The Sport of Kings – C.E. Morgan

“Evolution is a ladder, and our aim is to climb it as quickly as possible.”

Those Forges are motherfucking nuts.

The Sport of Kings tells the story of four generations of the Forge family. It begins with a young Henry, running away from his father, John Henry, across the Kentucky corn fields which belong to their family. Henry’s in trouble, not for setting off a firecracker which killed the neighbouring farmer’s bull, but for lying to his father about it and embarrassing the family name. For their name, and the status which comes with it, is everything to the Forge family.

246289360

In the first chapter we’re told the family history, of Samuel Forge and his slave ‘who was called Ben but named Dembe by a mother he could not remember’ who travelled on horseback from Virginia to Kentucky and established the farm which seven generations of the family have born and died in by the time Henry Forge arrives in the world.

Henry’s raised and educated by his father – who won’t tolerate him attending school at a time when segregation is ending – to believe that he is superior to women, black people and poorly educated whites.

“What you don’t yet comprehend about women, Henry, is a great deal.” He stared at the cars as they flipped past. “I wouldn’t say that they’re naturally intellectually inferior, as the Negroes are. They’re not unintelligent. In fact, I’ve always found little girls to be as intelligent as little boys, perhaps more so. But women live a life of the body. It chains them to material things – children and home – and prevents them from striving towards loftier pursuits.”

Henry hates his father. His rebellion takes the form of declaring that when he inherits the farm, he’s going to abandon the corn and raise racehorses instead. His father forbids him but, of course, that has no bearing once someone’s dead.

The rest of the novel follows Henry as he raises a daughter – Henrietta (of course) – in the same manner that he would’ve raised a son. She is primed to take over the farm and continue the breeding of thoroughbreds. Henry, however, doesn’t account for two things: one, Henrietta is intelligent and feels trapped by her father’s overbearing nature, she has a wild streak and a desire for freedom, however she can find it. Two, Allmon Shaughnessy, the mixed-race, former convict, who Henrietta hires as a groom and falls in love with.

Morgan’s novel is ambitious. A family saga spanning several decades, which incorporates themes of lineage, breeding, class, gender and race. There’s a reasonably large cast of characters, some of whom last a few pages, others which span significant portions of the book. The structure means that the focus is primarily on the Forges, but the middle chapter is dedicated to Allmon’s childhood, a signifier that he will play a significant part in the Forge’s future.

Now Henry smiled a hard smile. His words were clipped, surly. “Why are you even here anyway? What do you want?”

With an almost inperceptible tilt of the head, as if he was honestly surprised by the question, Allmon said, “I want what you got.”

Henry’s scornful smile died. He drew himself up to his full height and said, “All my life, I’ve made my name. It’s the most valuable thing I have.”

“And I got the rest of my life to make mine.”

Without a pause: “You can’t make a name from nothing.”

We had quite a discussion about this book in the Baileys Shadow Panel forum. Eleanor applauded ‘just for the sheer fuck-you-ness of it’, particularly in reference to some of the eye-popping twists that Morgan pulls off. It’s difficult not to admire Morgan’s ambition; undoubtedly the book falls into the Great American Novel category and I’ll happily applaud any woman writer who throws her manuscript into that ring. However, aiming for something of that scope almost inevitably means there will be flaws. For me there are three key issues: the book’s too long; the novel really centres on the relationship between Henrietta and Allmon and the effect that has on Henry. The family backstory, which takes the first 90 pages, is interesting in its own right but, in terms of the elements which really effect the rest of the story, could’ve been incorporated into the rest of the narrative as and when necessary. The voice is inconsistent: every now and then Morgan throws in a section where the narrator talks to the reader. Often these sections point out the book’s flaws – prose too purple, characters acting too stereotypically, which is a risky strategy. Finally, the ending’s a little too neat. Morgan plays tight to her themes throughout the novel and the ending delivers in this sense but it’s all a bit too convenient.

Is it worth investing the time to read it? When it’s good The Sport of Kings is an absorbing read. Henrietta’s a fantastic character – she gives no fucks, metaphorically speaking – and Allmon’s story is an engaging, if grim, tale of a black boy raised in poverty and dealt a deliberately shitty hand by society. There are parallels with current issues around class, money, health care and police treatment of black people. My biggest disappointment was that, despite the feminist thread that runs through the novel, it would barely scrape through The Bechdel Test. Wouldn’t it be great if the Great American Novel didn’t have to be centred on the men to be seen as a success?

 

Thanks to 4th Estate for the review copy.

 

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist

sh_l0046-900x400

Here we are then, the official Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.

When I commented on the longlist, the word of the night was wow and it’s the same again.

Wow: some big names and popular books have gone.

Wow: there are four titles in common with our Shadow Panel shortlist.

Wow: If you’re only reading the shortlist you’ve an absolute set of treats in store (although I implore you to read the longlist, it’s full of brilliant books).

Here’s my reviews of the shortlisted books:

Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

The Power – Naomi Alderman

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

The Sport of Kings – C. E. Morgan

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Do Not Say We Have Nothing –  Madeleine Thien

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shadow Panel Shortlist

screen-shot-2017-02-26-at-20-31-51

A month ago, when the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was announced, I commented on what an exceptional year it had been for writing by women. This is supported by both the reading we’ve done and the discussions we’ve had as a shadow panel. There have been some heated debates about some of the books and some that every one of us felt should be included on our shortlist but, for the first time since I began shadowing this prize with a panel, there wasn’t a single book that we didn’t think worthy of its inclusion on the longlist. This is the fifth year I’ve shadowed this prize and this has been, without question, the strongest longlist I’ve seen.

I preface our chosen shortlist with these remarks because I want to make a case for every single one of the 16 books that make up the longlist. Whether they’ve made our shortlist or not and whether or not they make the official shortlist tonight, there are 16 books by women worthy of your time.

One of the things that infuriates me about so-called ‘women’s fiction’ (as if somehow fiction written by women is gendered while fiction written by men is not) is the idea that it is concerned with the domestic sphere. The 16 books which make up the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist 2017 cover politics, science, ecology, farming, horse breeding/racing, crime, prisons, acting, music, writing, race, medicine, sex, drugs, performance, religion, violence, love, family, gender, marriage, parenting, death, grief, abuse and friendship. I defy anyone to look at the list and say there isn’t a single book on it that doesn’t interest them. Indeed, if you’re a man who doesn’t read books by women, there’s one here to get you started. Or, if you know a man who doesn’t read books by women, buy the one you know that’ll get him hooked – tear the cover and front pages off if you have to – and present him with it.

Here, then, are the six books we’ve chosen to shortlist. They’re not the six I thought we’d select when the list was announced, but now we’ve read them all, they’re the six that – as a panel – we felt most strongly about. If you click on the cover, it will take you to my review. You can read Eleanor’s reviews here and Eric’s here. Thanks also to Antonia and Meera. We’ll announce our winner on Tuesday 6th June, the day before the official winner is crowned.

31349579methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2ff48fd942-916d-11e6-91d4-91c7eaaf09d6

page_151mmlvb41el-_sx325_bo1204203200_

978178378266651jxql7zxfl-_sy344_bo1204203200_

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017


It’s after midnight and I’m on a train, typing this on my phone. The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017 has just been announced and my initial thought is: wow.

Wow that books I loved and hoped would be on the list are there: Midwinter by Fiona Melrose; The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry; The Power by Naomi Alderman; Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyo; First Love by Gwendoline Riley; The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride; Little Deaths by Emma Flint.

Wow that I predicted seven of the list – my highest score ever.

Wow that there are 16 books, rather than the promised 12. It shows that the past 12 months have been exceptional for writing by women. However, with just over three weeks until the shortlist announcement, it does make things challenging for the Shadow Panel.

And wow that Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi isn’t on the list. Every year this prize misses an exceptional book and this is a stunning omission, made all the more noticeable when there are only three books by women of colour on a list of sixteen.

The list in full. I’ve linked to my reviews for those I’ve already covered and will add to this as I read the rest:

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyo

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

The Mare – Mary Gaitskill

Barkskins – Annie Proulx

The Power – Naomi Alderman

Little Deaths – Emma Flint

The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso

Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood

The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

Midwinter – Fiona Melrose

The Sport of Kings – C.E. Morgan