The Bailey's Prize – A Guide to the Shortlist

The Bailey’s Prize is announced this week. At this point the only thing that’s certain is the five judges are going to have a tough time choosing a winner; the shortlist is exceptional. Here’s my guide to the six remaining books (if you click on the covers it’ll take you to the full reviews):

 

Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze’s enduring love but also a tale of racial inequality and the West’s racial narrative.

Best for: A new perspective and a cracking love story.

Any flaws? I loved it so but I could see why people might find it slightly too long.

 

 

 

Burial Rites is a fictionalised version of the story of Agnus Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland.

Best for: Incredible descriptions of the Icelandic scenery; giving a voice to a marginalised woman.

Any flaws? The conversations Agnus has with the Reverend Thorvadar become an expositional device towards the end.

 

 

The Lowland is the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, and their lives. Initially the action takes place in Calcutta and then moves to America. There is also a third character, a woman, Gauri, who becomes central as the novel progresses.

Best for: Incredible layered prose that builds into something spectacular.

Any flaws? A slow starter.

 

 

The Undertaking tells the story of Peter Faber and Katharina Spinelli’s marriage. It’s 1941 and Peter is a soldier fighting at Stalingrad. Katharina is the daughter of a family of Nazi sympathisers.

Best for: The dialogue is superb; the viewpoint is unflinching and relates without condemning.

Any flaws? It’s grim, oh so very very grim.

 

 

 

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is a coming-of-age tale of an unnamed Irish girl who tells her story to her younger brother who is dying from a brain tumour.

Best for: Fragmented prose which builds images in an almost poetic way. It’s like nothing you’ve read before.

Any flaws? It’s grim; the darkest book on the list. It will leave you broken.

 

 

The Goldfinch is Theodore Decker’s story following his mother’s death in a terrorist bombing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It follows him through New York, Vegas and Amsterdam along with the painting from which the book takes its name and Theo takes from the museum.

Best for: A cracking good yarn you can immerse yourself in.

Any flaws? The ending’s ludicrous.

 

The Winner? For me, it has to be Americanah; it’s an incredible book – a book that changed my perspective while making me will the lovers on.

However, if I was in the judging room and forced to compromise, The Lowland and A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing would be my alternative choices.

The Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction Shortlist

It’s here! The six shortlisted books are:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah

Hannah Kent – Burial Rites

Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland

Audrey Magee – The Undertaking

Eimear McBride – A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

(Click the titles for links to my reviews.)

First thought: Oh my goodness, no The Luminaries followed by yessssssss for Americanah and The Undertaking. Four of my wishlist are on, including the two that for me had to be there. Very much looking forward to the debate over these six for the next few weeks.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

They said I must die. They said that I stole breath from men, and now they must steal mine.

Agnus Magnúsdóttir was the last woman to be executed in Iceland; Burial Rites is a fictional account of her story, based on – and incorporating – existing documentation.

Magnúdóttir was found guilty, along with Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir of the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson at Natan’s farm. Agnus and Sigrídur worked for him; Fridrik did odd jobs, helping the women when Natan was away, and was engaged to Sigrídur.

The novel begins with Agnus being moved to Kornsá, to the house of Jón Jónsson, a District Officer, a house he shares with his wife Margrét and their daughters, Lauga and Steina. The decision to place her in their home has been made by Björn Blöndal, District Commissioner:

…I decided they should be placed on farms, homes of upright Christians, who would inspire repentance by good example, and who would benefit from the work these prisoners do as they await their judgement.

This is an unsatisfactory arrangement for them but the family need the compensation that will be paid for the task.

Part of the novel is seen from the family’s point of view; we see how Agnus’ presence affects them and the way they are viewed by other residents of the area. But we are also privy to Agnus’ thoughts and to those of a priest, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur.

Reverend Thorvadar Jónsson is chosen by Agnus to be her spiritual guide for her remaining days; she selected him after recalling him showing her kindness on a rural path some years earlier. Kent uses him to allow Agnus to talk about her childhood and some of the events leading to the murders.

The most interesting voice though is the one Kent gives to Agnus who is allowed to speak to us in first person:

If I speak, it will be in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves. They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.

There’s much that I liked about the novel – the way Kent evokes the isolation of the Icelandic countryside; the juxtaposition of the accepted view of Agnus’ behaviour and personality with the Agnus the reader sees; the emotive (without being overblown) writing in the chapter when Agnus is led to her death. However, I did have a couple of issues that, while not enough to ruin my enjoyment of the book, are significant enough to discuss. Firstly, the use of Reverend Thorvadar as someone for Agnus to tell her story to began well but in the later stages of the novel seemed to become merely a device rather than a realistic conversation and secondly, the book being based on real events seemed to restrict it as a work of fiction. That might sound like an odd thing to say but if you’re being brought back to the fact it’s a fictionalised account, the treatment of it’s not keeping you immersed in the story.

I’d been looking forward to reading Burial Rites – many people whose opinions I trust rate it highly – and although it didn’t work for me as well as I’d hoped it would, I do think Hannah Kent’s a good writer and I look forward to reading her next book.

The Bailey's Women's Fiction Prize Longlist 2014

Well it’s after midnight and I’m bleary eyed but here it is, the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize longlist for 2014.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah

Margaret Atwood – MaddAddam

Suzanne Berne –  The Dogs of Littlefield

Fatima Bhutto – The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

Claire Cameron –  The Bear

Lea Carpenter – Eleven Days

M.J. Carter – The Strangler Vine

Eleanor Catton – The Luminaries

Deborah Kay Davies – Reasons She Goes to the Woods

Elizabeth Gilbert – The Signature of All Things

Hannah Kent – Burial Rites

Rachel Kushner – The Flamethrowers

Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland

Audrey Magee – The Undertaking

Eimear McBride – A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing

Charlotte Mendelson – Almost English

Anna Quindlen – Still Life with Bread Crumbs

Elizabeth Strout – The Burgess Boys

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

Evie Wyld – All The Birds, Singing

First thoughts: I’ve got a lot of reading to do! I’ve read and reviewed seven: The Luminaries, The Flamethrowers, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, Still Life with Breadcrumbs, The Burgess Boys, The Goldfinch and All the Birds, Singing. Am particularly thrilled for Eimear McBride, Anna Quindlen and Evie Wyld. I also think The Burgess Boys has been hugely underrated in the UK, so it will be wonderful to see Elizabeth Strout get the recognition she deserves.

As for the rest, Americanah, Burial Rites, The Lowland and Almost English were already high on my review pile. I have copies of The Signature of All Things and Maddaddam, although Maddaddam’s terrifying me – I love Margaret Atwood’s writing but it’s the third part of a trilogy of which I’ve read nothing and I don’t want to read the end before the beginning. I might have to hide for a long weekend to read that one!

The Dogs of Littlefield, The Bear and Eleven Days were also already on my radar and I’m really looking forward to those.

That leaves four I’ve never heard of, which is exactly what I was hoping for.

As ever, I’ll be linking my reviews on this page as I add to them. I’m excited as to what the next month of reading brings.