Baileys’ Prize for Fiction Longlist Three Book Round-Up

The House at the Edge of the World – Julia Rochester

61ui7zv3wul-_sy344_bo1204203200_

The book begins with the death of the narrator’s father: when she was eighteen, he fell off a cliff. He was pissing into the chine at Brock Tor on his way home from the pub and fell headlong drunk into the spring tide with his flies open. The novel then moves to discuss the narrator’s grandfather, Matthew (who, inexplicably, everyone refers to by his first name), how he came to own the land their house is built on and what he spends his days doing: mostly painting an enormous map. The book meanders through the family’s story – the mother, who is vile and the narrator, Morwenna, and her twin brother, Corwen, who are also vile. Eventually they start to wonder whether their father’s death might not have been an accident and begin to investigate.

Every year the Bailey’s Prize longlist throws up a couple of absolute gems and one book I really don’t get on with at all. Unfortunately, this falls into the latter category. It seemed to me that the characters were all horrible without real reason. They had conversations with each other that I didn’t find believable, they were so barefacedly nasty and self-absorbed. So self-absorbed that no one much seemed to care that the father had died and it took half of the book for anyone to decide they might want to investigate further. It did pick up pace here but the reveal as to what happened and why didn’t seem plausible to me either. Disappointing.

Gorsky – Vesna Goldsworthy

51fbvuklaol-_sx359_bo1204203200_

The story of the year in which the narrator, Nikola Kimović, a Serbian living in London and working in an independent bookshop on a backstreet between Kensington and Chelsea, has his life changed by Roman Borisovich Gorsky. Gorsky commissions Nick, as he’s known, to furnish the house he’s building with the best private library in Europe […] a library tailor-made for a Russian gentleman-scholar with an interest in art, literature and travel, and a flair for European languages; a library that would look as though Gorsky had acquired the books himself and read them over many years. Nick’s job also brings him into contact with Natalia and Tom Summerscale. Natalia, it’s revealed, is a former sweetheart of Gorsky’s and his flame still burns bright for her.

Gorsky, if you haven’t realised yet, is a re-working of The Great Gatsby, transported to a 21st Century London peopled with Russian oligarchs ripping out the interiors of Kensington town houses in order to put swimming pools and home cinemas in the basement. It’s a brave writer who takes on an iconic novel and, while Goldsworthy’s attempt is often a lot of fun, it falls short of the novel it takes as its inspiration. Where Fitzgerald’s novel is subtle, Goldsworthy’s is brash and vulgar. While this is clearly her point about the nature of the new money in London, I couldn’t help wishing for Fitzgerald’s more restrained portrayal.

Thanks to Chatto and Windus for the review copy.

The Improbability of Love – Hannah Rothschild

51jwhjcaxgl-_sy344_bo1204203200_

Annie McDee buys a painting in a junk shop as a birthday present for a man she’s been dating. When he fails to show up for dinner, she attempts to return the painting but discovers the shop’s burnt down with the proprietor in it. Her mother, Evie, who Annie has to collect from Paddington Police Station following one of her regular arrests for drunk and disorderly conduct, suggests it might be something special and that Annie should look into it. Whilst Annie does so, between working for the Winkleman’s (an art dealing family) as a chef and attending singles’ nights at art galleries, the reader is introduced to a huge cast of characters from the art world. Old money, new money, no money, wheeling, dealing, ducking and diving ensues. And then there’s the painting itself which Rothschild gives voice to, allowing it to relate its history – that of its conception and of its many notorious owners: One has rarely been owned by a person of no class or standing. I am not a snob; my master was hardly well-born, but a title suggests reassuring things like wealth, breeding and security. I have yet to meet a queen named Annie.

The Improbability of Love is a satirical look at the art world: who owns art, how they present themselves, if beauty can actually be bought. However, for me, satire has to be very sharply written for it to achieve its aims and this is where the novel falls short. Some of it’s good fun but the dialogue is often clunky; there’s a lot of exposition – the chapters told from the painting’s point-of-view are heavy on this; an overreliance on adverbs rather than describing how a character is feeling, and there’s a lot of repetition of key plot and character points. Entertaining but not the work of art it could’ve been.

Thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy.

0 thoughts on “Baileys’ Prize for Fiction Longlist Three Book Round-Up

  1. Interesting thoughts on these three. Polar opposite from you I absolutely loved the Julia Rochester. It’s snarky, witty, surprising and I liked all the myths around the edges.

    Gorsky I liked once I got rid of Gatsby, which I don’t actually think is great ha, and saw it as an insight into London now and the UKs relationship with Russia and Europe which is soooo topical.

    Alas the Rothschild I have put down and left for last (if at all) as clunky and cliched were the words. Those chapters told by the paintings 😱

    • Fascinating! The shadow panel response to the Rochester varied somewhat, I’m definitely the person who liked it the least.
      I couldn’t get rid of Gatsby. Although I’m not as enamoured with it as I know some people are, I’ve taught it often so know it really well which meant it was always present when I was reading.
      Haha, oh the Rothschild. I wanted it to be Jilly Cooperesque and I was so disappointed!

  2. I have the Rothschild and the other two are on my list but I think I may remove them now. Thanks so much for reading these so I don’t have to, Naomi!

  3. Oh thank God for your assessment of the Rothschild book. Bloody hell, that dialogue. I read to the end because the food descriptions were swoon-worthy, but the absolute lack of contractions was dire. (So much “I will do this” and “You do not understand that” and “There is not”. Did the editors at Bloomsbury even read it?)

    • Haha! Yes, the food sections were the parts where it came to life for me. I didn’t notice the lack of contractions until quite late on but then they really began to grate. I thought the whole thing needed a good dose of editing, it could’ve been half the size and better for it.

      • Yes! What is it with these unnecessarily roomy books? Nothing wrong with a big volume when it needs to be that size, but most of them don’t need to. (Interestingly, the paperback makes the book look smaller. I wonder if there’s a marketing reason for that.)

  4. Pingback: The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2016 | The Writes of Woman

  5. I agree wholeheartedly with your review of The Improbability of Love. I thought it was so badly written and I cannot believe it made the shortlist when writers of the calibre of Elizabeth Strout and Kate Atkinson have been left off. It makes a mockery of the Baileys Prize.