Clarke Award 2014: in review

This year, the Arthur C. Clarke Award received a record 121 submissions, which set the stage for an exciting shortlist and debate. However, my initial feeling about the actual shortlist was that it felt a bit… well, unadventurous; it wasn’t going to stretch anyone’s idea of science fiction (something which the Clarke often does, and which I value it for), didn’t seem to have benefitted from the uniquely broad view of the field that the Clarke enjoys. Of course there’s no reason in principle that a shortlist focused on core genre can’t be a good shortlist; now I’ve read the books, however, I can’t help feeling that the titles on the periphery of the shortlist should be at its centre, and the titles at the centre of the shortlist shouldn’t be there at all.

DisestablishmentI’ve been going back and forth, trying to decide which one of two shortlisted books I’d jettison first; in the end, there’s so little to choose between them that I may as well call it a tie for last place. Listing the two in alphabetical order means I start with The Disestablishment of Paradise by Phillip Mann. This is the story of a scientist taking a final sojourn on the planet of Paradise as its human colony is dismantled, and uncovering the secrets of its strange ecology. Mann’s novel feels curiously old-fashioned to me, and is scuppered by its terrible treatment of gender (‘What fools we women are sometimes!’ thinks the protagonist at one point; there are many more examples). This goes right down into the heart of the text, and overshadows what interest there may be in its ecological themes.

Nexus

Also bringing up the rear of the shortlist for me is Ramez Naam‘s Nexus, named for an experimental drug which links human minds. Like Mann’s book, Nexus gives its female characters a poor deal, mostly sidelining them or otherwise using them as adjuncts to its male protagonist. The novel also has its weaknesses structurally: though there are moments when Nexus reflects on the implications of its titular drugs, these are largely drowned out by a humdrum thriller plot that doesn’t do the book’s ideas justice.

AncillaryAnn Leckie‘s Ancillary Justice - a thundering space opera with an AI-protagonist whose consciousness once spanned a gestalt of spacecraft and human auxilliaries, and is now confined to a single human body - has been a very popular book. I’ve seen effusive praise for it, and also some more lukewarm reactions; I’m in the latter camp. Leckie sets out some interesting territory to explore, such as issues of colonialism and gender (the protagonist defaults to using the pronoun ‘she’ for all characters, which gives the novel a distinctive texture); but, again, it feels to me as though the adventure plot is holding everything back.

Adjacent

Now to the second – and, to my mind, more successful - half of the shortlist. The Adjacent is pretty much a distillation of Christopher Priest’s individual creative vision, so what you think of it will largely depend on whether you like Priest’s work in general. I do, and I like The Adjacent: yes, there are issues with the book (particularly around its treatment of gender and the depiction of a British Islamic republic); but it also contains what I found to be the single most affecting sequence in the entire Clarke shortlist (at heart, The Adjacent is a love story), and its portrayal of bleeding realities is bracing stuff for the imagination. I don’t think that The Adjacent quite reaches the heights of Priest’s previous Clarke-winning The Separation, but it’s a considerable work all the same. I just think there are two other novels on the shortlist which are even more fully realised than this.

God's WarAction-adventure sf tends to be the poor relation when it comes to the Clarke, so it’s nice to find an example on the shortlist that feels as though it can hold its own. God’s War by Kameron Hurley comes tearing off the page with its protagonist, a no-nonsense female bounty-hunter, and its vividly depicted background of a centuries-long war on a planet with insectile technology. Issues of faith,  gender, and the body combine in a novel whose adventure aspects complement its ideas, giving them room to breathe and flourish.

Machine small

In some ways, James Smythe‘s The Machine is a very different book from God’s War, its almost claustrophobic calmness and intimate canvas worlds away from Hurley’s widescreen action. But I do think the two novels share an intensity of focus and a facility for dramatising their concerns. If I prefer The Machine over God’s War, it is really only because my personal taste runs more towards the quieter sort of novel than to action-adventure; I couldn’t place one novel ahead of the other in terms of how well each embodies and achieves its own project. That’s why I would be most happy to see either Smythe or Hurley take the Clarke when it is announced next Thursday.

“We are all the things we’ll ever be”

Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013)

Girl is a Half Formed ThingThis is the latest example of a small press title breaking through: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing was published last year by Norwich’s Galley Beggar Press; it has since won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize (awarded to “fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form”), been shortlisted for the Baileys Prize and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize (which is the context in which I’m now reading it). It has also now been published in a new edition by Faber & Faber, which comes with a cover quote from Eleanor Catton. That’s apposite: both Catton and Eimear McBride have debuted with intense portraits of girlhood, and and their work carries the sense of writers seeking to embody their concerns in the form of what they write.

McBride’s novel is written in a choppy, largely fragmented style that, in one interview, she dubbed “stream of pre-consciousness”. Anyone who loved The Rehearsal will recognise the mental adjustment needed to engage with prose like this:

Sons for breaking chairs on the backs of. Daughters to shoo from the bath for a wee. Rich-ish husbands or they got a crack in the jaw. Chaste-ish wives or the boys got more. Goodfornothinglumpofshitgodforgiveyou. Ours got for a wedding a glare though he paid.He, at least, knew how to behave. Though a man like our father could be nothing to him. Not to lick his boots. Not to be his dog. (p. 12)

My first instinct at one time would have been to call this kind of writing ‘difficult’, but in practice it’s not as simple as that. Taking the above passage as an example, there’s a compelling rhythm and cadence to McBride’s prose, and some striking detail of character (the narrator is talking about her grandfather and his children). What A Girl is a Half-formed Thing really demands is a different way of reading: concentration, yes, because what we’re being told is ‘unprocessed’; but it means that we experience the events of the narrator’s life in a similar way to her.

The ultimate effect of McBride’s prose style, I think, is to collapse the narrator’s interior and exterior lives together: so, experience is sensation is emotion is detail is thought. This makes the novel all the more harrowing, because we are that much closer to what the narrator goes through. And A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is uncompromising: while seeing her elder brother struggle with the effects of a brain tumour, its protagonist (McBride’s characters don’t receive names) experiences a strict religious upbringing in rural Ireland, and the unwelcome attentions of her abusive uncle. When the girl leaves home for the city, she finally has the chance to spread her wings – if she can.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing‘s form underlines how its protagonist experiences what happens to her. The most coherent language within the text is often religious or some other voice of adult authority, thereby suggesting sources of structure and order – but the narrator will find them ultimately lacking. The girl’s relationships with her brother and uncle become ghastly mirror images of each other: she fears for her brother, but his illness creates an unbridgeable gap between them. In contrast, the girl’s uncle comes horrifically close to her – but she experiences both relationships with the same intensity.

After twenty years of life, McBride’s narrator looks around her:

I see the water. Look upon the lake I’ve been in. I’ve been known of. Come to know. Well. Touched and loved and ripped here all by the same hands teeth and claws and waded in. Swim. See my scrawl there. Under my feet. Mud and weeds where I was, my blood split on. Running in running in among the reeds where the ripple fish go. And vomit and some half drunk can, some things, some paper bags some cigarette rolled and stuffed and smoked. Ground to the heel. This home I know. (p. 201)

Just as the text has elided her experiences and emotions, so the girl sees this place as coexisting with what occurred there. For all that has happened to her, this is what she knows; for good or ill, this has been her life.

Going back to Eleanor Catton, I’m reminded of her essay about literature as encounter, the idea that our relationship with a book can be as complex and rich as those we have with people. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is like that for me: I can’t see it as a book to love – it’s too unforgiving for that – but neither can I see it as anything less than a triumph. McBride’s novel does what it does, remorselessly, completely, powerfully. I can only be glad that it’s with us.

Read my other posts on the 2014 Desmond Elliott Prize here.

Elsewhere

Interview with Eimear McBride at The Honest Ulsterman

Reviews of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by other members of the shadow DE jury: Utter Biblio; Between the Covers; Sarah Noakes.

James Smythe, The Machine (2013)

The MachineLast year, I watched ‘Be Right Back’, an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror in which a woman has her dead husband’s personality downloaded into a robot body. It was the kind of intimate, human drama that genre science fiction doesn’t seem to do very much these days (on page or screen); too often, I find, interesting ideas will be drowned out by an ill-suited conspiracy/thriller plot.

It was so refreshing, then, to read James Smythe’s The Machine, and find a work of contemporary science fiction that’s happy to be understated (tellingly, the novel is published as mainstream). We begin with Beth McAdams taking receipt of three large packages. The delivery men don’t know what they are (‘exercise equipment,’ Beth tells them, though she knows they won’t believe her); the neighbours gawp as these parcels have to be brought in through Beth’s window because they won’t fit through the door. When the whole contraption is assembled, it fills most of one wall and emits a constant whirring noise; even before Beth begins using it, the Machine has staked a claim on her world.

The Machine was originally invented as a means of treating the effects of harmful memories (such as those of conflict experienced by soldiers like Beth’s partner Vic), but it left those who used it severely brain-damaged, and the original device was banned. Later, it emerged that the Machine might also be able to reinstate the memories it took; Beth has sourced an outlawed model, and plans to use it on Vic.

So there are questions of identity to be explored – who will Vic be if his memories are restored? for example – but what particularly intrigues me about The Machine is how much it focuses on Beth. The first third of the novel consists largely of Beth’s preparations for the summer holidays, when she will be able to put her teaching job aside and concentrate on tending Vic. The second part of The Machine then begins with Beth bringing Vic home from the hospice; his unresponsive body is difficult to get through the door, and she wonders if the neighbours are watching. This is a marvellous touch, because it draws parallels between Vic and the Machine, underlining the similar position that each has come to occupy in Beth’s life. Smythe then depicts the routine that Beth has to establish, looking after Vic in his current state, and playing back his memories through the Machine. The detail is unflinching, emphasising that this is what Beth must do to achieve the end she wants – perhaps the regime that Beth’s caught up in is the real Machine.

Smythe’s evocation of place in The Machine is economical and effective. Beth lives on the Isle of Wight, the crossing to the mainland now made more treacherous by the effects of a warming climate (so Beth is partly dislocated by geography, which mirrors her emotional state). The heat frays tempers has brought about all sorts of little pragmatic social changes; we see these particularly through the tense relations between adults and young people in the novel – and, again, the technique underscores Beth’s feelings, this time her desperation.

I’m tempted to quote from The Machine, because its prose hits the mark so well. But the real effect of Smythe’s writing comes not from its individual pieces, but from the accumulation of the whole – its relentless, plain-speaking precision. Smythe portrays a situation which is as intense for the reader to experience as it would be for Beth, because we move through it in the same way, and at the same pace, as she does. The line ultimately blurs between whether Beth is doing what she does for Vic or for herself ; and maybe it doesn’t matter – maybe it all comes back to the actions, the mechanics.

Elsewhere
James Smythe’s website
Some other reviews of The Machine: Nina Allan; Savidge Reads; Words of Mercury; For Winter Nights.

#IFFP2014 guest post: Jacqui on The Sorrow of Angels

Time for another IFFP guest review from my fellow shadow-juror Jacqui Patience. Last month, Jacqui looked at Ma Jian’s The Dark Road; now it’s The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson. Of course, now the shortlists are out, we know that Stefánsson’s book made it on to the shadow shortlist but not the official one; I’m sad not to see it in the actual final six, as it has been one of the discoveries of the shadowing process for me.I’d go so far as to say that The Sorrow of Angels is the best written/translated book on the longlist; I’m still unsure what I think of the novel overall, but there’s a re-read to come before the shadow shortlisting.

Anyway, enough from me; here’s Jacqui…

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Sorrow of AngelsThe Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson
Translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton

Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels is the second volume in a trilogy that began with Heaven and Hell (published in 2011). Set in a small fishing village in 19th-century Iceland, a place that feels close to the end of the world, the story opens with the arrival of Postman Jens in the community; he’s in a bad way, battered by the bitter wind and snow, almost frozen solid on his horse. After a short recovery, Jens is challenged by Sigurður (the local doctor and someone with considerable influence) to cover another postal route. The terrain is treacherous, ‘likely hellish after constant snowfall, relentless wind, only to be ventured by highly experienced travellers’ and our man is unfamiliar with the area. If Jens fails to deliver the post on time, his job will be at risk; if he succeeds, it strengthens his position against the doctor and there is no love lost between these two. Jens quickly accepts the mission, the prospect of getting one over on Sigurður being too tempting to resist.

However, the central character in The Sorrow of Angels is the boywho, some quick research tells me, is the main protagonist in the earlier book Heaven and Hell. The boy, unnamed throughout, is dispatched to accompany Jens on his perilous journey to transport the mail in good time. The postman is afraid of the sea and would never make it alone over the fjord that forms the initial leg of their course. He needs someone with him who can ‘row him over, keep a decent pace with him on the trek’.

By now we’re about one-third of the way into the novel and it’s at this point that the narrative really kicks in for me. The expedition itself plays out over the remaining 200 pages and we follow the pair as they battle through blizzards and incessant winds, struggling to survive everything the environment seems determined to throw their way:

The snow piles up on them, they keep going, step-by-step, cold but undefeated. Then Jens falls for the fifth time. Perhaps because the land has started to rise; not much, but enough. It snows and snow blows over them, blows down from the mountain in enormous amounts, blows violently, it’s nearly impossible to breathe and Jens gropes feebly for the postal trumpet, tries to free it from his shoulder and hand it to the boy, opens his mouth to say something but his tongue is frozen, because first it’s words that freeze, then life. (pgs 139-140)

They forge ahead in their endeavour to deliver the mail. The occasional isolated farmhouse offers a brief respite from the elements and some welcome, if meagre, nourishment. It’s a world where visitors are few and far between, where the kindness of strangers is everything, where small gestures speak volumes:

The boy gulps his coffee to burn off the fatigue; he would have preferred to sleep longer, Jens sits with his head bowed but looks up when Jakobina returns with flatbread and butter; she’s tall, her movements are strong and graceful, her brown eyes meet those of the postman, she places the tray between them, brushing as if by accident, Jens’ hand, which rests solidly on the table. A hand that touches another hand in this way is saying something; Jens knows this but dares not respond. (pg 201)

Alongside their physical struggle to survive, there are other journeys taking place, other battles being fought. Jens, sullen and uncommunicative, is deep in thought wrestling with his feelings for Salvör, a woman who has experienced darkness in her past. He knows he should open his heart and express his feelings to her, otherwise he risks losing a chance to find contentment. But so far he’s been unable to commit.

The boy, meanwhile, is trying to anchor himself following the loss of loved ones. As an adolescent, he’s also grappling with new emotions and thoughts of Ragnheiður, a girl from the fishing village, flicker through his mind. Keen to talk, the boy probes Jens about the cause of his soul-searching.

During their journey Jens and the boy develop an understated, yet heartfelt, bond. They come dangerously close to losing one another on more than one occasion, but Jens remains mindful of the need to take care of his young companion. Up on the heaths and mountains, the space between life and death seems very narrow as we become acutely aware of the fragility of life.

Night is surely approaching and death is surely approaching, that invisible being, constantly lurking, stealing jewels, hoarding rubbish, doesn’t turn up its nose at anything, and sends fatigue, cold, hopelessness and surrender out ahead, four savage dogs that sniff out anything living in blind storms. (pg 181)

The Sorrow of Angels is a spellbinding novel, beautifully written in a lyrical, poetic style. Everything seems to flow effortlessly, from Stefánsson’s luminous prose through to Philip Roughton’s excellent translation. Stefánsson creates an ethereal, almost otherworldly atmosphere in this novel and it vividly captures man’s struggle with the adversities of life.

The publisher’s notes indicate that all parts of this trilogy can be read independently. However, having read The Sorrow of Angels, I do wish I’d had the time to start with Heaven and Hell before embarking on part two of the trilogy. I just felt a little disorientated at the beginning of the narrative and I’m sure I missed some of the nuances and subtleties in the interplay between characters in the village community.  That said, I’ve read thirteen of the fifteen books longlisted for this year’s IFFP and The Sorrow of Angels is most certainly in my top three. I’m delighted to see it in our shadow-group shortlist and the closing scenes left me yearning for the next part in the trilogy. And of course I shall have to go back and read Heaven and Hell to fill in those gaps.

The Sorrow of Angels is published in the UK by MacLehose Press.

Source: library copy.

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Read more reviews of The Sorrow of Angels by the shadow IFFP jury: Tony’s Reading List; Messenger’s Booker; Dolce Bellezza.

Read Jacqui’s other IFFP reviews: Brief Loves that Live ForeverButterflies in NovemberA Man in LoveA Meal in WinterRevengeStrange Weather in TokyoTen; The Dark Road; The Mussel Feast; Back to Back;.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Shiny New Books and Jam

First of all, I need to tell you about a new book recommendation site: Shiny New Books. It’s the brainchild of four UK book bloggers (Annabel, Victoria, Simon, and Harriet), and features original and reprint reviews by contributors from all corners of the blogosphere. I’m in the first issue, with a revised version of my piece on Ray Robinson’s Jawbone Lake (think of this as the Director’s Cut of the original review). Have a look around the rest of SNB; there’s some great stuff on there, and I hope the site will go from strength to strength.

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In another corner of the web, Fiction Uncovered (now the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize) is gearing up for another year, and I’ve reviewed for them the new novel by a Fiction Uncovered alumnus. Here are my thoughts on Jam by Jake Wallis Simons…

JamJake Wallis Simons appeared on the first Fiction Uncovered list in 2011 for The English German Girl, his novel about a girl sent to England on the Kindertransport in the 1930s. Following a thriller (2012’s The Pure, written as Jake Simons), the author returns with Jam, a novel which follows a varied cast as they experience one of modern life’s nuisances: being stuck in traffic.

Structurally, Jam resembles a disaster novel, insofar as it moves between the perspectives of multiple characters all affected by the same event – though here the event is not the end of the world, but a traffic jam on the M25; and Wallis Simons is less interested in the jam itself than in how his characters are changed by encountering each other. We begin with Ursula and Max, a couple not quite as firmly in love as they once were, and particularly concerned right now with letting their friends (whose daughter they’re bringing home) know about the delay. With no phone signal, Max heads out to find someone who will let him make a call; he gets talking to Jim, a supermarket delivery driver who makes clear that he can’t give away the stock in his van – though he does have some crisps in the front, if Max wants some. Other characters see what’s going on, and Jim’s van becomes the locus of attention, not all of it welcome.

To an extent, the traffic jam works as a metaphor for the characters’ life situations. Many of them feel stuck in some way – like Shauna, who’s looking for her dream man; or young Shahid, who rues his messed-up trial for Chelsea – and the night’s events enable at least some of them to move on. The way Wallis Simons orchestrates this is perhaps his novel’s key strength: some characters make a central contribution to events, others are peripheral; but all take their place as significant parts of the whole. By the end of Jam, we’ve seen a slice of life: some people win, some lose; one individual may be changed forever, while another just carries on as before. The vehicles start to move again, and those circumstances that brought everyone together become lost in the flow; but Wallis Simons has shown how extraordinary a mundane situation can be to those caught up in it.

(Original review.)

#IFFP2014: the shortlist

After the shadow jury’s shortlist comes the actual one:

  • The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim (tr. Jonathan Wright)
  • Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (tr. Allison Markin Powell)
  • A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard (tr. Don Bartlett)
  • A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli (tr. Sam Taylor)
  • Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (tr. Stephen Snyder)
  • The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (tr. Jamie Bulloch)

I find this fascinating: any juried shortlist is of course the product of a consensus, but it’s rare that we get to see the consensuses of two different groups of people about the same set of books side by side. What’s so striking to me is that both shortlists have a strong aesthetic coherence, yet are so very different.

Generally, the shadow shortlist leans towards big, authoritative voices; think of Marías’ dense, essayistic style; or Stefánsson’s storm-lashed prose. In contrast, the overriding aesthetic of the official shortlist is quieter (one might say subtler): Ogawa’s menacing sideways view of reality, for example, or Mingarelli’s starkness. (It’s interesting, too, to consider how the two books in common, Knausgaard and Vanderbeke, change when viewed through the different lenses of each list.) We end up with two equally valid, but nicely idiosyncractic, takes on the IFFP longlist.

(If you’re wondering, my own personal shortlist would be somewhere between the two: Kawakami, Makine, Marias, Ogawa, Stefansson, and Vanderbeke. What can I say, I like both aesthetics.)

So, what should win? For me, the three best books on the official shortlist are those by women, and it would come down to Ogawa or Vanderbeke; I think both of those stand a good chance of actually winning. We’ll find out whether I’m right when the IFFP announcement is made on 22 May.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

#IFFP2014: the shadow jury’s shortlist

The scores are in, the numbers have been crunched, and the shadow IFFP jury has a shortlist. Here it is:

  • The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon (tr. the author)
  • A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard (tr. Don Bartlett)
  • Brief Loves that Live Forever by Andreï Makine (tr. Geoffrey Strachan)
  • The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)
  • The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (tr. Philip Roughton)
  • The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (tr. Jamie Bulloch)

I think we have an interesting list there, with some good books (you can see my reviews by clicking on the links above). Now we on the shadow jury will be re-reading the books we’ve chosen, with a view to selecting our shadow ‘winner’. I’d like to thank my fellow shadowers: Stu, Tony Malone, Jacqui, Tony Messenger, and Bellezza; it’s been a fascinating and highly enjoyable journey, and I look forward to the next stage.

There’s just one more thing: the actual IFFP shortlist, which will be announced tomorrow. Check back here then to see how close (or not!) it is to ours.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.