In a 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
Hannah Kent – Burial Rites
Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch
Last week, I reviewed three of the novels. Here, with the help of my colleague Gillian, are reviews of the remaining three. Next Wednesday will be June 4th, the day The Baileys Prize is awarded, and I’ll choose my own wholly subjective winner.
The Undertaking, by Audrey Magee
The literature of war is written by the victors. Later, the victims, and eventually, the vanquished. There is a space in which to explore how ordinary housewives, everyday soldiers and those who conform to socially accepted norms of civilisation behave in times of conflict. Do they gradually succumb to an erosion of those values, becoming cruel and cynical in order to survive? If so, what do they still hold dear?
This is a story of WWII from two German characters’ perspectives. At first they are strangers, then lovers, then talismanic memories.
Soldier Peter Faber weds a woman’s photograph in the bitter cold of the Eastern Front. Katharina performs the same ceremony with Peter’s picture in Berlin. The undertaking confers favours on both. Peter gets three weeks’ leave from the German army, Katharina gains a soldier husband (and his pension). Yet when they meet in person, their mutual attraction surprises them both.
Katharina’s family has connections. Sheltered by powerful friends in the Führer’s inner circle, Peter is co-opted to the cause. It doesn’t take much. Two weeks into his marriage and he’s smashing down doors to drag Jewish children into cattle trucks.
The story is bleak and brutal. Peter’s return to the hopeless advance on Stalingrad through a Russian winter is contrasted with the selfish opportunism and weakness of Katharina’s own family as they enjoy the privileges of Berlin’s protection. Until even that is stripped away.
This is a harsh, grim tale of the horrors of war. The use of dialogue places the reader in the heads of the characters most effectively. But sometimes, that’s the last place you want to be.
Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent
1828 Iceland. A woman, with one male and one female accomplice, murders her lover. Convicted by the court, she is sentenced to death by beheading.
Icelandic custom involves sending its criminals to Denmark for their punishment, but here, the District Council decides to make an example of the three.
They will meet their fate on Icelandic soil.
The system entails several appeals and deliberations, meaning a potential delay of months, even years before the sentence can be applied. So the three convicts are put to work on District Officers’ farms.
Agnes Magnúsdóttir is sent to Kornsá, and the farm of Jón Jónsson. She is to work alongside Jón, his wife Margrét and his daughters, Lauga and Steina. The shock of hosting a murderess throws ripples of confusion through the family. When news reaches novice priest, Reverend Tóti, that he is to be her spiritual counsellor, even the servant says, ‘Good Lord, they pick a mouse to tame a cat’.
The presence of the criminal excites and alarms the neighbours, but the household finds its own way of dealing with the unwanted guest. Steina is bewitched, Lauga is detached and Margrét sees Agnes for what she is – a woman, suffering.
The subtle change and adaptation of each character to the circumstances reminds me of the so-subtle-you-don’t-notice shifts in Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín (I tell you, this accent key has never seen so much use in its life). In addition, the author’s choice of changing points of view, evocative detail of Icelandic peasant hardships and use of letters, documents and storytelling allows the reader to piece together a very different account to the official rendering of events.
A delicate, understated, hot under a cold surface story that had me in heaving sobs at the end. By which I mean to say, I loved it.
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
Review by my Triskele Books colleague, Gillian Hamer
As I grow older, I find I increasingly yearn for flawed characters, those who have so many layers that as you unpeel them, you go from shocked to emotive to repulsed and back again. Here, we are spoiled. We have Theo Decker, who to say is troubled is the biggest understatement of the year. We have Boris, whose life story was so complex he’d lost sight of his moral compass at birth. We have darkly secretive art dealers, darkly secretive women, and the adorable Hobie. And I loved them all.
This is an epic novel, ten years in the making, and you can see how the layers have been honed, polished and perfected over time. This is a how-to example of perfection in literary fiction for me. The depth and attention to detail, the perfect characterisation and the rambling narrative and dialogue that suits every scene to perfection. Even the accents! Boris was sublime.
Theo Decker must have been a wonderful character to create. Left alone after the loss of his mother at a young age in the most dramatic of circumstances. Passed into the guardian-ship of the Barbour family whose imprint lasted right through his turbulent years in Vegas with his father. A relationship with Boris that fell under no distinct category. His return to Hobie whose paths crossed via a life changing moment. Bound by layers of guilt that he carries for life and almost lead to his destruction. I could almost weep I didn’t have chance to create and live this life with him.
Without doubt, this is a lesson in excellent writing, and one that will stay with me for a long, long time.