Category: Bailey’s Prize

“The Lesser Bohemians” by Eimear McBride

“At least I reek of new less and less. Now at night, uncurling stretch-sore self, I conjure farther futures from the ceiling cracks – in glorious technicolor – what this pleasant present lacks. I will it, hope and dream it. Fine my life’ll be when it comes. When I am right. When I have made myself. When I have. When I”

“The Lesser Bohemians” is Eimear McBride’s second novel and second nomination for The-Lesser-Bohemiansthe Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her first novel, “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing”, won the prize in 2014. Both works showcase McBride’s anomalous, experimental writing style and the rawness with which she presents tumultuous emotion and intensely complicated relationships.

“The Lesser Bohemians” features the inner thoughts and outward actions of an 18 year old girl who has just moved to London to attend drama school. McBride is calculated and stingy with character names, withholding the protagonist’s name until well past the book’s half-way point and the rest of the characters’ until deep into the final quarter. This tactic is clearly strategic and is meant, perhaps, to influence the way in which the reader gets to know characters and also to connote the mystery and enigmatic nature of people. Because the absence of names is so deliberate and weighs so heavily on the reader’s experience, I shan’t be revealing any names here.

Desperate for adult experience, for maturation into some future self of adult perfection, our protagonist’s journey is shared in a narrative that is as chaotic, jarring and fluid as her life itself. She is in the throes of that sleep-deprived, oft-intoxicated, over-hormonal stage of life that nearly crushes and often indelibly shapes who we become. Uncertain in herself, traumatized by events of childhood, she wants desperately to be someone else, drawn to acting as the perfect mask for her life.

She is sometimes wildly volatile and self-destructive: “I hate it, I fucking hate it. What? All of myself. Take it easy, he says. All my fucking skin. I’d rip it off if I could. I’d start again. I wouldn’t be this. Stop! Him wrestling my hands. Stop it, you’ll hurt yourself. I want to. Lie down! Lie down, and him pinning me best as feral permits. But what worthless limbs can’t, my mouth invites Hit me, I want you to hit me or fuck me til I bleed.” 

She is often overly self-critical: “I suddenly misplace the best of myself, allowing a far worse in. And there goes reason. There goes sense. Decency, and with it, tenderness.” 

She is always yearning to be someone she’s not: “Off into it so. Time rushing through days. Crucify lazy flesh. Defy lazy brain. And the much and much of delight, of make. Turning the body. Converting the self into flecks of form and re-form. Her. Into her. Into someone else.”

“The Lesser Bohemians” is sometimes violent and traumatic, sometimes sexy and even romantic.

“Before him I thought that when love came it would come perfectly. Not in a dingy room on dirty sheets and not caring at all about those things. It is the spell of him. Unconscious gift that if I told would make him laugh.” 

No rose-colored lenses allowed, this book is full of raw emotion; it embraces the messiness of life, the unfettered nature of emotions, the ugly-crier in all of us. McBride’s writing style – the lack of punctuation and, often, any pressure to construct complete sentences – can be challenging, especially until you let go of your pretenses and lean into it. I find it not unlike reading Faulkner – sometimes you just have to step back, cross your eyes, and then plunge in for the narrative to wash over you and start to make sense. Once you allow yourself to be swept up into the rhythms of the story, however, it is hard to resist its beauty, its honesty, its unvarnished look at the best and worst in us. Eimear McBride is a gifted writer with a sure voice and ferociously unique style that are an important addition to literary fiction.


“London’s utterness makes outers of us all – though this morning, mostly, elbows to be missed.”

 

“The Sport of Kings” by C.E. Morgan

“‘Real knowledge begins with knowing your place in the world. Now, you are neither nigger, nor woman, nor stupid. You are a young man born into a very long, distinguished line. That confers responsibility, so stay focused on your learning. And as far as your imagination is concerned, it should be relegated to secondary status. You’ll never have an original thought, never be great, never invent anything truly new, and this shouldn’t bother you one bit. There’s nothing new under the sun. You just need to know your place.'”

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C.E. Morgan’s “The Sport of Kings” is a mammoth book which has been widely celebrated and has made its way to the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist. Set in the heart of bluegrass Kentucky, an area I know well if not intimately, “The Sport of Kings” portrays an over-story about raising and racing Thoroughbreds in Paris, Kentucky, and a deeply developed under-story about inheritance, race, and ambition.

Henry Forge is southern royalty, the only son of a wealthy, long-established farming family. Forge’s father is cold and cruel, a man of exacting standards and unwavering prejudice; he is a strict originalist who doesn’t brook with rebellion of any type or degree. When young Henry expresses his dream of converting their family’s corn fields into a world-class Thoroughbred farm, his father’s rejection is swift and merciless.

“‘What looks like a horse farm is really a cheap attempt at dignity. All these pretty things before you amount to a heap of goddamn rhinestones. …Dignity can’t be purchased, Henry, least of all by these latecomers, these …these outsiders, who dress up their addictions in Sunday clothes and Derby hats. People call it a sport, but I’ll tell you this: this so-called sport is driven by compulsion, and weak men love nothing more than to abandon themselves to their compulsions.'”

This, spoken without irony by a man committed to generations of farming corn explicitly for the distilling of bourbon. Now, I love bourbon and admire horses, but I can plainly see the threads of addiction, excess, and vice in both well enough to appreciate the hypocrisy of this statement.

Not to be deterred, Henry’s laser-like focus only narrows until he has indeed created a renowned horse farm on his family’s land. The costs of this farm and, more, Henry’s ambition are both extraordinary and unsurprising.

His obsession with breeding and perfection are in many ways even more extreme than his vilified father’s. Henry treats his only child, Henrietta, as his for the shaping, a mere extension of his quest for perfection and legacy. As Henrietta grows up, she proves she has a head for the business. Co-managing their farm, Henrietta is at once coldly professional and wildly volatile. Her life on the farm is flawless and reserved, while her nights are spent trolling bars and engaging in dangerous, hollow sexual encounters with anyone she meets. That is, until the arrival of Allmon Shaughnessy, a black ex-con with a gift for horsemanship.

Morgan has much to say about misogyny and racism in “The Sport of Kings.” By setting her story within an industry – and it is an industry as much as a sport – like horse racing, Morgan has the perfect platform to expose generations-long bigotry and oppression. From the perspective of Henry and his like, people, and especially women and people of color, are pawns to be manipulated with minimal exposure lest one’s own supremacy be tainted.  As Henry’s father opines early in Henry’s life, “‘[T]he core of femininity is a softness of resolve and mind; reason is not their strong suit.'” Yet Morgan expertly features women throughout her story who are anything but the delicate flower and font of maternal softness. Henry’s own mother, we learn, quietly rebels through a love affair with one of the farm hands, while his wife is completely uninterested in the roles of wife and mother.

“What she was coming to realize, but what no woman was allowed to utter aloud, was that there was no guarantee your child would be adequate compensation for the life you gave up to have it.”

In the third generation of Forge women, there is Henrietta, a woman with, according to her father, a “man’s mind” and with a focus and stoicism that can give her father’s a run for his money. Henrietta, though outwardly obedient, suffers no fools and sees right through the feints of men.

“Why did men always make this play for boldness? They came off like little children pretending to be grown. Why bother lying to a woman, who could read an expression before it formed, and know its source and its source’s source?”

Throughout the book, and particularly in the sections which trace Allmon’s family history and his childhood, Morgan has poignant insights into race and racism, as well. Both Henry and his father are white supremacists with an unshakeable sense of superiority.

“‘You see, Henry, for them the race problem is either a mental abstraction or a romance. For us, as perhaps you’re beginning to understand, it is a problem of practice and the everyday frustration of dealing with the colored appetite and intellect, which is entirely different from our own. It is quite easy to imagine the equality of all men when you sit on a high horse and don’t have to walk among them in the fields. Indeed, everyone appears the same height from that view. But demount the horse and it soon becomes apparent that there are not merely masters and slaves by happenstance, or overseers and laborers by happenstance, but that these divisions are inherent and unavoidable.'”

The parallels between horses and black people in the minds of Henry and his ancestors are clear. They are both extraordinary animals to be bred, broken, and controlled for the benefit of the white man. Fortunately for the breadth and soul of the novel, the reader is also presented with Allmon’s story, in which the systemic traps and trappings of racism are exposed, the impact of an unjust society impossible to ignore.

“They say there’s gonna be a black president someday. Maybe. Or maybe just black skin. Either way, you won’t ever get to vote in Kentucky. Won’t have a place to live, ’cause you won’t qualify for Section Eight housing to get your feet on the ground, won’t ever serve on a jury to keep a brother out of jail, won’t ever get a good job once you X the little felony box, can’t legally carry a gun to keep some crazy racist from killing you, and there was never any protection against the cops to begin with.”

“The Sport of Kings” is exquisitely crafted, though not without its challenges. Just like its star Thoroughbred, Hellsmouth, the novel is off to a slow, awkward start; the first 100 pages were well written but somehow tedious. By the second section of the book, however, the story picks up its pace and demands attention for the remaining 400+ pages. Though the story, especially at the beginning, tends to jump time and point of view from paragraph to paragraph with absolutely no signal – not even a space – only allowing the reader to catch up mid way through the next paragraph when an age or date alludes to the passage of time, this delivery, too, either smooths out or one becomes acclimated to it, so that soon the story just seems to flow effortlessly and naturally through time and space. All told, “The Sport of Kings” was extraordinary – worthy of its place on the Women’s Prize for Fiction short list and well worth your time to read it.

 

 

 

The 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize Shortlist

It’s official! The Baileys committee has announced the six nominees featured on its short list (and still in the running for the prize, announced June 7).

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Overall, I am pleased with the list (not that anyone asked me). I predicted 3 of the 6 correctly, with a strong agreement for a 4th (“The Sport of Kings”) as my alternate (7th) pick. I believe that “The Power” and “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” are the strongest novels remaining and am hopeful that one may come out on top. The one surprise on this list is the presence of “The Dark Circle”, which I found disappointing and forgettable. It will be hard to wait until June 7 to hear the official pick!

Below is the Short List in its entirety, with links to my review of each.

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀
The Power by Naomi Alderman
The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Read more here about the shortlist from the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction website.

“Little Deaths” by Emma Flint

          He knew nothing about leaving your kids home alone or with a teenage sitter while you went out to work eight hours on your feet in a pair of heels that rubbed, serving drinks to assholes who thought they were buying the right to paw you with every round He knew nothing about leaving your sleeping children while you went to meet a man who would pay you for your company because your daughter needed shoes. He know nothing about sending your kids to bed on half-empty stomachs, trying to fill them up with water, adding a drop of whisky to make them sleep – because if you let them eat, there’d be nothing for breakfast and your dead-beat husband’s checks kept bouncing. 
          He knew nothing about coming home from a twelve-hour shift, having held the image of their faces in front of you the whole time, holding onto the sweet smell of their skin as you wiped vomit from your shoes, as you picked cigarette butts out of a half-full glass. And then stepping through the door and hearing the noise of them: the screams and shrieks and the endless demands, for food and for attention, and feeling that just the fact of them – their spilling, their pulling and grabbing and needing – made you want to hand the sitter all the money you had in your purse and beg her to stay. Or if there was no money, or no sitter, just walking out anyway because you were so damn tired, and you just needed a little time alone. A little peace. 
         This man had no idea about any of this. None of these men did. They got paid men’s wages and they had wives to deal with the noise and the mess, with Jimmy’s problems at school, with little Susie who wouldn’t eat her vegetables, with the baby who just wouldn’t stop crying.
          They knew nothing of guilt. They were not mothers.

27845924Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction long list nominee “Little Deaths” is part crime novel, part character study. Ruth Malone is a young mother working as a cocktail waitress in 1960s Queens. Ruth is icy, composed, plastic. While the reader sees the turmoil of her life – excessive drinking, desperate affairs with strange men, maternal fatigue – Ruth shows nothing to the outside world. Wearing revealing clothes and always putting on her face before facing the day, Ruth is desperate to be looked at, terrified of ever being seen. Her plastic veneer by which she is judged – perfect makeup and hair, no emotion – is her armor against a world to which she doesn’t really belong.

“Little Deaths” is the story, set in flashbacks, of Ruth’s undoing. From the opening lines, we are told that she is now an inmate, though her crime is only later revealed and the truth of that crime is delivered only at the book’s end.

 “On the rare nights that she sleeps, she is back in the skin of the woman from before. Then: she rarely slept neat in a nightgown, pillows plumped, face shining with cold cream. She sometimes woke in a rumpled bed with a snoring figure beside her; more often she woke alone on the sofa with near-empty bottles and near-full ashtrays, her skin clogged with stale smoke and yesterday’s makeup, her body tender, her mind empty. She would sit up, wincing, aware of the ache in her neck and of the sad, sour taste in her mouth. Now she wakes, not with the thickness of a headache or the softness of a blurred night behind her, but with forced clarity. Her days begin with a bell, with harsh voices, clanging metal, yelling. With the throat-scarping smells of bleach and urine. There’s no room in these mornings for memories.”

Ruth is a woman without agency, looking for solace in a bottle and a man – any man. That  trait, alone, makes her a tough character to like. Her struggles with motherhood, marriage, and misogyny are sympathetic and relatable on their surface, but Ruth herself just wasn’t. “Little Deaths” is full of flat characters, and though Ruth’s stoicism is key to the novel’s plot and premise, it is delivered to such an extreme that it left me cold and unengaged. The only sympathetic characters are a flash in the narrative, come and gone in short shrift, literal victims to the plot. Flint has her protagonist playing a type – the ice queen who, we are told, has unknown depths. But if, through the entirety of the novel, those depths remain unknown and unbelievable, as they did here, what remains is a fairly hollow and forgettable story.

 

My Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist Hopefuls

Tomorrow, April 3rd, marks the announcement of the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize Shortlist. A mere 26 days after the longlist of 16 acclaimed works by women was announced, the nominees for this prestigious prize will be reduced to 6. I have made it through 14 of the 16 longlisters, with mixed impressions of the choices and a renewed confidence and excitement about the future of women’s writing. Were it up to me, these are the 6 nominees which I believe belong on the shortlist. Tomorrow will tell how my tastes compare to the judges panel.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry7679118-3x4-700x933
“The Essex Serpent” is a masterpiece of historical fiction. Perry writes a novel set 125 years ago that is alive and resonant today, a tale beautifully knotted like a centuries-old tree. Perry’s twists and turns manage to carry a multiplicity of timeless themes. Her story is about being true to one’s self, about the essential drive to find one’s place in this world. It is also about the power of myth, the enduring nature of love, and the eternal battle between the haves and the have-nots. This was one of the best books I read last year and I was thrilled at its appearance on the Baileys List.

9781783782666Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” is an elegantly crafted work which details the struggles and loves of three generations of a family in revolutionary China. Using gentle, artistic strokes which evoke the Chinese calligraphy she so often invokes, Thien gives shape and substance to life under Mao, through the cultural revolution, and after the atrocities in Tiananmen Square. Thien’s writing is spectacular. Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, this novel is breathtaking and memorable and belongs on the Baileys Short List.

The Power by Naomi Alderman41RUBuZRhZL
Naomi Alderman’s electrifying novel “The Power” is framed as a book within a book; it is an historical novel from thousands of years in the future. In a time ill-defined but not to distant from now, girls all over the world begin to discover that they have a power, an electrical charge from within which they can nurture and control to enormous effect. Slowly, powerfully, girls and women awaken their inner power and begin to resist the patriarchies which have dominated the world since time immemorial. Alderman’s dystopian vision is like quicksilver, mesmerizing and empowering, horrifying and disheartening. She turns the world on its head with such confidence and courage, taking the “what ifs” to their very extreme. “The Power” is brilliant and well deserving of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

51l9Yrs+SyLMidwinter by Fiona Melrose
Fiona Melrose’s debut novel “Midwinter” is aptly named. The titular characters are Landyn and Vale Midwinter, a father and son in rural Suffolk. But Midwinter isn’t just the surname of the main characters; it is the mood, the ambiance of the book. “Midwinter” is deeply quiet, starkly still like a midwinter’s day in a snow-filled wood. “Midwinter” is something special and unique, a pastoral look at family, love, guilt, and manhood, all from an eerily insider view that is, at least at some level, brilliantly contrived.  Melrose writes with beautiful simplicity; her story is bucolic but not naive. Reading “Midwinter” is like a restorative stay in a quiet, wooded cabin. Resplendent and refined.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill920x920
Pierrot and Rose are tragic, star-crossed lovers, abandoned as infants at the same Montreal orphanage in 1914. Rose is quixotic, balletic, and fearless, always unafraid to be herself and unquenchably curious about the world outside. Pierrot, on the other hand, is a drifter, a musician, and a bit of a cad. A naturally gifted pianist, Pierrot fumbles through life, ad libbing and vamping and, often, following the tides. “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” is an odyssey; it rends Rose and Pierrot apart and then painstakingly traces their labyrinthian paths back to one another. It is deeply dark and in some ways unrelentingly cynical, though the light of true love always flickers around the corner. It is full of gorgeously biting social commentary, particularly about the roles and rigors of women. What makes “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” most remarkable, however, is its hyperbolic, almost garish, use of similes. Heather O’Neill engages all of the readers’ senses through some of the most ingenious and original turns of simile I’ve ever encountered. She is the Queen of the Simile and “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” is a treasure trove.

31349579Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
“Stay with Me” is story of trust and deception, of deeply intertwined lives and the desperate love of motherhood. Yejide is a strong Nigerian woman, deeply in love with her husband Akin and desperate to become a mother. Motherhood is the ultimate goal and, to some, the soul purpose of being a woman. Through the eyes of Yejide and Akin, the reader is shown the heights and depths of a marriage. We see that both Yejide and Akin, in their desperation to cling together, stretch and bend and mar the truth, ultimately driving a wedge between them that seems too great to overcome. Aboyami Adebayo’s debut is brilliant. In it, Adebayo spins formidably complex emotional threads with clarity and simplicity. Her characters are beguiling and their heartaches are painfully real.

“Hag-Seed” by Margaret Atwood

“That devious, twisted bastard, Tony, is Felix’s own fault. Or mostly his fault. Over the past twelve years, he’s often blamed himself. He gave Tony too much scope, he didn’t supervise, he didn’t look over Tony’s nattily suited, padded, pinstriped shoulder. He didn’t pick up on the clues, as anyone with half a brain and two ears might have done. Worse: he’d trusted the evil-hearted, social-clambering, Machiavellian foot-licker.” 

Felix Phillips is a giant (at least in his own mind) of theater. The reigning artistic director of a hag_seed_5_17small town acting company, Felix is unceremoniously, traitorously ousted from his position by his protege, Tony, with a perfunctory “heart-felt thanks” and a security escort to his car.

“Creativity. Talent. The two most overused words in the business, Felix thought bitterly. And the three most useless things in the world: a priest’s cock, a nun’s tits, and a heart-felt vote of thanks.”

Felix finds himself untethered and persecuted. His narcissistic self pity is darkly comical. In his unwavering self-obsession, he ruminates on past wrongs done to him.

“His wife, Nadia, was the first to leave him, barely a year after their marriage….He was just discovering her virtues, just getting to really know her, when she’d died of a galloping staph infection right after childbirth.”

His wife’s tragic death was her leaving him.

As Felix flounders and wallows, spending years as a hermit in an abandoned cabin, he realizes – eureka – that he needs direction. “He required a focus, a purpose. He gave this much thought while sitting in his deck chair. Eventually he concluded that there were two things left for him – two projects that could still hold satisfaction.” These seedling projects are to finally stage his rendition of the Tempest, which was cruelly wrested from him in his ouster, and to exact revenge. Hijinks and drama inevitably ensue.

Margaret Atwood’s “Hag-Seed” is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project in which acclaimed modern authors retell Shakespearean classics. “Hag-Seed” is itself a retelling of the Tempest, and cleverly includes the play within the novel’s retelling – a narrative matryoshka doll, a play within a play. It is conceptually quite clever and is deftly written, with frequent moments of pithy humor and caustic wit.

I am undeniably a Margaret Atwood fan and find her works dark, original, and brilliant. Somehow, however, “Hag-Seed” lacks the emotion and the weight of most Atwood works. This book feels more superficial and polished, where her depth and grit are usually so prominent. It could be the atypical focus on writing male voices, the restrictions of working within an existing story framework, or perhaps the pressures of remaking Shakespeare, although her source material and her concept are robust. To me, there was just something lacking in the execution.”Hag-Seed” didn’t channel Atwood’s voice and passion, or at least it didn’t communicate them to me. In the end, this book read more like a movie script than an engaging novel, like it needed another medium to give it life. Not what I’ve come to expect from Atwood and, in my mind, not quite up to par for the Women’s Prize short list.

 

 

 

“The Dark Circle” by Linda Grant

Linda Grant, winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction for her novel “When I Lived in Modern 31830414Times”, is once again among those nominated for this esteemed prize, this time for her 2016 novel “The Dark Circle.” “The Dark Circle” tells the story of twins Lenny and Miriam, 19-year-olds who are inseparably, perhaps disturbingly, close. Lenny and Miriam are just beginning to find their way in the world of adults in post-WWII London. The two are scrappy, feisty, and full of life, fiercely devoted to one another and hopeful for their futures.

“[Lenny] only knew people who carried sacks of anxiety and neuroses and cynicism on their backs. Miriam was an outgoing extrovert but she still regarded the world as a place that needed to be tackled like a prize-fighter with two fists raised.”

Still living at home – and in fact sharing a room – the twins are under the heavy-handed, not always legitimate, influence and protection of their Uncle Manny, who feels the need to compensate for their parents.

“[Their] poor dad had done nothing for [them] except die before he could do much damage toiling over his religious books night and day in his junk shop in Stepney, and [their] mother was neither use nor ornament.”

When both Lenny and Miriam are diagnosed with tuberculosis, it is Uncle Manny who arranges for them to go to a countryside sanatorium for “the rest cure”, where they are instructed to surrender and be patient – no small task to these youngsters eager for life and adventure.

“Lenny’s main emotion since he’d been at the sanatorium was extreme boredom. Fear had subsided a while ago after the rough stabbing at his chest and the collapse of his lung. The tedium of days had numbed any sense of terror.”

In the ways of some isolated, manufactured collectives, the patients at the sanatorium form an odd community. Despite coming from extremely different circumstances and with little in common in the outside the world, they form deep connections to one another. Their time in the sanatorium – the months and even years of isolation and under-stimulation which make up the the majority of the book – marks them in an indelible way. They form friendships and loyalties that will span their lifetimes.

In a great sense, “The Dark Circle” is about extreme boredom, about extreme circumstances, and about the way these two forces can change one’s life forever. The characters are quixotic and charming, if not totally believable or fully formed. The story itself is fine and goes along fairly compellingly, but it has no real hook nor intrigue to keep a reader fully engaged. The final part of the book, in particular, is rather paltry. All of the story lines are tied up a little too neatly, making the ending shallow and cloying and the novel as a whole disappointing and forgettable. While there is nothing particularly wrong with the book, there is nothing outstanding, either, that merits its place among such an elite selection of extraordinary fiction.