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
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
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
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.
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.