What better day to publish The Bailey’s Women Prize for fiction long-list than today, International Women’s Day. With a list of 16 books by established authors and a few newcomers there’s plenty of choice. But which one to choose? I enjoyed Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, a love story set in Victorian England which is beautifully written, but at times a bit slow. Perry is definitively an author to look out for, though. I was less keen on Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata, a post-WW2 story about a boy growing up in Switzerland which seemed to have too many loose threads at the end. I’m quite curious about The Power, especially on a day like today, which presents an alternative world where women have all the power…
I’ve always been curious about the concept of The Great American Novel. What is it? Who made it up? Which ones are they? There’s something sweeping, weighty, grand about this notion, isn’t there? I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that it helps to be a white, male to make into this category. Looking at Literary Hub’s excellent article confirms my suspicion. Let’s hope that will change in the future.
Of the books on the list, I’ve read The Great Gatsby (one of my favourites, ever), To Kill a Mocking Bird (wonderful), Underworld (that 50 page baseball game did me in), Beloved (great), Freedom (fabulous), Rabbit Run (gave up…) and The Flame Throwers (good, but not sure it belongs here). And this article makes we want to read more of them, Mason & Dixon and Grapes of Wrath have joined my reading list as of now. I’m surprised Philip Roth didn’t make it. But, hey, arguing about which ones belong there or not is half the fun, no? Which ones would you add?
Wow! What a punch of a book. Eddy Belleguele grows up in a dirt-poor working class family in the north of France. Realising early on he’s gay, Eddy spends the rest of his youth trying to hide his sexual orientation from the macho, homophobic, misogynist and racist environment he’s born into. The End of Eddy is an extraordinary autobiographical novel of survival and courageousness and a truly magnificent book.
Unless I’ve completely missed it (?), it’s taken a while for the refugee crisis to trickle through in fiction. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (to be published in the UK on 2nd March) will finally change that with the love story of Nadia and Saeed fleeing an unnamed war torn country (with an uncanny resemblance to Syria or Iraq). As much as I wanted to like this book – I’m a fan of Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Raising Asia) and think this human catastrophe deserved literary attention – it left me with mixed feelings.
Lib Wright, a nurse trained by ‘Miss Nightingale’ is hired for a two-week position in the ‘dead centre’ of Ireland. A young girl has not eaten for 4 months, yet appears to be well. Her fanatically religious parents have proclaimed her to be a miracle, and pilgrims make their way to the cottage to worship the little saint-in-making. If you enjoyed Room, Emma Donoghue’s first book, then you might be put off by the very different subject matter she has chosen here. Don’t be. It is moving, lyrical, intense and surprising.
Bookstoker Young Readers
I have to confess to not being a big consumer (or fan) of crime fiction (perhaps I just haven’t read enough good ones), but this intense and eerie little book got the better of me. Written in the 1950s by Swiss dramatist and novelist Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Pledge is a crime novel with a twist designed to challenge the formulaic (according to Dürrenmatt) nature of the genre.
Rose and her daughter Sofia arrive in a small Spanish fishing village – a strange, dreamlike place caught between the searing heat of the desert and the mesmerising pull of the sea. They are desperately seeking medical help and salvation. Rose suffers from a mysterious, inexplicable illness, which presents in spontaneous, spasmodic paralysis of her legs and has left her wheelchair bound. Her daughter, Sofia, has spent her life trying to understand her mother’s illness, trapped in an unhealthy co-dependent relationship and forced to act as her bemused carer. The mystery of this undiagnosed illness forms the background of the entire novel. Sofia explains, “I have been sleuthing my mother’s symptoms for as long as I can remember. If I see myself as an unwilling detective with a desire for justice, is her illness an unresolved crime? If so, who is the villain and who is the victim?”
Austrian short-story maestro Stefan Zweig (Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, Chess, Letter From an Unknown Woman and Fear) also wrote two novels: The Post Office Girl and Beware of Pity. Beware of Pity has now been made into a play by Simon McBurney, creative genius and head of the experimental theatre company Theatre de Complicite, which is showing at the Barbican in London 9-12 February. I cannot recommend Simon McBurney’s productions highly enough. They are without doubt amongst the most original, intelligent and spectacular theatre you will see. If you can’t get tickets the play is available on live streaming from the Barbican. I’ll certainly watch it.
James Wood’s annual list of new book discoveries seems shorter this year but his description of Joy Williams’ Ninety-Nine Stories of God made even me (not usually a short story fan) want to pick it up. Perhaps you too will find something here?