Hannah Kent - Burial Rites
Jhumpa Lahiri - The Lowland
Audrey Magee - The Undertaking
Eimear McBride - A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing
Donna Tartt - The Goldfinch
I know, I know, the Baileys shortlist has been out for almost a week now and is officially Old News in the blogosphere, but I've only just properly caught up. It's been a busy little time for me recently. We're about to move house for the second time in two years, this time out to the country. I'm six months into my part-time PhD and it is frankly terrifying. I've also had a promotion at work and, although I've reduced my hours to fit in studying, I still feel like I'm working longer and harder than ever. But. Enough digressing. I'm here to talk about this shortlist.
Once upon a time I was on tenterhooks awaiting the longlist announcement for the Orange Prize, and then dived in to reading and reviewing the books straightaway. This year, like last year, I've let it wash over me without too much fuss. I've been keeping up with other people's reading adventures (kudos to those superhumans who managed to read all 20 longlisted books before the shortlist announcement) but I haven't made a concerted effort to read along. Shallow as it sounds I think one of my problems may be to do with the name change. The Orange Prize felt like my prize, associated with the early years at Eve's Alexandria, whereas the Baileys Prize seems like a different thing altogether. It also has to do with my repeated (failed) attempts to maintain a gender balance in my reading and make space for more books by men. Twenty books a year from a women's only book prize exacerbated my already-chronic bias.
I think this year's shortlist has inspired me to dip my toe in the waters again - because six books isn't that many, right? - but probably not for the reason you think. Usually a list is inspiring because it's exciting, you want to read along because there are books on it you already feel predisposed to love (or have already loved). Not so this list. I'm positively resistant to it. It collects together five books from the longlist that I felt like I probably should read but that didn't grab me by the throat and demand my attention. The exception is Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, which I finished not that long ago and haven't written about yet. That story of 19th century Icelandic murder had me from the moment I heard about it. The others, not so much. But rather than pass them by I'm determined to go against my instincts. Either this is a case of a real clash of tastes between me and the judges, or I'm just plain wrong. I'm predicting that it's the latter.
I've lined up three of the books so far: Americanah, The Goldfinch and A Girl is a Half Formed Thing. I started Adichie yesterday and am already hooked; 142 pages in my instincts have been proved wrong. I remember reading Half of a Yellow Sun with a kind of dutiful admiration - an Important book about Important Things - but Americanah is quite different. Yes, it's still careful and precise and detailed but it's also sparky, playful and self-deprecating. I'm really looking forward to each time I pick it up. Score one for the Baileys Prize judges.
A Girl is a Half Formed Thing comes garlanded with praise and reviews that talk about how revolutionary it is. I think I'm resistant to it primarily because of all that accumulated enthusiasm - I hate to have my expectations raised and then be disappointed. That said, I've read the first 10 pages of my hastily acquired copy and already I can feel myself acclimatising to the narrative style, unpicking the syntax and the thought processes. Seems like going against my instincts could work a second time.
I have a sneaky feeling that The Goldfinch might be the exception that proves the rule. I've never read any Donna Tartt and the synopsis of this turns me right off, but I did buy a copy for my Kindle when it was 99p at Christmas. Who can resist a bargain like that? I idly read the first 5% at the time but didn't go on because I was a bit irritated by the narrator; difficult for me to put my finger on why. Perhaps I was just in the wrong mood and I'm actually going to love it. The whole purpose of this exercise is to discipline my reading grump into not dismissing things too soon.
The other two books - The Undertaking and The Lowland - are interesting ones; my instinct to resist them seems to have been entirely to do with the way they were originally packaged. I've read some of Jhumpa Lahiri's incredible short fiction and would ordinarily be really keen to read a novel by her. For some reason though The Lowland passed me by so completely when it was on the Booker shortlist that I didn't even register what it was about until I read the blurb today. And you know, I think it might have been the gaudy hardback cover that turned me off, because it looks a whole lot more interesting in paperback. Oh what a shallow creature I am.
I'm afraid The Undertaking was a victim of its setting: I read the words Second World War, Nazis, Stalingrad and I switched off. My brain has a keyword filter and they're high on the list, because I just can't bear to keep going back over the same well-trod ground. Now I look more closely I can see that Audrey Magee's novel is quite different, unsually told from a Nazi perspective and following the protagonists out the other side of the war to confront their actions in peacetime. I can just about resist my WWII fiction prejudice to give it a go, even if it makes me a bit twitchy.
So what I'm trying to say, I suppose, is that I'm hoping this shortlist will make me a better, more open-minded reader, who doesn't judge a book by its cover, its setting or reductive blurb. I'm going to try and read the books by the announcement at the beginning of June, and to write about the experience along the way. There may be some brief interruptions for house-moving (beginning of May) but otherwise here is to a brief season of resistant reading.