Baileys Women’s Prize 2017 Part 1

This will not be a post reviewing the Baileys Women’s Prize Long-List as between us we have read 0/16 books. That being said, this post will be my first impressions of the selected novels after reading not only their blurbs but also a free sample of each. I will then decide if I would like to continue reading these novels or whether I think they could make the shortlist.

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Upon her arrival in London, an 18-year-old Irish girl begins anew as a drama student, with all the hopes of any young actress searching for the fame she’s always dreamed of. She struggles to fit in—she’s young and unexotic, a naive new girl—but soon she forges friendships and finds a place for herself in the big city.

Then she meets an attractive older man. He’s an established actor, 20 years older, and the inevitable clamorous relationship that ensues is one that will change her forever.

A redemptive, captivating story of passion and innocence set across the bedsits of mid-1990s London, McBride holds new love under her fierce gaze, giving us all a chance to remember what it’s like to fall hard for another

I have owned McBride’s previous Baileys Award-winning novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing for years and yet it remains unread on my shelf. Therefore I’m interested to see what I make of this one, will it encourage me to finally pick up her other Baileys novel?…

From the blurb I find that the 90s setting really interests me as this may be the decade of recent times that I have read the least. However I’m hoping it won’t have the Sex and the City feel to it that I’m imagining. I also read Brooklyn last year and thought that similar plot aspects were done really well in Tóibín’s novel. Therefore I’m wary of the character differences and whether I will enjoy this reading experience as much. The plot does not seem wholly unique to me therefore, on first impressions,  I believe this novel to have been selected because of its author. Hopefully I will enjoy this one despite my initial concerns.

After reading the sample I am reminded of why I have yet to read A Girl is a Half-formed  Thing, I simply do not like McBride’s writing style. In my opinion it seems as though McBride tries so hard to be poetic and unique in her prose that the readers attention is constantly drawn to the craft of the novel rather than the plot which can be distracting. The prose in this almost stream-of-consciousness opening, and at times the dialogue, feels unnatural.I did find myself at times reading aloud in order to concentrate on what was happening. However as the novel goes on it admittedly gets easier to read, this may simply be due to the fact that our first person narrator comes into more human contact and these exchanges are much less scattered.

As the reading experience did become more enjoyable to me the more I read, I would continue reading this novel although I suspect it won’t make my personal shortlist.

 
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What is the difference between friendship and love? Or between neutrality and commitment? Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in ‘neutral’ Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem a distant echo. But Gustav’s father has mysteriously died, and his adored mother Emilie is strangely cold and indifferent to him. Gustav’s childhood is spent in lonely isolation, his only toy a tin train with painted passengers staring blankly from the carriage windows.

As time goes on, an intense friendship with a boy of his own age, Anton Zwiebel, begins to define Gustav’s life. Jewish and mercurial, a talented pianist tortured by nerves when he has to play in public, Anton fails to understand how deeply and irrevocably his life and Gustav’s are entwined.

Fierce, astringent, profoundly tender, Rose Tremain’s beautifully orchestrated novel asks the question, what does it do to a person, or to a country, to pursue an eternal quest for neutrality, and self-mastery, while all life’s hopes and passions continually press upon the borders and beat upon the gate.

This is the novel I have heard the most about. I have only ever seen and heard rave reviews of Tremain’s novel although I am sure there are also criticisms. From the plot alone I believe I will enjoy Tremain’s novel as I usually like novels set during this time period (1947.)  I also think I will enjoy the friendship that forms between Gustav and Anton, two boys from completely different backgrounds and upbringing.

After reading the sample I can say that while I would definitely love to keep reading The Gustav Sonata, I personally cannot see it winning the Baileys Prize. I believe it to be too ‘safe’ a choice. That being said I loved the friendship between Gustav and Anton from the beginning and found their dialogue, in contrast to The Lesser Bohemians very natural and masterfully innocent. The prose, the characters, the plot all seem effortless and realistic thus far. Gustav lives in poverty and also helps his mother work. He is too young to remember his father but feels the effect of his loss every day through his mother. He is a young boy with already too much to bare on his shoulders when he befriends Anton. I am looking forward to finding out how the story progresses from here.

 

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In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters—barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years—their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions—the revenge of rivals, accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.

This is an author I am very interested in reading for the first time due to one of her previous novels Brokeback Mountain. After reading the plot I believe this will be the heaviest of the selected novels thus far, and that also unintentionally speaks for the length of the books.

As with The Lesser Bohemians it took me a little longer to be immersed in this novel. I believe this is a result of the samples I have read and their various time settings. Thus far Tremain’s novel is a much easier read, and as previously mentioned, is a much safer choice meaning it took me a few pages to adjust. However I loved the descriptions of the woods and really enjoyed the theme of nature. There is mystery centred around the ‘sauvages’ and also, similarly to The Gustav Sonata the theme of poverty is clear from the outset. I would genuinely love to continue reading Proulx’s novel. I believe it to be the hardest plot to execute well of the three and therefore think that it is the most worthy winner so far. That being said I am obviously basing this judgement on samples of each book therefore my opinions are not fully backed up.

 

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Father and Son, Landyn and Vale Midwinter, are men of the land. Suffolk farmers. Times are hard and they struggle to sustain their property, their livelihood and their heritage in the face of competition from big business.

But an even bigger, more brutal fight is brewing: a fight between each other, about the horrible death of Cecelia, beloved wife and mother, in Zambia ten years earlier. A past they have both refused to confront until now.

Over the course of a particularly mauling Suffolk winter, Landyn and Vale grapple with their memories and their pain, raking over what remains of their fragile family unit, constantly at odds and under threat of falling apart forever. While Vale makes increasingly desperate decisions, Landyn retreats, finding solace in the land, his animals – and a fox who haunts the farm and seems to bring with her both comfort and protection.

Alive to language and nature, Midwinter is a novel about guilt, blame and lost opportunities. Ultimately it is a story about love and the lengths we will go to find our way home.

In contrast with the previous selections, this is the first novel and author I have no previous knowledge of. After reading the blurb I will say that I would not normally read this novel. I don’t believe I will enjoy this one although I would love to be proved wrong. I expect this novel will be depressing and slow-paced and also expect myself to get far too frustrated with the characters and their ‘even bigger, more brutal fight’ which I assume amounts to them not talking to each other.

Ok, I may be getting picky but even the dedication of this novel aggrivated me. I thought, as you might now, that I was overreacting until I read the prologue and found that I was already not enjoying this novel.  Foxes are mentioned in the prologue with the first line being “Think about a fox” this made me really worried about enjoying the novel as not only was this too early to be talking about the foxes in my opinion but I typically have a hard time when books feature animals purely for the purpose of metaphor. This may also be problematic for me when reviewing two of the other longlisted novels. I also believe that the prologue gives the plot away and wish I did not have to continue reading, but for the sake of this post I do.

The drama was already exaggerated and overdone a couple of pages in when Vale explains his frustrations as eloquently as “I felt this fuckin’ mad rage in me” and “It wasn’t slow like my walks usually are it was angry.” It was after this second quote that I stopped reading. My initial response is surprise that this novel was selected, perhaps if I read on I would learn why but for now I’m not willing to accept that risk. I am fully willing to admit that my dislike of this novel may be fully down to personal taste. Nevertheless Midwinter will not be making my personal shortlist.

 

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Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbours. One is black, one white. Both are successful women with impressive careers. Both have recently been widowed. And both are sworn enemies, sharing hedge and hostility which they prune with a zeal that belies the fact that they are both over eighty.

But one day an unforeseen event forces the women together. And gradually the bickering and sniping softens into lively debate, and from there into memories shared. But could these sparks of connection ever transform into friendship? Or is it too late to expect these two to change?

Another novel and novelist I had not heard of prior to the Longlist. My first impressions from the plot is that the author has a lot of work to pull this off. Done well, this novel could be both heartbreaking and hilarious. I will also say that these characters have the potential to be memorable from what we know of them already, I particularly like the fact that both are ‘successful women with impressive careers’ which is mentioned before the fact that they are widows.

However if done badly then this novel will be yet another where the two main characters work solely to reflect each other and in doing so seem entirely two dimensional. I go into the sample with an open minded hoping for the best…

After reading the sample I would definitely continue reading Omotoso’s novel. Race is a key theme as is wealth which gives the novel the depth it needs. I enjoyed the writing style and the fierce protagonist Hortensia, who when the novel opens is a Black woman married to a White man facing prejudice from the local townspeople. The Woman Next Door grabbed my attention and feels as though it could be of a higher importance than it initially seems.

 

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With echoes of The Night Circus, a spellbinding story about two gifted orphans in love with each other since they can remember whose childhood talents allow them to rewrite their future.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a love story with the power of legend. An unparalleled tale of charismatic pianos, invisible dance partners, radicalized chorus girls, drug-addicted musicians, brooding clowns, and an underworld whose economy hinges on the price of a kiss. In a landscape like this, it takes great creative gifts to thwart one’s origins. It might also take true love.

Two babies are abandoned in a Montreal orphanage in the winter of 1910. Before long, their talents emerge: Pierrot is a piano prodigy; Rose lights up even the dreariest room with her dancing and comedy. As they travel around the city performing clown routines, the children fall in love with each other and dream up a plan for the most extraordinary and seductive circus show the world has ever seen.

Separated as teenagers, sent off to work as servants during the Great Depression, both descend into the city’s underworld, dabbling in sex, drugs and theft in order to survive. But when Rose and Pierrot finally reunite beneath the snowflakes after years of searching and desperate poverty the possibilities of their childhood dreams are renewed, and they’ll go to extreme lengths to make them come true. Soon, Rose, Pierrot and their troupe of clowns and chorus girls have hit New York, commanding the stage as well as the alleys, and neither the theater nor the underworld will ever look the same.

With her musical language and extravagantly realized world, Heather O’Neill enchants us with a novel so magical there is no escaping its spell.

I have never read The Night Circus although I am aware of its huge popularity. My first impression of this novel from the blurb is that it seems action packed! The Lonely Hearts Hotel already feels layered and the characters are already exciting and perhaps dynamic. I am hoping that this novel can pull all of these elements off while being realistically heartbreaking as the main characters are orphans as well as being fantastical in terms of the circus and New York setting.

Failing to disappoint after its dramatic blurb, the opening chapter is shocking. Pierrot’s birth is the theme of chapter one where it is revealed that his mother, aged 12 was raped by her cousin and sent away to an establishment for pregnant girls and given a horrific new name ‘Ignorance’ or ‘Iggy’ as some sort of supposed lesson. My concern is that similarly to Midwinter this novel has too much drama from the beginning. This may prove boring in the longrun and I expect will be very easily overdone. In the sample I read there was already a hanging. The children at the orphanage are also beaten for silly reasons some of which are listed and then the author writes ‘It was sad for all the children’ sad? they spend their lives doing slave labour and being beaten and they’re just sad?

Also the nuns believe “It was necessary to thwart all love afairs in the orphanage. If there was one thing responsibile for ruining lives, it was love. They were in their pathetic circumstances because of that most unreliable of feelings.” I had an issue with this part of the novel as it was not then explained how misled the nuns are, writing a rape scene in the first couple of pages and then referring it to love is dangerous. That being said, we as readers are not supposed to agree with the nuns, nevertheless I thought that this section was unnecessary. I did not finish reading this sample either and am not interested in finding out what happened to these characters that we were supposed to like purely because worse characters didn’t. I personally would be a little disappointed to see this one make the shortlist.

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From “one of Britain’s most original young writers” (The Observer), a blistering account of a marriage in crisis and a portrait of a woman caught between withdrawal and self-assertion, depression and rage.

Neve, the novel’s acutely intelligent narrator, is beset by financial anxiety and isolation, but can’t quite manage to extricate herself from her volatile partner, Edwyn. Told with emotional remove and bracing clarity, First Love is an account of the relationship between two catastrophically ill-suited people walking a precarious line between relative calm and explosive confrontation.

My first impression of this novel from the blurb was that the success of the novel depends entirely on its main character, Neve. An ‘acutely intelligent’ narrator could be instantly likeable or annoying. Also a tumultuous relationship could be frustrating to read about particularly if the characters are immature. I initially cannot see this novel becoming one of my all time favourites. Also, the blurb seems extremely short in comparison to the others on this list.

As the blurb suggests, after reading the e-book sample I can confirm the narrator of Riley’s novel and Edwyn, her partner are definitely a toxic pairing. I cannot say much about what I have read so far as it is mainly setting the scene of an unhappy relationship and the unhappy history that is Neve’s love life. In all honesty the writing style never blew me away and I definitely prefer other novels on the list from what I’ve read so far. Interestingly, I believe this is the shortest of all the longlisted novels and I would therefore continue reading this one as I am intrigued by this fact alone.

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The Second World War is over, a new decade is beginning but for an East End teenage brother and sister living on the edge of the law, life has been suspended. Sent away to a tuberculosis sanatorium in Kent to learn the way of the patient, they find themselves in the company of army and air force officers, a car salesman, a young university graduate, a mysterious German woman, a member of the aristocracy and an American merchant seaman. They discover that a cure is tantalisingly just out of reach and only by inciting wholesale rebellion can freedom be snatched.

Initially, from the blurb, I was excited to read the sample of Grant’s novel. I am interested in reading about the sanatorium. This is the second novel on the longlist set in 1949 and the second novel set in London, at least at the beginning.

The novel is fast paced and its characters are interesting, Lenny is trying to avoid being drafted when he discovers he has TB. I am unsure about the relationship between the twins as there seems to be a reference to incest. Although I’m not sure about this and would have to read more to pass a judgement. Either way the sample is difficult to read at times for example here…

“Plus, they were Hebrews, and that lot were only out for themselves, particularly the refugees. You had to keep an eye on them, they were swarming these days like bees “

The sample did capture my attention all the way through and I would continue reading this novel as I believe it to be a unique, easy read. Despite being set in the same time period this novel had a completely different feel and writing style to Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata. In comparison I liked Tremain’s characters more but believe this novel to be more original.

Madeleine Thien - Do Not Say We Have Nothing

 

“In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life. I was ten years old.”
Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations—those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story. Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences.

With maturity and sophistication, humor and beauty, Thien has crafted a novel that is at once intimate and grandly political, rooted in the details of life inside China yet transcendent in its universality.

Wow. The first line of the blurb captivated me. That was unexpected. To a certain extent I did expect to enjoy this novel as not only is it long listed for this prize but was also long listed for the Man Booker Prize. I also tend to enjoy novels set in China. I am really looking forward to reading the sample of Thien’s critically acclaimed novel.

So upon reading further I have discovered that the first line of the blurb is also the first line of the novel. This has to go down as one of my favourite first lines in literature which I may do a blog post about soon, would anyone be interested in seeing that feature? And does anyone else have this post on their blog?

I immediately love the writing style and am moved from the first page which describes her diseased father in a really human way that does not seem robotic like first-page descriptions often are, “My father has a handsome, ageless face; He is a kind but melancholy man.”  It is the details I love “His eyes, dark brown, are guarded and unsure.” These descriptions are so vivid that I found myself immersed in the narrator’s life. The sample of this novel was heartbreaking and in a way not exclusive to its narrator “the truth was that I had loved my father more,” I felt for every member of Li-Ling’s family.

 I enjoyed reading the discussions between Li-Ling and Ai-ming but it was the relationship between Li-Ling and her mother that I was automatically invested in. I have a feeling this novel will make it onto my personal shortlist. In short, I have high hopes for this one.

Sophie

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