I’ve spent much of the last month eagerly devouring the Baileys Prize longlist; today is the day that the shortlist will be announced and, although I’ve not read 5 of the 16 books on the initial list, I’m going to put some goodwill into the ether for a couple of my favourites so far.
To be clear, here are the longlisted books I’ve not read yet: Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (I’ve pre-ordered the paperback, which doesn’t come out till later this month); The Lesser Bohemians by Eimar McBride (read the first page and thought, “no”); Barkskins by Annie Proulx (I’ve had it since it came out last summer and read the first section back then, but was slightly bored. I love Proulx though so I will return to it soon); The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan (got it from the library; keep putting it off because it’s so long), and First Love by Gwendoline Riley (on reserve at library but hasn’t come in yet).
I’d already read a few before the longlist came out. Ayomabi Adebayo’s Stay With Me was one of my favourite reads of 2016; it’s emotive but economical, giving a really close insight into a marriage and how a lack of children affects it. It kept surprising me right up until the end and Adebayo’s writing is wonderful. I really hope it stays in the running for the prize. I’d also read Hagseed by Margaret Atwood, who is one of my all-time favourite authors. I liked Hagseed a lot; it’s part of the Hogarth series of Shakespeare retellings and it’s very clever and entertaining. I think it suffers in comparison to her other works, particularly the speculative fiction classics like The Handmaid’s Tale and the Maddaddam trilogy. It’s a good book, but I’d prefer to see someone with less of a profile awarded. I read Madeline Thein’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing last year when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker; it’s a really interesting account of a historical period I knew little about – the Chinese Cultural Revolution – and would be a worthy addition to the shortlist. The last of the longlist I’d read already was The Power by Naomi Alderman: a book which horrified and alarmed me, more than it entertained. I read it a few months ago and still feel a bit traumatised by the ending, and my feelings about the book are mixed; although I’m not sure I actually enjoyed it, I have been recommending it to other people and do think it would be worth a place on the shortlist.
Onto the books I’ve read as a result of their inclusion in the longlist. I started with The Mare by Mary Gaitskill, which is an intriguing look at the relationship that develops between a vulnerable black teenager and the affluent white woman who she meets through the Fresh Air Fund. It’s quite melodramatic but a very engaging read. It’s not in my top six, but is worth picking up.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Emma Flint’s Little Deaths. I don’t usually read crime fiction, but the story of a woman suspected of murdering her young children really absorbed me. Flint goes to town on the sexist attitudes of the police, media and society, all of whom judge Ruth based on her appearance and conduct; it creates an additional layer of interest, meaning the plot never becomes procedural. Again, it’s a good read but not necessarily prize-winning, in my view.
Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle really surprised me; I didn’t expect to be so enthralled by a tale of TB-suffering twins, admitted to a sanatorium in post-WW2 Kent. Grant creates a really strong impression of the two central characters and the motley crew of fellow sufferers who surround them. All the patients await a mystery, longed-for cure which they’ve heard rumours of, and the depiction of their despair while they wait is really engaging. I’d like to see this on the shortlist.
I enjoyed Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata, with its depiction of the friendship between a young boy whose father died helping Jews escape Nazi Germany, and the Jewish friend who represents a more appealing lifestyle. It’s broken up into three distinct sections, with the middle one focusing on Gustav’s mother and father; it’s a neat way to tell the story. Halfway through reading it, I bought a copy for my mum, knowing that she would love it too. It wouldn’t make my fantasy shortlist, but it’s worth reading if you pick it up.
Offering a more gentle reading experience is The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, it follows two elderly women, one white and one black, who find themselves living next door to each other despite their deep enmity. The bitterness between the women is quite entertaining, and even as it inevitably softens, engaging frostiness remains. I quite liked the book but I don’t think it will stay long in my memory.
Midwinter by Fiona Melrose is beautifully written but, sadly, quite dull. Reminding me a little of Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither, it’s about a father and son with a traumatic past and frosty present. I liked Melrose’s style but the story didn’t do anything for me.
The last of the longlisted books I’ve read is The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill, which I am now completely in love with. Starting inauspiciously with the traumatic early years of Pierrot and Rose in their nun-dominated orphanage, it expands into a magical story of love, gangs and clowns. O’Neill’s writing is outrageously gorgeous, elevating even the rare mundane events to something beautiful. I really loved this and it’s my favourite for the Baileys Prize win so far.
So, it seems that my fantasy shortlist looks like this:
The Lonely Hearts Hotel
The Dark Circle
Stay With Me
Do Not Say We Have Nothing
Have you been reading any of these books? Which is your favourite for the prize?