Baileys Prize 2017

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on 7 June.  Here is my quick and incomplete guide to the shortlist.

The shortlisted books are:

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan

I’ve read four of the list (pictured below – missing my copy of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, back in London but probably my favourite of the list).

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Just add Baileys!

I am intrigued by First Love and have heard mixed reports of The Sport of Kings.  My thoughts on the four I’ve read … :

The Power

Women have the power to electrocute you with their hands.  This gives them swagger and confidence; men are afraid to walk the streets at night.  Gender wars and global upheaval ensue, reverse-echoing current geopolitics (men must stay at home, genital mutilation, etc).  Alderman seems to say: women would behave in the same way as men, given the chance.  Muscular, engaging writing and interesting characters.  The story is science fiction (which I don’t tend to enjoy because of the extra leaps of faith it requires) and works at a macro level, so I wasn’t ‘in’ its world.  But a very strong book.  I would not be surprised if it won.

Stay With Me

Yejide and Akin are married in 1980s Nigeria and trying to have a baby.  Traumatic events occur, without being sensationalised.  This is a gentle book, despite the emotional punch.  The writing does not draw attention to itself but presents the characters with sensitivity and compassion.  It took me a while to get into and I did not love it overall – I couldn’t get traction or immerse myself in the story – but I admired its originality and sense of place.  A quietly strong book.

The Dark Circle

Beautiful writing, sympathetic characters sent to a sanatorium with tuberculosis, and an interesting moment in history – 1949-51 – I wanted to love this more than I did.

Well-crafted, I liked brash Lenny and Miriam in London, but the parts with bored, ill sanatorium patients dragged and I never got attached to the characters (although Persky the American was fun).  The story felt contrived at times, pressing on the reader the symptoms of TB and historical treatment of the disease.

But – beautiful craftsmanship, each sentence honed and polished, thoughtfully written, intelligent and (I’m assuming) historically accurate.  There is much wisdom here, but it’s put as the characters thinking, which was sometimes a stretch.  For example, Hannah the German (“Germany had an innate dislike of chaos and untidiness”) reflects that “in the spirit of the British there was, she felt, a kind of human glitch, the system could handle a sense of humour …”

The patients analyse Metamorphisis and its parallels to their situation and the Jews (waking up one day and being in a body that is treated as though one might as well be an insect).  This was interesting but I found it a little clunky.

The sanatorium part ends and soon after that I thought the story came to a natural end, without a neat resolution but the tension in the story (who survives) is answered.  But then there is a long tail as the story goes on for 40-odd pages, following the surviving characters into old age, which I didn’t need.  Perhaps it’s ‘completing the circle’ or to satisfy the readers’ curiosity, but I thought it weakened the novel.

I so wanted to like it more!  I plan to read more of Linda Grant as she’s hugely talented and maybe with a story that’s more about the characters and less about an ‘issue’ I’ll have more luck.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien - Do Not Say We Have Nothing

A devastating story, beautifully told.  It may inspire you to listen to Bach, Shostakovich or Prokofiev anew and deepen your compassion for all the people of China who lived through the Cultural Revolution, and their children.  It’s long and intricate – I needed a cast of characters at times – but it weaves together whole lives with care and delicacy and the characters feel real.  Accomplished, this feels like the novel Madeleine Thien was born to write.  Highly recommended, with a tissue caveat.

This is my pick for the prize!  Who do you think will win?

 

 

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien; Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos

I once tutored a Chinese student in English and when I asked him what he thought of 30761967Australia, he said “Most people are nice – there are a few barbarians .”  At the time I thought, wild savages – that’s a colourful way to describe the less civil members of Adelaide society.  I didn’t realise that in China, ‘barbarian’ means ‘foreigner’, someone who has not yet been assimilated into the Chinese culture.

These books brought home to me how much we still don’t understand about China, the truth of the Mao years and what it means to live there today.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a devastating story, beautifully told.  It centers on three characters – Sparrow, Kai and Zhuli – as they grow up during the Cultural Revolution, famine and the Great Leap Forward.  These years are physically tortuous – many are broken by the sheer hardship, work camps and hunger (36 million people starved to death in the great famine).  “There are many stages to hunger” says Comrade Glass Eye.

The futility of these camps struck me again. Equally cruel and absurd were the criticisms and self-censorship; the repetition of Mao’s slogans, which becomes mindless.  Ordinary people live in fear of being denounced as counter-revolutionary, not knowing what the Party will pick on next.  Zhuli cuts her hair short because a long braid might be vain. A woman is yanked out of the queue for oil:

” ‘It must be her clothing,’ thought Zhuli dully, that had attracted the fury of the Red Guards.”

The backwardness of shutting the schools and universities still shocks me. Sparrow, Kai and Zhuli are musicians, and as their passion for playing and composing music is gradually snuffed out and driven inward, you have a real sense of how the party stifled creativity: books were burnt, instruments destroyed.

Music pervades the book nonetheless; it may inspire you to listen to Bach, Shostakovich or Prokofiev anew.  Thien draws attention to the gaps within the music: characters in the story disappear, some return; the Book of Records is told in fragments, hidden and shared.  The music evokes lives interrupted, dreams crushed, but a strange beauty too.

The Party shut down certain renowned composers deemed ‘Western’ or ‘bourgeouis’.  But it also affects the young students, who learn not to trust their own thoughts: they second-guess everything and default to the ‘correct’ music. Worse, the Party changed its dictates so the sands shifted.

“Now the class turned their attention to the playwright, Wu, and the poet, Guo.  Both men, once celebrated, had been discovered to be enemies of the people.”

(The same fate befell Ai Wei Wei’s father, the poet Ai Qing.)

This leads to a constant, unsettling state of fear.  We experience this sense of unease through Kai, a pragmatic and adaptible character. When he is with Zhuli:

“He had switched gears as smoothly as a bird circling, as unequivocally as a madman.”

Ordinary citizens had to denounce friends and family to protect themselves.  In a heart-wrenching scene, against the backdrop of the family’s fierce love for one another, Zhuli’s cousin must denounce her on a poster.

“Da Shan smudged the ink, and his father threw out the poster and made him do it again.”

The Party turned its own people against one another.  There is a chilling scene where He Lutong, president of the Shanghai Conservatory, is beaten on live television.  He dares to resist, crying “Shame on you for lying!” and the screens go blank.

From the 1960s to Age of Ambition, and Evan Osnos offers a modern example: a historic meeting between the Chinese and Taiwanese presidents, where the Chinese speech was broadcast but when it was Taiwan’s turn to speak, the screen went black.

18490568Age of Ambition takes us into modern China with Osnos, who lived there for 8 years from 2006 to 2014.  We meet wonderful characters: among them, brave Hu Shuli the news editor, a Crazy English teacher and Ai Wei Wei, an artist who, like Andy Warhol, has become famous  not for his art alone but for his knack of distilling events into a work with mass appeal.

Osnos finds people searching for faith since Mao’s death.  There is a focus on economic growth and some nostalgia for a communal spirit – shown tragically when two-year-old Fui Wei is run over in the market and people walk past her.

The unspoken bargain is that people will postpone idealism as long as life keeps improving.  There is massive corruption, but the young generation has turned a blind eye, although this is shaken by major events such as the Sichuan earthquake, milk poisoning and high-speed train crash.  There is censorship, the notorious “Great Firewall”, but blogger Han Han says to let the culture be more vibrant and the media be more open – he does not seek democracy.

Osnos refers to Havel’s Charter 77 (it inspired Liu Xiaobo’s Charter 08).  The key to life under a Communist party was to have a double life: “the willingness to say one thing in public and another in private.”

In Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the Professor reads from Guo Moruo’s translation of Faust:

“In me there are two souls, alas, and their / Division tears my life in two.”

After reading Thien’s poignant book, I have more sympathy both for those in China agitating for democracy and those who do not seek another revolution.  I can only admire the pragmatism and resilience of those who survive and the courage of those who resist.

But what do I know – I’m just a barbarian.