In two weeks’ time, the winner of The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced.
Here’s the shortlist in order of my reading:
Eimear McBride – A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing
Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah
Audrey Magee – The Undertaking
Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch
Hannah Kent – Burial Rites
Today, I review three of the novels. Next Wednesday, I’ll review the remaining three and choose my own wholly subjective winner. The following Wednesday will be June 4th, the day The Bailey’s Prize is awarded.
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride
The first thing everyone says about this book is ‘it’s a hard read’. It is. Unconventional in its prose style: confrontational in its subject. McBride’s fractured rendition of conversations and distinctively Irish English, plus the disregard for the norms of punctuation, dialogue tags or attribution makes the reader either work hard or relax. I recommend the latter. Forget the fact standard reader-signposts are absent and realise you are not being told a story, but being drawn into an experience.
Our unnamed narrator expresses herself and her formative experiences with feeling rather than eloquence– as the author puts it, ‘balancing on the moment just before language becomes formatted thought’. There is much to think about; familial bonds, the strictures and comforts of religion, the unfairness of disease, perceptions of self and identity as defined in the eyes of others and female sexuality and how it can be (ab)used. McBride neither shows nor tells of the love, shame and guilt battling within our protagonist. By dint of brutal poetry and risky narration, she makes the reader feel it too.
This is the third book I’ve read from independent small publishers Galley Beggar Press, and I’m so glad they exist. Otherwise books like this would not.
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri
Two brothers, born in Calcutta, live just behind the lowland – two ponds which fill and become one when the rains come. Subhash is studious and obedient, Udayan is a rule-breaker. Their complicit stealing into the private members’ Tolly Club (Udayan’s idea) results in Subhash being beaten. The brothers’ lives take different directions. Subhash takes up a scholarship in Rhode Island. Udayan, politicised and passionate, becomes involved with the Naxalite movement.
Without giving away spoilers, this is a book about absences. Brothers separated, a husband replaced, a mother abandoning a child. Ghosts loom large and the presence of some of the living is ethereal. Lahiri weaves a tale of loss and identity, secrets and guilt. The whole truth and the weight it bears on the characters is only fully uncovered towards the end.
I found the depiction of place powerful – a house, a wasteland, a terrace, a path – each holds far greater meaning when loaded with emotional identification. Small wonder our youngest character rejects roots and becomes transient, working the land, shifting with the seasons, forming and losing groups, but always moving.
However, for me, this book felt distanced and removed. I actually wished for a little dialogue, allowing me to interpret the behaviour and motivations of the key players, rather than reported actions and emotions. The ice creep of disintegrating marriages, withdrawal of affection and a gradual loss of sanity are not easy subjects to address as they lack drama. Yet as truths of life, they do require engagement.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This is a love story. Not just between Ifemelu and Obinze, but for a country. Adichie’s observations on America and Britain are cool, in both senses of the word. Precise, amused, sardonic and aware. Yet when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, the reader can sense a ferocious passion.
Young lovers Ifemelu and Obinze are well-off, educated and intelligent individuals, who love their country. But only by leaving do they realise how well off they are. Ifemelu takes up a scholarship in the US and learns some harsh lessons about racial attitudes (NAB v AA), principles (how the word ‘relax’ differs when it comes to hair and tennis coaches) and the influence of class.
Obinze opts for a less secure route in Britain. Whereas Ifemelu, who’s started a blog, sees the funny side of assumption and prejudgement, Obinze’s treatment at the hands of authority and associates leaves deep scars on his sense of self.
One feature I found especially appealing is the significance of the written word. Our hero and heroine share books, letters, emails and maintain a connection through words on a page. Reading, writing and books are doorways for these characters
An articulate, broad and sharp analysis of the state we’re in, this is a beautifully written story about two people and a love that will always bring them back.