Tag Archives: The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016

The Bailey’s Prize, Some Final Thoughts…

Tonight is a very exciting night. Not just because I will be in conversation with Maggie O’Farrell about her latest wonderful novel This Must Be The Place at Waterstones in Liverpool, before heading to Waterstones Manchester with her tomorrow – do come if you can. It is also the finale of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which is very exciting indeed. Having read the whole longlist this year, and by default the shortlist, I have decided to share my thoughts on the six novels that have made it through to the penultimate place.

In a change to the normal format of me rambling on for several paragraphs I have decided to share the video I made (I have mentioned I have reignited my YouTube channel, so do please have a gander and subscribe) about them all below. So now you get to see and hear me rambling instead.  I hope you give it a whirl…

So those are my thoughts. Yes, I am being mean and making you watch all it to know my thoughts. I would love yours. Which of this tears Bailey’s prize shortlisted novels have you read and what did you make of them? Which one would you like to win? (And if you are reading this after the winner is announced, what do you think of the winner – you will probably know before I do, ha!)

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The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2016

So after what feels like a few months, yet is actually mere weeks I have just been reading so much brilliant women’s writing, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist for 2016 was announced last night and here are the six shortlisted titles…

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I have linked to those that I have reviewed, I still have three outstanding shortlist reviews (as well as five outstanding longlist reviews) because I have been reading so much, but they will be up on the blog in due course. What do I think of the shortlist, I think it packs a punch there is a mix of magical realism, comedy, grit, drama and most importantly some blooming great women’s writing and that is what this prize is all about after all.

That is also why I am not going to bemoan there not being X or Y author having gotten through to the shortlist, partly because it looks like sour grapes (and no one likes those), partly because there will only be one winner and also at the end of the day I am not a judge (and having judged prizes it is a tricky, yet brilliant, task) I would rather celebrate all the books that have been given the attention of the longlist and say congrats to the shortlisted authors. This is why I didn’t guess the shortlist publicly (though Eric of LonesomeReader has mine on his phone somewhere that he can use against me at some point, ha) I wanted to just enjoy the list and be Switzerland, neutral. Ha.

So before we focus on the shortlist over the next few months what would I like to say about the books that didn’t get shortlisted? Well since you all asked so nicely, bar Kate Atkinson and Melissa Harrison‘s novels I had not read any of them and I have been introduced to some cracking books. I wouldn’t have ended up whaling in 1908 with Shirley Barrett or being whisked away with the uber rich oligarchs with Vesna Goldsworthy. I wouldn’t have ended up being taken away with the circus by Clio Gray, in Nagazaki with Jackie Copleton or on a space ship with a Becky Chambers. I wouldn’t have discovered the tale of a recluse with Rachel Elliott or (on a polar oppsite scale) read a book about King David in 1000BC with Geraldine Brooks. I wouldn’t have got round to reading Elizabeth Strout so soon or getting back to Petina Gappah and joining Memory  in Chikurubi Maximum Prison in Harare trying to discover her story. I wouldn’t have found a new author who seems to combine everything about my favourite TV shows (The Good Wife, House of Cards, Damages) in the book form of a superb political thriller with Attica Locke. I wouldn’t have discovered two novels with will probably be two of my books of the year with Sara Novic’s gripping and heart breaking tale of war torn Croatia’s or Julia Rochester‘s family drama with sprinklings of ‘the other’. Myself and Eric will be recording a podcast about all the longlist in more detail soon. In short though, that is a lot to celebrate! And celebrate we did last night…

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So commiserations to the authors who didn’t get shortlisted and congrats to those that did, what a corking list of books though either way – go and read lots of them. And a huge thank you to the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction which once again has highlighted some incredible women’s fiction this year, ans it always does, and let me be a part of it (and continue to be, there is some exciting stuff to come) and for scheduling my reading for the last five weeks which I have rather enjoyed. I now have to go and choose what to read next – possibly in a bookshop if I fall into one though I have packed three potentials in my case – and the limitless possibilities is quite daunting. I may need another coffee. What are your thoughts on the shortlisted titles?

Oh and thanks to random.org I have picked a winner for the longlisted books giveaway, well done Cathling, you have been emailed.

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Pleasantville – Attica Locke

In the last 12 months I have become quite fascinated by American politics and law. No, not because of the whole Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump furore, the latter is frankly petrifying rather than fascinating. I have become somewhat addicted to political and legal drama’s such as House of Cards (which I am waiting to watch season four of until I have completed all of my Bailey’s longlist read, of which this novel is one), Damages ad current obsession The Good Wife, which I am limiting myself to two episodes of a night. Occasionally three because season five is so, so good. Anyway… I have now found a novel that brings all that televisual love into my literary landscape, Attica Locke’s third novel Pleasantville.

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Serpent’s Tail Books, 2016, paperback, fiction, 432 pages, kindly sent by the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

I am going to do something that I do not do very often, and I am slightly embarrassed by. I am going to borrow the back of the blurb so I can give you a synopsis of the book. This is not something I normally do on blog posts as I don’t like it however I think that the blurb will sum up the start of the novel far better than I will as it is quite a complex set up, which Attica Locke (and whoever wrote the blurb) make seem so effortless but have defied me five times so far, so here it is…

It’s 1996, Bill Clinton has just been re-elected and in Houston a mayoral election is looming. As usual the campaign focuses on Pleasantville — the African-American neighbourhood of the city that has swung almost every race since it was founded to house a growing black middle class in 1949. Axel Hathorne, former chief of police and the son of Pleasantville’s founding father Sam Hathorne, was the clear favourite, all set to become Houston’s first black mayor. But his lead is slipping thanks to a late entrant into the race — Sandy Wolcott, a defence attorney riding high on the success of a high-profile murder trial. And then, just as the competition intensifies, a girl goes missing, apparently while canvassing for Axel. And when her body is found, Axel’s nephew is charged with her murder. Sam is determined that Jay Porter defends his grandson. And even though Jay is tired of wading through other people’s problems, he suddenly finds himself trying his first murder case, a trial that threatens to blow the entire community wide open, and reveal the lengths that those with power are willing to go to hold onto it.

You see that makes it sound so less complex than it is, not in a ‘difficult to read’ way more a ‘there is so much going on’ way, and almost lessens the power of what Attica Locke does which is to create a completely gripping thriller that twists politics, law, murder, domestic drama and a take (because it is fictional set around some factual) on recent African-American issues and history. She makes all of this poignant and gripping whilst also adding a sprinkling of the great noir novels gone before as well as the great crime classics. We meet unlikely private detective, shady politicians, dodgy business men and women, ruthless hacks and half arsed police officers as well as getting introduced to small subplots that may mean more than we think.

“Look,” the cop says. “Officer McFee and I have no problem amending the initial report, Mr. Porter, adding in your description of the intruder and the bit about the misplaced glass.” He delivers that last part as f he were describing the plot of an Agatha Christie novel. This isn’t a murder mystery, he wants it known, just a simple case of breaking and entering, one of thirty or forty on a given night in the city of Houston, depending on the weather.”But I will also add words to support my opinion, based on ten years on the force, that I did not see evidence of an intruder in your place of business at the time my partner and I were present.”

At the same time as making this all a gripping murder investigation, intriguing political election and then fast paced courtroom drama, which would be enough in itself, there is another layer to Pleasantville and that is the story of a man dealing with a dip in his career and a home life tinged with grief and recent single parenthood after the loss of his wife. Jay Porter is a brilliant character both in the story surrounding him for the reader but also all that he stands for. Many thrillers will take the same old, same old hard done by divorcee who numbs the pain with drink. Jay numbs the pain by wanting to do what is best for his clients, what is best for Pleasantville and what is best for Houston. He’s not a cop with a grudge, he is a solicitor with a heart who is bloody good at what he does. He is a role model, almost a nod to Atticus Finch in there somewhere, well in his To Kill A Mockingbird guise at least. His home life becomes as much a part of the story, plot, pace and drama as his work life and I liked that a lot.

If I am making this all sound a little too dark or noir, there is also a great sense of humour in the novel. To me it really felt that Attica Locke is writing books about things she feels are important, like the law, African-American issues and politics, but also having fun whilst writing it and wanting the reader to do the same. After all which is more affective, a book with a sense of humour as well as a sense of worth (without being worthy just to add) or a book which takes itself and its issues far too seriously.

The Harris County District Civil Court has long set, by its own bylaws, an ancillary judge, a name assigned and rotated every two weeks, to handle emergency motions, and Judge Irwin Little, through no choice of his own, got this one. A “doozy”, he calls it from the bench. He leans his pudgy torso all the way back in his leather chair, resting his hands on the mound of belly beneath his black robe, waiting to be entertained.

Like Judge Irwin Little, I wanted to be entertained, I got the complete opposite of a “doozy” with Pleasantville though. Admittedly I read thrillers to escape, however as much as I  like them to pack a punch with plot a thriller will get me all the more if there are additional layers to them too. Not that I don’t enjoy a simple cosy, or indeed grisly, throwaway crime novel from time to time. Oh, you know what I mean, a literary thriller will get my brain tingling and ignited whilst at the same time have me routed to my sofa avoiding the real world. This is such a novel. Pleasantville has all the escapism you want with a sense of reality that makes you think and want to go and find out more. I will certainly be reading more Attica Locke, I will soon be somewhat shamefacedly be dusting off the copy of Black Water Rising which has been on my shelves since it was published. It appears I have committed a true reading injustice right there.

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Filed under Attica Locke, Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Serpent's Tail

Ruby – Cynthia Bond

When the Baileys Women’s Prize longlist came out a few weeks ago Cynthia Bond’s Ruby was not one that I had heard of before. Those of you reading this in America might be looking aghast, or possibly even shouting ‘what?’ at the screen as I know it has been a bit of a hit, especially after Oprah chose it for her book club. Having now read it I am pretty sure that it is going to get read and discussed by many more people over this side of the ocean…

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Two Roads Books, 2015, paperback, fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher and by the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

Ruby Bell was a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels were too high. The people of Liberty Township wove her cautionary tales of the wages of sin and travel. They called her buck-crazy. Howling, half-naked mad. The fact that she had come back from New York City made this somewhat understandable to the town.
She wore gray like rain clouds and wandered the red roads in bared feet. Calluses thick as boot leather. Hair caked with mud. Blackened nails as if she had scratched the slate of night. Her acres of kegs carrying her, arms swaying like a loose screen. Her eyes the ink of sky, just before the storm.

From the opening of Ruby Cynthia Bond instantly submerges us into Liberty Township where Ruby Bell is very much the outsider in her own hometown. So much the outsider that she now lives in a ramshackle dwelling deep in the nearby woods. She has become ostracized and of course as readers we want to know why. Whilst most of the town laugh and jeer at her one man, Ephram Jennings, sees Ruby with different eyes and we soon learn he has been smitten with her since childhood. He too is seen somewhat as an outsider yet to a much lesser extent thanks to being somewhat shrouded by his sister Celia, who has followed in their Reverend father’s footsteps becoming quite the feared God fearing woman, who does not approve of Ruby at all.

You might be thinking that this is therefore going to be some great love story set against the odds. In some ways it could be seen as that and yet, as Cynthia Bond soon shows us, there are many dark corners, secrets and layers of both Ruby the character and indeed Ruby the book. And as Ephram goes in the woods to give her White Lay Angel Cake as an offering of love and acceptance, after being scared in town and dropping her bread in her own urine, he discovers that there may be something else darker in the piney woods with Ruby, and not just her memories, though something just as sinister and something that has been following Ruby since childhood.

That night, when the Dybou slid into Ruby’s bedroom, it stopped at the door. It seemed to grow larger. The air became electric. Spider cracks spread across the panes. Instead of reaching for Ruby, the Dybou lifted above her, the whole of the ceiling in shadow, then it dropped down upon the new spirit sleeping within her.
In seconds the girl was gone, inside the creature, screaming, terror flashing in her clear eyes, small arms reaching for Ruby, as the Dybou slithered across the floor.  

If you are wondering what a Dybou is, and why would you not be, without giving too much away it is an evil spirit that feeds off other spirits and can take over the body of humans. Some might say it is the spirit entity of the devil. Yes, this is where Ruby takes on a rather strange turn as it becomes more and more magically surreal. Interestingly though I found it became all the more powerful and effecting for it. As we read on we both succumb to the world in which Ruby inhabits, learn why it has come to pass that she is so filled with these demons and spirits and why her childhood in Liberty Township and then her horrendous time in New York might have driven her to the depths of madness, if she is mad? If this had been written by many another writer I would have probably put this book down very quickly, with Cynthia Bond at the helm I was mesmerised both in horror and in hope for Ruby’s possible salvation by Ephram deep in those piney woods.

The piney woods were full of sound. Trees cracking and falling to their death; the knell of axes echoing into green; the mewl of baby hawks waiting for Mama’s catch. Bull frogs and barn owls. The call of crows and the purring of doves. The screams of a Black man. The slowing of a heart. All captured, hushed and held under the colossal fur of pine and oak, magnolia, hickory and sweet gum. Needles and capillary branches interlaced to make an enormous net, so that whatever rose, never broke through to sky. The woods held stories too, and emotions of objects; a tear of sleeve, bits of hair, long-buried bones, lost buttons. But mostly, the piney woods hoarded sound.  

As we delve deeper into the stories from the piney woods and Ruby’s story you should be warned, there are some very dark and uncomfortable scenes ahead and some are not for the faint of heart of those easily upset. However, if you can read through them Ruby is an incredibly moving, magical and menacing read that you will feel like you have experienced long after the final page. Bond looks at sexual and domestic abuse, Satanism and the supernatural, interracial racism, legends and myths, sexuality, family secrets and love. All this based in reality, in fact some of the novel is based on Cynthia Bond’s own experiences, with an infusion of magical realism. I know; that is quite a heady concoction. Ruby is one of those books that will leave you as haunted as its characters. That is where its power lies.

Ruby is one of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize longlisted novels that I am giving away here

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My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

As well as introducing me to some debut and/or brand new to me authors reading all of this years Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist has brought me a couple of authors that I have been meaning to read for a while. The first of those is Elizabeth Strout whose Pulitzer prize winning Olive Ketteridge I have been meaning to read for ages and ages since the much missed Granny Savidge Reads read it and raved about it years ago. Her latest, My Name is Lucy Barton, was also one of the most ‘guessed’ and rated books before the official longlist came out and so I was intrigued.

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Penguin Books, 2016, hardback, fiction, 206 pages, kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

After a slow recovery from what should have been a relatively simple operation and recuperation Lucy Barton wakes one night to find her mother, who she has not seen for years, sat at the end of her bed. This is something that Lucy finds wonderful, baffling, terrifying, thrilling and worrying, how do these two women relate to each other after so many years apart and after so much has gone unsaid?

“Hi, Lucy,” she said. Her voice sounded shy but urgent. She leaned forward and squeezed my foot through the sheet. “Hi, Wizzle,” she said. I had not seen my mother for years, and I kept staring at her; I could not figure out why she looked so different.
“Mom, how did you get here?” I asked.
“Oh, I got on an airplane.” She wiggled her fingers, and I knew that there was too much emotion, for us. So I waved back, and lay flat. “I think you’ll be alright,” she added, in the same shy-soundingbut urgent voice. “I haven’t had any dreams.”

After an initial read of the book, which at a compact 200 pages can be done in one sitting, it would be easy to simply say this was a concentrated and heightened fable of the relationship between a mother and daughter. In many ways it is. It is also much more than that as Lucy’s mother’s random appearance brings back many memories and stories of her youth, many of which are unsettling rather than happy. It could also be seen as a novel of a women’s journey to becoming a writer, what inspired her and what compelled her from a young age (mainly escapism through books). Now I have to say that I am not a fan of novels about novelists, so many clichés, however as with Graham Swift’s recent Mothering Sunday, this won me round as it isn’t the focus of the book, rather another layer.

My teacher saw that I loved reading, and she gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my homework was done, in the warm school. But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone! (But it was my secret. Even when I met my husband I didn’t tell him right away. I couldn’t take myself seriously. Except that I did. I took myself – secretly, secretly – very seriously! I knew I was a writer. I didn’t know how hard it would be. But no one knows that; and that does not matter.)

What the real focus of the book is actually tries to evade our eyeline directly unless we catch it unsuspectingly and that is the story of Lucy’s childhood which she doesn’t seem to want to tell us about. This also happens with Lucy’s failing marriage, yet unlike that which she can hide her memories from childhood start coming to the fore without her expecting them or being able to lock them away again as quickly as she would like. We soon discover that Lucy grew up living in impoverished and difficult circumstances, people thought she and her family were trash and they became outcasts, something she wanted to escape.

When I was a child, our family went to the Congregational church. We were outcasts there as much as anywhere; even the Sunday school teacher ignored us. Once I came late to the class, the chairs were all taken. The teacher said, “Just sit on the floor, Lucy.”

Yet as we read on there is another layer amongst that. Deep down are memories of really dark times not inflicted on the family but by them, we only get some glimpses of them but they are there all the same. Strout, through Lucy’s seeming denial, leaves it for us the reader to work out what they are and if this is why Lucy Barton has become so estranged. It also asks the questions as to whether blood is thicker than water and how we cope with having to love someone as they are our parent, with all their failings and even with some serious hatred towards them for some things they have done. How do we then cope with that when they are gone?

There is also something slightly fairytale (both the happy and the horrid elements) and surreal amongst the cracks of this novel too. I love fairytales and you may think I can spot them in every book I read, not always honest but I could in this one. First for me was sudden arrival of Lucy’s mother, for a while I spent quite a lot of the beginning thinking she was a ghost or possibly a post surgery drug induced hallucination, especially when she starts to talk about having not had any bad dreams so all will be well. Then there is the slight Cinderella element of rags to riches. Mostly though it was the monsters lurking in a woman’s memories that made me feel like that, we mainly glimpse them, we know they are real and yet they seem other because of the way Lucy is dealing with them, or not. Naturally this compelled me further.

My Name is Lucy Barton is a deceptive book, both in its size and in the story it tells. I devoured it in a single sitting and it affected me, however since I have read it the affect has grown and grown and bothered me more and more. It is the kind of book that you need to read, digest, walk away from, digest some more and then at some point go back to. It’s affect has grown on me as much as it has grown in my estimation the more and more distance I have had from it. It’s a book that lingers much longer than you anticipate. Looks like I need to head to some more of Elizabeth Strout’s books now doesn’t it?

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Elizabeth Strout, Penguin Books, Review

The House at the Edge of the World – Julia Rochester

I have mentioned before how some books you instantly fall in love with and know are for you as you get that elusive feeling of the book tingle. Something I haven’t written about, and probably should, is when you start a book slightly unsure and then it coaxes you and surprises you as you completely fall in love with it and end up hugging it (yes, hugging it) afterwards. The latter was very much the case with Julia Rochester’s debut novel The House at the Edge of the World, which I will be very much surprised if it doesn’t become one of my books of the year even though it is barely April.

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Penguin Books, 2015, hardback, fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

When I was eighteen, my father fell off a cliff. It was a stupid way to die. There was a good moon. There was no wind. There was no excuse. He was pissing into the chine at Brock Tor on his way home from the pub and fell headlong drunk into the spring tide with his flies open.

As The House at the Edge of the World opens we are drawn into the world twins Morwenna and Corwin one night they will never forget, well they were all asleep but you know what I mean, when their father is last seen, by a drunk friend, falling off a cliff into the depths below. A night when everything changes, or a night where everything gets a little more surreal afterwards for Morwenna and Corwin don’t live in a typical 2.4 children family. Their grandfather, Matthew, spends hours and hours hidden away in a room painting a map of a land that symbolises where they live, their family and the stories of both. Their mother seems to have suddenly been freed by the death of her husband, yet resentful left in a house she feels she was never really wanted in.

This all unfolds within the first few chapters, however initially I wasn’t sure I was going to get through the first few pages as the writing was throwing me slightly, as was the narrator. There is something quite surreal as this novel starts in the fact that everything feels a little bit surreal and a little bit, well, drunk. Having had this feeling with Sarah Perry’s debut After Me Comes The Flood and being thoroughly rewarded for my perseverance I, well, persevered. Then there came Morwenna as a narrator, spiky, sarchastic and pretty much disliked by everyone she meets, don’t get me wrong I love a dislikeable character but she along with the style of the book were throwing me around a bit and testing me… But I like to be tested and sure enough she won me over, which I imagined if she was real and knew would really piss her off, ha.

That morning the heat had sparked a rush on Slush Puppies at the Sea View Cafe and we ran out of electric blue, which upset people. ‘It’s all the same shit,’ I told my customers. ‘They’re not flavours, they’re just different combinations of chemicals. The virulent green tastes almost exactly the same and is just as bad for you.’
My boss took me aside and said, ‘Morwenna, you are a bad tempered, foul-mouthed little smart arse and the only reason I’m not firing you is that it is the end of the season anyway.’
‘I’m terribly sorry,’ I said to my customers, chastened. ‘But we’re out of raspberry.’

Anyway back to the story. Things settle somewhat after their fathers death and soon enough Morwenna and Corwin are spending more time away from the family home, yet always it calls to them and draws them back. Seventeen years after their fathers death Corwin starts to question that fateful night and as the twins start digging into their families past they discover a family, a map and a crumbling house brimming with secrets all infused with the urban legends and myths of the land in which they were born. Well I was pretty much hooked from then on and became more and more so the more I read and the more quirky and mysterious it all became.

One of the many things that I think Julia Rochester does fantastically well with this book is set it very much in the now and yet somehow make it feel timeless and also slightly other worldly. Morwenna ends up living in London after leaving home, yet because bar a few work colleagues and a boyfriend she reluctantly meets she seems out of time with the city and a bit of a ghost living in it. When she goes back home most people dislike her and her friendship group have dispersed and so again she becomes some kind of loner, almost a harbinger of something. This makes her both a fascinating and interestingly frank and vulnerable narrator who also has an agenda and scores to settle which brings in the question of her reliability. All of which I love in a novel and the way Rochester did this felt really unique.

The other aspect that gives The House at the Edge of the World this wonderful sense of otherness is the interwoven tales of otherness. As we read on we are told of tales of mermaid sittings, demons roaming the valleys, things that live in the woods, the devil himself and also those people who seem a bit other and out of kilter with the world. Those people who are part of society yet seem so very different, those people who fascinate some or bring fear to others. Like an old lady who might look like a witch, or a Crab Man…

The Crab Man looked like Matthew’s idea of Long John Silver, but without the peg-leg or the parrot. Instead, his props were the crabs that rattled about in the metal bucket at the kitchen door. Laughing saltily, he would take a couple out of the bucket, one in each hand, and, with a leathery leer, wave them in Matthew’s face. Snippety-snap went the terrifying crab claws within an inch of Matthew’s nose. They smelt of fish-water and engine oil.

What adds to all this is the sense of mystery and the fact that at its heart this is also a family drama. Actually I want to turn that around and say… THIS is how you write a family drama. I like a family drama as much as the next reader yet sometimes they can be a bit staid. With otherworldly maps, demons and hints of the supernatural, unsolved family mysteries and legends all whirled into the mix of relations who love and loathe each other, Julia Rochester has created something quite, quite brilliant and I think rather unique. I cannot say better than that this book in some way cast a spell over me which I had no idea was coming. In fact you could say The House at the Edge of the World was the perfect unexpected tale of the unexpected. I hugged it after I closed the final page, superb.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Books of 2016, Julia Rochester, Penguin Books, Review

Whispers Through A Megaphone – Rachel Elliott

One of the things that I always enjoy about any prize longlist is that invariably it introduces me to a lot of books that I have either never heard of you have only seen and pondered on. Rachel Elliott’s debut Whispers Through A Megaphone is a book that I saw promoted quite a lot in Foyles earlier in the year and almost bought (because when a hardback is half price you want to buy it regardless) and then again had a mental dalliance with when my boss was reading it and raving about it. Then the Baileys longlist popped it straight into my reading path…

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ONE (Pushkin Press), 2015, hardback, fiction, 352 pages, kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

Whispers Through A Megaphone is initially a tale of two halves and two people. First we encounter Miriam Delaney, a thirty-five year old woman who has not left her house for three years. Well she hasn’t gone further than a few feet of it, thanks to the help of her best friend, Fenella who does her shopping, and her neighbour, Boo who takes her bins down the drive and onto the street. That really is the interaction at its maximum between Miriam and the outside world. But why?

It’s three years today since Miriam last stepped out of this house.
No, that’s not quite true. She has stepped into the back garden to feed the koi carp, stepped into the porch to collect the milk and leave a bin bag for her neighbour to place at the end of the drive. But to step out into the street? No chance. Risk collision and a potentially catastrophic exchange with a stranger? You must be joking. Not after what happened. Not after what she did. Inside the cutesy slipper-heads of two West Highland terriers, her feet have paced the rooms of 7 Beckford Gardens, a three bed semi with a white cuckoo clock, brown and orange carpets, a life size cut out of Neil Armstrong.

That ‘why’ becomes the main focus point of Miriam’s story and as we read on we learn that her mother might have been a little bit crazy, well she did get caught cleaning the school by the Headmaster in nothing but socks and shoes which then starts a long affair, yet Elliott cleverly and teasingly lets us know that there is much more going on her as we discover letters to a Grandmother and a more recent incident for which Miriam feels much shame and fear. This becomes in many ways the main propulsion of the book, or at least it did for me. But I mentioned there is initially another main character and that is Ralph Swoon, a happily married part time psychiatrist and father of two.

Blow me. He almost Googled this phrase once, to discover its origins, but decided against it when he imagined the kind of sites that might pop up. He tried not to utter these words, especially when working with female clients, but saying blow me was something he inherited from his father, along with narrow shoulders and a pert little bottom. Frank Swoon had been famous for his buttocks. Women wolf-whistled as he walked down the street. “Oh you do make me swoon, Mr Swoon, Just look at those cheeks.” It was the kind of compliment a man would have been slapped for.

Yet something is bubbling away underneath his home life too, something which we soon discover leads him to simply walking out on his family, mainly after a fight with his wife Sadie, and going and living in a hut in the woods, just off the local park. You can probably guess what is coming, Miriam and Ralph are going to meet, the question is are their timelines the same and if so might these two strangers help each other or, as I thought because I am quite dark, could their meeting be the awful event in Miriams recent past. You will of course have to read the book to find out, I know I am a rotter doing that to you aren’t I?

What I can say as the book goes on is that I interestingly found that whilst the novel is herding you into believing that Ralph is the second of the main characters I think Rachel Elliott’s focus was more firmly on his wife Sadie who really becomes the catalyst of Ralph leaving after which point I think she gets a lot more airtime, or wordage to be correct, than Ralph as we discover the secret that she has been keeping from herself and everyone else for quite some time. As her story gains momentum, Ralphs lessen though the effects upon him become stronger. I know that is terribly vague but once you have read the book you will see what I mean. This caused me a couple of slight problems with the book.

Joe squeezed Stanley’s bottom, which made his voice rise at the end of the sentence. His mother didn’t notice. She probably wouldn’t notice if the high note turned into a whole song from Annie, with Stanley singing as loudly as he could about the sun coming out tomorrow. She wouldn’t notice if Joe gave him a blow job right there in the middle of the kitchen. She was tweeting, pouring Prosecco, muttering about whether she had bought enough sausages. His mother the great multitasker, always in her own world, always oblivious.

I wouldn’t describe Sadie as oblivious, I would describe her as completely and utterly self centred. As we are treated to her Twitter feed/life where she tries to create a persona of who she aspires to be, one that is a bit more interesting, a bit more irreverent. This worked and didn’t work for me, personally I loathe tweets in books as a rule almost as much as talking horses, yet at the same time we see there is a huge insecurity with her. The only issue with this is that occasionally Sadie is either the butt of other characters jokes, boringly dislikeable at moments or she becomes rather overdramatized and farcical, by the end I was a little bit frustrated with her overzealous storyline and Ralph’s slightly ineffectual one. Not that it ever got so bad I wanted to skip their sections, it just seemed a bit too monster and victim, in fact some of the funniest moments of the novel centre around Sadie. And boy is this book funny.

What I really loved about Rachel Elliott’s writing was her eye for the detail of people’s mannerisms. There were probably a paragraph or two every ten or so pages where I would cackle loudly, and was grateful I spent a day (I wanted to devour it) when I was feeling a bit under the weather on the sofa with it as it cheered me up and saved me the embarrassment of openly giggling to myself on public transport. There are some truly gorgeous set pieces of mini stories within the main one that show just how ridiculous we can all be, especially when we are wrapped up in our on dramas. Elliott beautifully catches these moments and it brings her characters fully to life.

It was these moments that made Ralph and Sadie’s domestic strife so utterly readable. I do have to say though that Whispers Through A Megaphone is both in practice and literally a book of two halves. For me they were great writing but the part of the novel I will remember the most, and indeed the key to it all, is Miriam and indeed her story, as I mentioned that propels you to read more and more and more. It is also the part of the book that I connected with the most and actually wanted much, much more of her story and her mother Frances, especially when everything unravels and is revealed towards the end in an incredibly powerful and shattering chapter you probably won’t see coming. Whispers Through A Megaphone is an enjoyable, intriguing, witty and human debut novel and I am very much looking forward to what Rachel Elliott does next.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, ONE Books, Pushkin Press, Rachel Elliott, Review

The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah

When I read Petina Gappah’s debut short story collection, An Elegy for Easterly, back in 2010 I was pretty much bowled over by it. Somehow I missed her debut novel coming out last year and so was thrilled when I saw that it had made the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year, which as you know I am reading all twenty of. Thrilled. As soon as I managed to get my hands on it I sat and read it straight away and was rewarded from its opening paragraphs until its conclusion.

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Faber & Faber, 2015, hardback, fiction, 276 pages, borrowed from the library then kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize

Memory sits in her cell in Chikurubi Maximum Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe having been convicted of murder waiting for an appeal, or if that fails potentially waiting for her death. As she sits and waits she starts to write, in notebooks given to her by a well known journalist, the story of how she came to be in the cell. From growing up in a family where her siblings kept dying through tragedies until the point where she watched her parents give her away in exchange for money to a white man named Lloyd. The man many believe that she murdered.

I could also start by telling you all about Lloyd. I could start by telling you that I did not kill him. ‘Murder’, said the prosecutor who laid out the case against me at the High Court, ‘is the unlawful and intentional killing of a human being who was alive at the time.’
After the police came for me on the night he died, after they arrested me and took me to the police station at Highlands, after I had spent three days without food or drink, after I had wept myself hoarse and my marrow dry – for Lloyd, I told myself, but really it was the fear – and after the dreams started coming again, I told them what they wanted to hear.
Their disbelief exploded in bursts of laughter. ‘Just tell us the real truth. You were his girlfriend and he was your boyfriend. He was your sugar daddy. Just tell us the truth, that you killed him for the money.’

I am a sucker for a novel where you are pretty sure an injustice has been done and you follow the victim of the injustice as they tell their tale and you get the real story. The Book of Memory is one such book, yet it is also very different and unique from others of its type. Memory herself is a really intriguing narrator and also potentially (one of my favourite things) a really unreliable narrator. We know what children’s, erm, memories can be like and sometimes a story that you were told can become part of your memory history in some way, you didn’t witness but you think or are certain you did. There is also the fact that many people who have committed murders claim their innocence, so why should we believe her? This tension runs wonderfully through three quarters of the book, I shall say no more for fear of spoilers.

Yet there is more to Memory’s story than that and as we read on into her childhood, the main one being that Memory was born albino. This brings in a whole new set of elements to the novel. There is the fact that during Memory’s childhood and beyond Zimbabwe is trying to get its independence from the ‘white’ ownership. Memory is African yet in some ways she is seen as a white person, however what also comes into play and in many ways is far, far worse for her is that being albino she is seen as being supernatural and by default dangerous, untrustworthy and scary.

I longed to play on Mharapara with the others but I could not join in. I could not join in because, if I went out and stayed in the sun for any length of time, my skin cracked and blistered. I spent my days indoors with the sound of the township coming through my mother’s shining windows, or I sat and observed them from our Sunbeam-red veranda. And when I did venture out, it was to be greeted as murungudunhu, so that I thought that must be part of my name.

Whilst there is time when this helps, she gets left alone from prison trouble for the most part, overall this is the most defining thing in her life, being ostracised at school, her own mother believing her a curse and then in time, when she studies in Britain, being seen as some sort of sexual predilection to the wrong kind of men initially. I found all this utterly fascinating, whilst often heartbreaking, to read.

Before I get to another highlight, which was the way Gappah plots and reveals various things as she goes, I wanted to share another couple of elements to the book which I enjoyed very much, the prison element. When Memory starts to talk about the other women that she is in prison with there comes a warmth and a element of comedy that I wasn’t expecting in the novel and liked all the more for it. In an odd way, and I mean this as a form of praise, I was reminded of Orange is the New Black as these women share their stories with each other (some very funny, some truly shocking yet told in a clever understated way) and form a camaraderie of sorts which Memory has not experienced before. Even the guards on occasion show a kind side.

What I also thought was rather marvellously done by Gappah was to show how crazy things in Zimbabwe, and indeed many parts of Africa, around the time in which The Book of Memory is set. We don’t have specific dates yet we know this is fairly recent and taking that in to account the fact that myths and magic were so prevalent and used as propaganda I found incredibly bizarre to read. It also gives Gappah another chance to show the very real danger to everyone’s lives was also so absurd, whilst also once again adding a certain humour to the novel, through hindsight which also comes with a bittersweet note of the reality of it.

I watched the news, stunned at the mix of bare-faced lies and superstition presented as fact. A convicted murderer who had been pardoned was declared a national hero. A house was blown up by witchcraft in Chitungwiza. A goblin was stealing women’s underwear in Gokwe. The adverts were all in celebration of the ruling party: I gazed in amused disbelief at the most unlikely figures ever to grace a football field, three big-bottomed women from the city’s oldest and most chaotic township, dancing on a football field in ruling party ‘team colours’. They shook their thighs of thunder as they sang in praise of the ruling party. They danced to the beat of their own oppression.

Finally, as I could go on for ages about this book, I have to mention just how brilliantly plotted I thought Gappah made this novel. There are seemingly throwaway moments which have a deeper resonance later on. She teases you that there are more secrets than meet the eye that will only be revealed just when she wants them to be and then have you puzzling how they affect everything else. She also cleverly uses Memory and indeed memories themselves to show you your prejudices, your assumptive second guessing and how nothing is every clear cut. Can you tell I really, really, really, really enjoyed The Book of Memory? I strongly recommend it.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Books of 2016, Faber & Faber, Petina Gappah, Review

Halfway Through The Baileys Women’s Prize Longlist, So Let’s Give Some Away…

Hoorah! I have just (within the last twenty minutes or so as I type this) got over half way through the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, as I popped down my tenth read My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, which I am reading for the Bearded Bailey’s Book Club. Whilst I have a break to celebrate, then play catch up on reviews and start book ten, I thought it would be a nice idea to give some of the twenty books away…

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This isn’t because I don’t want them or don’t like them, not at all. Thanks to the kindness of the lovely team at the Bailey’s Prize (who sent me the whole longlist last week) aswell as the kindness of some publishers who before, and since, the list was announced have sent me additional copies I have some extra. I thought that one of you might like them. Here is the selection…

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I also have a slightly battered copy of Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies, so if you want that I can pop that in too. So what do you have to do to win this lovely selection of books? Simple, just tell me (in the comments below) what your favourite book is by a female writer and why. The competition is open worldwide, as I am still in the birthday spirit, you have until Monday April the 11th when the shortlist is announced. Good luck!

UPDATE – We have a winner chosen by random.org. Congratulations Cathling, you have been emailed for your details!

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Give Away, Random Savidgeness

Gorsky – Vesna Goldsworthy

Vesna Goldsworthy’s Gorsky first arrived at Savidge Reads HQ last year unsolicited and I have to admit that having heard (on which podcast I cannot remember) that it was a reimagining of The Great Gatsby I promptly gave it to the book swap shelf at work. It is not that I have anything against reimagining’s, retellings or prequels and sequels, it is more that I found the original to be The Quite Alright Didn’t Set My World on Fire Gatsby. However with it being on the Bailey’s longlist, and as part of the Bearded Baileys Book Club, I had to read it and so I braced myself…

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Vintage, 2015, paperback, fiction, 278 pages, kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize

As the rich of Russian move into London one particular oligarch, Gorsky, is getting the most talk and the most press because he is a man of not mere millions but billions – well, if the press are to be believed. So it comes to quite a surprise to Nikolai Kimović, or Nick as he likes to be called, finds this very man standing in the bookshop in which he works, in one of the backstreets between Knightsbridge and Chelsea.

We were independent alright. And bookish, too. In spite of the mess, which gave the appearance of frantic activity, I managed to read a couple of titles a day, even on what passed for a busy one. I certainly did not expect to have to deal with ‘big business’, and everything about this man – from the way he stepped out of the vehicle, giving brief instructions to the sharp-suited driver who held the car’s door open for him, to the manner in which he lingered uncertainly among the shelves as I completed a minute transaction and chatted with one of our morning regulars, and the tone in which he finally uttered that if I might – spelled out big business.

Gorsky wants Nick to help him create the perfect library in his new home, which surprisingly happens to be the great house on which Nick’s low rent gate house belongs. So he has a new landlord and a new client all in one. Things take another turn when Nick discovers that Natalia, the woman of his dreams who comes in occasionally for books, seems to have some history with Gorsky and here Nick may once again be of some service.

If you have read The Great Gatsby, and I don’t think there are many people who haven’t, then you will know roughly what the plot that unfolds from here is. I say roughly because Goldsworthy does through in some twists and turns here and there as this is no straightforward retelling as I mentioned before. What you would be expecting is the wondrous world of London’s super rich echelons which Goldsworthy draws from the start and right up to the end. Indeed it was this that kept me reading on, along with all the book talk that Nick throws in along the way.

What then took me even further into the novel was something I wasn’t expecting at all, as Goldsworthy uses the reimagining of Gatsby to tell a much wider story, one which will have your thoughts fully provoked…

‘You can’t defeat them unless they wish to be defeated. They are like beasts. They will die in their millions without needing the consolations of an afterlife. You’ll never find such men and women anywhere else. Forget about the Muslims. They blow themselves up in the hope of seventy-two cherries to pop. The Russians are scarier. They fight hoping for nothing. Do you know that Natalia is from Stalingrad? Volgograd as it was called at the time she was born. Daddy was a Stalingrad rat, fifteen in 1945. It takes a special kind of zest to survive all that and then procreate so unstoppably. He had five children in a country in which most people stop at two. And not even religious. Unless you count Communism…’

As Gorsky unfolds Goldsworthy uses this famous plot of the young and rich, and the older rich and corrupt, to look at several things. The first is the situation with London now, which is becoming a city that is out pricing itself, and how the very rich are buying up masses of buildings just to visit, or worse still (considering the cry for affordable housing, which Nick himself lives in, is so high) simply leaving empty. It then looks, sometimes rather crudely through the eyes of Summerscale as quoted above (Natalia’s rich British husband, who could well be a take on Nigel Farage head of the awful political party UKIP), at the situation with the UK – and in some instances the world – with Russia, which I find as fascinating as I do petrifying. This then also leads to how the UK sees itself and is perceived by the rest of Europe. This is of course particularly topical at the moment with the European referendum coming up (I want to stay in, just saying) in the next few weeks. Nick is the perfect set of eyes for this as being a Serbian migrant he sees it all both from outside the world of the rich and as someone who is the focus of much debate at the moment with migration being a very hot topic.

I thought it was all of this that made Gorsky really stand out to me. Interestingly this is some ways does come at a slight cost. Goldsworthy is wonderful at constructing scenes, buildings and atmospheres, yet there is a slight struggle going on with the characters. As the main characters all have a certain plot to follow in many ways, it slightly constricts them. Most of the time, with many of the characters Goldsworthy works wonders, occasionally (particularly with Natalia) they feel slightly less like characters and more like chess pieces being forced to move in a certain pattern or direction. This is a minor qualm though when the discussions the book creates are so strong and the scenes in which they are set so luscious and so detailed.

All in all I really enjoyed Gorsky and read it in a couple of sittings. It entertained me and gave me much food for thought in a very subtle and subconscious way, which I really liked. I will have to go off and discover what else Vesna Goldsworthy has written.

Update: Gorsky is one of a selection of the longlisted Baileys Women’s Prize books that I am giving away worldwide here.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Review, Vesna Goldsworthy, Vintage Books

The Green Road – Anne Enright

Knowing I was going to be reading all of them once the Bailey’s longlist was announced, one of the books I was rather nervous about was Anne Enright’s The Green Road. This was because I read her Man Booker winning The Gathering way back in my pre-blogging days and wasn’t really a fan, I then started The Forgotten Waltz but just didn’t get into it. Anne Enright and I had despite best intentions) a little bit of history, I hadn’t managed to ‘get her’ yet, so would The Green Road be the book to do it?

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Vintage, paperback, 2016, fiction, 314 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The Green Road is a difficult book to describe as in essence you could describe it simply as the tale of one family, when actually it is a much more complex and intriguing one than that. In the first part of the book, through the eyes of the four Madigan siblings and then their mother Rosaleen (who always looms in her children’s tales) we are given insight into parts of four separate people’s lives and the jigsaw puzzle of one families story, no matter how fractured it gets. In the second half of the novel we watch the family return to their childhood home, Ardeevin, for one last Christmas as Rosaleen has suddenly decided to sell it. Yes, you know there is going to be some family dramatics there.

Hanna’s mother had taken to the bed. She had been there for two weeks, nearly. She had not dressed herself or done her hair since the Sunday before Easter, when Dan told them all that he was going to be a priest.

I really, really enjoyed the first half of the book. Having found The Gathering a somewhat difficult, slightly miserable and cold read I have to admit I was expecting the same again. However within pages I was wrapped in the warmth of Enright’s prose and loudly cackling as we see life through Hanna’s eyes as her mother reacts rather badly to some news in 1980, perfectly setting up the family dynamic. We then follow Dan’s escape from his family which takes him to New York in 1991 and the gay scene. We then return to Ireland, County Limerick in 1997 where Constance is having a mammogram before heading to Segou, Mali to find Emmet working surrounded by poverty and sickness. Finally returning to Ireland once more to find Rosaleen writing Christmas cards and thinking about all her children and how her family have become so seemingly fractured and apart, deciding to sell the house.

Before we move on to the second half, where you might feel a ‘but’ is coming, I want to pay particular attention to one of these stories which blew my mind. I thought all of the first part (which is aptly called Leaving) was wonderfully written and crafted, one part in particular was some of the best writing I have read all year. The segment set in New York 1991 was so powerful I actually finished it sobbing. Whilst this is claimed to be Dan’s story it is actually the story of all those men who tragically lost their lives to HIV and the Aids virus, the men who Dan finds himself amongst while in turmoil about his own sexuality.

This resonated with me for two reasons. Firstly, because of the way Enright draws Dan, flaws and all. Dan is one of ‘the beautiful ones’ who people fall for and sometimes, because he can and other times because he is struggling with dealing with all his confused feelings, is an absolute bastard and a bit of a coward. Where you should be enraged by him, you feel pity for him and I think Enright looks at the shame sexuality has had (and indeed still has in some counties and mindsets) unflinchingly. She also looks at how horrendous that time was for the men who caught the virus were as well as those loved ones around them. I don’t know if it was Enright’s intention or not, however, in giving the narrative as a collective ‘we…’ they the ghosts/souls of those who had died watching telling me of the aftermaths of their dying and their deaths. It utterly floored me, I was a mess. I thank Enright for this because these stories need to be told and these people’s voices to be heard, without compromise or making them more palatable for the masses. It should be slightly uncomfortable by its nature.

Of all the signs, the purple bruise of Kaposi’s was the one we hated most because there was no doubting it and, after the first mother snatches her child from the seat beside you on the subway, it gets hard to leave the house. Sex is also hard to find. Even a hug, when you are speckled by death, is a complicated thing. And the people who would sleep with you now – what kind of people are they?
We did not want to be loved when we got sick, because that would be unbearable, and love was all we looked for, in our last days.

The second half of the novel, Coming Home, was also wonderfully written. Enright gets certain moments spot on within family dynamics; the old resentments you have from when you were ten and can’t let go of, the negotiation of interactions and unwritten hierarchy when you’ve all been apart for so long, the moments you fight for everyone’s love and rebuke it too. All of this was perfectly drawn as I turned the pages. So there is a ‘but’ coming, as I hinted, in fact there are two.

My only two small criticisms of The Green Road were thus. I thought that the ending of the book, which I won’t spoil, fell into a bit of an old family matriarchal cliché and at once somehow became over dramatic and anti-climactic all at once. I think the book could have ended at page 280 and I would have been perfectly happy to be left guessing. The other small niggle I had was Emmet. Despite his quite interesting story in Mali was interesting, I felt that the novel wouldn’t have been much different without him, in fact I would have liked more of Hanna, Constance and (in particular) Dan’s stories instead. These are minor quibbles and probably just me sulking after being so bereft leaving New York and wanting Enright to give me more of that story, no matter how painful. That is the power of that section, I will let go and move on because really this is a beautiful book.

If you crossed the long meadow, you came to a boreen which brought you up over a small rise to the view of the Aran Islands out in Galway Bay, and the Cliffs of Moher, which were also famous, far away from the south. This road turned into the green road that went across the Burren, high above the beach at Fanore, and this was the most beautiful road in the world, bar none, her granny said – famed in song and story – and rocks gathering briefly into walls before lapsing back into field, the little stony pastures whose flowers were sweet and rare.

The Green Road has left me pondering if I have missed a trick with Enright all this time, or maybe I just read her at the wrong time as can happen. Enright is unquestionably a fantastic writer who, for me with this novel, conjured up the world of a family with all its highs and lows that felt like they might be having this reunion down the end of your road. Well, if it was Christmas and you lived in County Clare but you know what I mean. I didn’t notice it in her previous novels, so I guess I will have to go back again, that Enright does two of my favourite things in fiction. She makes the ordinary, and everything we take for granted, seem extra ordinary. She also gives voices to those who have not been able to share their tales. I know, I know, I cannot let that New York section go, but the writing is stunning. I mean could you forget, especially when Enright so aptly writes His head was a museum. And when he died the museum would be empty. The museum would fall down. Thought not. Let books like this one, though fictional, be some kind of museum or memorial for those who could not, or cannot, speak up.

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Filed under Anne Enright, Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Review, Vintage Books

The Secret Chord – Geraldine Brooks

When it comes to historical fiction I tend to stick to two particular periods willingly. These are the Victorian era and the Tudors, the latter which I actually read less than I would like because I am picky. Anything before then makes me nervous, bar the Greek and Roman times which I am well versed in (though less well read in) with my mother being a classicist. So, despite having loved Year of Wonders in my pre-blogging days, I was rather worried about reading Geraldine Brooks latest novel The Secret Chord with it being set in 1000BC, a period in history I know next to nothing about…

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Little Brown, hardback, 2014, non-fiction, 302 pages, borrowed from the library

As The Secret Chord opens we are thrown into the world of Natan, prophet and scribe to King David, who has just been given the mission of going off to meet with the people who have journeyed with him or crossed his path in the lead to his rule. David, who we soon come to learn is quite vain, wants his life documented and as Natan only knows of it from a certain point (when David killed his father and was just about to dispatch Natan when he announces his first prophecy) he must go and find out other peoples truths and tales of the king. As he heads to find his rulers family and first wife, interestingly both distant and reticent, he starts to look back on his times with David, a king who seemed to rise from nowhere against all odds and conquer the land.

I have to say initially I wasn’t sure I was going to buy into The Secret Chord as the idea seemed a little forced/contrived (unless I missed something, this plot device also vanishes) and on page nine a line describing a murder as ‘It was as intimate as rape.’ made me quite cross, however I continued and was soon lost in the storytelling of the characters that Natan meets as well as Natan’s own stories, which of course are all Geraldine Brooks wonderful retellings. Natan of course being an intriguing character in himself as he, without control much to his frustration, can see some of the future coming before anyone else which often leads to the intriguing questions of what he should tell, what he should withhold and what he is missing?

For a seer, I was remarkably obtuse. I know this now; I did not know it then. Yoav and I had conspired to find some occupation that, while worthwhile in itself, would serve to distract a restless and unhappy king. Instead, he found a way to distract me, to get me out of his way. A man will silence the voice of his conscience when it suits him to commit sin. But if your “conscience” walks and breathes as a living man in your service, you might have to go to some additional lengths. I did not see this. I did not seen that proud and vital man who feared his manhood waning might take any reckless step to prove himself it wasn’t so. In the service of my gift, I had to forgo much that makes a man in full. I know now that this sacrifice has left me blind to certain things. I can see what others cannot see, but sometimes I miss what is apparent to the dumbest simpleton.

There was much that I admired about Brooks evocation of King David’s life and ruling. Firstly was her clear passion and enthusiasm to tell his tale, which is quite contagious. Through Natan she also creates a fully formed character, flaws and all. David is seen as a ‘great man’, he can often be a kind and impassioned king, he can also be an absolute bastard to both his enemies and those close to him. As Natan watches his relationship with Yonatan, King Shaul’s son and sibling of David’s first wife Mikhal, we see David at his most loving and vulnerable. This section may bring up some questions to historians or certain religious views but I found it fascinating and reminiscent of one of my favourite books, Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles.  Yet by that very same stretch we see how cruel and heartless he can be with his relationship to Mikhal as the novel continues. Brooks doesn’t portray him as some amazing hero, he appears fully formed warts (well not quite) and all and I really liked this. Well apart from the rape and pillaging, this occasionally made me have to put the book down.

Throughout there is a dark, grittiness to Brooks’ writing which brings the atmosphere or the time fully to the fore. These were dark times, though some might say we are still in them now, as people fought for supremacy and power. David thinks nothing of being sent to collect 100 foreskins from the dead bodies of Shaul’s enemies (in fact he goes for double) to win Mikhal’s hand. As I mentioned, parts of the book may not be for some of the fainter of heart readers out there. When Brooks gets out on the battlefield with David and Natan, which happens quite a lot, things get pretty bloody and pretty gory. Here is a taste of one of the battle scenes from early on in the novel, see how you fair with it.

When I reached the ridge, the king was making an end of another fighter. He was up close, eye to eye. His sword had entered just above the man’s groin. He drew it upward, in a long, slow, arching slash. As he pulled the blade back – slick, dripping – long tubes of bowel came tumbling after. I could see the dying mans eyes, wide with horror, his hands griping his guts, trying to push them back into the gaping hole in his belly. The king’s own eyes were blank – all the warmth swallowed by the black stain of widening pupils. David reached out an arm and pushed the man hard in the chest. He fell backward off the narrow ledge and rolled down the slope, his entrails unfurling after him like a glossy ribband.

One scene in particular I found almost too difficult to read and did question it’s taste, once you have read the book you will know which I mean, which leads me to a few quibbles about the book before I mention it’s greatest strength. I have to admit on the odd occasion I did get a little lost. Brooks doesn’t like to show off all the research she has clearly done in writing this book which I admired. However there are moments where her knowledge means she assumes she knows something, and I knew nothing which meant I got lost and on occasion a character, generally a man, would suddenly give reference the history of why people were at war in an aside that felt slightly like a reference book, these were rare moments and minor issues because I ended up reading this book in almost a single sitting and that was because of the women’s voices and tales in the novel – which in a slightly circular way leads back to the scene I almost found too hard to read.

One of the things I like the most about historical fiction is that it can give voice, if done well, to those people who were less documented and in the case of the time of 1000BC it is generally the women. Not so in The Secret Chord where Brooks brings them fully to life and ready to tell us all. In particular the voices of Nizever; David’s forgotten mother, Mikhal; David’s first wife who goes through the ringer, the wonderful Avigail; David’s third wife and the brains behind his early rise, Maacah; his fourth wife and mother of his only daughter Tamar, and Batsheva; his eighth and final wife, who all have quite the tales to tell, giving her-story to the history which I thought was poignant, upsetting, moving and fascinating. They are what make this novel standout, the forgotten voices unleashed.

“It is important that you know, I want you to set it down: ‘Mikhal was in love with David.’ Nobody ever writes that about a woman. It’s always the man whose love is thought worthy of recording. Have you noticed that? In all the chronicles, they state it so. Well, you write down that it was I. I was the one who loved.”
Her observation was quite true. Indeed, in most of our important histories, it’s rare enough for wives to be named, never mind the state of their affections noted. So I set it down as she had requested. I paused, and looked up at her.

All in all I thought The Secret Chord was a compelling and escapist read. It introduced me to a time I know absolutely nothing about and held me there for the five and-a-bit hours it took me to greedily devour it, only stopping for the occasional cup of tea or breather from the Second Iron Age shenanigans. If you are a fan of historical fiction then I would imagine this might be just your fare and if you aren’t it is great place to dip a tentative toe and see how you get on.

So there are my thoughts on The Secret Chord, I would love to hear yours if you have read it. It has certainly reminded me of how much history there is still out there to learn about. It has also made me reflect on how much I loved Brooks’ Year of Wonders (which I took to my heart so much as it tells the tale of Eyam, the only place outside London to get the Black Plague and sacrificed itself, which happens to be mere miles from my hometown) and how I should check out more of her novels, any you would recommend in particular that I should read next?

*I read this as part of the Baileys Bearded Book Club as Eric of LonesomeReader and I try and read all the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year, more details here.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Geraldine Brooks, Little Brown Publishing

The Baileys Women’s Prize Longlist 2016

The clock has not long struck midnight (well GMT wise it has) and so it is officially International Women’s Day. What more apt a day could there be for the announcement of the Baileys Women’s Prize longlist than today? As some of you will have read the team at the Baileys Women’s Prize are very kindly letting myself and Eric, of LonesomeReader, become part of the family with the Baileys Bearded Book Club so we will be reading all the novels we haven’t, as well as doing some podcasts in the lead up to the shortlist in the next month and then a whole host of other things after that. But onto the longlist which is what you really want to see, the longlist of which I have read just the three, so someone is going to be a very busy bookish bearded bloke for the next five weeks. Here they are…

8th March 2016: The Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction announces its 2016 longlist, comprised of 20 books that celebrate the best of fiction written by women

8th March 2016: The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction announces its 2016 longlist, comprised of 20 books that celebrate the best of fiction written by women

So as I mentioned I have read three, those have links to them, and I guessed a whopping four. This happens every year and yet every year I feel more confident and look more foolish. I will type up some more thoughts on the list later today when I have let it settle with me a little more, it is just gone midnight after all. My initial thoughts are of excitement though, all those books I have yet to read, all those adventures I am yet to have.

In the meantime what are your thoughts on the 20 strong longlist? Which have you read and what did you make of them?

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction