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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)
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