Recent reading: award nominees and challenge choices

by Sunita

September is always a super-busy month for me but I’ve managed to keep reading. In addition to the Booker shortlist in the first half of the month, the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist was announced last week. The Goldsmiths is given to a novel written by a UK or Irish author which is “genuinely novel and which embodies the sprit of invention that characterises the genre at its best.” There is frequently overlap with the Booker but not always, and usually not much. The six nominees are:

  • H(A)ppy by Nicola Barker
  • A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume
  • Playing Possum by Kevin Davey
  • Reservoir 13 by Jon MacGregor
  • First Love by Gwendoline Riley
  • Phone by Will Self

I’d heard of 4 of the 6 and was thrilled to see the MacGregor on the list. Like many readers, I’d never heard of Playing Possum, which is published by the wonderfully named Aaargh! Press. The Barker and the Baume had been on my radar, and I’ve been meaning to read a Will Self novel. I’ve managed to pick up half the list through the library and will order the Barker for sure.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading a bit more of the Booker list and other award-nominee novels, along with some lighter and more comfort-oriented fare.

History of Wolves coverA History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. I bounced off the description because it sounded like another MFA-influenced novel about retrospective looks at teenage girls. But after it made the Booker shortlist and I read quite a few positive and convincing reviews and comments, I decided to try it. It didn’t start well; I had to force myself to keep reading through the first third of this novel. The writing felt overly self-conscious and I wasn’t convinced that it was in character. There are two storylines, one involving Maddie/Linda’s schoolmate and a teacher, the other involving a mother and child who come to live near Linda in the woods. The two parts don’t cohere and it’s not clear where anything is going. But then Leo, the father, shows up, and things start to fall into place.

The book is about so many things, too many really, because Fridlund can’t quite bring everything together. But the themes are important and her approach to them is unusual. The teacher-student relationship, the role of religion in Leo and Patra and Paul’s lives, Linda’s relationship with her parents, all of these are written beautifully and the twists and turns in each storyline are unexpected.

Other readers have said it’s a story about loneliness, which it is, as well as about how parents shape their children’s lives and options (also true). It’s also about power and gender, although again, not in the obvious ways.

I’d call this an ambitious, interesting failure. Failure because it doesn’t come together, and the emphasis on atmosphere and style at times undercuts the power of the characterizations and thematic through-lines. But it’s well worth reading and I’m glad I stuck with it.

Chalet School coverThe School at the Chalet by Elinor Brent-Dyer. This is the first in Brent-Dyer’s long boarding-school series. I read these when I was a little girl in India and I loved them. Going back to them decades later, I wondered how it would hold up. Answer: not that well. The jolly-hockey-sticks tone and dialogue feels more forced now (although it didn’t then and probably didn’t in the 1920s when it was written). And even though I read a cleaned-up version, the ethnocentrism and emphasis on cultural traits (rather than individual attributes) was discomfiting and at times cringe-inducing. The story is told in episodes which don’t really hang together or build toward anything. On the plus side, the relationships are believable, especially the main one between sisters Jo and Madge, and so are the schoolgirls. As trips down nostalgia lane go it’s not bad, but I wouldn’t recommend it to new readers without major caveats.

Threat Level coverThe Threat Level Remains Severe by Rowena Macdonald. Every year the Guardian newspaper runs a crowdsourced “Not The Booker Prize” alternative award. This made the shortlist and it was one of the two which sounded interesting to me. The Guardian reviewer called it “charmingly odd” and that seems about right. It’s not really a political novel in the way I think of them, but it’s set in the House of Commons and gets the minutiae and boredom of bureaucratic life pitch-perfect.

Grace is a 30-year-old unmarried woman who has drifted into a permanent position as a bureaucrat in the Committee on Economic Security. Her predictable work life is upended by two men: Brett Beamish, a go-getting Australian who is seconded to the Committee and has plans for a more interesting and lucrative career, and Reuben Swift, a part-time musician who is temping somewhere in the Parliamentary complex.

Grace gets to know both of them, Brett through work and eventually through more personal interactions, and Reuben via email. She likes the idea of Reuben more than the reality of Brett, but Brett is physically in her life and Reuben isn’t, until Reuben finally suggests they meet. And then things get really interesting.

The first part of the book is mostly funny and the second half darker and sadder. There are a couple of twists that I totally didn’t see coming, but Macdonald is skilled at both the humor and the pathos. The ending is a bit too upbeat and neat, given what has gone before, but I’m not going to begrudge any of these characters their happiness or contentment. Thanks to the Guardian readers for nominating this unusual and worthwhile read.

child friday coverChild Friday by Sara Seale. Seale is from the Burchell era of Mills & Boon but much less well known. Her romances are frequently set in the more remote areas of the UK and Ireland, and sometimes they can be a bit squicky in terms of age and power differentials. But I’ve always enjoyed her books and I’ve managed to collect two or three dozen of them. This one filled a challenge category and I didn’t remember much about it, so I picked it up after many years. It features one of Seale’s standard plots: a down on her luck, shy and retiring heroine is sent to be a secretary to a rich, reclusive former scientist who was blinded in an accident. The scientist inherited a large house on the moors, along with guardianship of a little girl. Our heroine is viewed askance by the faithful retainers but incorporates herself into the household structure. She discovers that the recluse is actually looking for a wife (to run his home, etc., no marital obligations). They marry and her role doesn’t really change, but then things are upended by the arrival of the recluse’s former flame, who wants him back now that he’s rich.

Everything is presented from the heroine’s POV, the recluse is broody and emotionally distant, and the heroine is insecure and unconfident, although a healthier sense of self peeks through occasionally.

As a romance, particularly in today’s environment, it’s pretty unsatisfying; everything is subtext until the very end and the reader has to infer that the two are growing fonder of each other. The former flame is interesting but awful. What works best is the evocation of setting, both natural and social. This is really a domestic novel of social class in category-romance garb, and at that it succeeds quite well. The writing is more than serviceable, as is true of many M&Bs of this era. Seale is more reliant on tropes to move her plots and characters than Mary Burchell, and some of the romances are dubious, but her books can be intriguing and unusual.