I’m supposed to be writing about the books that I read in October, but the award last night of the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize to Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing has diverted my train of thought. It’s not entirely unconnected: after all, the book I was reading at the beginning of October was Jim Crace’s Harvest, the only book to be on both the Goldsmiths and Man Booker shortlists.
This is, to put it mildly, a crossroads year for literary prizes in the UK. The 2013 Man Booker was the last prize to keep to its original remit of British/Irish/Commonwealth writers, before widening to any book written in English and published in the UK – which has been generally seen as a shift towards the US, and thus the end of an era. The Goldsmiths Prize is attempting to stake out a territory for experimental fiction, doing what some say the Booker should be doing by rewarding courage and risk-taking. And then we have the Folio Prize, set up in the wake of the ‘Rimington Booker’ of 2011, when it was seen as dumbing down, but which now, despite a rigorous and forward-thinking academy structure, seems rather lost in the wake of the Booker changes. After all, nobody could accuse The Luminaries of being a dumb book.
All this you know.
We also know that the Goldsmiths shortlist was a brilliant setting out of its stall, diverse and eye-catching in all sorts of ways: established vs unknown publishers, old vs new names, humour vs tragedy, dense vs aphoristic texts. I haven’t read enough of the shortlist to say whether I agree with the judges, but I’ve read Eimear’s book, and I can say it’s an utterly worthy winner: the best word I can think of to describe it is gobsmacking.
Certainly, anyone who picks it up and looks at the first page can see that something exciting and exalted is being done here with language (I’ve given extracts of it to Creative Writing students, just to say: Look, you can do this; this can be done), but persevere with the book – as you have to do: this is a demanding read – and it becomes clear that the characters in it are as strong as the language, and the scene-building as strong as the characters, and the story, in the end, as affecting as all of it. Continue reading
One: I have a dysfunctional relationship with books, and authors. And, two: There is no functional relationship available, that I know of.
Take Lawrence Norfolk. I read his first novel, Lemprière’s Dictionary, in paperback, many years ago, and found it exhilaratingly different from my usual run of reading, a historical novel that confidently brushed aside my preconceptions of the genre, that boomed outwards in an explosion of character and description and action in ways I found exhaustingly brilliant. He followed this with a similar historical fantasy, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, which I picked up somewhere along the way, but never read, beyond its barn-storming opening section, beginning: “This sea was once a lake of ice.”
In 2000 his third novel came out, In The Shape of a Boar, and this I read on publication, and was bowled over by it in ways that knocked me a different kind of sideways from his previous books. It was, and is, an unprecedented novel. It comes in three parts, the first a mockery-free mock-epic narrating a boar hunt in Ancient Greece, complete with copious footnotes pointing to sources in the kind of Classical literature of which I knew little but was nonetheless in awe of. The second, and longest, part takes place at the end of the Second World War and treats love and betrayal among Greek partisans tracking down Nazis. It is, to my knowledge, the only remotely modern thing Norfolk has ever written. The book ends with a very short coda that joins the two sections in a way that in Creative Writing class I would have to call ‘thematically’, but that does not go very far at all in explaining how it does it.
This felt like the most exciting contemporary novel I had ever read: unfathomable and yet moving, miles above me in terms of intellect (and seductive because of this) while seeming to offer the possibility of understanding despite this. It reached down, or at least waved, from the heights on which it stood. Continue reading