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 undertakingThe 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

burial rites1828 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

goldfinchAs 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.


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

A girl is aThe 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

lowlandTwo 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

americanahThis 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.