Category: Bailey’s Prize

“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.

 

“The Lonely Hearts Hotel” by Heather O’Neill

“There is no love without fury. There is no beauty without ugliness.”

920x920Pierrot and Rose are tragic, star-crossed lovers, abandoned as infants at the same Montreal orphanage in 1914. Raised in a loveless, colorless world, Rose and Pierrot both shine. O’Neill has described them as “Edward Gorey drawings, where their tragedies are poems”.  They are loved by all of the children in the orphanage and destined for one another. Rose is quixotic, balletic, and fearless, always unafraid to be herself and unquenchably curious about the world outside.

“Sister Eloise didn’t like how other girls paid attention to [Rose]. She was adored for being creative and witty, which was not right, in the nun’s estimation – she strongly believed that girls should be admired only for being good. She hated that Rose was trying to better herself intellectually, something that a girl had no business doing.”

As she get older, her enigmatic personality only grows.

“She certainly seemed crazy. But she simultaneously made them think that there was nothing in the world wrong with being a crazy girl. And that maybe the world needed a couple more crazy girls.”

Rose believes herself to be, at heart, a clown. Not a silly, birthday party character, but a clown in the maudlin, theatrical way of Cirque du Soleil. She sees the world through surrealist glasses, her sense of life and morality shaped by some internal force and oblivious to external mores.

“‘I think clowns feel the consequences of things more than other people do,’ said Rose. ‘We clowns are larger than life. We hold a microscope up to things. I think if you want to be a better artist, you have to be a better person. How else would you be able to express innocence – which is what every clown is after?'”

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. He has little agency, it seems. To those he meets as a young adult, he is clearly a no-account, prone to excess and laziness.

“The girls who worked as servants at the house or in the neighborhood knew that Pierrot was a fool. They knew that if they hooked up with him, they would be miserable and looking after their children on their own and living off charity for the rest of their lives….Pierrot didn’t impress them. They didn’t think he had the sophisticated language of an intellectual. They thought he had the mellifluous tongue of a hustler.”

But Rose is devoted to him, and Pierrot’s one constant is his love for Rose. Since they were young children, they have been inextricably bound to one another. They are loyal in their hearts and constant in the love they hold for one another, even when separated by geography and other love interests for years on end.

“Perhaps it might be best to let her go. But thinking and obsessing about her allowed him to block out any other memory of the orphanage. It was as though she were the only thing that had ever happened in his childhood. The thought of her climbed and twisted around each of this thoughts like a rosebush.”

“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. To the nuns running the orphanage and, likely, to the neighborhoods at large, it is clear who is at fault for all of these abandoned children.

“These girls had thrown their whole lives away just to have five lovely minutes on a back staircase. Now, with strangers living in their bellies, they had been sent into hiding by their parents, while the young fathers went about their business, riding bicycles and whistling in the bathtub. That’s what this building had been established for. Out of a great kindness for these miserable wenches.”

To the gangsters and toughs, women are an accessory, a commodity that indicates your worth.

“You were contractually, legally bound to wives. They often changed their personality and physical appearance after having children. You never quite knew who you were marrying when you got married. Sometimes your wife turned out to be a dud, and there wasn’t really anything you could do about it. She might have looked from the outside like somebody attractive and easygoing but then became ugly. But a girlfriend was a different matter because she was someone you could update and change. She reflected the type of girl you could get on that day, at that hour. Everyone always knew that mistresses were only interested in your wealth and status, so they were your price tag, so to speak. They were like flashy cars, or incredibly expensive suits.”

And to the society as a whole, women are clearly ‘helpmeets’, not heroines.

“Everyone kept trying to make it clear to Rose that nobody really cared about what a girl had to say. She wasn’t supposed to have radical and clever ideas. She was just supposed to try to vaguely follow what men were on about. They were supposed to bounce ideas off her as if they were playing racquetball. It was a more or less pleasant way of speaking to one’s self. It was important to be a little bit stupid as a woman. It was important not to feel proud of yourself.”

O’Neill has Rose charging through all of these stereotypes, shattering all expectations and forging her own path.

What makes “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” most remarkable, however, is its hyperbolic, almost garish, use of similes. Sometimes there are whole paragraphs of similes strung delicately together, each a gem attractive in its own right and stunning when carefully curated with its companions. If you were averse to figurative language and were wont to excise all of this work’s similes, you would likely cut the book by half. But you would also lose its soul. The figurative language isn’t decorative; it isn’t ancillary. It IS this book. 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. I will leave you with just a small sampling of that brilliance.


O’Neill’s Simile Garden

  • “Colors began appearing everywhere on what had previously been a white page. The blossoms were like underwear blown  off the laundry lines. The orchids hung over the cast-iron gates like girls in just their petticoats yelling at the postman for a letter. And they continued to tour into the fall, when all the leaves were the colorful candy wrappers, leftover from the very sweet days of summer.”
  • “All the bruises blooming like violets. All the bruises like storm clouds. The little beads of sweat like raindrops on her nose. All her bruises spreading out like the tip of a pen touching a wet cloth.”
  • “The mop in the bucket made the sound of a pig rooting for truffles.”
  • “The soft sound of the rain on the rooftop sounded like young girls sneaking off in stockings to elope.”
  • “He kept knocking his head against the wall as though it were a boiled egg whose shell he wanted to crack open.”
  • “[The letter] lay at the bottom of the basket like butterflies that had died during a sudden frost.”
  • “As it grew late into the night, the flowers dropped forward on their stems, like girls who had fallen asleep on a church pew.”
  • “The flowers looked all tousled, like children who had been awakened by a fire alarm in the middle of the night.”
  • “The pinecones lay on the grass around them, like cigar butts the gods had discarded.”
  • “When the tailor was done, there was a pile of measuring tape on the ground as if a mummy had just performed a striptease.”
  • “When he lit up the thin cigarette, it made a slight sizzling noise, like the sound of a writer’s manuscript being tossed into the fire.”

“Midwinter” by Fiona Melrose

Fiona Melrose’s debut novel “Midwinter”, longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for 51l9Yrs+SyLFiction, 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.

Vale Midwinter is a twenty-year-old man living with his widowed father on their family homestead, roiling and seething in a private world of angst and anger. More than ten years after his mother’s death, Vale still has pent-up rage and blame for his father and the responsibility Vale places on him for his mother’s murder.

“Sometimes I just got angry when I should have been worried or upset. It was like I only knew one way to feel stuff.”

Vale’s life-long solace, his way of burning off steam, is to disappear on long walks through the hills and vales of his family’s land. Even as a young boy, his parents quickly recognize the importance of allowing Vale this freedom to disappear, to walk off his anger. It is the only way Vale seems able to cope with emotions and inner turmoil, the only time he feels truly free.

“Sometimes when I got back in the house after being out and free, I felt the air was too heavy and the rooms too small for breathing. Out in the fields, you could walk until your legs stopped caring where they took you. Inside there is always something to bump into. Pa doesn’t seem to mind, but then he’s much more quiet in himself.”

Landyn, in truth, does seem to be more quiet in himself. Though he alludes to instances of past fury, is an exceptionally calm, sturdy, and gentle man. His quietude and isolation don’t at all connote an aloofness nor a lack of empathy, however. He is deeply empathic and insightful, able to see and respect the soul and hurt of animals and people alike. When Vale and his best friend Tom are endangered by their own drunken stupidity and bravado, it is Landyn, as always, who sees through the mess of guilt and hurt and quietly implores Vale to come correct.

“‘Son, you need to go to Tom. I know I have no place telling you what to do. I know you won’t ever trust me to know right from wrong and this way from that ever again. If that’s how it is then that’s how it is. But listen to me when I say, that boy needs you now. For everything that’s going on in you there’s as much going on in him. He’s your brother, son. He is that. If you think I’m a rotten old arse of a father then you need to look at the one he’s got and know that however lonely you are he’s as much and more.'”

The introvertedness, the quietude and gentle nature, the unequivocal masculinity of “Midwinter”, all at the hands of a deeply talented female writer, are breathtaking.”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.

“Stay with Me” by Ayobami Adebayo

“I had expected them to talk about my childlessness. I was armed with millions of smiles. Apologetic smiles, pity-me smiles, I-look-unto-God smiles – name all the fake smiles needed to get through an afternoon with a group of people who claim to want the best for you while poking at your open sore with a stick – and I had them ready. I was ready to listen to them tell me I must do something about my situation. I expected to hear about a new pastor I could visit; a new mountain where I could go to pray; or an old herbalist in a remote village or town whom I could consult. I was armed with smiles for my lips, an appropriate sheen of tears for my eyes and sniffles for my my nose. I was prepared to lock up my hairdressing salon throughout the coming week to go in search of a miracle with my mother-in-law in tow. What I was not expecting was another smiling woman in the room, a yellow woman with a blood-red mouth who grinned like a new bride.”

31349579Yejide 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.

“‘Have you ever seen God in a labour room giving birth to a child? Tell me, Yejide, have you seen God in the labour ward? Women manufacture children and if you can’t you are just a man. Nobody should call you a woman.'”

Yejide has tried everything – prayers, potions, promises – to no avail. And though she has internalized the belief that she MUST have a baby to truly be a woman, and though she comes from a polygamous family, Yejide is still blindsided when she is presented one day with her husband’s second wife. Mouth agape, heart aching, Yejide decides that the only way she can “save” her marriage is to finally get pregnant, at any cost. The ultimate cost to her life, her marriage, and her sense of self, however, is more than she could ever have imagined.

“Stay with Me” is story of trust and deception, of deeply intertwined lives and the desperate love of motherhood. Through the eyes of Yejide and Akin, the reader is shown the heights and depths of a marriage. Adebayo plays with the rules of engagement.

“[W]hat would be left of love without truth stretched beyond its limits, without those better versions of ourselves that we present as the only ones that exist?”

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. The love and loss and heartache of this couple’s struggles wear them, and the reader, down. Yejide begins to close herself off from the world; “I was not strong enough to love when I could lose again…”

“Stay with Me” is set within conflict and tumult in Nigeria, during the turbulent 80s and political upheaval. Though hints and whispers of this environment are dropped throughout the course of the novel, their incidence feels extraneous. I suppose the turmoil of the region is meant to mirror that of the protagonists’ marriage, but its connection to the story feels tenuous, almost as though it were overlaid as an afterthought, not woven deeply into the narrative. Other Nigerian writers, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in “Half A Yellow Sun”, have perhaps captured more adeptly the urgency of the moment and its indelible impact on everyday lives. That said, 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.

“The Power” by Naomi Alderman

“The shape of power is always the same; it is the shape of a tree. Root to tip, central trunk branching and re-branching, spreading wider in ever-thinner, searching fingers. The shape of power is the outline of a living thing straining outward, sending its fine tendrils a little further, and a little further yet.” 

41RUBuZRhZLNaomi 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.

“The younger women can wake it up in the older ones; but from now on all women will have it.”

Through the alternating, interwoven stories of Allie, Margot, Roxy, and Tunde, “The Power” traces the way in which the world reacts as women gain and exert their power. In this dystopian future, it is the men who are afraid.

“There was a time that a woman could not walk alone here, not if she were under seventy, and not with certainty even then. There had been protests for many years, and placards, and shouted slogans. These things rise up and afterwards it is as if it had never been. Now the women are making what they call ‘a show of force’, in solidarity with those who were killed under the bridges and starved of water.”

Allie is a battered and bruised teenager, bounced from one abusive foster home to the next, harboring her hatred and vengeance with quiet calm.

“Nothing special has happened today; no one can say she was more provoked than usual. It is only that every day one grows a little, every day something is different, so that in the heaping up of days suddenly a thing that was impossible has become possible. This is how a girl becomes a grown woman. Step by step until it is done.”

Within a short time, women’s movements – protests and rebellions – are sweeping the world. Allie is one of the first, but certainly not the only, girls to strike out with her new found power. Roxy, too, has a traumatic childhood, but this daughter of a powerful gangster soon reveals that she may be the most powerful woman on earth. Margot has political ambitions, and she harnesses the tide of female power to carry her to greater heights. And then there is Tunde, a young opportunist whose first hand video footage of some of these world events converts him into a front-line journalist of this cataclysmic change. For all of the characters, there is a constant balancing act about when and how to use their powers, but there is also a common understanding.

“It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.

I have such a love/hate relationship with dystopian novels, probably because my dark and twisty inner thoughts don’t need much encouragement to despair over the future of humanity. Be that as it may, “The Power” is the perfect case for why dystopian novels thrive and why I will continue to devour and be devoured by them. 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. Her writing is Atwood-esque in all the best ways. “The Power” is brilliant and well deserving of its nomination for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

“There is a part in each of us which holds fast to the old truth: either you are the hunter or you are the prey. Learn which you are. Act accordingly. Your life depends upon it.”


Bonus excerpt that is eerily prescient and extra cringeworthy:

“It’s only after the exit polls that they start to think something might be wrong, and even then – I mean they can’t be this wrong. But they can. It turns out the voters lied. Just like the accusations they always throw at hard-working public servants, the goddamned electorate turned out to be goddamned liars themselves. They said they respected hard work, commitment and moral courage. They said that the candidate’s opponent had lost their vote the moment she gave up on reasoned discourse and calm authority.”

“First Love” by Gwendoline Riley

“Considering one’s life requires a horribly delicate determination, doesn’t it? To get to the truth, to the heart of the trouble. You wake and your dreams disband, in a mid-brain void. At the sink, in the street, other shadows crowd in: dim thugs (they are everywhere) who’d like you never to work anything out.”

“First Love” is an introspective novel featuring characters almost totally lacking in 1000x2000-2introspection. It follows the foibles, fights, and follies of Neve, a writer who has recently married Edwyn, a rather disturbed older man whose hate for humanity generously includes his new bride. Neve seems adrift, her story wending its haphazard way through a life of condemning her mother’s relationships while, predictably, emulating them.

“I’m very glad my mother left my father, of course, but as I got older it did get harder to valorize that flight. This cover-seeking – desperate, adrenalized – had constituted her whole life as far as I could see. In avoidance of any reflection, thought. In which case her leaving him was a result of the same impulse that had had her hook up with him in the first place. Not to think, not to connect: marry an insane bully. Simper at him. Not to be killed: get away from him.”

She criticizes her mother’s lack of insight while unwittingly following the same path. Just like her mother, the men Neve seeks out seem vicious and cruel, her connections with others tenuous.

“It must be a dreadful cross: this hot desire to join in with people who don’t want you. This need to burrow in. But, then – perhaps I’m not one to talk.”

Neve flashes the reader a secret smile, giving us hope that she may have insight after all.

“Finding out what you already know. Repeatingly. That’s not sane, is it? And while he might have said that this was how he was, for me it continued to be frightening, panic-making, to hear the low, pleading sounds I’d started making, whenever he was sharp with me. This wasn’t how I spoke. (Except it was.) This wasn’t me, this crawling, cautious creature. (Except it was.) I defaulted to it very easily. And he let me.”

The characters of “First Love” are vile, hateful, even toxic. The venom they share (and sometimes to seek) is reminiscent of the destructive couple trapped in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. And like Albee’s stomach-turning tale, Riley’s “First Love” is extremely well written, carved with a finely honed blade that tolerates no fat and engenders no pity. It features a volatile marriage which occupies the “now” in a story filled with traumatic memories and scar tissue. A nominee for the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, “First Love” is merciless and lean and, thank goodness, can be read in one uncomfortable sitting.

“The Gustav Sonata” by Rose Tremain

Gustav Perle is the only child of Emilie Perle, an embittered widow full of resentment for her past and scorn for her present. Gustav is raised to be stoic and content, never allowed to show emotion or desire. When he meets Anton Zwiebel in kindergarten, the two form a silent yet impenetrable bond, though Frau Perle is openly scornful and displeased with Gustav having befriended a Jew, “‘the people [his] father died trying to save.'”

The-Gustav-SonataGustav is deeply, unrewardingly devoted to his mother; “At the age of five, Gustav Perle was certain of only one thing: he loved his mother.” This statement, which opens the novel, is a poignant and inauspicious beginning, given that Gustav’s mother Emilie is nothing if not ambivalent about his very existence. In fact, Emilie is fairly ambivalent about all existence. At her happiest, Emilie preferred to close her ears and eyes to the troubles of the world around her.

“She knows that, sometimes, when a great storm appears on the horizon, it doesn’t break, but gradually moves away and is forgotten She hopes that all the rumours people are spreading about German aggression will subside – like the storm that never breaks – and everything and everyone will be left in peace.”

With a mother coldly indifferent to the world and rigidly aloof from her only son, Gustav manages to be a kind and considerate, if reserved, man. It is only in later life that he sees some connection between his temperament and the way he was raised.

“Although Emilie Perle had schooled him well in how to love without being loved in return, he could now see how this state of lovelessness had made him obsessive in his quest for superficial order and control.”

His need for order prevents him from seeking happiness, from speaking or acting on his own behalf or imposing in any way on others. He is more numb than unhappy, and that numbness radiates out, creating a gray haze around the entire novel. Rose Tremain’s “The Gustav Sonata” is a deeply quiet, somber story of friends thrown together as young boys in post-war Switzerland and bound for life by indescribable ties. It is a soft-spoken, character novel, a story of grays and beiges, with little to really stand out or leave a lasting impression.