Alice, What’s the Matter?

October 11, 2013 § 3 Comments

I’ve just been on the phone with Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and they’ve confirmed that I’ll probably lose my right to residency for publishing this post. Or they would have, if they actually had phone lines to call.

(The title of this post is not an entirely gratuitous Terrorvision reference, since the lyrics are oddly apposite to the case at hand.)

Alice Munro: Nobel winner. Every time I read an Alice Munro book, which is once every few years when I start to suspect, once again, that I must be missing something, I quite enjoy it. I admire her sentences and her clever ability to know people, to get at what is “true” in the small details of motivation and grey thinking. But once I’ve finished the book (and this year, wanting—and failing—to be Christian Lorentzen, I even read two back-to-back) I fail to find a bigger mental home for the ideas in it. When there’s a Munro on my shelf I don’t race to pick it up because I think I already know what’s in it.


Yesterday I spotted only one Canadian expressing disagreement with the general Alice-adoration. I’m sure there were many I didn’t see, but the people I saw referring to negative reactions to the gong were mainly talking about dreading the backlash. This tweeter enjoyed Munro’s early books but felt that later ones covered already-worked ground. Across the pond, various male UK critics and writers—all of whose opinions I respect—got into a little spat about Munro’s importance. I agreed with them all to some extent—with Lee Rourke’s opinion that Munro’s “work is necessary and great to read. It speaks to us, shows us ourselves. But what does it disrupt? What does it fracture?” as well as with Stuart Evers’ retort (admittedly not quite in response to this particular tweet): “Oh for fuck’s sake, Lee that is just utterly bollocking bollocks.”

Mine is probably the worst kind of philistinism, the kind that blows in the wind, veering first one way and then the other. Munro’s writing inspires admiration while I’m reading it but I don’t find it exhilarating. In the end, though, Rourke and Evers don’t find themselves quite as far apart as the above suggests. Their reactions and responses to Munro’s writing are similar, with both admiring her and recognising the “truth” in her writing. What they disagree about is its importance.


Since I’m female, the dismissal of a woman writer as unimportant purely because she doesn’t disrupt the dominant cultural energy is a luxury I can’t enjoy, however ambivalent I might feel about the writer’s works. Alice Munro is 82: we readers less than half her age and of a certain political persuasion have simply not had to live in the world whose dominant cultural energy she did in fact disrupt. The fact that a female author is considered worthy of transmitting these mainstream ideas is something I find just as significant as concerns over her adventurousness or lack of it. One of her collections is called Lives of Girls and Women. Does your average man-reader, one looking for fiction that reflects a majority experience back at him, go into a bookshop and pick that up?

Recently I heard Kathleen Winter talking about writing. A question from an audience member asked her if she felt social pressure to write strong female characters. The questioner (who was perhaps in his twenties) may not have intended it this way, but the implication was that this might not be representative of how women truly are. Winter pointed out that she spent many years writing—and feeling pressure to write—stories with strong male characters because that’s what the literary establishment likes and rewards. The dominant cultural energy is not so very changed after all.

The original point of this post, before I got sidetracked with working out what I actually felt about Munro and the critical scepticism, was to point out that beyond the big names (Munro, Ondaatje, Atwood) CanLit is a diverse place, even if much of its more experimental side never gets to travel beyond the borders. For readers whose taste is more Goldsmiths Prize than Richard and Judy, I’ll be writing next week about some disruptive Canadian writers you really should have a look at.

Granta Best of Young British Novelists 2013

April 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Here’s hoping that some of my Three Rs guests will be on Granta’s list, which will be announced next week. I don’t know if all are eligible, and I’m pretty sure one is too old, but he looks young in his author photo so I’ll put him in anyway. Best of British to them all.

Alison Moore

Anjali Joseph

Joe Dunthorne

Naomi Alderman

Sam Byers

Sam Thompson

Simon Okotie

Edited to add: two of these writers miss the age cut off, it turns out.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013

March 12, 2013 § 2 Comments

The longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction has just been announced, with twenty titles on it. Last year I got a bit carried away with prize fever and tried to read too many longlists for too many prizes, which drew me away from books I actually wanted to read. It’s one thing to make a new discovery on a longlist and try it because it looks good; it’s quite another to end up feeling obliged to read mediocre books simply to discuss a long- or shortlist. So I won’t be attempting to read the whole twenty this year.

I’ve only read three on the list: NW (Zadie Smith), Flight Behaviour (Barbara Kingsolver) and May We Be Forgiven (AM Homes). I thought the first was excellent and the third intriguing. Was it excellent? It depends on which way I read the author’s intentions, which made me realise how important context is, no matter how much we might think a work should stand on its own. I tried (I really did) to read Bring Up The Bodies, but I fear Mantel’s fiction is just not for me, much as I admire her non-fiction.

So what’s here that I really want to read? What is there that interested me when I first heard about it, but what has been buried under the constant avalanches of new titles? Six books. A decent number to be going on with (while I also try to fill out my enormous gaps in two recent translation prize lists: the Independent Prize for Foreign Fiction and the Best Translated Book Award).






Journey Prize winner

November 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

Happy to see that my own favourite, Alex Pugsley, won this year’s Journey Prize for his story “Crisis on Earth-X.” Good taste, jurors.

Belated Booker

August 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Does it say more about my local library or this year’s Booker prize that the library has only three of the books on the shortlist? Hilary Mantel is there of course, along with Rachel Joyce and, more surprisingly, Tan Twan Eng.

What to make of a list that has missed off so many expected big hitters? Self and Frayn are the only two obvious names, although I’m very surprised to see farce on the Booker longlist. I don’t feel any need for a longlist made up entirely of the predictable names, but I would have expected at least a couple from this list (stolen from Farmlanebooks):

NW by Zadie Smith, The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner, No Time Like the Present by Nadine Gordimer, The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey, Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears, Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan, Mountains of the Moon by I J Kay, The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman, All is Song by Samantha Harvey, How It All Began by Penelope Lively, Pure by Timothy Mo, Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding, The Forrests by Emily Perkins, Merivel by Rose Tremain, The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon, The Light of Amsterdam by David Park, A Division of the Light by Christopher Burns, The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber

(NB I haven’t checked if these are all eligible, and personally I’m happy that the as-yet unreleased titles here didn’t make the list–there’s at least a couple on the longlist that haven’t been released.)

There are five books I already wanted to read: Levy, Moore, Self (whose book might in fact be coming to the library, but I couldn’t bring myself to trawl through the hundreds of mostly self-help and wishful-thinking volumes that “will self” brings up in its search engine), Thayil and Thompson. Based on previous exposure I wasn’t very interested in Barker, Brink or Mantel (shame on me, yes, yes, I know), and put off by the reviews of Michael Frayn and Rachel Joyce. The two new names to me are Ned Beauman and Tan Twan Eng. The latter’s two book titles score a full house in my bad-title-words bingo (Garden! Rain! Gift! Mist! Evening!). Can I overcome my prejudices and crack the spine?

It does surprise me that I haven’t read a single one. It’ll be interesting to see what the quality of the writing is like as I work my way through.

Anyone else planning to read the whole dozen?

Secret favourite Orange

May 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

It turns out I did have a favourite for the Orange Prize after all. Just before I clicked to find out who it was, I realised I wanted it to be Madeline Miller. And it was! Many congratulations to her.


May 28, 2012 § 2 Comments

So for the past several weeks I have been labouring under the delusion that AL Kennedy had made the Orange shortlist. I read five of the shortlist ages ago and couldn’t get hold of The Blue Book. It finally arrived in my hands last week, and I got about halfway through before discovering that it was the wrong book anyway. I’m not entirely sure why I thought Kennedy was on the shortlist rather than Georgina Harding (Painter of Silence), and I’m pretty sure I would have preferred reading the latter. Even though I adored On Bullfighting, I can’t quite get on with AL Kennedy’s fiction.

Before I read the shortlist, I had a hierarchy in my mind that went something like: Kennedy and Miller at the top, Enright and Edugyan in the middle, Patchett at the bottom, and Ozick an unknown. Obviously that was somewhat scuppered by reading the wrong book, but even of the five I did read I honestly can’t choose a favourite or even a least favourite. It feels like a genuine competition with a lot of good writing.

Foreign Bodies, by Cynthia Ozick, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 255 pages, $32.50

Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

Why it could win: Possibly the most experienced writer (and definitely the oldest) on the shortlist, Ozick’s book is the most traditionally literary. You’ve got to love someone who can naturally use words like “fustian” in the 21st century. She has an elegant turn of phrase and a good ear for dialogue. Interesting idea to write a negative of The Ambassadors (and nicely done with the title, too – the perfect opposite of an ambassador). Ozick is very good stylistically, and the book is a conversation with all of literature, not just contemporary novels.

What I didn’t like: The anomie/world-weariness/neurasthenia of all the characters was a bit overdone, leading to unconvincing exchanges (or frequently silences) that were necessary for the storyline but rather annoying en masse.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett, HarperCollins, 353 pages, $18.99

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Why it could win: Patchett’s story is the biggest on plot (except, perhaps for The Song of Achilles). It isn’t a criticism if I say it’s not exactly a page-turner, but it heads in that direction. I liked that the character of Dr Swenson was no less unpleasant even after we discover her secret agenda. It’s always good to read a book whose characters have jobs and visit places that are utterly unlike my own.

What I didn’t like: The ending was a bit neat for me—a bit too tidy overall, and too predictable in one specific part of it. The male characters seemed like sketches helping to move the plot along. People cope with enormous difficulties unrealistically, and then break down at unexpectedly small things (this was largely a problem because it felt accidental rather than meaningful).

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, Thomas Allen, 309 pages, $24.95

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan        

Why it could win: This novel is a fresh and interesting take on a very familiar—and much-loved (if that could possibly be the right word) by readers–period of history. Nice use of a semi-vernacular voice without falling into the abyss of caricature. The main character is very well drawn, and Edugyan plays successfully with perspective and nuance of interpretation when dealing with his sin/guilt/denial. The best cover of the entire longlist. You can listen to an extract from the audiobook here, read in a great coffee and cigarettes voice.

What I didn’t like: The setting and the context were never truly married to the action, and were not quite full enough, so overall the novel felt a bit thin.

US edition, March 2012

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Why it could win: Bold and well-paced interpretation of the relationship between two well-known Greek figures, retold for a contemporary audience. Miller has done a great job of conveying bits of Greek mythology that readers need to know without it being intrusive. (She also has an interesting blog that serves up appetiser-sized chunks of things Greek.)

What I didn’t like: Took me a while to adjust to the spare, lyrical style, but once I had settled in to it, I loved it.

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

Why it could win: Lots of moments where she fully nails the human experience and perfectly identifies universal emotions that we might prefer to believe are unique to us.

What I didn’t like: It became a bit repetitive and slow towards the end, and I wasn’t keen on the rather unsettled relationship between the narrator and author, and consequently reader and narrator. Was I supposed to despise her or recognise her? Mock or empathise? All of the foregoing, I think, but it needed just a little more something to pull off those mixed feelings.

So who should win?

I really don’t know who I would put forward as the best of the six five I read. I didn’t absolutely adore any of them but they are all worthy contenders. If I was forced to pick one I would say…hmmm…you know what, I really couldn’t. To narrow it down to two, I’ll go with Miller and Enright, although I think if I was a judge I’d be tempted not to go with a first novel, however good. A nomination for a first novel must be a huge boost to a writer’s career, but if you win a major prize with your debut, where is there left to go? The next book surely has to be astoundingly good if the writer is not to be written off as a one-book wonder.

All will be revealed very shortly. As for me, I’m off to track down Painter of Silence.

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

April 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

The clues suggested I’d be wasting my time. A previous novel I hadn’t particularly enjoyed, a cover that didn’t appeal (the second one shown on this page), a title that didn’t convey the idea of challenging writing. If Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz had not been shortlisted for the Orange Prize, I would almost certainly have ignored it, despite the fact that I like her writing in the LRB.  And then I read the first paragraph:

If it hadn’t been for the child then none of this might have happened, but the fact that a child was involved made everything that much harder to forgive. Not that there is anything to forgive, of course, but the fact that a child was mixed up in it all made us feel that there was no going back; that it mattered. The fact that a child was affected meant we had to face ourselves properly, we had to follow through.

I closed the book to take another look at the cover, make sure I was reading the book I thought I was reading, and then went back to that last sentence. This is what I’ve been waiting for from the Orange Prize, I thought. In fact, it’s what I’m always waiting for in a novel—a tiny insight that makes you say yes, that’s exactly what it’s like.

That first delicious hint drew me in, the suggestion that the partners in adultery followed through not because of the overwhelming rightness of their love but because once the child was involved, the overwhelming rightness of their love could be the only justifiable reason for destroying her parents’ marriage and her stability. We all tend to assume that other people are the grown ups; that everyone else behaves in an adult fashion. But of course that’s not true: secretly we are all still waiting to grow up. That’s why the last sentence of the quoted paragraph is so perfect and so full of ambiguous tension: they had been behaving as if they could get away with something, but once a child was involved they had to act like grown ups and start believing in consequences. Something they had wanted to do might now become something they didn’t want to do, but were compelled to do.

The Forgotten Waltz is the story – self-consciously a story, as the narrator, Gina, reflects throughout on what she might be altering to make a better narrative or to make something fit with her conscience—of an affair. Gina even calls Seán the love of her life while constantly undermining (and underlining) this assertion. The writing is lively and witty, without using humour as a way of distancing the characters from emotion. Gina’s voice is wry and frank, cynical yet not deadened, as Enright charts the affair from the high drama of lust and secrecy to the quiet tragedy of responsibility.

The Forgotten Waltz

I do have some reservations about The Forgotten Waltz. It’s not a lengthy novel, at 225-ish pages, but towards the end I did start to feel that something else needed to happen along with the wrapping up (although in some ways the whole novel is a wrapping up). The affair is set in the Irish housing bubble and subsequent bursting of it, and more could have come of this by making Gina and Seán’s relationship itself fully contingent on the sale of a suddenly and massively devalued house. Gina also dips occasionally into caricature—the white-wine-drinking female professional in a man’s world—and I wondered whether Enright had never quite made up her mind whether she liked Gina or instead despised her and the rest of her circle for their consumerism, the way they measure everything in terms of cash (the house Gina buys with her husband Conor “was going up by about seventy-five euro a day”), and their constant assessment of their status. An author disliking a character isn’t necessarily a problem, but an author’s ambiguity can produce an uneven semi-empathy that startles readers when it is snatched back.

These points aside, The Forgotten Waltz is exactly the sort of thing that prizes ought to reward: intelligent, strong and confident writing; something that investigates, with grace and a killing sharpness, just what it means to be fallibly human. Enright has a wonderful voice and the ability to create a tight, smart story one sentence at a time. There’s been a lot of discussion about whether she is literary or not. I tend towards the yes camp (after all, there are all kinds of similarities with Hanif Kureishi’s Intimacy—packaging excepted–not least being the astonishing grasp of the selfish single-mindedness of people who want something they are not supposed to want): literary overlapping with upmarket mainstream . Or is that just hedging my bets?


The Lemon Prize

April 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

So the usual debates are surrounding the announcement of the Orange Prize shortlist. People who don’t appear to even read books see the headline about a women-only prize and start weighing in on the comments section. In the Guardian (where the tone is slightly more, um, evolved than some places), commenter Oscaria suggested that the people asking where the men’s prize was should start one and call it the Lemon Prize.

Half Blood Blues

I have a foot in both camps. On the one hand, I think that having a special prize for women writers simply continues the tradition of men being writers and women being women writers (at least we don’t call them authoresses any more). Even pro-equality publications still slip into these kinds of assessments. On the other hand, given all the recent VIDA data that shows how little things are really changing in terms of reviews written by men of male books, etc etc, the prize does give the twenty shortlisted women a hit of publicity. There have been suggestions that the Orange jury should be mixed, and that seems like a good start. As to the rest, I think I’ll just shut down my inner cynic by pointing out to myself that I’m all in favour of an ideal world where a women-only prize isn’t necessary. (Edited to add: the excellent Pickle Me This blog has a much clearer discussion of all this. Read it!) Of course, more serious covers would be a good thing all round… (I’ve included two images of Half-Blood Blues in this post on the basis that Edugyan’s book is the only one whose covers don’t insult my intelligence).

Half-Blood Blues

In any case, the shortlisted six are:

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding

Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

I’m surprised not to see Gillespie and I by Jane Harris, simply because it’s had strong recommendations from other bloggers. The shortlist does seem to have gone for what I considered the top half of the longlist, broadly speaking. Now that the list is more manageable (and the distractions of the ones that didn’t appeal are removed) I think I’ll have a bash at getting through the lot before the winner is announced.

Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg

March 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

Once upon a time, I used to skip massive swathes of description, pages taken up with the minutiae of a place, its weather, the colour of the sky and the feel of the air. There was often a surfeit of description, I felt: if I’d taken it in once, I didn’t need to go through it again. The important part was the characters, their feelings, their development, and I was eager to return to the meat of the novel. But then came writing that could have been set anywhere, and was mostly set inside a character’s head, and place receded into the background. This is fine for some novels, but others—most recently Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues and Anna Funder’s All That I Am, both set in particularly interesting times and locations—really lack a solid grounding in place. Both writers have done their research and incorporated important details, but in between these details it is hard to remember you are in Berlin or Paris (the London section of Funder’s book was better in this regard), and the characters seem to drift back into a highly nuanced and finely observed netherworld of the mind.

Island of Wings - book cover

Karin Altenberg’s debut novel Island of Wings, longlisted for this year’s Orange Prize, is therefore refreshing in its ability to evoke place, specifically St Kilda, one of the most remote groups of islands off the coast of Scotland. From the book’s blurb, it appears that Altenberg’s background is in archaeology, and she is a Fellow of the Linnean Society. This really comes through in her attention to detail: landscape, flora and fauna all come alive with nary an overdone moment. It’s like savouring a wonderful cocktail instead of having to down several different shots and a juice chaser. Everything works harmoniously towards the same end; everything is in the right place.

The plot itself is based on the true story of Neil MacKenzie and his wife Lizzie, posted to the islands of St Kilda by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge in the 1830s. The newly married pair settle in the manse on the island of Hirta, some distance away from the ancient village where the natives live in their semi-underground huts. The harsh life of the island, including a high rate of infant mortality that does not leave the MacKenzies untouched, mirrors the internal struggles that both Neil and Lizzie live through. Neil is evangelical, convinced of the rightness of converting the St Kildans to Christianity and frustrated when they revert to superstition at times of fear. Lizzie, isolated by the fact that she doesn’t speak Gaelic, is trying to reconcile herself to her new life, distressed that her husband doesn’t even recognise her loneliness. Ultimately, both have to make some compromises.

Altenberg takes a while to settle into her voice, with the prose early on being distracted by an overly explanatory tone, but by the end both characters and voice are secure. The combination of the extreme and remote setting, the marriage, the islanders themselves and the background of the break from the Church of Scotland of many of the more evangelical ministers make this an excellent debut. I think it has a good chance of winning the Orange Prize, particularly as it doesn’t strike me as the sort of book that will  inspire love/hate divisions.

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