IFFP 2015: the shadow winner

The shadow journey is over. Eleven bloggers (the biggest IFFP shadow panel yet) based on four continents read sixteen books. Between us, we posted more than a hundred reviews. We scored the books to produce our own shortlist. Now, after a week of email discussions and two rounds of voting, we have our shadow winner. It is…


The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Beronofsky

It’s an excellent book, my personal favourite from this year’s IFFP, and I recommend it to you wholeheartedly.

We want to give a special mention here to our runner-up, Mathias Enard’s Zone (translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell). We called Zone in at the outset because several of us who’d read it felt strongly that it deserved to be in the mix – and it rose to second place in our overall considerations. If you want to see how good contemporary fiction in translation can be, these two novels will show you.

But we’re not finished with the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize quite yet. The official winner will be announced tonight, and The End of Days is in contention. Will it win ‘the double’? I hope so.

Read my other posts on the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize here.

Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name (2012/3)

Ferrante2I am relatively late to reading Elena Ferrante compared to many book bloggers I know, but here (in Ann Goldstein’s translation) is the second of her ‘Neapolitan’ novels, chronicling the friendship of Elena and Lila. The Story of a New Name begins where My Brilliant Friend left off, with Lila’s wedding; and treats the two women’s late adolescence in the 1950s and ‘60s. It’s a time when the friends’ paths start to diverge more solidly than before: Elena the steady narrator, full of self-doubt, who nevertheless gets into university; and Lila, dazzling to Elena from a distance, who married into money as a way to transcend her origins, but who never quite seems to find contentment.

It’s the emotional set-pieces that draw me the most to Ferrante’s work, especially the complexities of the protagonists’ friendship. Here, for example, is Elena after she has been invited to a party by Professor Galiani (a high-school teacher whom she admires), and Lila has offered to accompany her:

I was afraid that Stefano [Lila’s husband] wouldn’t let her come. I was afraid that Stefano would let her. I was afraid that she would dress in an ostentatious fashion, the way she had when she went to the Solaras. I was afraid that, whatever she wore, her beauty would explode like a star and everyone would be eager to grab a fragment of it. I was afraid that she would express herself in dialect, that she would say something vulgar, that it would become obvious that school for her had ended with an elementary-school diploma. I was afraid that, if she merely opened her mouth, everyone would be hypnotized by her intelligence and Professor Galiani herself would be entranced. I was afraid that the professor would find her both presumptious and naïve and would say to me: Who is this friend of yours, stop seeing her. I was afraid she would understand that I was only Lila’s pale shadow and would be interested not in me any longer but in her, she would want to see her again, she would undertake to make her go back to school. (p. 151)

This is quite a lengthy quotation, but it illustrates the density that Ferrante’s prose can reach, and the ambivalence that’s at the heart of Elena’s and Lila’s friendship. Elena doesn’t know whether to be more worried that Lila will embarrass or overshadow her; and, though so many of Elena’s thoughts on this party come back to herself, she’s also afraid that going there may end up with Lila losing what makes her brilliant.

Social and political change are in the background of The Story of a New Name, but decisively so: being exposed to new political ideas drives Elena down her career path; and a desire for betterment is behind Lila’s choices – though her position in society doesn’t make it easy. As with My Brilliant Friend, this second novel ends on something of a cliffhanger – a reminder that the story of these women’s lives will continue, and a suggestion that there are more changes to come.

We’re all drying up

For a while there were no cars to show my thumb to, but I kept standing there, not even having an appropriate curiosity about this new country (a boring little mountain, a plain blue lake, a gas station, the same as ours only slightly not). The skin on my lips was drying and I thought about how all the cells on every body are on their way to a total lack of moisture and everyone alive has that thought all the time but almost no one says it and no one says it because they don’t really think that thought, they just have it, like they have toes, like most people have toes; and the knowledge that we’re all drying up is what presses the gas pedal in all the cars people drive away from where they are, which reminded me that I wasn’t going anywhere, and I noticed that many cars had passed but none had stopped or even slowed, and I began to wonder about what would happen if no one took me, if the first woman had been a fluke and hitchhiking had been left in the seventies with other now-dangerous things—lead paint, certain plastics, free love—and I was going to be stuck here forever, watching no cars drive by, thinking about my cells all helpless to their drying.

– Catherine Lacey, Nobody Is Ever Missing (2014), p. 8

Stuart Evers, Your Father Sends His Love (2015)


Dean and Rachel had married at twenty; their lack of other sexual experiences a shock to others. As their friends’ relationships became soured and twisted, hoarse from shouting and bitter from drink, Dean and Rachel’s home was a constant: a clam place to hide, a sofa on which to sleep, a place of caring and safety. When later they managed to secure a mortgage on a two-up, two-down, Dean and Rachel’s more infrequent guests swapped the sofa for their own room and bed.

By their early thirties, Dean and Rachel’s relationship had become underscored by a quiet yet growing sense of trauma. The friends who’d crashed their sofa got married and Dean and Rachel went to their weddings. The friends who’d crashed their sofa had children, and Dean and Rachel went to their naming parties and christenings. The friends who’d crashed their sofa asked them to be godparents and Dean and Rachel politely declined. The IVF was an expensive joke.

This is a passage from ‘Frequencies’, a short story in Stuart Evers’ new collection Your Father Sends His Love, which I’ve reviewed for We Love This Book.

David Lagercrantz, Fall of Man in Wilmslow (2009/15)

WilmslowI’m slightly wary of fiction that centres on genuine historical figures. It comes from a personal preference: that I’m not particularly interested in using historical fiction to learn about history – I want the experience of reading fiction first and foremost. So I prefer something like Mrs. Hemingway, which casts its material into interesting fictional shapes, over a thinly-veiled historical biography. The line between the two is fine, and can be tricky to walk.

Despite my natural wariness, I was intrigued by the sound of this novel by David Lagercrantz (the author who’s continuing Steig Larsson’s Millennium series). Set in 1954, Fall of Man in Wilmslow (which is translated from the Swedish by George Goulding) focuses on Leonard Corell, a police detective investigating the death of Alan Turing, who has apparently killed himself with a poisoned apple.

Corell’s position means that he has to work backwards: at first he knows simply that Turing was convicted for performing homosexual acts. Only later does he learn about Turing’s mathematical work, and later still about his work at Bletchley Park. For me, this led to a curious inversion of what can often happen with translated fiction: rather than coming across unfamiliar terms, I actually knew more about Turing’s story (in outline, if not detail) than the protagonist. Perhaps that’s why I found that Fall of Man in Wilmslow never quite shook off its biographical aspect.

In terms of the novel-as-novel, Lagercrantz casts Corell as a part-reflection of Turing: for example, he has his own flashes of brilliance, being able to deduce the kind of secret work that Turing was undertaking at Bletchley, which brings him to the attention of those who would rather that such things were kept secret. It’s an interesting frame for Turing’s story, though perhaps inevitably Corell is not as compelling a figure as the mathematician. Fall of Man in Wilmslow walks that fine line, but not quite deftly enough.

Desmond Elliott Prize shortlist 2015

The Desmond Elliott Prize jury has announced its shortlist:

  • A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray
  • Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller
  • Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

This is quite a unified selection, with strong themes of family and secrets (and family secrets), and some very powerful moments. It’s difficult to guess which the judges might choose as a winner. We’ll find out on 1 July.

Robert Williams, Into the Trees (2014)

WilliamsIt begins with a knock on the door: Harriet Norton answers to find four masked men, who want a word with her father. We move back eight years, when Thomas and Ann Norton move to their secluded barn conversion in the forest, purely because it seems to be the only place where baby Harriet doesn’t cry. This is a nicely handled opening by Robert Williams: it evokes the characters’ mixed emotions (a combination of guilt at doing this, and resignation that something had to be done). It sets a theme of decisions being taken at a particular moment, and going to have longer-term consequences. And it throws the reader off balance, because it’s a tragicomic situation following that dramatic prologue.

We may then expect (which is to say, I expected) Into the Trees to start working towards that confrontation with the masked men. This it does, but more quickly than I anticipated, so the actual confrontation plays out about a third of the way in. For the whole of that first third, I had the wonderful sense (rarer than one might imagine) of not knowing at all where the book might head.

It settled down eventually into a thoughtful exploration of the personal consequences of such a dramatic event. Besides the Nortons, Williams’ other key characters are Raymond Farren, a misfit farm labourer who becomes friends (of sorts) with Thomas; and Raymond’s neighbour Keith Sullivan, who feels short-changed by life and is determined to set things right. Each protagonist is challenged by the novel’s events: Thomas is shaken by the thought that he can’t protect his family, which puts strain on his relationship with Ann; Raymond finds the stability in his life under threat; Keith may get what he wants, but struggles to hold on to it. All in all, Into the Trees is engaging stuff; thanks to Ray Robinson for bringing it to my attention.