I managed to finish reading the six books shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction on Monday, the night before going to a reading by the authors at the Southbank Centre. (It is hard to believe all the doom and gloom about books as the event was sold out even before the list was announced).
It is appropriate that Eimear McBride won the Goldsmiths Prize for the “fiction at its most novel” as the book is unlike anything I have ever read. The book begins with the girl as a “poke belly of baby” in the womb before she is even formed :
"For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me ? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day."
The voice is as hard to forget as the events in the girl’s life - growing up with “you”, her brain-damaged older brother, being physically abused by her mother and then sexually abused by her uncle when she is 13. The voice is as fractured as the damaged teenager and just as she gets older, but never forms into a whole woman, the language never falls into normality. I am rooting for McBride for her originality and for emerging as a fully-formed novelist in first book.
In contrast Donna Tartt’s book is the 21st-century equivalent of a melodramatic Dickensian novel - an adult hero narrates his life growing up as an orphan after his mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum and his father dies in a car crash, he falls in love with an unattainable girl and meets a modern day Russian Artful Dodger who turns out to be one of his great friends.
The Goldfinch was my favourite on the shortlist until I read McBride. Tartt maintains the tension of a page-turning thriller over more than 800 pages while combining this with beautiful bullets of prose. For example, at the start of the book she compares the winter light in Amsterdam to
a chilly tone of 1943, privation and austerities, weak tea without sugar and hungry to bed.
and a hotel room to
a model of the Netherlands in miniature: whitewash and Protestant probity, co-mingled with deep-dyed luxury brought in merchant ships from the East.
She explores themes of family, friendship, love, loss, art and beauty:
And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life dies not; and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.
This novel has managed to find that magical place.
Burial Rites has a special place in my heart as I read the book when I was in Iceland searching for the Northern Lights. Kent masterfully imagines the last months in the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person in Iceland to be executed for murder in 1830:
They said I must die. They said I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away in a grey wreath of smoke. I will vanish into the air and the night. They will blow us all out, one by one, until it is their own light by which they see themselves. Where will I be then ?
One of the characters in the book says there is a difference between knowing what a person has done and knowing who a person is. Kent has filled that gap with a skilfully created flesh and blood woman.
The title of Ifemelu’s anonymous blog in Americanah sums up the appeal of the book:
Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.
In one post she addresses her fellow Non-American Blacks:
Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America. you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t “black” in your country? You’re in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the Society of Former Negroes.
Adichie wryly and acutely captures the homesickness, “the cement in her soul” of migration, both legal and illegal, from Nigeria to the US and the UK, and more surprisingly, the pressures on those who return after they become black. As Ngozi Adichie explained after her reading, when she left Nigeria to study in America and went back after four years, Nigeria had not waited for her. A book that provokes questions about home and identity.
The Lowland also deals with migration, but this time of Indians to the US:
But he was no longer in Tollygunge. He had stepped out of it as he had stepped so many mornings out of dreams, its reality and its particular logic rendered meaningless in the light of day.
The difference was so extreme that he could not accommodate the two places together in his mind. In this enormous new country, there seemed to be nowhere for the old to reside. There was nothing to link them; he was the sole link. Here life ceased to obstruct or assault him. Here was a place where humanity was not always pushing, running, running as if with a fire at its back.
Lahiri focuses on a much smaller canvas than Adichie as she concentrates on a couple, their marriage and their child and skillfully shifts your sympathy amongst the three. Like life, the novel doesn’t provide any easy answers and like life, questions whether we can ever escape our past.
The Undertaking is the first novel I have read about Germans in the Second World War. It is also one of the rare war novels that shows the impact on the families left behind, especially the women, as much as on the soldiers at the front.
Magee does not shy way from any horrors, perpetrated both by the Russian and German soldiers, but also the civilians. The German family move into a much larger apartment without asking too many questions:
"What are we taking from here?" asked Katharina. "Plates? Cutlery? Saucepans?"
"Only saucepans. The rest they leave behind. They are allowed only one suitcase. What remains is for us."
"Where have they gone?"
"I don’t know. East, I think. Out, anyway. Here, take this."
Magee also does not shy away from the aftermath of the war, and whether survival depends on avoiding the truth by leaving questions unanswered.