As demonstrated by Franny’s beautiful and dedicated reviews on this very blog, the talent in the shortlist for the Baileys Prize this year is incredible. I have to admit I was excited enough when I saw the judging panel, but the sheer quality of the novels this year has been amazing.
What a treat then, on a Tuesday evening, to get to sit in an auditorium (reportedly with RYAN REYNOLDS – though an unconfirmed sighting) and listen to these six incredible women read a section from their respective novels. Well, actually, five incredible women, and one slightly bewildered Charles Dance, reading in place of the absent Tartt and declaring that he had ‘never felt so conspicuous’. Franny and Perks were lucky enough to nab tickets to this wonderful event and what a pleasure it was.
First up was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reading from her much loved Americanah. She had a voice made of molasses and hummingbird song, and it was magnetic to hear her read from the book. She declared upon questioning that despite the similarities of growing up in Nigeria to her protagonists, her own life was much too ‘boring’ to be the basis for any novel. She admitted however that the pain of being away from her home country was an indescribable one that she hoped she had managed to convey during the novel. As the half of this pairing that hasn’t read the book, I was struck by the similarities between these words and those of NoViolet Bulawayo, the Booker short-listed writer whose novel covered such similar ground after being wrenched from Zimbabwe. It is heartening to think how these incredible African writers are finally making such an impact in the publishing world.
Next was Franny’s (not so) secret favourite, Hannah Kent, reading from Burial Rites. I won’t say too much about this reading, as Franny has covered the novel so well in the past, but she was also a very engaging speaker, conveying the pain of her heart wrenching extract with great power and vocal dexterity. It will be so exciting to see what this young novelist accomplishes in the next few years.
Jhumpa Lahiri decided to read a passage from The Lowland that deals with the mother in the text slowly disengaging herself from her child as she abandons her for longer and longer every day. I recognised the passage as soon as Lahiri began to read it and thought it was an excellent choice. It really conveyed the complexities of the situation she creates for these characters. Gauri is a cruel mother for abandoning her little child and we are well aware of this when we read, but the author doesn’t let us get away with that evaluation. Gauri is also an imprisoned woman, trapped in a situation she could never have controlled – we cannot help but feel some sympathy with her. Lahiri admitted during her questions that she herself finds it hard to distinguish who in the novel she feels the most sorry for – for all deserve sympathy, but none are innocent.
I must admit that The Undertaking by Audrey Magee is probably the novel I knew least about going into the readings – even the subject matter had to be brought back to me during the evening. This sounds terrible but its effect was incredible – it slowly dawned on me that I was listening to the story of a family take over a Jewish household after its occupants had been moved on to a ghetto. It sent me reeling, which is what a powerful novel should do. Magee’s story of how the novel gestated was just fascinating. She told of how on a trip in the seventies to Germany, she had met a Jewish American outside a concentration camp he had been hoping to visit to honour his relatives, only to find the place closed. They walked around the outskirts together, hoping to see something of the inside and eventually found a lady tending her garden whose house backed onto the camp. They all began to talking, Audrey Magee interpreting between the two of them and discovered the lady has lived there ‘her whole life’ so quite obviously while the man’s relatives had been dying on the other side of the wall. The sheer impossibility of any middle ground between these two people – the unfeasibility of them ‘moving together’ in any way as Magee put it, without either of their worlds collapsing was a starting point for a novel of the German perspective of the Holocaust.
Eimear McBride’s text is a notoriously hard one to pin down, and so her reading of A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing was always going to be an interesting one. I have to say, I think it showed the text is suited to being read aloud – by the right person of course. The static stop and start of the prose was made all the more effective by her voice and intonations, bringing out the poetic quality of the writing in an extremely effective way. It was clear from the audience question and answers that this is one of the novels that has really captured the love and admiration of readers out there and is such a strong contender to take the trophy tomorrow evening.
So we ended with Charles Dance, who may have felt conspicuous but of course read The Goldfinch wonderfully. It was easy to see why the novel was agreed by her agent and Helen Fraser to be the most Dickensian of her novels so far. The entire extract was an evaluation of a painting of the eponymous Goldfinch, but it was hypnotic prose, rich in detail and lyrical to hear spoken out loud.
To top off the evening, I got to experience Franny almost faint when Hannah Kent recognised her from a reading earlier this year. Someone who shall remain nameless has managed to bag themselves a ticket to the actual awards ceremony tomorrow evening, so no doubt there will be more bonding. Just for the record, I am not jealous.*
To conclude, I feel sad for those five wonderful judges this evening. I don’t envy them this decision.
*So jealous it is physically painful.
A bonus add-on from Franny as seen on Book2Book.
With the winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction soon to be revealed, the shortlisted authors gathered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night to read extracts from their works and answer questions from both the prize chair, Helen Fraser, and the jam packed audience.
Following an introduction from prize co-founder, Kate Mosse, the attentive audience was treated to readings of these brilliant novels from the mouths of their creators – something that proved particularly important in the case of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. The rhythms in McBride’s challenging and unique narrative assumed even greater poignancy when spoken aloud by the one person who understands its structure above all.
The diversity of these writers and their stories is astounding – from 19th century Iceland to 1960s Calcutta; Nazi Germany, to modern day Lagos – through the shortlist alone, a reader enjoys a global experience.
Though the bookie’s favourite, Donna Tartt, was unable to attend, Charles Dance assumed her place as a reader (and provider of undoubtedly the best quip of the night: ‘never have I ever felt more conspicuous’) with Tartt’s UK agent on hand to answer questions.
The calibre of these authors is incredibly high and, despite the range in experience, each brings a tale that captivates attention and stimulates intense emotions. Answering their questions, each demonstrated the passion and dedication committed in producing their novels. It was a shame that the evening felt so rushed as it was clear that interest in these authors’ backgrounds and the inspiration behind their work demanded far more time.
With such a strong shortlist and with no less than three personal favourites*, I do not envy the judging panel and the decision on their hands.
The winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction will be announced tonight, Wednesday 4 June.
*Burial Rites (the fact that Hannah Kent recognised me aside); Americanah (with bonus points added because Adichie said she liked my hair – I was buzzing all evening); and A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing – a book that made me incredibly emotional but was even more successful read aloud.
P.S. I just want to mention that I tried desperately hard to get Perks a ticket for tonight. I will miss her!