I have loved the Orange Prize from the very beginning, and it has steered me towards some wonderful book over the years.
The longlist for 2011 was published today and, as ever, there were a few familiar names, some new and unfamiliar names and some surprising omissions. I was disappointed not to see Maggie O’Farrell, and I was so sure that Mr Chartwell would be on the list that I ordered a copy thinking I would beat the rush. Wrong!
It’s always the way. And some writers – most notably A S Byatt – don’t allow their books to be put forward because the dislike the concept of a prize for women only. So who knows who has opted out and who has been omitted?
There are more books than usual that I didn’t know before I saw the list, but I do like the look of this year’s selection. It seems less historical and more international last year. I’ve only read two of the books, but I have several more on order from the library, and a few more that I’d really like to track down.
And here is the list:
Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
“Set in 1950s Sudan, this is the story of the powerful and sprawling Abuzied dynasty. With Mahmood Bey at its helm, the family can do no wrong. But when Mahmood’s son, Nur – the brilliant, charming heir to his business empire – suffers a near-fatal accident, his hopes of university and a glittering future are dashed. Subsequently, his betrothal to his cousin and sweetheart, Soraya is broken off, another tragedy that he is almost unable to bear. As British rule is coming to an end, and the country is torn between modernising influences and the call of traditions past, the family is divided. Mahmood’s second wife, Nabilah, longs to return to Egypt and leave behind her the dust of ‘backward-looking’ Sudan. His first wife, Waheeba, lives traditionally behind veils and closed doors and resents Nabilah’s influence on Mahmood. Meanwhile, Nur must find a way to live again in the world and find peace. “
I know the author but not the book. I’ll look out for it, but there are other books calling me a little louder.
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (Canongate)
“‘I was born twice. First in wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.’ 1857. Jaffy Brown is running along a street in London’s East End when he comes face to face with an escaped circus animal. Plucked from the jaws of death by Mr Jamrach – explorer, entrepreneur and collector of the world’s strangest creatures – the two strike up a friendship. Before he knows it, Jaffy finds himself on board a ship bound for the Dutch East Indies, on an unusual commission for Mr Jamrach. His journey – if he survives it – will push faith, love and friendship to their utmost limits.”
I love the sound of this, but the library doesn’t have a copy and I’m not buying books until I find another job, so I am going to have to wait.
Room by Emma Donoghue (Picador)
“Jack is five. He lives with his Ma. They live in a single, locked room. They don’t have the key. Jack and Ma are prisoners.”
A book that needs no introduction, and it’s the first of the two I’ve read. Of course it had to be on the list!
The Pleasure Seekers by Tishani Doshi (Bloomsbury)
“August, 1968: Babo Patel arrives in London from Madras, with curly hair, jhill mill teeth and dreams of becoming a success. When he meets the beautiful, auburn-haired Sian Jones, he falls in love instantly. She, like him, is in search of something bigger than what the home she left behind can offer. But when Babo’s parents learn of his intention to marry ‘some girl from God knows where’ he is given an ultimatum: he can only marry Sian if they agree to live in Madras for two years before returning to London. As the years pass by, the calamities, quirks and heartaches of first love, lost innocence, and old age unfold across cultures and generations of this mixed-up family in a topsy-turvy world.”
I love the sound of this, and I’ve ordered it from the library.
Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty (Faber & Faber)
“I stare at the photo. I try to read his gaze, each fold on his face, the slight frown. I study the photo in the same way that a spy might study the face of a counterpart in a rival organization. I am calm as I make this promise: I am going to find out what you love, then whatever it is, I am going to track it down and I am going to take it away from you. Two police officers knock on Laura’s door and her life changes forever. They tell her that her nine-year old daughter Betty has been hit by a car and killed. When justice is slow to arrive, Laura decides to take her own revenge and begins to track down the man responsible. Laura’s grief also re-opens old wounds and she is thrown back to the story of her passionate love affair with Betty’s father David, their marriage and his subsequent affair with another woman. Haunted by her past, and driven to breaking point by her desire for retribution, Laura discovers the lengths she is willing to go to for love.”
This is the second of the two books I’ve read, and I’m a little surprised to see it on the list. For me it started brilliantly but lost its way.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Corsair)
“Jennifer Egan’s spellbinding novel circles the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other’s pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years.”
I’m afraid I haven’t got on with Jennifer Egan’s writing in the past, so I’ll take a careful look at this one if I come across a copy, but it’s not a priority.
The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury)
“Freetown, Sierra Leone: a devastating civil war has left an entire populace with terrible secrets to keep. In the capital’s hospital Kai, a gifted young surgeon is plagued by demons that are beginning to threaten his livelihood. Elsewhere in the hospital lies Elias Cole, a university professor who recalls the love that obsessed him and drove him to acts that are far from heroic. As past and present intersect, Kai and Elias are drawn unwittingly closer by Adrian, a British psychiatrist with good intentions, and into the path of one woman at the centre of their stories.”
Wisely praised and forecast to be on the list and here it is. I don’t doubt the quality of the book but I’m not sure it’s the book for me. Again though, I will look carefully when I come across a copy.
The London Train by Tessa Hadley (Jonathan Cape)
“Paul lives in the Welsh countryside with his wife Elise, and their two young children. The day after his mother dies he learns that his eldest daughter Pia, who was living with his ex-wife in London, has moved out from home and gone missing. He sets out in search of Pia, and when he eventually finds her, living with her lover in a chaotic flat in a tower block in King’s Cross, he thinks at first he wants to rescue her. But the search for his daughter begins a period of unrest and indecision for Paul: he is drawn closer to the hub of London, to the excitements of a life lived in jeopardy, to Pia’s fragile new family. Paul’s a pessimist; when a heat wave scorches the capital week after week he fears that they are all ‘sleep-walking to the edge of a great pit, like spoiled trusting children’. In the opposite direction, Cora is moving back to Cardiff, to the house she has inherited from her parents. She is escaping her marriage, and the constrictions and disappointments of her life in London. At work in the local library, she is interrupted by a telephone call from her sister-in-law and best friend, to say that her husband has disappeared. Connecting both stories is the London train, and a chance meeting that will have immediate and far-reaching consequences for both Paul and for Cora.”
I’ve liked – if not loved – a couple of books by Tessa Hadley, and this one has had a lot of praise, so I’ll definitely look out for a copy.
Grace Williams Says it Loud by Emma Henderson (Sceptre)
“This isn’t an ordinary love story. But then Grace isn’t an ordinary girl. ‘Disgusting,’ said the nurse. And when no more could be done, they put her away, aged eleven. On her first day at the Briar Mental Institute, Grace meets Daniel. He sees a different Grace: someone to share secrets and canoodle with, someone to fight for. Debonair Daniel, who can type with his feet, fills Grace’s head with tales from Paris and the world beyond. This is Grace’s story: her life, its betrayals and triumphs, disappointment and loss, the taste of freedom; roses, music and tiny scraps of paper. Most of all, it is about the love of a lifetime.”
I’ve seen this in the library and thought I might give it a try one day. And I will the next time I see it.
The Seas by Samantha Hunt (Corsair)
“The narrator of “The Seas” lives in a tiny, remote, alcoholic, cruel seaside town. An occasional chambermaid, granddaughter to a typesetter, and daughter to a dead man, awkward and brave, wayward and willful, she is in love (unrequited) with an Iraq War veteran thirteen years her senior. She is convinced that she is a mermaid. What she does to ease the pain of growing up lands her in prison. What she does to get out is the stuff of legend.”
Strange, but interesting. Hopefully I’ll be able to track down a copy.
The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna (Faber & Faber)
“It is Vienna, 1865: Dr Ignaz Semmelweis has been hounded into a lunatic asylum, ridiculed for his claim that doctors’ unwashed hands are the root cause of childbed fever. The deaths of thousands of mothers are on his conscience and his dreams are filled with blood. It is 2153: humans are birthed and raised in breeding centres, nurtured by strangers and deprived of familial love. Miraculously, a woman conceives, and Prisoner 730004 stands trial for concealing it. London in 2009: Michael Stone’s novel about Semmelweis has been published, after years of rejection. But while Michael absorbs his disconcerting success, his estranged mother is dying and asks to see him again. As Michael vacillates, Brigid Hayes, exhausted and uncertain whether she can endure the trials ahead, begins the labour of her second child.”
Another book that had been widely praised and forecast to be on this list. It’s been on the “one day” list but it hasn’t turned up in the library. Maybe I should place an order.
Great House by Nicole Krauss (Viking)
“During the winter of 1972, a woman spends a single night with a young Chilean poet before he departs New York, leaving her his desk. It is the only time they ever meet. Two years later, he is arrested by Pinochet’s secret police and never seen again. Across the ocean, in the leafy suburbs of London, a man caring for his dying wife discovers a lock of hair among her papers that unravels a terrible secret. In Jerusalem, an antiques dealer has spent a lifetime reassembling his father’s study, plundered by the Nazis from Budapest in 1944; now only one item remains to be found. Connecting these lives is a desk of many drawers that exerts a power over those who possess it or give it away. And as the narrators of “Great House” make their confessions, this desk comes finally to stand for all that has been taken from them, and all that binds them to what has disappeared.”
I’m afraid that I was the one person in the world who didn’t like The History of Love, so this isn’t a priority.
The Road to Wanting by Wendy Law-Yone (Chatto & Windus)
” Some call it China’s Wild West – a boom town on the border with Burma. In the new Chinese economy of the late 1980’s, the frontier at Wanting is a magnet for outcasts and opportunists. Or the desperate – like Na Ga. To Na Ga, the town of Wanting represents not the beginning of a new life, but the end of the road. Will, her American lover, has thrown her out – as she always expected he would – leaving her with painful memories, a dollar bank account and a one-way ticket back to Burma. Burma, however, holds no appeal for Na Ga. She may have been born in its hills, but she has left them far, far behind. Yet, caught in a cycle of yearning and betrayal, she finds herself inevitably on a home-bound path. Taking the reader on a journey from the remote tribal villages of northern Burma, to ex-pat life in Rangoon under a grim military regime, and then, in shocking scenes, to the brothels of Thailand and the hedonism of Bangkok.”
I must admit that I hadn’t heard of this one before today, but I do like the look of it and so I have ordered it from the library.
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
“A tiger escapes from the local zoo, padding through the ruined streets and onwards, to a ridge above the Balkan village of Galina. His nocturnal visits hold the villagers in a terrified thrall. But for one boy, the tiger is a thing of magic – Shere Khan awoken from the pages of The Jungle Book. Natalia is the granddaughter of that boy. Now a doctor, she is visiting orphanages after another war has devastated the Balkans. On this journey, she receives word of her beloved grandfather’s death, far from their home, in circumstances shrouded in mystery. From fragments of stories her grandfather told her as a child, Natalia realises he may have died searching for ‘the deathless man’, a vagabond who was said to be immortal. Struggling to understand why a man of science would undertake such a quest, she stumbles upon a clue that will lead her to a tattered copy of The Jungle Book, and then to the extraordinary story of the tiger’s wife.”
This one had a lot of attention and it is calling me loudly. Sadly though the library has no copies and I am not letting myself buy new books until I have a new job. So please keep your fingers crossed that one turns up!
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (Viking)
“In September 1937 Andras, a young Hungarian student, leaves his family and heads for Paris on a scholarship to study architecture. Before he sets off he is given a mysterious letter to post on arrival in Paris. It is addressed to an Hungarian woman and no reason is given why it cannot be posted from Budapest. When Andras arrives in Paris he becomes vitally aware of his poverty, particularly when he enters the home of a richer Hungarian emigre Klara Morgenstern. She is a young widowed woman, and he finds himself falling in love with her. As they begin to meet regularly it is clear that Klara is hiding a terrifying secret, related to the mysterious letter that Andras posted on arrival, which means she is trapped in Paris as war looms closer. And, as Andras and his fellow students’ lives become ever more vulnerable in the shadow of war, the group must shatter in order to survive. Andras is forced home to a labour camp, his brother disappears and Klara risks everything to return to Hungary to be close to her lover.”
Again, I hadn’t heard of this one before today, but as I like the look of it and I have ordered it from the library.
Repeat it Today with Tears by Anne Peile (Serpent’s Tail)
“A secretive child by nature, Susanna makes a covert list of everything she knows about her absent father, waiting for the day that she is reunited with him. Deeply unhappy at home, living with her overbearing mother and promiscuous sister, she stays out of the house as much as possible. When she finally discovers her father’s name and seeks him out, in the free and unconventional atmosphere of 1970s Chelsea, she conceals her identity, beginning an illicit affair that can only end in disaster.”
I’m not sure about this one but I know the library has it and I will give it a try.
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (Chatto & Windus)
“The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline and Swamplandia!, their island home in the Florida Everglades and gator-wrestling theme park, is swiftly being encroached upon by a sophisticated competitor known as The World of Darkness. Ava, a resourceful but terrified twelve year old, must manage seventy gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief. Her mother, Swamplandia!’s legendary and beautiful star attraction, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her Grandpa Sawtooth has been sent to the mainland to an old folk’s home; her brother has secretly defected to The World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep the family afloat; and her father, the Chief, is AWOL. To save them, Ava must journey on her own to a perilous part of the swamp called the Underworld, a harrowing odyssey from which she emerges a true heroine.”
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin (Serpent’s Tail)
“She is the fourth wife of a rich, rotund patriarch, Baba Segi. She is a graduate and therefore a great prize, but even graduates must produce children and her husband’s persistent bellyache is a sign that things are not as they should be. Bolanle is too educated for the ‘white garment conmen’ Baba Segi would usually go to for fertility advice, so he takes her to hospital to discover the cause of her barrenness.”
Now this sounds interesting, but there are others on this list calling louder. But I would be grateful if the Cornish Library Service would invest in a copy or two.
The Swimmer by Roma Tearne (Harper Press)
“Forty-three year old Ria is used to being alone. As a child, her life changed forever with the death of her beloved father and since then, she has struggled to find love.That is, until she discovers the swimmer. Ben is a young illegal immigrant from Sri Lanka who has arrived in Norfolk via Moscow. Awaiting a decision from the Home Office on his asylum application, he is discovered by Ria as he takes a daily swim in the river close to her house. He is twenty years her junior and theirs is an unconventional but deeply moving romance, defying both boundaries and cultures — and the xenophobic residents of Orford. That is, until tragedy occurs.”
I have heard a lot of praise for Roma Tearne, so I’m pleased to see her on this list, but I’m not sure she is going to be my kind of author. But I will have a closer look at her books when i come across them now.
Annabel by Kathleen Winter (Jonathan Cape)
“In 1968, into the beautiful, spare environment of remote coastal Labrador in the far north-east of Canada, a mysterious child is born: a baby who appears to be neither fully boy nor girl, but both at once. Only three people share the secret – the baby’s parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and a trusted neighbour, Thomasina. Together the adults make a difficult decision: to go through surgery and raise the child as a boy named Wayne. But as Wayne grows up within the hyper-male hunting culture of his father, his shadow-self – a girl he thinks of as ‘Annabel’ – is never entirely extinguished, and indeed is secretly nurtured by the women in his life. As Wayne approaches adulthood, and its emotional and physical demands, the woman inside him begins to cry out. The changes that follow are momentous not just for him, but for the three adults that have guarded his secret
I’ve heard mixed reports and this one really isn’t calling me at the moment. But maybe one day.
What will win? What will be on the shortlist? I have no idea! But I’m aiming to read a few of those books that are calling me before the shortlist is published, so then I may be able to offer an opinion.
But now tell me – what do you think of this year’s twenty books?:
Is there anything you’d recommend?
Is there anything that you think shouldn’t be there?
Is there anything that should be there, but isn’t?
And which books are you curious about?