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.

My Bailey's Women's Prize Shortlist

On Monday 7th April, the judges of the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction will announce their shortlist. Trying to second guest the books those five women will decide to put through to the second round of the prize is not my aim here – I would no doubt be wrong on several counts. However, having read sixteen of the longlisted books and partially read three (at the time of writing), were I to be one of the judges fighting for the books I love to be included, these are the six I’d be fighting for (click on the covers to read my reviews):

I was stunned to discover that the longlist included two of the best books I’ve ever read. Stunned because the older you become and the more you read, the less often a book is the ‘best’ book you’ve ever read. However, Americanah is an incredible book. It has a fresh, direct tone; its subject matter is intelligent and thoughtful but doesn’t detract from the love story at its core; it’s quite an achievement. The Lowland is a masterpiece. Skilfully written with carefully layered sentences and ideas of loss at its centre, it’s deeply affecting.

The Luminaries makes the list because it combines a cracking detective story with a interesting structure. When I reached the second half of the book, the plot and the decreasing length of the chapters meant I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.

Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing is another novel with an interesting structure – the present day story is told forward, while the past is presented to us in reverse. This leaves the reading feeling like a detective looking for the protagonist’s motive and being wrong-footed at several points.

Then I have two debuts: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is an incredible piece of literature. Again, the sentences are layered, although in this case they are staccato and dense – an odd juxtaposition that you have to completely immerse yourself in. This could have been a fairly straight-forward (although very grim) coming-of-age story but the style and structure transcend it. The Undertaking also transcends a genre, in this case, war fiction. Two things make this a good book as opposed to a good debut – the use of dialogue and the point of view. The novel’s mostly dialogue, not an easy thing to write, and it works; it’s snappy and clear, while leaving room for ambiguity of meaning. Point of view wise, this is a story of a family of Nazi sympathisers and a soldier in the battle of Stalingrad. Again, this was a book that felt fresh.

It’s worth pointing out here that of the nineteen longlisted books I’ve read (or partially read at the time of writing) there isn’t a bad one amongst them. I was going to post some ‘near misses’ too but I found myself wanting to post all of them. The full list of my reviews is here (hopefully this will be complete shortly); I’m sure there’s something there you’ll enjoy.

Now for the excitement of waiting for the actual shortlist…

 

(The only book I haven’t read any of is Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam as I want to read the whole trilogy.)

The Undertaking – Audrey Magee

‘I had no choice.’
‘We all have choices…’

Peter Faber is in need of a wife. The reason Peter Faber is in need of a wife is that he wants leave from the army. It is 1941 and the German push to take Stalingrad is underway.

Through a marriage bureau, Peter chooses Katharina Spinelli because he likes her hands. She has signed up to the bureau because

‘My mother said it would be a good idea. A bit of security, I suppose. The title of wife. Other girls are doing it.

As Peter says his vows in front of a chaplain and three drunk comrades, Katharina does the same, a thousand miles away in Berlin, in front of her parents. Her father approves of Peter – a soldier fighting on the front – while her mother wishes she’d married one of the other four men she was offered, ‘a doctor’s fat son’.

While Peter’s home on leave, Katharina’s father introduces him to Doctor Weinart, a member of the SS and one of Hitler’s inner circle. Weinart has Peter’s leave extended so Peter can join him rounding up Jews.

The following nights, he smashed soup tureens and china clocks, irritated that he had to leave Katharina to drag snivelling children from attics and cellars. He shouted and screamed at them, struck their legs and backs with the butt of his gun, slapped them across the face when they took too long moving down the stairs, more comfortable with howls of hatred than pleas for mercy.

Katharina was always waiting for him afterwards, always warm. On the seventh day, as the sun rose, he took a wide band of wedding gold from an old woman. Later he slipped it on his wife’s finger.

‘I need you, Katharina.’

Surprisingly for both Katharina and Peter, they find there’s real attraction between the two of them and when it’s Peter’s time to return to the front he is reluctant to go.

The story then divides in two as we follow Katharina and her family in Berlin and Peter and his unit on their journey to Stalingrad.

The Undertaking is mostly told in dialogue, the sentences simple, conveying just the amount of information needed. It’s a powerful technique which places the action directly in front of the reader and allows us to observe and make our own judgements.

By taking a detached tone, Magee shows her characters’ behaviour and attitudes without placing any authorial judgements on them; this makes for some uncomfortable moments. You would expect the sections that focus on Peter and his colleagues in Stalingrad to be grim – and they are, there are some incredibly upsetting events – but it was the goings on back in Berlin that made me squirm on several occasions.

I often think that both World Wars have had so many pages dedicated to them that there can’t be any more angles to take and again and again writers prove me wrong. Audrey Magee is the latest of those writers. The Undertaking is a powerful novel focused on two very unpleasant scenarios that destroy a family. I would be delighted to see it on the Bailey’s Women’s Prize shortlist.

Thanks to Atlantic Books for the review copy.