Tag Archives: folio 2015

Folio Season #13: Barker, Powers, Gee, Waters, Newman, Shamsie, Henderson

Introduction 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. I’m now posting weekly updates on the titles I’ve been zooming through in the past seven days. And now, with awarding imminent of the Folio Prize 2015, it’s the final seven nominees…

The Incarnations – Susan Barker (Doubleday UK)
Incarnations, The Someone has been leaving letters in Driver Wang’s taxi, tucked under the mirror for him to find. The unknown writer swears he or she knows Wang – not just as a cab driver in Beijing in 2008, but in all the various incarnations he has lived before: as a eunuch in AD 632, as an imperial concubine in 1542, as a kind of head prefect of a girls’ school in 1966 — always returning to life at some contested, politically charged time. The writer has lived alongside him in all these past lives: sometimes as his child, sometimes as his tormentor, sometimes his victim. And now it’s time for them to meet again. Reincarnation is big at the moment – Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life leads the field, but there are a bunch of books doing the rounds in which life after death is a crucial plot point – but Barker’s excellent novel plays with the possibility that the letters describing Wang’s pasts are fantasies, designed by some enemy to discredit and destroy him; as the book goes on, his family and friendships disintegrate, and he starts to accuse those around him of a campaign against him. Is he cracking up? Is someone really out to get him? Or are they genuinely trying to open his eyes to the notion that he’s lived before, and will again, over and over? The sections dealing with the ‘real’ Wang are necessarily less compact than the short chapters depicting his previous lives, but each one is crammed with incident – even if a central dilemma which sees him ‘relapse’ into a homosexual relationship with another former patient at the institution where he was once treated for depression didn’t quite ring true (and since Wang isn’t gay but develops these feelings during treatment, there’s a slightly problematic alignment of homosexuality, or homosexual urges, with mental illness). The book falls apart a little at the end, which tries to have it all: the truth about the letter-writer is more prosaic than supernatural, but for it to work requires heavy use of coincidence and what might be called ‘convenience plotting’ where characters steadfastly refuse to ask quite obvious questions so that the plot can do its thing unhindered. A tragic act right at the end, too, gets rather muffled amid all the revelations. But for the most part this is a terrific novel mixing its snippets of past revolutions in China with a depiction of Beijing experiencing a new crackdown on free speech the run-up to the Olympic Games (think Ai Wei Wei). The Incarnations suggests that no revolution lasts forever, but neither will any new dawn.

Orfeo – Richard Powers (W.W. Norton US)
Orfeo I always really want to like Richard Powers books – and I never quite do, wholeheartedly, which is odd since they should, theoretically, be right up my street: his interest is in exploring the grey area where the artistic and the technological meet, where creativity and invention are facets of the same process, but subtly different. In Orfeo, we’re with Peter Els, an avant garde composer whose latest work involves attempting to genetically manipulate a biological culture to inscribe a composition within its actual cell structure. Powers goes to great lengths to make this seem like the kind of thing a certain sort of person might casually decide to do, no weirder than dabbling in compositions on a home computer, for instance, and around half of the book tells the story of Els’s life and career in which a constant striving to find new forms and avoid replicating what’s gone before makes this latest effort at innovation seem a natural next step. The other half of the book deals with the fallout from the experiments: in a post-9/11 age of heightened paranoia, Els’s experiments attract the attention of the authorities who link them with an outbreak of viral illness. As news gets out, Els, soon media-christened the “Biotech Bach”, fearing some Guantanamo-esque incarceration, goes on the run. The novel has to do a lot of work to make this seem a convincing response to events, perhaps because it’s an unexpectedly emotional rather than intellectual response for a character who more often seems ruled by the head than the heart, and it never quite convinced me that he’d behave in this way, even if its pitting of one paranoia (an individual’s fear of the government) against another (the authorities’ fear of lone-wolf terror agents within its walls) is nicely done. Powers is always a bit hit-and-miss, I find, the density of the prose and the high-concept ideas not necessarily always yielding something that’s likeable more than admirable, but at certain points, they really come to life. In Orfeo, it’s the last phase – or phrase? – of the novel, as Els starts to see the potential in a musical composition which cannot be played or listened to yet is still music, a transcendent revelation, really wowed me.

Virginia Woolf in Manhattan – Sue Gee (Telegram UK)
Virginia Woolf in Manhattan
Part tribute to Virginia Woolf, part comedy of manners, this is an unusual, entertaining and clever novel – the first of Maggie Gee’s I’ve read. As author and critic Angela Lamb is on her way to New York to conduct research into the Virgina Woolf papers kept at the New York Public Library, her plane is struck by lightning. Landing safely, and making her way to the NYPL, she is astonished to recognise another reader – it’s Virginia Woolf, brought back to life in the twenty-first century. What ensues, as the two women team up, is a kind of bizarre buddy movie: one rather highly-strung novelist meets her literary forebear. There are high-jinks as Virginia sells her own personal first edition of To the Lighthouse to a startled antiquarian bookstore so the two women can stay on in their fancy hotel; and there is comedy from misunderstanding and misinterpretation, as the rather pompous Angela learns that perhaps one should never meet one’s heroes. In a way, it’s the perfect response to Damon Galgut’s portrait of E.M. Forster in Folio-nominated Arctic Summer: by transplanting Woolf-the-person to this new environment, Gee can lightly satirise her responses to such things as laptops and transatlantic aeroplanes without ever mocking her: you laugh with Woolf, but never at her. The novel’s structure, and certain clues along the way, is such that it’s never in doubt that the conclusion will involve that ‘It was all a dream… or was it?’ cliché where some object or artefact from within the fantasy suggests it might have been real after all; I’d take points off for this, and an odd subplot regarding Angela’s very self-assured teenage daughter, who embarks on an implausible adventure of her own, even if that is intended to be a dream or fantasy itself. But the prose is often beautiful – it takes some bravery to set out to respectfully pastiche Woolfian style, and talent to pull it off, which Gee does, I think – and the general tenor of a respectful yet playful celebration of a literary giant that makes of her something new, rather than treating her as some unassailable icon, is refreshing. On balance: great fun.

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters (Riverhead US)
Paying GuestsIt’s 1922. Unmarried Frances Wray and her widowed mother, living in well-to-do Champion Hill, on the outskirts of London, have decided that to make ends meet, they have to take in lodgers. A couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber, are duly installed. Len is a flirt, and a bit of a spiv, but Lilian is something else: a woman who reignites long-repressed feelings in Frances. Soon, the two women have embarked on secret affair they will do anything to keep secret – a pledge that will have terrible consequences.
I’ve always thought of Sarah Waters as a demon plotter, and this book unfolds at the perfect pace, the stakes getting ever higher as the risks Frances and Lilian take grow greater. It’s the sort of book you sit up till 3am reading – a love story that becomes a crime story, then a police procedural, and finally a thriller. With its unrelenting forward momentum (will Frances and Lilian become lovers? Will they be found out? What will they do when they’re found out? And, as always in this kind of story, ‘how will they get out of this one?’), The Paying Guests is never less than compelling, but along the way, I felt, there are infelicitous and convenient bits of plotting that clunk somewhat as the book travels over them: I simply didn’t buy that repressed, nervous, love-scarred Frances would confess her sexuality to Lilian so readily, and so early on in their emergent friendship; an incident in which Len is mugged but fudges his story of what happened may as well have an enormous note in the margins beside it: PAY ATTENTION! THIS WILL PROVE SIGNIFICANT! Nonetheless, as should be the case with a thriller, the book makes the reader try to predict what will happen next yet wrongfoots them at every turn – then makes the unpredictable twist, with hindsight, be the only way the book could have gone. The crime at the heart of the book, for instance, is inevitable, but only in retrospect; until it happens, you’re kept guessing. As ever in Waters, the prose takes a back seat both to incident and plotting; I didn’t mind too much, until the last section, at which point this book seemed to become simultaneously overlong and rather rushed: as near the start, the pacing seemed a bit off and the characters’ reactions somewhat artificially telescoped in service to the story. Nonetheless, this is a thoroughly engrossing, entirely pleasurable read, with – as always in Waters – an intriguingly subervsive agenda ticking away below the thrillerish surface: here she’s writing about a disarrayed England in the wake of World War One, a country whose ‘best men’, one character opines, are all dead, and where, for better or worse, the old certainties (about money, about society, about gender roles) are all upset.

The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman (US)
Country of Ice Cream StarI think this may be the longest ever break I’ve had between reading one book by a particular author – in this case, Sandra Newman’s terrifically-titled debut, The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, which I read in 1999 – and a second. The Ice Cream Star of the title is Newman’s narrator here, in a tale of a dystopian Massachusetts, riven with diseases (‘the posies’) which kill most of the populace before they turn twenty. When talk of a cure for the disease reaches Ice Cream, she embarks on a dangerous mission through a battle-scarred America filled with warring religious sects, Russian invaders, and violence on all sides. It takes some perseverance to learn even this much: like Paul Kingsnorth’s Folio-nominated The Wake, The Country of Ice Cream Star is written entirely in a language of the author’s invention: syntactically, it’s a kind of patois, peppered with corruptions of familiar words (with ‘bell’ for beautiful and ‘uggety’ for ugly, for instance, are relatively obvious, it took me a long time to twig that ‘bone’ meant good). I tend to rather like books which require and reward interpretive effort on the reader’s part, and it’s an immersive experience to be in Ice Cream’s world; for all that other books have reshaped language in similar ways, this voice is unlike any other I’ve read. It’s a hugely ambitious aim, and the result is utterly consistent and convincing – an impressive achievement. Unfortunately, however, I didn’t find the story especially compelling, packed with incident though it is; as Ice Cream’s mission, a classic straightforward quest narrative, takes her from Massachusetts to New York (where she is installed as a cult’s Virgin Mary leader-figure) and on to Washington, it all rather washed over me, and since the prose’s spiky stiltedness is more intellectually admirable than pleasurable, this was a bit of a misfire for me. You can’t fault Newman’s ambition, nor her success in worldbuilding, but the story involves one twisted religious cult after another, one massacre after another. Blood is shed by the gallon, tears by not much less. It gets wearing, and it means that a significant death about two-thirds in has little impact.
My feeling is that a novel this stylistically brave should perhaps get in and out quickly; the point it’s making is likely diluted, rather than bolstered, by a high page-count. At 600 pages, The Country of Ice Cream Star is bloated (and an endnote which perhaps unwisely notes that the novel’s first draft ran to 900 pages meant that I spent much of the time wishing that rather more than a third had been lopped from that manuscript before it became this final draft), and ultimately, sadly, even though this is a novel which will make almost anything you read after finishing it seem flimsy and under-imagined by contrast, I found it a bit of a drag.

A God in Every Stone – Kamila Shamsie (Atavist US)
A God in Every StoneIt’s unusual for a woman to be an archaeologist in Turkey in 1914, but that’s what Vivian Rose Spencer is when this novel starts, her love of the past mingling with her love for Tahsin Bey, her tutor. It’s even more unusual, when the novel later finds her in Peshawar in 1930, for a young Pakistani boy to go to her for tutoring in the Classics, but that’s what Najeeb does. There are wheels within wheels: Najeeb’s older brother Qayyum, a soldier who fought for the allies in Ypres in 1914, has already met Vivian by chance and reencounters her in Peshawar, where a movement is afoot to throw off British colonial rule. The personal is political in this novel: Vivian has already inadvertently made a terrible betrayal by revealing Tahsin Bey’s divided loyalties, and as A God in Every Stone proceeds, the loyalty to the foundering British Empire of whole territories is at question.
Kamila Shamsie’s novel is about war, archaeology, loyalty, and what symbols are left behind once the great sweep of history has passed over events. Nominally, this is a book about a missing artefact, a circlet worn by a historical explorer, Scylax, working in the 5th century BC; in the end, as the stories of Qayyum Naheem and Vivian overlap – Shamsie is excellent in showing events from different perspectives – the events of the anti-British uprising in 1930 put forward a new, very modern kind of symbol instead: an innocent girl, gunned down in the mob violence, whose body is removed by the authorities amid a cover-up over civilian deaths. Pakistan in 1930 suddenly feels very present in 2015. It’s in this last phase of the book that it really came to life for me; before, it gripped only intermittently, though the writing is excellent and the female characters in particular are vivid and memorable.

Fourth of July Creek – Smith Henderson (HarperCollins UK)
Fourth of July CreekI’m very pleased to be concluding this Folio Season experiment with two books by writers new to me, and especially so that this final book should be a debut novel. Henderson Smith may be a first-time writer, but this novel feels, however, familiar in ways that are sometimes intriguing and sometimes exasperating. It’s a macho, punchy, fistfight-crammed none-more-American novel, set in 1980, and populated by variously damaged people. Our lead character, Pete, is a Department of Family Services officer intervening in domestic disputes in smalltown Montana: he loves his town, he’s frustrated by its people (including his no-good brother) and, being a Good Guy, he gets drawn into dangerous situations where he believes he can help. An encounter with a young runaway brings Pete into contact with the boy’s father, Jeremiah Pearl: a rough-living, war-obsessed apocalyptic who mints his own currency and mutters about a coming war against the antichrist and the whole outside world. Helpfully, almost everyone Pete encounters has also met Pearl and can help fill in his story, upping the ante for an inevitable confrontation between the two. The surprise is that the pair end up colluding, to some degree: their relationship isn’t, at least initially, out-and-out antagonistic. That’s one way in which this novel – whose blending of pseudo-Biblical cant, intense violence, damaged masculinity and American landscape recall, inescapably, Cormac McCarthy – strives for originality. Another is in an odd subplot in which Pete’s daughter Rachel, taken from him when he and his wife break up, has her own adventures, becoming a runaway, a hitchhiker and ultimately, with vexing inevitability, a prostitute. (This is a book that’s big on men but notably weak on female characters, almost all of whom are whores, traitors or killers, and the only one who isn’t – a fellow DFS caseworker – is a character whose name Pete can’t properly remember. Focused on masculinity this novel may be, but I didn’t feel that this kind of chauvinism was a necessary by-product.) Rachel’s story is told in a strange catechism, stuck on the end of chapters, between the girl and a mysterious interlocutor who might be thought to be Pete, Rachel’s idea of Pete, the reader himself, or the book’s editor asking pertinent questions about the runaway’s story.
In this, as in other respects, this is a long novel overstuffed with incident and plot threads: too many runaways spoil the broth. To extend the metaphor unhelpfully: this is a broth overspiked with some Fine Writing. To name a character Pearl is one thing; to riff on this – “He was nacreous, mother-of-pearl, this son of Pearl” – is a bit much. Most of the time, though, the prose relaxes and is content to be good rather than overreaching. The novel comes to an end that is open, ambiguous and bittersweet: no surprise, but justified by what’s gone before. A promising debut that makes me look forward to what Henderson writes when he’s thrown off some of his influences.

So there we are: I’ve read and reviewed all eighty Folio Prize titles. The full list is below, with links to each review. It’s been a fascinating, enlightening process — it’s challenged certain of my assumptions about contemporary fiction and its various directions, and it’s cemented my feelings about certain others. I’ll put up a final Folio Season post next week in response to the prize, which is awarded on 23rd March (fingers still crossed for Miriam Toews), and talking about some of the things I feel I’ve learned from the project.

Now… what do I read next?

The full list of eighty titles (and, you know, I’d like to remove the scoring-out now, but WordPress formatting for some reason makes that very difficult, so hey-ho):

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 – A.L. 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 & 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 Solace – 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 –Matthew Thomas
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

Folio Season #12: Swift, Flanagan, Faber, Harvey, Self

Introduction 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. I’m now posting weekly updates on the titles I’ve been zooming through in the past seven days…

England and Other Stories – Graham Swift (Simon & Schuster UK)
England &OSIt’s good to see an established author do something new, and for a writer who claims never to have written short stories until fairly recently, this is an impressive first foray for Swift, scalewise anyway: there are 25 stories here, as though the floodgates have opened. For the most part these are very short, low-key character-centric pieces; if there aren’t Joycean epiphanies, these stories generally involve some shift in their central character or narrator’s state of mind, a reassessment of their priorities or assumptions; the gnomic titles (‘People Are Life’, ‘Remember This’, ‘Was She The Only One?’) indicate a general tone of wistfulness and uncertainty. A man who writes his wife  a love letter after they’ve made their first will together will come to regard the letter with shifting emotions as the years pass; a man conducts a secret affair with his best friend’s wife; the death of a fork-lift driver prompts his friends to consider the meaning of the word “tragedy”. There’s a pleasing interest in work: barbers, coastguards and windowcleaners are among the characters here, too, and their occupations are more than just set-dressing – the way the barber of ‘People Are Life’ interacts with a bereaved client is the story, for instance.
You have the sense, perhaps because of their brevity, that most of these arrived fully formed in Swift’s mind and are here on the page relatively unmediated. Maybe that’s unfair, but it means that there is a winning freshness to most of them, even if one or two (the account of a schoolboy’s seduction by a peer’s mother in ‘The Best Days’, for instance) seem a little pat. Only a pair of historical stories – one set in Victorian times, the other in 1649 – are the odd ones out here, and could, I feel, have been excised.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan (Knopf US)
Narrow RoadI predicted that this would win last year’s Man Booker, despite not having read it at that point; the description of a serious literary novel that mixed history, war and poetry seemed a pretty safe bet, even on a strong longlist. Sometimes I wish I bet on literary prizes; other times, I wish I got round to reading important books sooner. This is a terrific, troubling book, set around the experiences of Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in 1943. With Evans’s fellow Australian prisoners weakening and dying, despite his efforts to minister to their appalling wounds, the Japanese still demand hundreds of men to build the rail route from Thailand to Burma that will become known as the ‘death railway’. Evans’s story is just one of those Flanagan tells: we also see into the lives of those Evans left behind, his fellow prisoners and the prison guards, before and after the war, all their hopes and fates rendered in a prose that’s lush and descriptive without being overweening; when it comes to the scenes in the camp, with its rivalries, punishments, desperate attempts to save lives and unsparing descriptions of death, dying and torture, the prose tends towards straightforward descriptions, brutal and direct – this is one of a couple of books on this list packed with almost unreadable violence (and it’s more powerful than the horrors of James Ellroy’s Perfidia, as it’s based on real events and accounts) – and there’s a great melancholy even after the survivors return to civilian life, leavened with tiny moments of beauty and transcendence; in the camps themselves, an artist prisoner, perhaps based on Ronald Searle, makes beautiful drawings of the horrors he’s seen. This is a deserving prizewinner, one I’m slightly surprised not to see on the Folio shortlist: a terrific book which will stand out in my memory for a long time.

The Book of Strange New Things – Michel Faber (Hogarth US)
Book of Strange New ThingsPeter Leigh, pastor turned missionary, is on his way to spread the word of Christ to the most remote people in existence: an alien race living on a distant planet nicknamed Oasis. The Oasans are a simple people whose agricultural skills supply the human visitors to their planet with plentiful foodstuff; in return they ask for two things from the Earthmen: medication, of any kind, and a preacher to tell them more about the Bible – or, as they call it, The Book of Strange New Things. Reminiscent of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, in which a religious mission to a distant planet goes bizarrely wrong, Faber’s book is at once less eventful and much odder. Peter, unique among the human beings sent to Oasis by the mysterious USIC corporation, is not single: his wife, Bea, remains on Earth, where in the months Peter is away, life gets exponentially worse: natural disasters, food shortages, riots and economic collapse speed across the planet with startling swiftness; initially pining for his return, she starts to warn him he should stay away. This is no hardship for Peter, finding the most rewarding challenge of his life in preaching to the Oasans, whose meekness, simplicity of desires and hunger for biblical stories seems certain – to the reader, anyway – to mask some unpleasant secrets; but the aliens’ real secret will prove to be an assumption in which Peter realises he has been unwittingly complicit. Peter, a former alcoholic and drug addict turned reformed character, is still prey to the unthinking selfishness of his former life; his piety and his deep religiosity are so believable, however, that I found references to his criminal past unconvincing, even if Bea, present in the text mostly through the email-like correspondence she sends Peter, is plausibly a woman who could have helped save Peter. There are several SF-inflected books on the Folio list; perhaps because Faber has, all through his career, written books which straddle the literary and the genre (from his Victorian pastiche The Crimson Petal and the White to his SF novel Under the Skin), this is by far the most accomplished and interesting, the SF elements (weird languages, flora and fauna) balancing the religious material. One very minor quibble: the slightly odd transatlantic tone that both the book and its characters utilise (Faber uses the word “stonkingly” but Peter doesn’t know what “a lush” is) doesn’t always ring true. But this is a fresh and rewarding book, and an almost purely pleasurable reading experience.

Dear Thief – Samantha Harvey (Atavist US)
Dear ThiefSamantha Harvey’s third book is an epistolary novel, in the sense that it’s presented as a single letter from its narrator to Nina, sometimes called Butterfly, the ‘thief’ of the title. Exactly what Nina has stolen will become clear as this stately-paced, beautifully written but ultimately, I felt, rather cold novel unfolds. With Nina robbed of her right to reply, all the reader has to go on is the onesided description of her from a narrator who’s at once furious with her and still entranced by her after a friendship spanning three decades has collapsed. Nina is intriguing, beautiful, mercurial, and also a drug user, albeit of a uniquely considerate kind (she locks away the paraphernalia of her heroin use so that the narrator’s young son won’t find it). She’s also ruthless, and in a book like this – a descendant of what used to be called the Hampstead Novel, in which the middle-class nuclear family is the assumed default and the striven-for ideal – it’s predictable from early on that the most catastrophic thing for Nina to steal is the heart of Nicolas, the narrator’s partner: coming into their lives, she forms a triangle among the adults, and our narrator finds herself on the far vertex of this shap, abandoned and bitter. While the ultimate shape of the novel is not entirely surprising – that no clear resolution is reached, the ending involving instead a kind of suspended wistfulness, is par for the course – it’s the set pieces along the way that are memorable and fascinating: as the narrator’s grandmother dies, she herself out on the far reaches of the Thames finding a stack of old bones; one day, a freak atmospheric effect makes of the landscape a kind of gold-glowing hallucinatory fog in which the characters move semi-obscured. It’s much less calculatedly “literary writing” than in Harvey’s debut The Wilderness, which I wrote about many years ago; sometimes the effects here are rather obvious, and there’s a certain po-facedness to the whole novel, but the quality of the writing and the depiction of female friendship lift this well above the average.

Shark – Will Self (Grove Press US)
Shark
Speed-reading somewhat through the back half of Shark, the second in (heaven help us) a “loose trilogy” of modernist novels by Will Self themed around experimental psychiatry, psychological disorder and the state of Britain in the twentieth century, I started to wonder not quite what the point of this project was (as I had while reading its precursor, Umbrella, in 2012), but exactly how Self wants it to be read. There are, as with Umbrella, no chapters or paragraph breaks, and the narrative moves, as it were, into and out of the voice and mind of its main characters, moving from one POV to another quite far removed without so much as a line break to indicate the transition. The tentpole characters here are psychiatrist Zack Busner, two former soldiers named De’Ath, descendents of Umbrella’s Audrey De’Ath, and Genie, sometimes Jeanie, a 1970s… hippy chick. The effect is dreamlike and hallucinatory, with equal emphasis on very precise detail, typically intricate wordplay and punnery, and sweeping narration. Is the reader, as I found myself doing, meant to move his eye across the page and just let these leaps and surges of narration carry him along? There’s plenty to enjoy here; nominally, the book gets its title both from the film Jaws and an real-life incident in World War II where a shipful of soldiers on the bombed warship Indianapolis is massacred by a vast gathering of sharks; drawn into these large-scale symbols are the characters’ other experiences and preoccupations: Jeannie’s caesarean section is intermingled with an autopsy related from the fiction of Jaws, for instance. In the end, this book – like Umbrella – left me rather cold: I can appreciate the massive intellectual effort that’s gone into not just one but two, soon three, such books, but as to why a writer as articulate and adept as Self has embarked on this project a hundred or so years after modernism’s imperial phase (like at least one other modernist text from the twentieth century, it’s circular, its final sentence fragment feeding into its opening line) remains a little baffling. Nonplussed by that, I suppose one has to take Shark on its own merits, in which case it’s diverting and never less than engaging, if often problematic: the female characters, including the rather hopeless Jeanie and her abusive alcoholic, nymphomaniac Mumsie, are not Self’s most convincing or rounded creations. I hadn’t intended to read Shark until it came up on this list; having finished it, I can’t say I’m much bothered about reading the third instalment when it comes round.

73 books down, 7 to go, and 10 days until the prize is announced. I’m going to make it! Next week, in the final roundup before the prize is announced on 22nd March — well, you can see from the list below what’s still outstanding: Sarah Waters, Kamila Shamsie, Smith Henderson and more.

The eighty nominated titles — with the ones I’ve read struck through (and links to reviews, where applicable) — 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 – A.L. 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 & 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 Solace – 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 –Matthew Thomas
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

 

Folio Season #11: Phipps, Hunt, Young, Smiley, Mackie, Lawson

Introduction 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. I’m now posting weekly updates on the titles I’ve been zooming through in the past seven days…

Mostly novels by women, this week, happily, and mostly authors I hadn’t read before — one of my chief reasons for reading through this whole list was to discover new favourite writers.

What You Want – Constantine Phipps (Quercus UK)
cover-phipps.jpgOne of the more unusual titles on the Folio list, this is a 350-page novel in verse. Pat’s wife has left him for another man, and on one of the weekends he has custody of their son, Jack, he tries once again, unsuccessfully, to win her back. In his misery, rejected again, he enters into a kind of lucid dream based around the theme park he and Jack visited: a theme park devoted to his own life, his infidelities, and his conscious and unconscious wishes – for money, for beauty, for spiritual satisfaction. In short, all the things that might come under a heading of general desires: what you want. This is a peculiar book, in which historical and real figures appear to give mini lectures on desire and need (Pat’s guide round the theme park of his past is Freud), a kind of mock-heroic narrative which justifies the form – as does Pat’s career as a musician. Interpolated into the conversations Pat holds with various interlocutors are poems that might be characterised as metaphysical, addressed to his wife. These sit slightly uneasily in the midst of the book’s main narrative, which is set in (often ingenious, sometimes wince-inducing) rhyming couplets, which make the text livelier and jauntier than a book about depression and spiritual angst might otherwise be; it’s as if the writer of a book-length poem, or a novel in verse, senses that to be anything other than a fairly easy read might be to ask to much of the reader (an obvious comparison is with Bernardine Evaristo’s excellent The Emperor’s Babe, similarly ‘light’ in form if not in subject matter). I don’t know that the juxtaposition necessarily works, but it’s an intriguing mix of form and content, and makes for one of the more memorable books on the list.

Everland – Rebecca Hunt (Penguin UK)
EverlandEverland is an Antarctic island, uninhabited but for penguins and fur seals. An 1913 expedition to the island ended in death and disaster for a three-man exploratory party, and Rebecca Hunt’s carefully structured second novel tells that team’s story, and that of a centenary expedition that sets off to Everland in 2012, armed with the latest high-tech equipment but prey to the same fears and failures of a century ago. Despite a slight issue with improbable names (I had difficulty remembering whether Brix or Jess was the standoffish team member in 2012, and whether Napps or Dinners is the one fated to die in 1913) this is a confident, subtle and unusual novel. The prose style is often rather chatty, which works fairly well in the modern-day sections, but is a little odd when deployed in the 1913 sections, which again tend to flit between free indirect and an omniscient voice that sounds remarkably contemporary – to have a man’s bruises come up ‘several shades of ugly’, for instance, strikes a slightly off note. (Not that the historical sections ought to be written in some cod Edwardian prose, of course.) It took quite a while for this book to catch light for me, but eventually the parallels, growing ever more marked between the doomed 1913 explorers’ thread and the 2012 team’s, in which life and death are still up for grabs, become compelling.

The Heroes’ Welcome – Louisa Young (Borough Press UK)
Heroes' WelcomeThis is a nicely ironic title for a book about the very different kinds of postwar that old soldiers can have. It’s 1919, and Riley Purefoy returns to England from fighting in the trenches. He has a rebuilt jaw and a new sense of urgency in life, and his hasty marriage to Nadine is greeted with suspicion from both their families. His old CO, Peter, is in a kind of shell shock, neglectful of his wife and son, and lost in painful memories which threaten to overwhelm him. The female characters are making their way in a new world of opportunities and independence – suddenly it’s possible to get a grant to become a doctor, or to run away to Europe, adopt a new identity in its cafés and flirt with strangers (as Peter’s wife Julia does) – while still tied to the old, pre-War world, even though they know full well that it was hardly a utopia worth mourning. This is an interesting slant for the war novel, dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder before the term was really coined. (It’s an interesting complement to Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You, which deals with the aftermath of the Gulf War on a female solider eighty years later.) It’s sometimes a bit too selfconsciously literary – there is a good reason for Peter to compare himself to Odysseus and his experiences to an odyssey, but it feels a bit neat, even if there is a payoff. This is a readable, mostly undemanding book which, though always competent, didn’t quite take off for me; a climactic scene of tragedy, for instance, falls rather flat, and the ways that various characters who’ve spent the book at odds find in the last chapter to reconcile with one another are all a bit clean. A book about the strife of war and the messy psychological effects on those directly and indirectly involved ends up feeling a little antiseptic.
A sidenote: Mention of Julia settling down to read ‘the new Edith Wharton’ struck me as a little glib and knowing here. This week, one of the characters in Jane Smiley’s Some Luck studies literature and lists the canonical titles he enjoys (the prose in eighteenth century literature is too easy for him so he reads Clarissa, Justine and Juliette as well as Pamela for his coursework) and in Mary Lawson’s Road Ends a character keeps ‘a copy of The Grapes of Wrath in the cab of [his] snowplow’ in case there’s a blizzard and no newspapers are available and dislikes Jude the Obscure as ‘depressing’. All this seems to me like a kind of authorial pleading: an insistence that the reader consider the present book in the context of what used to be called canonical English (and American) Literature. It’s never quite as OTT as Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, whose opening two pages nod to Ulysses, Moby-Dick and half a dozen other titans of world literature, but it does seem a little like begging the question. It shouldn’t be for the book you’re reading to beat you over the head like this: ‘I am a serious novel!’

Some Luck – Jane Smiley (Knopf US)
Some LuckAn ingenious structural device is at the centre of Jane Smiley’s novel, a family saga that begins in 1920 and follows the fortunes of three generations of the Langdons, a farming family. Each chapter progresses the narrative forward a year (we reach 1953 here, with two forthcoming volumes set to cover the century’s remaining 67 years), so the effect is something like receiving one of those end-of-year letters that detail what a person’s been up to for the past twelve months. In these characters’ cases it’s things like surviving drought and the great depression, fighting in World War II, and watching the impact the rise of technology has on the farmland they’ve tended for years. The five Langdon children grow up in the course of the book – mainly it’s about Frank, a self-possessed child who becomes the first Langdon to go to college, move far away from home, and hold a job that isn’t farming-related. The effect is of a family saga made up of Everymen – an Everyfamily – prey to the same strokes of luck as any, seen over long enough a time: births, deaths, ill-advised romances, conflict, more or less good decisions. The problem is that the very familiarity of this material makes the book curiously uninvolving. It isn’t really a novel, nor a series of thirty-odd stories, but a kind of anthology of set-pieces and scenes, seemingly purposefully lacking in the shape of a novel. The interest may come in Smiley’s chronicling of an entire human life, presumably Frank’s, from earliest stirrings of consciousness (rendered by the text, I’m sorry to say, in sub-Joycean baby babble) onwards. Rather like reading the end-of-year letters of a family you’ve never met, there’s only so interested one can be in the very quotidian lives they lead, however.

In Search of Solace – Emily Mackie (Sceptre UK)
In Search of SolaceI’d been wanting to read this for a while, as it was one of the titles longlisted for last year’s Green Carnation Prize (alongside Folio nominee Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, eventual winner Anneliese Mackintosh’s Any Other Mouth, and, er, my book). How you feel about this book will, I think, largely come down to how you respond to the news that it’s about a search for a character actually called Solace: a little on-the-nose for me. Also aggravating: the twee, pretentious at-arm’s-length narration that grabs the reader’s hand and drags them into each present-tense scene; there’s prolepsis and flashback aplenty in this book, and the sense that Mackie fears her audience – addressed, of course, as ‘dear reader’ – won’t be able to cope without such tooth-grinding mimsiness as ‘We’re not quite [at the end of the story] yet. Not quite yet. Though we are not so far off either. First we must finish up these developing stories, don’t you think? Big Sal, Lucy Westbry, Max and Mr Benson, our loose threads flapping in the breeze.’ (p.265) I’m very happy with books that call attention to their artifice, but there’s a limit, I think (and, really, does a thread ‘flap’? And while I’m nitpicking, in a book which talks a fair bit about art, Lucian Freud’s name really should have been spelled correctly.)
Eventually, I realised that the influence which hangs heavy over this book is Ali Smith’s, but it takes some skill to pull off Smith’s mixture of a deceptively simple, storytelling style and dark subject matter without its becoming sugary. Mackie hasn’t quite got the balance right here, although her central subject, one Jacob Little, is an intriguing creation: for every year of his life, he designs an obsession (guitar-playing, religion) and a character he’ll inhabit who possesses this particular obsession. Mentally unstable, Jacob loses track of himself: having played so many different people, who is he really? Is he looking for Solace (ugh) as a way to connect to the real self he once was, or is this the latest obsession he’s authored for himself?

Road Ends – Mary Lawson (Knopf US)
Road EndsConfession: I vividly remember when I put Mary Lawson’s Crow Lake back on the shelf at Borders, having read the back cover text a couple of times, and decided her work was not for me: it seemed to fit into a category into which I’d also put Trezza Azzopardi and Tessa Hadley, neither of whose debuts I could stand. And so I was bizarrely trepidatious about Road Ends, even though one of the pleasures of this Folio Season thingy has been to ‘discover’ writers I hadn’t read before (especially where they have a backlist I can then work through). We’re in Canada in the mid-to-late 1960s, and the book is formed around a central tragedy, a clifftop suicide. The residents of the little town of Struan are riven by his fate in various ways: for Tom, who found Rob’s body, it has been a paralysing incident; for Tom’s sister Megan, a surrogate mother to her eight brothers, it’s a reason to pack her bags and leave town; so too for their father, watching his family fall apart in their different ways. Inertia, weakness and hypocrisy are the linking elements in this book, which makes Megan’s story, which sends her to 1969 London, the most immediately engaging, all Dickins & Jones and hippie squat-dwelling. She’s the only character with much momentum; the disintegrating family she leaves behind is stuck in its various ways; her father, who resents his wife for her constant pregnancies without, ostensibly, recognising the part he plays in making her pregnant, is a well-drawn character. Showing the build-up to and consequences of Rob’s death, and the reasons for his suicide, lets Lawson explore its distorting effect on a ‘good’ family, but the inertia, and a strange focus on female characters suffering or taking responsibility for the various carefree, misbehaving or ineffectual males in their lives makes this a frustrating book for me. I’m not sure I didn’t make the right call on Crow Lake all those years ago.

68 books down, 12 to go, and 17 days until the prize is announced. Next week, in my penultimate roundup: Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Will Self’s Shark – and more.

The eighty nominated titles — with the ones I’ve read struck through (and links to reviews, where applicable) — 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 – A.L. 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 & 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 Solace – 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 –Matthew Thomas
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

 

Folio Season #10: Robinson, Lethem, Waldman, Osborne and more

Introduction 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. I’m now posting weekly updates on the titles I’ve been zooming through in the past seven days…

ViequesA bumper edition this week (now the holiday [above] is over): reviews below of Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman, The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne, Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut, Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn, Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li, Nora Webster by Colm Toibin and and On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee. Whew!

Lila – Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux US)
LilaLila isn’t her name; she doesn’t have a name of her own, only ‘a likeness of a name’. Lila is a name given to her; her surname, Dahl, a corruption of the name of Doll, the woman who rescues – or steals – Lila as a baby from a household where she’s neglected and abused. Over the course of her life, Lila is a scavenger, a wild girl, a prostitute and, finally, a wife and mother. The undertow of her life on the run with Doll and a ragtag bunch of travellers still calls to her; even when happily married and with a daughter of her own, she still feels that one day she might have to leave her adopted home and run again. It’s a while since I read Home and Gilead, the two novels to which Lila is successor and part sequel, and so I have lost track a little of the Ames and Boughtons of those books, and the various quiet struggles and betrayals of their backstory; here, Lila marries the elderly reverend, John Ames, at the very end of his life; I suspect that to re-read those other two books (as I intend to) with this foreknowledge will cast an interesting new perspective on this quiet saga, in which marriage is undertaken for deceptively simple reasons: ‘“I’m going to keep you safe. And you’re going to keep me honest.”’ Taken on its own merits, though, this is a subtle, beautiful, tremendously moving novel, one of the best on this list.

Dissident Gardens – Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday US)
Dissident GardensIt took me quite a while to get into this book, which wouldn’t normally be a problem, but as I’m reading against time, as it were, was irritating. Partly I was put off by what seems its opening’s flagrant… um, homage, shall we say, to Philip Roth. “Quit fucking black cops or get booted from the Communist Party. There stood the ultimatum, the absurd sum total of the message conveyed to Rose Zimmer by the cabal gathered in her Sunnyside Gardens kitchen that evening. Late fall, 1955.” That’s the first line of Lethem’s book; compare the opening of Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater: “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over. / This was the ultimatum, the maddeningly improbable, wholly unforeseen ultimatum, that the mistress of fifty-two delivered to in tears to her lover of sixty four […]” Let’s say that Lethem’s a fan. A scene shortly afterward in which Rose remonstrates, hysterical and half-naked, with her daughter Miriam (for going on a date), seems like what might happen if you fed every Roth novel into a kind of condensing machine and produced a five-page summary: the most Rothian of rants. The book’s concerns – political activism, the generation gap, protest songs, Jewishness, Communism (the “twentieth-century Americanism”) and What It Means To Be An American (for one character, it’s “to be presented with an unrecognisable image of yourself which you must not fail to claim as yourself”) – aren’t unRothian either. It must be deliberate, surely? Set yourself up against the master at your peril, I say: Lethem’s book has the density of prose of late high Roth, as well as some of the concerns about the intersection and overlapping of the personal and the political (see I Married a Communist, American Pastoral), but little of his elegance nor the killer plotting. Dissident Gardens has some memorable setpieces – often involving games, oddly, whether chess or TV quiz shows – but I struggled my way through it, wishing for a bit less hero-worship and a bit more clarity of purpose, as well as of prose. A clunker.

Love and Treasure – Ayelet Waldman (Knopf US)
Love and TreasureLike All the Light We Cannot See last week, this is one of those generations-spanning, world-tramping novels that takes real events in World War II as its starting point. Jack, stationed in Salzburg at the very end of the war, is charged with guarding a train filled with the valuables of Hungarian Jews sent to concentration camps: their jewellery, silverware, artworks. A century later, his granddaughter travels to Budapest to try to reunite a particular piece of jewellery – a bejewelled peacock, purloined by Jack – to its rightful owner, or as near to such a person as possible. And in 1913, at the dawn of the fight for women’s rights, a psychoanalyst is called in to help a young Hungarian proto-suffragette whose story will become entwined with the peacock ornament’s. I liked the leapfrogging structure of this book, which moves through three distinct time periods, united by works of art; it’s uneven, however, since compared to the engaging WWII narrative and the psychoanalyst’s notes on his young charge, the central present-day narrative, which should be terrific (it’s a kind of who-owns-it, rather than whodunit, based around stolen and lost artworks, and has a nicely hubristic ending) is just a series of rather dry deductions in which coincidence – which plays too big a part throughout the book – figures heavily. I also rather resisted the very programmatic links between Waldman’s title and her text: a series of love affairs, a number of priceless treasures – it’s all a bit ‘Do you see?!’ Likewise, the analyst’s account is a little too tinged with hindsight: we enlightened readers know that Nina is ‘right’ to insist on equal rights for women, her father a baddie for sending her for treatment for dementia praecox, and well-meaning Dr Zobel ‘ignorant’ for obstructing her, so this section, while convincingly written, seems somewhat an exercise in knowing historical reinforcement: look how unenlightened people were a hundred years ago! When it hits its stride, it’s very readable, but that only comes in fits and starts; the opening, in which Jack and his granddaughter are reunited a day before his death, is particularly stilted.

The Ballad of a Small Player – Lawrence Osborne (Hogarth US)
Ballad of a Small PlayerThis is partly why I set out on this Folio Season business: here’s a writer I’ve not only never read before but hadn’t even heard of, though Osborne is the author of several other books. The Ballad of a Small Player is a short, claustrophobic novel set on the gambling island of Macau, where time and daylight disappear and our narrator, known as Lord Doyle, can escape his criminal background, adopt a new name, and win and lose all day long. Like any gambler, he has runs of luck, but his latest is his most bizarre: playing baccarat, where the best cards are a four and a five, he is dealt exactly this hand over and over, winning and winning and winning. Statistically it’s not impossible, but it is deeply improbable. Still Doyle keeps testing the run, wondering when his luck will run out – or if it ever will. Has he been blessed? Cursed? I liked this novel a lot, even when its strangeness crossed over from the statistical to something like a ghost story. There’s a telling central metaphor about Chinese versions of Hell and of ‘hungry ghosts’: ‘Continually suffering from hunger or thirst, they cannot sate or slake either craving.’ A late-stage twist is, if not exactly predictable, satisfyingly apt for the story Osborne is telling. I’ll certainly be seeking out more of his books.

Arctic Summer – Damon Galgut (Europa Editions US)
Arctic SummeGalgut’s novel follows E.M. Forster as he travels to India for the first time, exploring the reasons for his visit (romantic, sort of) and the consequences (a novel widely accepted as Forster’s masterpiece). It’s slightly puzzling to me why books like this exist. A good biography – though I’ve not found any of the books on Forster I’ve read to be especially good – would cover much of this material; what a factual account might eschew, Galgut does very well, however, extrapolating from what’s known of Forster to generate fictive scenes of thwarted passion, for instance, which have the ring of truth about them even if they’re largely invented. I’m a bit torn about this book: novels about novelists are one thing, novels about real novelists another, and novels which seek to dramatise poetic inspiration can be reductive. On the other hand, the shorthand view that suggests writing is a kind of quasi-mystical business (present in the word ‘inspiration’, as though the writer or artist has been ‘breathed into’ by some unknowable higher power) can be irritating – so this book has a fine line to walk. I’m not convinced that it’s more than the sum of its parts, though the writing is good and the subject matter interesting. I suppose it comes down to whether it’s more interesting to the reader to witness process or outcome; this book suggests that the two are very close — this fictive Forster synthesises various experiences and real characters for A Passage to India, but much of what he witnesses ends up in his novel unmediated, as it were, which seems to slightly do a disservice to his work.

Lost for Words – Edward St Aubyn (Farrar, Straus & Giroux US)
Lost for WordsIt takes some chutzpah, you might say, for an award-winning author to write a comic novel that suggests (some) literary prizes are administered by idiots and hypocrites, riven with infighting, prey to conflicts of interests, and awarded almost inevitably to the least deserving, lowest-common-denominator finalist. It may reflect some humour on the part of literary prize boards that Lost for Words should have been listed for this prize. For me, this is a slight confection, rife with the sort of farce and comedy that perhaps works better on screen or in the theatre than on the page. The targets are either easy – the establishment of the Folio Prize in response to an especially anaemic Booker Prize year is a more fitting response than St Aubyn’s book – or bizarre (a maniacal publisher with bad hair implants is named, at once pointedly and pointlessly, John Elton), and the climactic awarding of the Elysian Prize to a cookbook mistaken by some judges for a novel is a cop-out, skewering neither the literary pretension some real-life prizes are castigated over, nor the focus on ‘readability’ for which some others are criticised. Excerpts from the shortlisted books are troublesome too: it beggars belief that a (very) sub-Irvine Welsh book, wot u lookin at, might be considered for the prize; it’s worse that Lost for Words then points out its sub-Welsh-ness. And in a book where characters decry clichés in the books they read, a single paragraph that contains the phrases ‘Penny was lost for words’ and ‘she really didn’t appreciate having her head bitten off’ might want to set its own house in order. I did, however, like the idea of Ghost, a writer’s software which suggests not just synonyms but clichés expanding from a particular word or phrase, and which allows the user to bump up the wordcount of her novel-in-progress ‘in leaps and bounds’. But there’s that unabashed deployment of cliché again!

Kinder than Solitude – Yiyun Li (Random House US)
Kinder Than SolitudeSubtle to the point of glacial, this novel starts with the death of Shaoai, who’s been in a coma for 21 years. As news of her death reaches the three people who knew her best in the late 1980s, their past starts to unfold in their reactions and memories. Shaoai’s coma was the result of her poisoning, possibly at the hands of one of this trio – but who? And why? And does it really make any difference? I was very taken with the story of Ruyu, adopted by Shaoai’s family and a kind of brutally passive character whom Shaoai taunts for her refusal to engage with the world. Her former peers, Boyang and Moran, are equally solitary creatures at odds with the world. The preoccupations of this book are there in the title (what do you sacrifice by being stoically solitary? Is it better to engage with others and, essentially, risk your life, as Shaoai does when she participates in a political protest?) but the frequent recurrences of ‘kind’, ‘kindness’, ‘solitude’, and all their variants, in the text drive the point home a little too hard. At times this really came to life for me; the central conceit – ‘the habit of being opaque allowed [Ruyu] to be a mystery in people’s eyes. To want to know any person better requires one to give up that position ad to become less inscrutable’ – I found intriguing and unusual, and the book explores its ramifications well. I liked, too, the way that an ostensible mystery (who did the poisoning?) is allowed to disappear for long stretches, its resolution not unclear and yet something of a shrug: now that you’ve read all about these characters, does it matter whether Shaoai killed herself or was poisoned? Something about this ambiguity is, paradoxically, not at all disappointing.

Nora Webster – Colm Toibin (Penguin Viking UK)
Nora WebsterMore subtlety. The eponymous main character of Toibin’s limpid, moving novel is a recent widow, bringing up two boys in the Ireland of the late 1960s. Over three years, her grief shifts, ebbs, waxes, changes: she starts to return to real life, and is both cossetted and hindered by the people of Enniscorthy, the small town near Dublin where she lives: this is a place where everyone knows everyone else, a support network that’s more of a trap to get tangled in. The disapproval that greets Nora’s dyeing her hair, or buying a brightly coloured dress, is palpable and tangible. This sort of suffocating atmosphere pervades this novel; weirdness thrums at a low level – something odd happens to Nora’s sons Conor and Donal, yet, trying not to be as fussy and busybody as her own parents, she doesn’t quite sufficiently investigate what has transpired. It’s a short book into which a vast amount of slow-burning, almost imperceptible action is packed; Nora is hindered and helped in her return to post-mourning life, but judgement – whether approving or not – is always being made, as she is judging others. In the background, too, the Troubles are starting: the other side of the country may as well be a half a world away, at least until locals start getting involved. You come away from this book feeling almost clammy: it’s a terrific achievement.

On Such a Full Sea – Chang-Rae Lee (Riverhead US)
On Such a Full SeaA dystopia set five minutes in the future, where the city of Baltimore – now known as B-Mor – is a kind of island fortress whose inhabitants live a balanced, peaceful, self-sufficient life. It’s a world of handscreens and vids, technological extrapolations only slightly removed from those of our own time, but also a world where every human being will die of ‘C’ (cancer)… or maybe not quite every one. Fan, a fishergirl who looks after the fish on which B-Mor depends, sets off on a quest beyond B-Mor to the rich Counties in search of her boyfriend Reg who, it’s rumoured, has never had ‘C’ and has perhaps been taken to the Counties for monitoring or experimentation.
There’s lots about this book that I liked: for one, the structure, which alternates between Fan’s story and a “we” voice that relates what happens in B-Mor in her absence, as the inhabitants grow dissatisfied with their seemingly idyllic life and anarchy starts to bloom. Those unnamed communal voice narrates Fan’s adventures elsewhere, too, and so there is a sort of double fable thing going on: the B-Mors’ acts are put in a kind of passive voice, as if everyone yet no-one is responsible for their graffiti and littering, and it’s by no means certain if what they describe Fan doing is a true account or a kind of myth. These adventures can be less or more involving – one in which Fan faces down cannibals is too familiar a horror, but one in which she’s inveigled into a cult of identically genetically altered girls with numbers for names and an obsession with making art is terrific – seem arbitrarily plotted, as if this could have been a much longer or much shorter book without suffering unduly. Fan herself, as befits a mythic figure, is somewhat sketchily characterised, but that doesn’t seem to matter too much. On Such a Full Sea is an uneven book, not always a satisfying one, but memorable all the same.

62 books down, 18 to go, and 24 days until the prize is announced. Next week: Constantine Phipps, Jane Smiley and more.

The eighty nominated titles — with the ones I’ve read struck through (and links to reviews, where applicable) — 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 – A.L. 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 & 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 –Matthew Thomas
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