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.
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?
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
March 9, 2012 § Leave a comment
So, here is the long list, announced on International Women’s Day.
- Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg
- On the Floor by Aifric Campbell
- The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen
- The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
- Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
- The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
- The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki
- Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
- Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding
- Gillespie and I by Jane Harris
- The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay
- The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
- The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
- Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick
- State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
- There but for the by Ali Smith
- The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard
- Tides of War by Stella Tillyard
- The Submission by Amy Waldman
I’ve got a lot of reading to do for this, since I’ve only read The Sealed Letter and Half Blood Blues. I picked up the Donoghue after reluctantly and belatedly reading Room and being much more impressed than I expected. Historical fiction is not my favourite genre, but when it’s done very well it’s excellent. This was done well – Donoghue is a good writer – although the plot machinations (based on a true story) needed one of the characters to be too naive for too long, so she became slightly irritating. Half Blood Blues was also well written and very interesting, but a novel set in such a time and place needed a much stronger and more ominous sense of threat in addition to the horror of the individual events. Still, both are worthy contenders for the prize.
March 7, 2012 § 1 Comment
Earlier this week, Farmlanebooks put out a list of the twenty books that she thinks could make the Orange Prize longlist on Thursday. I’ve reviewed a couple (Anna Funder’s All That I Am and Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox), but haven’t actually read any of the other books on her list.
Perhaps I’m unusual, but I don’t find the covers of this selection (and no doubt of the actual longlist) very appealing. Too many of the books look as though they are falling between the cracks of “literary” and “appealing to women” (because the two categories couldn’t possibly overlap). I have trouble choosing books in bookshops for precisely this reason, which is why I mostly come to the novels I read by being intrigued by a review and then reserving the books at the library, all without ever noticing the cover. I find my shelves of French novels, with their mostly plain covers, reassuringly literary-looking, even though those covers are a no more reliable indicator of quality of contents than atmospheric landscapes or whimsical pen drawings, but look, aren’t they attractive?
Nonetheless, I’m eagerly awaiting Thursday’s announcement, even though there are rarely big surprises with this kind of thing (and when there are surprises, they aren’t always good) Often when shortlists are announced, I think “Really? These are the best books in the country/world/year?” and then have a disappointed mope about why there is so much averagely good stuff and so rarely anything genuinely brilliant. I plough through so many books that I vaguely enjoy reading, always hoping for that rare shiver when I realise that this author really gets it, that this book is going to be in my life forever, and look at that, it’s already forcing me out of bed in the middle of the night, pen in hand, scrabbling for a scrap of paper to jot down some crucial idea before it evaporates in the dark. But perhaps it’s better this way. If there was more genius around, what would we do for the thrill of the chase?