When a big box arrived at my home and copies of all ten of the books on this year’s Dylan Thomas Prize long list spilled out onto the table, I was determined to read each one. After all I’d been lucky enough to be given the books and their arrival coincided with the end of the political term.
What follows are the verdicts which I posted on my blog almost immediately after I’d read the books. I haven’t altered these instant reviews apart from any references that only make sense in relation to their original context. I’ve also tried to mimic the process the judges are going through; I’ve chosen a short list and a winner.
The real winner will be announced at a glitzy ceremony in Swansea on November the 9th and will receive £30,000. I’m afraid my winner will get nothing but the warm glow of my approval.
1. ‘Diving Belles’ by Lucy Wood
This is a collection of haunting and haunted stories but what they focus on is the distance between the human characters rather than the distance between the human and the supernatural beings of which they tell. And they avoid making the supernatural – the strangeness – the centre of the stories. Instead that centre is the difficulty of relationships, the missed opportunities in even the closest relationships.
The ghosts, the giants, the elves, the spirits: these are the backdrop which highlight those problems. Or then again they become living symbols or enactments of the real-life relationships. Or they provide means of viewing the ‘normal’ refracted through an extremely strange situation. For instance, how long do you keep on helping someone you still care about even though you’ve split up and, more pressingly, you’re about to turn into stone? How do you cope with the strain of learning to live with someone, learning to live in a strange town at the same time as coming to terms with the fact that your parents have sold your childhood home? Oh and the ghost of an ancient mariner has moved in too.
But the story I love best is ‘Wisht’ which is full of menace and gloom, hints of ghostly hounds and fearful moors, but turns out to be so much warmer than you expect. A twist on the traditional short-story-twist. Lovely.
2. ‘Threats’ by Amelia Gray
It would be too easy to say that I like this novel. I loved parts of it, hated others and was largely baffled throughout. The most accurate thing to say is that it felt as though I read it with my breath held. The artistry of it is breathtaking but so is the pain of the personal tragedy the book recreates. It hurts.
Built from short chapters retelling apparently disconnected episodes, the effect is disjointed, fragmented and weird. It’s about the ending of a relationship, the ending of relationships and how that colours everything that went before:
‘I guess endings don’t always follow the story,’ David said. ‘Some people don’t spend a day of their lives in a hospital until those last two weeks. Everything is different at the end in a way that hastens its coming.’
And everything is different for David after his wife, Franny, is killed. He realises he doesn’t know much about large parts of her life, his own life or those of his family and friends. Clearly already disturbed and mentally ill, after her death he descends into an insane grief which turns everyday life and encounters with other people into a hypnotic string of hallucinations.
A series of poetic threats written on scraps of paper begin turning up in the oddest places. Trying to piece them together and work out who sent them and why hastens his own derangement. A detective investigating what happens fails to piece anything together. It’s not at all clear what’s happening in David’s deluded mind and what’s real. Everything shifts from underneath us all the time.
Amelia Gray is a major talent. Her writing throughout is jaw-droppingly powerful and early on there is an astonishingly brilliant chapter which sets the tone of the whole novel and captures our sympathy for the – frankly very odd – David, a sympathy which keeps us rooting for him even as he gets madder.
What happens is that Gray swaps David’s perspective with that of the firefighter who finds him guarding his wife’s three-day old body:
‘David wasn’t sure how to tell her what needed to be said.’
And the body-switch means it appears that David is comforting the firefighter, who is broken and grief-stricken. It’s amazing, hazy and heartbreaking.
I wonder if some of the other characters needed to be odd too. A therapist sets up office in David’s garage surrounded by swarms of wasps; a woman folds and refolds laundry. All that seems a bit too like David Lynch. But it’s a small quibble. ‘Threats’ is an overwhelming, painful, fractured and unforgettable experience.
3. ‘My Dearest Jonah’ by Matthew Crow
I simply couldn’t get on with this novel. I struggled to get to the end and disliked it throughout. It mistakes verbosity for virtuosity and felt throughout as if it were written in an impersonation of literary style. It takes the form of letters from two very lost souls in the Deep South of the USA. But either they sound like each other, or rather like the author. Bitterly disappointing.
4. ‘The White Shadow’ by Andrea Eames
Unless the next six books that I read are out-of-this-world, I think this should win the Dylan Thomas Prize. It’s one of the most beautifully written, sad, magical yet clear-eyed novels I’ve read by any author for many years, let alone by one so young.
Set in a turbulent 1970s Rhodesia, the life that young Tinashe loves and believes secure is threatened at every turn: by poverty, by change, by jealousy and most of all by superstition and violence. Violence comes from within his family (his uncle), within his society (drunken thugs) and from without: dangerous animals such as leopards, the White rulers of Rhodesia and the rebels.
His strange and beautiful sister Hazvinei is the source of all his family’s problems. Not because she’s a witch as friends, relatives and enemies keep insisting to the family’s cost, but because she rejects the rules and traditions which bind them, just as her cousin Abel rejects his father’s authorities, just as the rebels reject white rule and just as Ian Smith’s government rejects British rule.
There are many layers of oppression here and that’s before you start on the spirits which wreathe their way throughout the story. They are as real as Tinashe and Hazvinei and others believe them to be. And they are as oppressive as any white policeman or pompous uncle.
The stories are multi-layered, the characters simply but deeply-drawn and the writing is luxuriant, rich in colours and smells and resonant with symbolism.
I felt the spirits closing in around the house. They were the black fur at the edge of my vision; the dank, musty scent that closed my throat and reached fat fingers down my nostrils, stifling my breath; the laughter in the night. Cholera has ‘a cloying, green smell, like avocados rotting on the ground.’ In adolescence, Hazvinei ‘was not fat – she could never be fat – but she became ripe as a mango. She even smelled like a mango, fruity and exotic. How did even her smell take up more space?’ Local gossip about the family clings to them ‘like blackjacks to a cow’s hide’ and ‘the whispers of gossip reached long and splayed fingers into our house. I felt them run through my hair, investigating my ears, nostrils, mouth.’
‘The White Shadow’ is about many things: loss of innocence, love for your family, loss, fear, superstition, hypocrisy, the hardship of village life, the hypocrisy of town life. It’s about the way women are forced into roles: wife, mother or witch. It’s about the painful transition of a colony into a nation.
But above all it’s about the wide-eyed innocent at the centre of hostile forces beyond his control, whose love and loyalty isn’t enough. And it’s about one of the most likeable, admirable, pitiable heroes of any novel: Tinashe who somehow survives the loss of everything.
5. ‘The Doll Princess’ by Tom Benn
This novel won me over. I thought I was going to hate it on the basis of the first few pages and it took some time to adjust both to the Mancunian dialect the characters speak and the bleak moral view of the underworld which they inhabit. But you become accustomed to the rough poetry within the dialect and the dark morality as you would learning a new language.
It’s certainly uncomfortable: violent, drug-fuelled, full of sex and murder and characters who are casually racist and misogynist. Most are dislikeable; a few, including the narrator Bane, display some principles and redeeming features which give us a way of holding on in an otherwise deeply unpleasant world.
There’s a crime to be solved, or rather a wrong to be righted, because this isn’t a detective novel. There’s a rough sort of justice but much more injustice: the guilty people aren’t all punished and the (relatively) good people aren’t all rewarded.
But this book is not just eye-opening as documentary, it’s also satisfying as fiction.
Benn clearly loves language and has a terrific turn of phrase. A dancefloor is ‘heaving like a sea of cockroaches.’ In Manchester’s Village, ‘the mucky canal blistered in the sun.’ And in a murder scene, ‘the impact from bullet holes in the wall had frosted the blood with plaster powder.’
Here’s a longer example:
‘Back to the car – blood soaked upholstery in the mirror. Eyes higher: a taxi indicating at the top of the lane. I wound the window down. It was muggy inside and out.
I knifed the ignition. Twist. The dash clock lit up. Not even 2pm. Twist. Neneh Cherry cried through the radio. Twist. The engine cried with her.’
I love the way this conveys the urgency of the situation by dropping verbs and pronouns. ‘Knifing’ carries so many meanings. Neneh Cherry ‘crying’ and the engine ‘crying’ – it’s beautifully done, as is the whole novel. Very impressive.
6. ‘Grow Up’ by Ben Brooks
It’s hard to believe that Ben Brooks is just twenty. His way with words is extremely impressive: ‘I am emotionally paraplegic and the entire school is playing football.’ ‘There is music as grateful as school hymns ringing off the disco ball.’ ‘Morning is making early promises from the edge of the world and the sky directly over our heads is the colour of blue slush puppy.’ But I’m not sure it’s used for any particular purpose. I’m not convinced that the story gets us anywhere. There’s a hint that the characters are about to grow up, but other than that, there’s no real progress. Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable, well-written ride that will make you smile and occasionally laugh out loud.
7. ‘Tea at the Grand Tazi’ by Alexandra Singer
There are good things to say about it, but let me get the bad things out of the way. There are a lot of bad things to say.
An awkward rhythm, a confused plot, barely-drawn characters and written in a style which veers between psychobabble and overblown cliché, as in this sentence: ‘He was only too aware of how fatally Maia was compelled by him,’ and, ‘She despised religion. To her, it was merely a social construction, the need of mankind to constantly prostrate himself before a higher being and to relinquish all individual control.’ The novel also suffers from a lack of editing and even proof-reading. A character ‘wondered’ instead of ‘wandered’ over; ‘discrete’ appears instead of ‘discreet’, twice; ‘it’s’ regularly appears instead of ‘its’ and the pages are littered with instances of ‘was sat.’
None of it made much sense to me, no episode ever felt complete and at the end of it I have no idea exactly what the crime at the centre of the story is. It tries to say important things about the empowerment of women, yet gives us a central character who repeatedly allows herself to be subjugated.
All this makes it heavy-going as a reading experience, but there are flashes within which suggest that, with the right editor and a decent proofreader, Alexandra Singer has the potential to be better than this.
There are some very effective sequences in the Medina early on, which give a good sense of the intimidating bustle of bazaars. And in these passages, you find some excellent turns of phrase such as the men ‘decaying in the smoke of their hazy enclaves’ and another man with ‘jagged, filthy teeth tinged the colour of strong tea.’ Two duped, drugged women are ‘spread on the bed like lizards skewered by the men’s desire.’
Alexandra Singer has an astonishing personal story that makes the fact that she completed this novel an achievement in itself. But judged by the incredibly high standards of most of the other entrants this was very disappointing.
8. ‘The Spider King’s Daughter’ by Chibundu Onuzo
In contrast this was simply stunning.
It tells the story of a boy and a girl from very different backgrounds who appear at first to have nothing in common. Over the course of the novel we find that that’s not the case and what’s more, that their destinies are set for them by the terrible things they do have in common. What makes them different to each other is not what they thought.
The girl is Abike, the daughter of one of Lagos’ richest men who also happens to have one of the murkiest reputations. We never learn the boy’s name; he’s always referred to as ‘the Hawker’ or ‘Runner G’ after his job: he sells ice-cream to car drivers on a busy road but wasn’t born into poverty.
Their story emerges in alternating passages told from their different perspectives and the charm of their unlikely courtship in its early stages arises from their slightly differing accounts of each episode. The differences become more acute as the story progresses and their relationship becomes more fraught with dangers. By the time the thrilling and tragic climax comes, the alternating versions have shrunk to little more than sentences while their differences have stretched to form an unbridgeable gulf.
This is a novel about the difficulty of understanding another person and the difficulty of escaping the roles set out for you. It is beautifully, richly written in a clear English and a vivid Pidgin. Powerful, haunting and devastating.
9. ‘Seating Arrangements’ by Maggie Shipstead
Over the course of a New England wedding weekend, a wealthy WASP family struggles to contain a mass of repressions. These people are the modern equivalents of the buttoned-up aristocrats of previous generations: people for whom rules and roles matter, whether or not they’re adhered to or broken.
An extraordinarily accomplished novel, ‘Seating Arrangements’ tells of encounters and near-misses between the characters that disrupt a smooth and apparently privileged surface.
It most reminds me of To the Lighthouse with its similarly claustrophobic setting in a second home at the sea. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that a lighthouse features in this novel, its searching beam strafing nighttime bedrooms.
It’s also like Virginia Woolf’s novel in the way the viewpoint shifts from character to character, building up a mosaic of internal monologues. Motives are laid out more clearly than they are in Woolf’s writing, but Shipstead’s prose doesn’t suffer from mixing the explicit with the allusive. Here’s an example:
‘Sex appeal was something she rained down on the world indiscriminately, like a leaflet campaign.’
There are some genuinely funny stretches too. Father and daughter meet up after she has been splattered with the blubber of a beached whale which exploded. He, meanwhile, has been run over by a golf buggy:
“What in God’s name happened?”
“A whale exploded on me. What happened to you?”
“A golf cart hit me. A whale?”
And when the plot has been wound as tightly as a farce, there’s this: ‘Winn could not imagine being so happy, not in this kitchen full of women who had all fused together into one entity, one chattering hydra that he had married and fathered and fingered in the laundry room and kissed accidentally while playing sardines and paid to plan a wedding.’
Winn is the Fisher King – he’s even wounded in the leg – vainly trying to hold his kingdom together. He’s deluded, full of hang-ups and trapped in the struggles in the past, still battling to remain part of an elite and not realising that the harder you try, the less that self-selecting elite respects you.
10. ‘Once You Break a Knuckle’ by D.W. Wilson
D.W. Wilson’s stories are about tough men and women living tough lives in a tough climate. They fight, literally and figuratively, each other and the difficult hands life deals them.
The stories set out where these hardened, self-reliant people meet their limits. Usually those limits are emotional: a lost father, a woman, a failed marriage, a failed job. A father and son show their love for each other in a life-long game of one-upmanship. A heart-broken builder returns to try to rebuild his life on a freezing construction site. A bookish young lad makes an unlikely friendship with a fearsome Jehovah’s Witness. A capable wife leaves her clever but impractical husband.
These are people who can fix things, but can’t fix themselves. Every story features at least one mention of knuckles, which are used for fighting, protecting, working. They’re one of the hardest parts of the body, but when one of the most easily damaged and, when broken, become one of the weakest parts of the body.
Wilson’s language is vigorous and literally muscular, all hardness and mechanics, but with an easy fluency and rhythm that never strikes a false note: ‘He eased himself from the Ranger, imagined his muscles unfolding like big ropes. Everything was the colour of ink. The sun teased behind the Rockies, gave tungsten outlines to their silhouettes.’
And ‘He dug his gloves from the coat’s gut pocket and tossed them in the laundry sink. Splinters jutted from the palms, not deep enough to gouge his skin.’
And ‘The sky had gone the colour of a rusty saw blade.’ These are fine stories in themselves but they work together too. All are set in the unforgiving environment of small-town British Columbia, in fact in the same small town, Invemere. Add to that the fact that they share many of the same characters at different stages in their lives and the collection feels more like an impressionistic novel.
Six of these books are amongst the best I’ve ever read. They’re of extraordinarily high quality and on reading them I forgot how young the writers are, such is the maturity of the writing and characterisation.
My shortlist then, in the order in which I read them, is:
‘Diving Belles’ by Lucy Wood
‘Threats’ by Amelia Gray
‘The White Shadow’ by Andrea Eames
‘The Spider King’s Daughter’ by Chibundu Onuzo
‘Seating Arrangements’ by Maggie Shipstead
‘Once You Break a Knuckle’ by D.W. Wilson
And the winner is ….
For it’s luxuriant language, for the mystical undertone that never overwhelms, for the sad and strange story and for introducing one of the most likeable heroes who is nearly but never completely destroyed by the weight of misfortune and a multitude of oppressive forces, there was little doubt from the moment I finished reading the last page that my winner would be ‘The White Shadow’ by Andrea Eames.