when the tide of war turns and Berlin falls, Peter and Katharina, ordinary people stained with their small share of an extraordinary guilt, find their simple dream of family increasingly hard to hold on to.
I bought this for my Kindle back when it was on last year's Bailey's shortlist but was readily distracted from reading it because it somehow reminded me of the drag of reading The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. I see a WWII novel with snow on the front and my brain shuts down.
Summer, 1914. Young Englishwoman Vivian Rose Spencer is in an ancient land, about to discover the Temple of Zeus, the call of adventure, and love. Thousands of miles away a twenty-year-old Pathan, Qayyum Gul, is learning about brotherhood and loyalty in the British Indian army. Summer, 1915. Viv has been separated from the man she loves; Qayyum has lost an eye at Ypres. They meet on a train to Peshawar, unaware that a connection is about to be forged between their lives - one that will reveal itself fifteen years later when anti-colonial resistance, an ancient artefact and a mysterious woman will bring them together again.
I've read Shamsie's Orange shortlisted Burnt Shadows (I could have sworn I reviewed it here, but apparently not) and while I appreciated it at the time I didn't love it as unreservedly as many people did. I struggle with the use of traumatic historical events used as emotional shorthand in fiction - Hiroshama in that case, but ditto the Holocaust. It's almost impossible to do justice to those things. This sounds on a much smaller scale though, and I'd like to try Shamsie's writing again. On the wishlist.
THE ARCHITECT’S APPRENTICE by Elif Shafak (Penguin)
Sixteenth century Istanbul: a stowaway arrives in the city bearing an extraordinary gift for the Sultan. The boy is utterly alone in a foreign land, with no worldly possessions to his name except Chota, a rare white elephant destined for the palace menagerie.
So begins an epic adventure that will see young Jahan rise from lowly origins to the highest ranks of the Sultan's court. Along the way he will meet deceitful courtiers and false friends, gypsies, animal tamers, and the beautiful, mischievous Princess Mihrimah. He will journey on Chota's back to the furthest corners of the Sultan's kingdom and back again. And one day he will catch the eye of the royal architect, Sinan, a chance encounter destined to change Jahan's fortunes forever.
Istanbul! Elephants! Mischievous princess! Yes please. I've never read any Shafak, which is shameful because she is Turkey's most popular woman writer and has an impressive backlist to her name. This comes out in paper back in April, and I probably won't be able to resist it at that point.
THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS by John Spurling (Duckworth & Co)
In the turbulent final years of the Yuan Dynasty, Wang Meng is a low-level bureaucrat, employed by the government of Mongol conquerors established by the Kublai Khan. Though he wonders about his own complicity with this regime, he prefers not to dwell on his official duties, choosing instead to live the life of the mind. Wang is an extraordinarily gifted artist. His paintings are at once delicate and confident; in them, one can see the wind blowing through the trees, the water rushing through rocky valleys, the infinite expanse of China's natural beauty.
But this is not a time for sitting still and, as The Ten Thousand Things unfolds, we follow Wang as he travels through an empire in turmoil. In his wanderings, he encounters, among many memorable characters, other master painters of the period, a fierce female warrior known as the White Tigress who will recruit him as a military strategist, and an ugly young Buddhist monk who rises from beggary to extraordinary heights.
I'd never heard of John Spurling, or this novel, until I read the longlist. The surname was familiar, but I realise I was thinking of John's wife Hilary, the biographer. The synopsis makes it sound like a journey-punctuated-by-encounters novel, and I'm not always keen on those because you don't get enough time to enjoy characters. Although the lyrical prose gets lots of attention in the reviews, probably not one for me.
It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa, a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as impoverished widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.
For with the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the 'clerk class', the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. And as passions mount and frustration gathers, no one can foresee just how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.
We round off with a final book I've already read, but sadly didn't write about on the blog. I wasn't convinced by The Paying Guests at first. It's a novel of three distinct parts: a very slow, langorous beginning, an incredible tense and desperate middle section and a perfect suspenseful last part. By the end I was convinced all over again of Waters' genius for evoking a point in time, and also that her work is on a trajectory that gets more and more exciting. The Night Watch, The Little Stranger and The Paying Guests seem to form a thematic trilogy, in the same was as Tipping the Velvet, Affinity and Fingersmith. I can't wait to see where she goes next. I only wish she wrote faster!
And there we have it. Apparently a great year for Jonathan Cape, with three titles on the longlist! The only book I read last year that seems like a gaping omission is Sarah Moss' Bodies of Light, which I thought would be her breakout novel but then sadly wasn't. I'm looking forward to the shortlist announcement in just over three weeks time. What have you read of these? What should I try first? What else is missing?