What up, y’all?
Last night, I attended the readings of the work shortlisted for this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction at Cadogan Hall.
One of the most prestigious literary awards in the world, the BAILEYS Women’s Prize for Fiction – previously known as the Orange Prize for Fiction – celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world.
It was a cool event, with a wine & nibbles bar on one level, a cocktail bar on another level, and a Waterstones book stall where you could buy copies of any of the six shortlisted titles. I, of course, had to buy them all. (Support authors and bookstores!) The ooooonly downside to the event was the fact that I could basically count the number of men present on one hand. Women have always been expected to read male authors, but apparently the reverse is unthinkable for some even today. It’s the same for books written by writers of color. I think many people automatically feel alienated when, on the surface, they don’t have much in common with an author (despite us all being human beings who live human lives and experience human things). It’s like “Ah, that book was written by a woman — must not have anything in it that’ll apply to me or my life as a beardy lumberjack spacecowboy.” But…don’t you, as a man, interact with women on a daily basis? Don’t you have female relatives, friends, co-workers, and/or acquaintances? Isn’t your life influenced by the mere existence of women on Earth, just as our lives are influenced by your existence? Male, female, black, white, Asian, Russian, alien overlord… We can, and should, learn from and be entertained by one another at every opportunity! How else can we squash misunderstandings and move forward?
Anyhoo, I really enjoyed this event. Then again, I always love hearing authors read and talk about their work. Unfortunately two of the shortlistees (Anne Enright & Hanya Yanagihara) couldn’t make it — each had male stand-ins — but Anne’s reader, Robin Robertson (her editor), was my favorite of the night. It was also really nice to hear him talk about how much he admired and believed in Anne’s work. It’s good to have people like that behind you.
By now, you’re probably staring at your screen thinking, “Well…?! What are the shortlisted titles, you f*%#ing tease?!” So here’s the breakdown (and I haven’t read any of these books yet, so I’m going to use their descriptions from the BWP website):
Ruby by Cynthia Bond
Ephram Jennings has never forgotten the beautiful girl with the long braids running through the piney woods of Liberty, their small East-Texas town. For Ruby Bell, Liberty was a place of devastating violence from which she fled to seedy, glamorous 1950s New York.
Years later, pulled back home, thirty-year-old Ruby is faced with the seething hatred of a town desperate to destroy her. Witnessing her struggle, Ephram must choose between loyalty to the sister who raised him and the chance for a life with the woman he has loved since he was a boy.
The Green Road by Anne Enright
A darkly glinting novel set on Ireland’s Atlantic coast, The Green Road is a story of fracture and family, selfishness and compassion – a book about the gaps in the human heart and how we learn to fill them.
The children of Rosaleen Madigan leave the west of Ireland for lives they never could have imagined in Dublin, New York and various third-world towns. In her early old age their difficult, wonderful mother announces that she’s decided to sell the house and divide the proceeds. Her adult children come back for a last Christmas, with the feeling that their childhoods are being erased, their personal history bought and sold.
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
One messy murder affects the lives of five misfits who exist on the fringes of Ireland’s post-crash society. Ryan is a fifteen-year-old drug dealer desperate not to turn out like his alcoholic father Tony, whose obsession with this unhinged next-door neighbour threatens to ruin him and his family.
Georgie is a prostitute whose willingness to feign a religious conversion has dangerous repercussions, while Maureen, the accidental murderer, has returned to Cork after forty years in exile to discover that Jimmy, the son she was forced to give up years before, has grown into the most fearsome gangster in the city.
In seeking atonement for the murder and a multitude of perceived sins, Maureen threatens to destroy everything her son has worked so hard for, while her actions risk bringing the intertwined lives of the Irish underworld into the spotlight…
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
Meet Veblen: a passionate defender of the anti-consumerist views of her name-sake, the iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen. She’s an experienced cheerer-upper (mainly of her narcissistic, hypochondriac, controlling mother), an amateur translator of Norwegian, and a firm believer in the distinct possibility that the plucky grey squirrel following her around can understand more than it lets on.
Meet her fiancé, Paul: the son of good hippies who were bad parents, a no-nonsense, high-flying neuroscientist with no time for squirrels. His recent work on a device to minimize battlefield trauma has led him dangerously close to the seductive Cloris Hutmacher, heiress to a pharmaceuticals empire, who is promising him fame and fortune through a shady-sounding deal with the Department of Defence. What could possibly go wrong?
The Improbability of Love by Hanna Rothschild
When lovelorn Annie McDee stumbles across a dirty painting in a junk shop while looking for a present for an unsuitable man, she has no idea what she has discovered.
Soon she finds herself drawn unwillingly into the tumultuous London art world, populated by exiled Russian oligarchs, avaricious Sheikas, desperate auctioneers and unscrupulous dealers, all scheming to get their hands on her painting – a lost eighteenth-century masterpiece called ‘The Improbability of Love’.
Delving into the painting’s past, Annie will uncover not just an illustrious list of former owners, but some of the darkest secrets of European history – and in doing so she might just learn to open up to the possibility of falling in love again.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel painter pursuing fame in the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their centre of gravity.
Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented lawyer yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by a degree of trauma that he fears he will not only be unable to overcome – but that will define his life forever.
The winner of the prize will be announced tonight! After getting to know these authors a little, I’m excited to find out who won. (The first audience member to get the mic during the Q&A asked the authors 1) if they’ve read each other’s work and 2) their own book aside, which would each of them want to see win? Too bad the chair of the judging panel vetoed the question before they could answer it.)
Have you read any of these books? If so, what did you think?