Article published on March 8, 2016.
International Women’s Day and what better way to celebrate than with this year’s longlist announcement of the twenty titles in the running for the Baileys prize. And having perused the list I can categorically say that I have read the grand total of – wait for it – zero of the longlisted titles!
Yes, zero, it’s not the best start perhaps, but as far as I see it, rather than acknowledging it’s twenty books I’ve failed to read, I like to think of it as being twenty books I’ve still to explore. Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I think my reading habits account more for my failure to have read any of these books rather than the quality of the longlist. Indeed, despite not having read any of the titles, there are a number of standout novels on the list that have attracted significant attention, most notably, Kate Atkinson’s sequel to her award-wining title Life After Life, A God in Ruins, which won last year’s Costa Novel Award, Anne Enright’s The Green Road, which already has an impressive catalogue of award credentials – longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the 2015 Costa Novel Award and winner of the Irish Novel of the Year 2015 – and Hanya Yanighara’s A Little Life, which despite being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and National Book Award is perhaps most notable for its length – it’s not quite up there with Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries at over 800 pages, but with over 600 pages it’s not far off, and yes, I’ll admit, it’s the main reason I haven’t tackled that one, although given the novel’s form so far, it looks like this could well be a shoo-in for the shortlist, in which case I’d better start reading now to make the 11th April shortlist nomination, or possibly even the winner’s announcement on 8th June!
In terms of the make-up of this year’s longlist though, I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised, most notably by the genres covered by the inclusion of: Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, described somewhat intriguingly as ‘a joyous optimistic space opera’, Attica Locke’s Pleasantville, an ‘African-American-political-recent-historical thriller’, Shirley Barrett’s historical narrative of a whaler’s daughter Rush Oh!, Clio Gray’s The Anatomist’s Dream, described as ‘a sumptuous feast for the senses that chronicles the early life of a very special boy as he makes a fantastic and epic journey with a travelling carnival across the dark and troubled landscape of 1840s Germany’, Geraldine Brooks’s epic historical novel, The Secret Chord, set in 1000BC, Vesna Goldsworthy’s Gorsky, ‘a captivating tale of big money, Russian beauty and good books’, Sara Novic’s Girl at War, a coming of age novel set against the backdrop of the Bosnian-Croat war, Cynthia Bond’s Ruby, a novel in which ‘voodoo, faith and racism converge in an East Texas town’, and as if that’s not all, there’s a novel featuring squirrels (surely a first for the Baileys Prize?!), although I think there’s more to it than just squirrels, but Elizabeth MacKenzie’s The Portable Veblen has my interest based on that alone.
Whilst I’d love to read the entire longlist, the probability of that happening is minuscule, but there are several titles which really grab my attention, in ascending order: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, which is described as an exquisite tale of mothers and daughters, At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison, which was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award, The Improbability of Love by Hanna Rothschild, described as ‘a frolicsome art-world caper’, The House at the Edge of the World by Julia Rochester which is one of the debut’s on this year’s longlist, and A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton which is set ‘against the dramatic backdrop of Nagasaki before and after’ the nuclear bomb. Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory, Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies and Rachel Elliott’s Whispers through a Megaphone, however, are the three titles I’m most intrigued by, all coincidentally debuts.
Gappah’s novel about an albino woman in prison in Zimbabwe and McInerney’s novel of ‘five misfits’ have both crossed my radar before, but Elliott’s delightful-sounding novel was entirely new to me, yet it is this one I’ll be starting with. It may just be the undiscovered gem I would have otherwise missed, but if not I’ve got nineteen more chances, the odds are surely pretty good. Inevitably the longlist isn’t going to appeal to everyone but for me it’s an exciting reading list.
Based on their successes so far, I suspect Atkinson, Enright and Yanighara may likely feature on the shortlist, but if the longlist is anything to go by the shortlist may throw up some exciting surprises. And who knows it may very well come down to a squirrel fighting it out against a whale, now that’ll be a turn-up for the books!
Iona Grey’s Letters to the Lost wins The Goldsboro Books Romantic Novel of the Year 2016