Tag Archives: family life

Folio Season: The Final Roundup

Family LifeWell, I feel a bit bereft now that the Folio Season is over, and I have to go back to picking books to read for myself. But one major silver lining comes with the news the committe has picked a terrific winner for the Folio Prize 2015: Family Life, by Akhil Sharma (Faber UK/Norton US). I read this book last June, long before the nominees list came out, and am absolutely delighted that it’s won this prize. It’s a brilliant, mercilessly compact novel – the other story building up around it is the account of its taking Sharma 13 years and endless drafts to compose what is, in its final version, a book barely 200 pages long. (Sharma’s UK editor at Faber, Lee Brackstone, writes that he saw some 3,000 pages’ worth of various versions over the years.) It’s that wonderful thing, a short novel that seems to enlarge itself before your eyes (and mind) as you read: a saga in miniature, a very personal, semiautobiographical family story that blooms into something universal. It’s moving, funny, and Sharma’s writing always puts incident and character ahead of showy prose – which is not to say that Family Life isn’t also beautifully written. I can’t wait to reread this brilliant, subtle prizewinner.

That’s it – until the 2016 nominees list gets announced, anyway. There’s an index to my reviews and notes on all eighty books on the dedicated Folio Prize page (click here, or on the title bar at the head of this page.)

If you’ve enjoyed reading my experiment in Folio fiction, please consider purchasing my novel The Glasgow Coma Scale, available online from Foyles, Wordery, Amazon.co.uk, Waterstones.com, and all good bookshops.

Things I’ve learned from the project:
– World War One and World War Two remain popular topics for novelists. Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North seems to me the standout among the Folio nominees that fall into this category, for bringing new information (about the ‘Death Railway’) – but I wonder if my conclusion is coloured by knowing that he’s telling his father’s story and therefore the ‘novel of research’ tag/insult doesn’t apply so much
– Great sweeping panoramic family sagas aren’t for me
– Neither are books which deploy historical incident as a kind of wallpaper: ‘Look at the television, there’s some kind of missile-related crisis going on in Cuba!’
– If you’re going to reinvent the English language from the ground up for your novel, there had better be a gripping plot to go with it, and it had preferably be a short book
– Assumed conclusion: relentlessly grim books are easier to write than comic novels
– It’s 2015, and the novel isn’t going anywhere: for me, formal innovation trumps the painstakingly realist nineteenth century-style novel (not an infallible rule – Nora Webster is realist and brilliant), but I’m glad both exist side by side.
– I lost count of how many books included their characters’ having Significant Dreams, one of my pet hates: it feels disingenuous for a novel, which is after all a platform for all kinds of symbolism, metaphor and weirdness to legitimately take place, to relate fictional dreams; it feels like a pressure valve, perhaps, for the realist novel, or a sort of cumbersome sleight-of-hand to try and distract the reader from what the author is really up to.
– Similarly, I started to become hyper-aware of the number of literary references creeping into these books. Characters are forever reading Anna Karenina, or going off to study the classics, or musing on a bit of Dickens that comes conveniently to mind. It’s understandable that the literary canon comes easily to authors’ minds, but it started to strike me as a kind of unsubtle pleading on these books’ behalf: by citing canonical works, it’s as if they want to make their case for being treated seriously, or inserted into the literary canon themselves. (Personally, I scrubbed any overt reference to real books, or indeed music, from my novel; so maybe I should rethink that.)
– Four books I’d have liked to have seen on the nominees list (but which may for one reason or another have been ineligible, of course): May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break (CB Editions), Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper (The Dorothy Project), Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World (Simon & Schuster US/Sceptre UK), and Anneliese Mackintosh’s Green Carnation-winning, formally inventive Any Other Mouth (Freight).
– My ideal shortlist of eight, as someone asked about on Twitter, would have kept All My Puny Sorrows, Family Life, Nora Webster, 10:04 and How to be both from the actual shortlist, but substituted in Marilynne Robinson’s incredibly moving Lila, Helen Oyeyemi’s beautiful myth Boy, Snow, Bird, and Colin Barrett’s supremely assured short stories Young Skins in place of Outline, Dust and Dept. of Speculation.

 

Some stats, hastily calculated:

– 46.25% of the Folio-nominated books are by women (37 of 80)

– The 80 books comprise 70 novels, 9 books of short stories, and 1 epic poem. (Wiggle room here for books which seem to exceed or transcend the novel form, books like Dept. of Speculation, How to be both, 10:04)

– A healthy 14% of the list – 11 out of 80 – are debut books – for some reason, it felt like there were a lot more (perhaps because of the writers I was reading for the first time)

– Broadly speaking, 32 of the 70 novels nominated have a contemporary or 21st-century setting and 29 are either purely or largely historical, even if that means they’re set in the 1980s, which still to me seems like it couldn’t possibly mean its being a historical novel (some are a bit fuzzy, like Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party, which is mostly set in the 1960s but has a contemporary element later on, or Susan Barker’s The Incarnations, a contemporary book with interpolated historical stories). A few – the books by Mary Costello, David Mitchell and Matthew Thomas – are generations-spanning and occupy a third category. Typically enough, Ali Smith’s How to be both doesn’t fit in any other category, being set simultaneously in mediaeval times and the present day; the same goes for Rebecca Hunt’s Everland, which is set in both 2012 and 1911. Oh, and a last 6 are set in the future – or in some reality sufficiently unlike our own to be taken as such.

 

 

Folio Season #2: Hensher, Barrett, Barker and more

I’ve set myself the challenge of reading all 80 books nominated for the 2015 Folio Prize. Several I’d already read before the list was announced – which was what gave me the perhaps inaccurate idea that it would be possible, or a good idea, to read all of the remainder. Each week, I’ll update with the books I’ve been reading ‘new’, as it were, plus, while I catch up, some of those I read beforehand.

The Emperor Waltz – Philip Hensher (Fourth Estate)
Emperor Waltz, TheIn 1922 Weimar, student Christian Vogt is about to embark on a course of study at the Bauhaus. In 1979 London, Duncan Flannery establishes The Big Gay Bookshop, the city’s first ‘out’ bookshop for gay readers. In AD302 Rome, a merchant’s daughter, fascinated by the new cult of Christianity, becomes a convert and submits to sacrifice. And in 2014 London, Philip Hensher is in hospital for a foot infection. I’ll admit this was a book I wasn’t greatly looking forward to reading – a dedication to Thomas Adès stops the browsing reader dead in his tracks, and I have an allergy to novels in which ‘real people’ appear as characters: in this case we encounter, among others, Paul Klee, Paul Bailey and, er, Philip Hensher – but it won me over almost completely. The links between disparate times and places in this huge and intriguing book are associative rather than direct (a gesture recurs, an artefact, a name, and the piece of music which gives Hensher his title), but in each setting the focus is on groups of people that might be described as cults: in Weimar, alongside the Bauhaus student body, despised by the townsfolk, there are members of an actual religious cult; in 1970s London, The Big Gay Bookshop’s founders and their friends are discriminated against by their neighbours and discriminate, in turn, against the hypocrites or the humourless among their own number. Always there are families, biological or post-nuclear, with their own rites. While cults will come and go, as various characters observe, some endure, and stop being cults, for a while, anyway: killed for her faith, St Perpetua knows that among the Christian-haters in the audience at her execution, some will be moved and undergo the conversion she herself has. Sometimes you need to suffer in order to move society forward; sometimes you suffer, are punished, and nothing changes. I did feel at times that the gay characters were benefiting from a kind of special pleading: in one of his first scenes, Duncan Flannery is cruelly taunting his dying father with the information his estate will be used to found a bookshop for “perverts”, yet we never have much sense of a reason for the animosity between the father and son: liberal, novel-reading folk are, it seems, expected to side with the put-upon gay character from the off. The two sections set in contemporary London, one of which bravely features teenage characters and their slang (by the time The Emperor Waltz was published, probably no-one was saying “bare long” for “really boring” any more), seem surplus to requirements somewhat. On the whole, the book is a bit too bitty for me, and not quite as wholly thematically integrated throughout as it might have been – but for long stretches, particularly the 1970s sections, this really satisfied me as the kind of book I wanted to vanish into for hours over Christmas: a big, broad, densely peopled, fully imagined novel with a point to make.

Young Skins – Colin Barrett (Vintage)
Young SkinsSmall town Irish life laid bare in these six stories and one novella, ‘Calm With Horses’, in which the youthful characters are caught up in an escalating series of violent reprisals for territory-overstepping. At a loss for anything better to do, the youths who “have the run of this place” are bristling for a fight or a shag; their loyalties are fiercely defended, and in the most placid of them runs, just beneath the skin, the capacity for violence, thuggery, coldly premeditated murder. A contingent kind of happiness, or at least satisfaction, creeps in at odd moments, too; ‘Diamonds’, one of those one-thing-happens-then-another stories I like so much, where the themes – despite the on-the-nose title – are subtle and associative. These stories – thematically linked but diverse, and written in some of the finest prose I’ve read this year, worked but not overworked – are very good indeed; Barrett has already landed the 2014 Guardian First Book prize for the collection. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this shortlisted, though, as with lots of first short story collections where the author is setting out a stall to some degree, writing to the limits of it but no further, I find myself already looking forward to Barrett’s next book: he’ll muscle through any self-imposed limits into wild new worlds.

In the Approaches – Nicola Barker (Fourth Estate)
In the ApproachesWhat are Nicola Barker’s books about? In the Approaches is a love story between odd folk – of the same type, though hardly the same style, as Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection. Where that book was sentimental, Barker is caustic; her natural tendency is to highlight the odd, the slapstick, the vernacular. Nominally about an academic who’s come to a small town to investigate a famous but tragic artistic family that lived there before, this takes in unexpectedly resurrected dogs, the rivalry between a parrot and a Mynah bird, a character well aware he’s in a Nicola Barker novel (and not happy about it), and a Mrs Overall-esque housekeeper. Tiny mysteries occur and are swiftly resolved, and there are some neat surrealist strands, but there isn’t much plot to speak of. Barker is never less than pleasurable to read, but your impression on finishing In the Approaches is that it was written swiftly and edited only slightly, and that come late 2015 or early 2016 she’ll have out another 500+ pager on the weirdnesses and involutions of small-village life.

 

In brief: Among the books I happened to have read before the Folio Prize list was announced were Donald Antrim’s The Emerald Light in the Air (Granta), which I found patchy: too often, the confusion in the characters’ minds – many of them are in recovery, or being treated for mental illness – seemed to leach into the text of these stories. The opening, gloriously antic ‘An Actor Prepares’ (its portentous title only making the shagginess of the text funnier) and the concluding, more stately title story are the exceptions. They’re always enjoyable stories, but sometimes waffly where they should be sharp. Though I enjoyed much of it, I did lose patience when Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (Granta) veered from its initial pithy, insightful, apothegmatic remarks on a relationship’s highs and lows gave way to ‘My child says the cutest things’; one’s patience for other people’s babies is exhausted as quickly by fictional as real-life ones. At its best, this fragmented text is funny, candid and a little shocking: ‘Is she a good baby? people would ask me. Well, no, I’d say.’ Unfortunately this does mean that pretty much every paragraph is excerptable as a ‘favourite quote’ on the book’s Goodreads page. In some ways – quotable and Tweetable – it’s the most 2014 book possible. Akhil Sharma’s Family Life (Faber), one of my favourite books of 2014, is a super-dense, controlled and enjoyable family saga. I read it shortly after the third volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle; Sharma’s book is like the incredibly refined single-plate meal to Knausgaard’s vast and sprawling banquet. Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others (Chatto & Windus) (full disclosure: Neel and I are good friends, and he kindly gave me a cover quote for my own book, The Glasgow Coma Scale) is a massive, sprawling, breathtakingly impressive saga of Naxalite uprising and internecine family relationships. There is a streak of cruelty through the book that might remind you of Hardy, or one of the philosophers who postulates a vast and indifferent universe in which no good deed, as the saw has it, goes unpunished. The vast cast of this novel suffer in their different ways; the book open with a moment of personal cruelty and concludes with one of mass destruction. No-one gets out of this world alive. It seems unfair to judge Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation (Fourth Estate) by itself, as it’s the first volume in his Area X trilogy; it’s one of those books you imagine the Booker running from in fright as it is, really, science fiction, or ‘weird’ fiction: the account of an exhibition to the mysterious Area X by one of the investigating team, who first chronicles then starts to succumb to the strangeness of the place. I haven’t read the remaining volumes (Authority and Acceptance) – not through lack of interest but through a desire to wait until I’m back in the US and can purchase the beautiful FSG paperback editions of the two concluding books.

 

Running total at 2nd January: 20 read, 60 to read, 80 days until the prize is announced. There’s a lot of nice round numbers. Next time: Dinaw Mengestu, Hermione Eyre, Tim Winton and more.

 

The eighty nominated titles — with the ones I’ve read struck through (and links to my reviews where available) — are:

 

10:04, Ben Lerner

A GOD IN EVERY STONE, Kamila Shamsie

ACADEMY STREET, Mary Costello

AFTER ME COMES THE FLOOD, Sarah Perry

ALL MY PUNY SORROWS, Miriam Toews

ALL OUR NAMES, Dinaw Mengitsu

ALL THE DAYS AND NIGHTS, Niven Goviden

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, Anthony Doerr

ALL THE RAGE, AL Kennedy

AMNESIA, Peter Carey

ANNIHILATION, Jeff VanderMeer

ARCTIC SUMMER, Damon Galgut

BALD NEW WORLD, Peter Tieryas Liu

BARK, Lorrie Moore

BE SAFE I LOVE YOU, Cara Hoffman

BOY, SNOW, BIRD, Helen Oyeyemi

CAN’T AND WON’T, Lydia Davis

DEAR THIEF, Samantha Harvey

DEPT. OF SPECULATION, Jenny Offill

DISSIDENT GARDENS, Jonathan Lethem

DUST, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

EM AND THE BIG HOOM, Jerry Pinto

ENGLAND AND OTHER STORIES, Graham Swift

EUPHORIA, Lily King

EVERLAND, Rebecca Hunt

EYRIE, Tim Winton

FAMILY LIFE, Akhil Sharma

FOURTH OF JULY CREEK, Smith Henderson

HOW TO BE BOTH, Ali Smith

IN SEARCH OF SILENCE, Emily Mackie

IN THE APPROACHES, Nicola Barker

IN THE LIGHT OF WHAT WE KNOW, Zia Haider Rahman

J, Howard Jacobson

KINDER THAN SOLITUDE, Yiyun Li

LILA, Marilynne Robinson

LIFE DRAWING, Robin Black

LOST FOR WORDS, Edward St Aubyn

LOVE AND TREASURE, Ayelet Waldman

NORA WEBSTER, Colm Tóibín

ON SUCH A FULL SEA, Chang-Rae Lee

ORFEO, Richard Powers

OUTLINE, Rachel Cusk

PERFIDIA, James Ellroy

ROAD ENDS, Mary Lawson

SHARK, Will Self

SOME LUCK, Jane Smiley

STAY UP WITH ME, Tom Barbash

STONE MATTRESS, Margaret Atwood

THE BALLAD OF A SMALL PLAYER, Lawrence Osborne

THE BONE CLOCKS, David Mitchell

THE BOOK OF GOLD LEAVES, Mirza Waheed

THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS, Michel Faber

THE COUNTRY OF ICECREAM STAR, Sandra Newman

THE DOG, Joseph O’Neill

THE EMERALD LIGHT IN THE AIR, Donald Antrim

THE EMPEROR WALTZ, Philip Hensher

THE FEVER, Megan Abbott

THE HEROES’ WELCOME, Louisa Young

THE INCARNATIONS, Susan Barker

THE LIE, Helen Dunmore

THE LIVES OF OTHERS, Neel Mukherjee

THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH, Richard Flanagan

THE NIGHT GUEST, Fiona McFarlane

THE PAYING GUESTS, Sarah Waters

THE TELL-TALE HEART, Jill Dawson

THE TEMPORARY GENTLEMAN, Sebastian Barry

THE WAKE, Paul Kingsnorth

THE ZONE OF INTEREST, Martin Amis

THEIR LIPS TALK OF MISCHIEF, Alan Warner

THUNDERSTRUCK, Elizabeth McCracken

TO RISE AGAIN AT A DECENT HOUR, Joshua Ferris

TRAVELLING SPRINKLER, Nicholson Baker

UPSTAIRS AT THE PARTY, Linda Grant

VIPER WINE, Hermione Eyre

VIRGINIA WOOLF IN MANHATTAN, Maggie Gee

WE ARE NOT OURSELVES, Thomas Matthew

WHAT YOU WANT, Constantine Phipps

WITTGENSTEIN JR, Lars Iyer

YOUNG SKINS, Colin Barrett

YOUR FATHERS, WHERE ARE THEY? AND THE PROPHETS, DO THEY LIVE FOREVER?, Dave Eggers