This year I’ve managed to read five out of the six shortlisted books for the Baileys Prize, the winner of which will be announced in a matter of hours rather than days or weeks now. Here are my personal views on the five books, listed in the order of reading.
1. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
This came to my attention when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and much praised on Twitter. I’m very glad I read this because it is an incredible study of human nature and the limits of love. However, I felt certain scenes and narrative threads were too long and drawn out, and the main character Jude’s suffering laid on too thickly at times. Yanagihara is an incredibly gifted writer who plunges the reader into another world to such a degree that you feel personally acquainted with her group of highly engaging male friends in New York. It is a deeply affecting read which stays with you for ages afterwards, but perhaps it’s not for the faint-hearted who may baulk at some graphic descriptions of abuse nor indeed, for anyone seeking a happy ending for Jude.
2. Ruby by Cynthia Bond
Were I on the Baileys Prize jury, this would be my winner. Bond’s prose is sumptuous and poetic at times, occasionally verging on the tactile (if you know what I mean) but she is also a superb storyteller who creates memorable and dare I say it, ‘lovable’ characters. The central character, Ruby is a work of art as is Ephram, who may be seen as her potential saviour. The backwater setting in Texas is convincingly recreated on paper with all its bigotry, violence, and hidden truths, but for me, the most extraordinary aspect of ‘Ruby’ is how the author incorporates the ‘unseen’. Voo-doo-like, secret and barbaric rituals worthy of Stephen King, co-exist with extreme, ‘born again’ religious beliefs in a community which always feels like it’s going to hell in a handcart. This is not a morose read however, and there is much humour and some sparkling dialogue, and what an ending! I loved this book, was sad to finish it, and happily await the next instalment. Bond says on her Twitter profile that she had a 900 page book which became three 300 page books. It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel and I hope we don’t have to wait too long for the second in the series.
3. The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
This is one of two books by Irish authors on the shortlist but they are very different animals. McInerney’s setting is Cork city and her characters can only be described as members of the underclass, although the criminal elements are certainly not without power. I was tremendously impressed with this debut novel and found the writing engaging, the characters convincing, and the plot well thought out. There’s also a great deal of humour here, often of the dark variety a là Quentin Tarantino (look no further than the opening scene) and it works really well, producing some ‘laugh out loud’ moments. My quibbles: I think the book would have been fine with fewer ‘blow jobs’ and although I loved the character of Maureen, I felt she was being used too often as a mouthpiece for berating (quite rightly) the Catholic church’s dubious activities in Ireland in the recent past – one scene in particular, was ironically quite ‘preachy’. Overall though, a great read and an author whose next book I would pick up without hesitating.
4. The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild
I really don’t want to be unkind, but in my opinion, this book shouldn’t have made the shortlist, not least because a brilliant book like Kate Atkinson’s ‘A God in Ruins’ (see my review) didn’t make it off the long list, ditto ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ by Elizabeth Strout. I am aware that it’s classified as comedy, and that the Baileys Prize seems to be including a commercial fiction book on the shortlist these days (Sarah Waters ‘The Paying Guest’ last year), but such a book must be a worthy representative of the genre. There are so many things I disliked about Rothschild’s debut novel, but I’ll just list a few: haphazard structure, repetitious and bland descriptions, cliché after cliché, stereotypical representations of foreigners, the nouveau riches, gay men and working class women, a plot full of holes which was downright stupid at times, stiff dialogue, and characters who consistently act totally out of character. There were sections of the book which engaged me, mostly those involving the art scene in London and painting restoration, and I came across several really amusing one-liners, but in summary, I’m glad I only paid £1.89 for this on Kindle. If I’d bought the hard copy, I’m afraid it would be in a charity shop by now.
5. The Green Road by Anne Enright
This is the second member of ‘Team Ireland’ on the shortlist but I’m not backing it to win. Enright is a fantastic writer, has won the Booker, is the inaugural laureate of Irish literature, and there is very little to find fault with in this book. It is a beautifully and intricately observed study of a family, of how the children, once so close, leave the home place and go their separate ways only to find coming together again more and more difficult and fraught as time passes. Throw into the mix an overbearing and unpredictable matriarch who has ‘done nothing but expects everything’ (what a great line) and a masterly evocation of the idyllic West Clare setting, and you’ve got a superb novel. However, I can’t get excited reading about middle-class Irish families with the usual problems and clashes that John McGahern was writing about two decades or more ago. Enright does include settings outside of Ireland in the first half of the novel (which I enjoyed less than the second half), but I had the impression that she did so to tick the ‘diversity’ box. I particularly disliked the scenes in Mali which focussed on a dog for far too many pages. The ending didn’t wow me either and when I finished the book, although I enjoyed it and was very glad to have read it, it left me with a ‘so what?’ feeling. Perhaps I should point out that I had the same reaction to Anne Tyler’s ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ which was on last year’s Baileys shortlist. Twitter is telling me that ‘The Green Road’ is favourite to win the Baileys Prize, so we’ll see.
6. The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
This is the one I haven’t had time to read, although I like the sound of it. Hopefully, in this case, the word ‘satire’ is used more accurately than it was for ‘The Improbability of Love’ and if ‘The Portable Veblen’ wins, I may just add it to my ‘To Be Read’ list, albeit at the bottom.
Have you read any of the above? Do you agree or disagree with me? Please let my know by leaving a comment – I’ve been away from the blog for a while and would love to hear from you.