Nov 26

So Who Should Have Won The Goldsmith Prize

As I announced in this post the winner of the Goldsmith Prize was Ali Smith for How To Be Both.  But did it deserve the 10,000 pounds?

Before I answer this momentous question, here’s a refresher of the books that were nominated:

Outline by Rachel Cusk (Faber & Faber)
The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves (CB Editions)
J by Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape) – read but not reviewed
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
In The Light Of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman (Picador)
How To Be Both by Ali Smith (Penguin) – read but not reviewed

With all six novels under the reading belt, I can confidently say that the judges chose correctly.  How To Be Both, with its interlinked-you-can-read-them-in-any-order novellas, is not only innovative (though not necessarily original) it’s also an engaging and very human book.  It has a fantastical element which means it deserves genre attention… but probably won’t get it.  Not that it matters.  The book has now won two awards (including the Saltire Society Literary Award) and was nominated for the Man Booker and the Costa.  We won’t find out if it won the Costa until 2015, but frankly it’s easily the best book on that shortlist (I say this having now read the four nominees).

But as my reviews indicate, this is a damn good shortlist.  I think the Goldsmith Prize judges have done an excellent job in finding books that – as the website says – celebrate the qualities of creative daring while also being accessible and engaging.  Will Eaves’ book – most definitely not a novel – is the most experimental of the bunch, but it’s also amazingly readable.

Awards like the Goldsmith really excite me because they both challenge my own prejudices (thank you very much Mr Kingsnorth) while also showing that the novel, as an art form, is very much alive.

So well done to Ali Smith and the other nominees.  If you’re interested in smart, playful, slippery fiction you should give this shortlist a go.

Nov 25

Book Review: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

The TL;DR Review For Those Who Haven’t Read The Book 

What’s The Book About?

The Battle of Hastings and the Norman invasion of England.  It’s told through the eyes of an Anglo-Saxon farmer and freeman named Buccmaster.  Following the death of his wife and sons he hides in the forest looking to plot revenge against the French.  People who have read post-colonial fiction will find a number of the themes in this book very familiar.

Should I read it?

Yes, but as with Outline, I recommend you read a Kindle sample first.  The book is written in “shadow tongue” a language that Paul Kingsnorth developed over three years that mimics Old English.  This mean there’s bugger all punctuation, commons letters are missing and there’s more than a smattering of actual Old English.  As intimidating as that sounds, Kingsnorth has done a remarkable job in making the book accessible.

The Long Review For Those Who Have Read The Book

A month ago I decided that I wasn’t going to bother with The Wake.

After skimming the opening pages, and coming across words like “blaec” and “micel” and “fugol”, I’d concluded that I didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to deal with 100,000 words of pseudo Old English.  As a compromise, I decided I would spend one day reading the book so I could write the sort of review that says less about the novel and more about the reviewer’s failings.

But when the day came and I started reading the novel I discovered that, while the odd word tripped me up, there was a rhythm and tone to the book that was both accessible and engaging.  In spending three years developing his “shadow tongue” Paul Kingsnorth had achieved what he’d set out to do.  Mimic Old English but make it understandable for the modern reader.

Understandable is one thing, making a novel enjoyable is a completely different challenge.  The Wake could have been a dry account of what happened as a result of the Norman invasion of England in 1066.  With the introduction of the belligerent and cantankerous Buccmaster, a “socman with three oxgangs” (a phrase repeated so often it’s a wonder I didn’t start muttering it in my sleep), we gain a personal insight into what the invasion meant for those being conquered.

The Battle of Hastings means very little to me as an Australian whose ancestry is Jewish.  We were never taught it at school and what little I do know about the Battle comes from the Doctor Who story The Time Meddler.  (A lovely 4-parter featuring William Hartnell as the Doctor.  Set in 1066, it involves Vikings and the introduction of the Meddling Monk, a rogue Time Lord who plans to change history by helping Harold defeat the Normans at Hastings).  It’s only in reading The Wake that I realised that the Battle was more than the sort of petty power struggle you’d expect from 11th Century Europe.  It was an act of colonialism.

Having read Hild earlier this year I was aware that Christianity already had a strong foothold in England.  From a spiritual perspective then, the Norman invasion reinforced a religious way of life that was already being practised.  However, Buccmaster remains a believer in the old Gods (the one’s now made famous by Marvel Studios).  It’s an interesting narrative choice by Kingsnorth because Buccmaster’s beliefs immediately separate him from the other towns-people, even before the invasion.  His vision symbolised by a bird, that something terrible is coming, is mostly ignored.  It’s not until a “hairy” comet appears in the sky, a genuine omen of change, that Buccmaster’s warnings gain some credibility.

Buccmaster’s beliefs are representative of the broader change that is coming.  While the Old Gods might have already been shown the door, it’s unlikely that the towns-people expected the sudden power shift that resulted in the Norman invasion.  Men who were once free, like Buccmaster, were now no better than the average peasant.  What’s worse, those in power not only looked different (they shaved their heads) but they didn’t speak the same language.  I was surprised to discover that it would be another three centuries before English – or at least a version of it – was again spoken at Court.

The loss of religion, the loss of language, the loss of culture.  Buccmaster’s story is familiar because of how aware we’ve become of the post-colonial narrative.  Symptomatic of this narrative is a focus on those being colonised and their struggle to keep their culture alive.  Buccmaster’s decision to hide in the forest, following the death of his wife and the burning down of his property, is as much a move to avoid the French as it is an attempt to maintain a connection with the old Gods who dwell in the fen.  Buccmaster’s wielding of his grandfather sword, apparently, forged by Wayland Smith, a legendary master blacksmith of Norse and Germanic mythology, is also symbolic of a culture under threat.

Given the post-colonial narrative it would have been easy for Kingsnorth to characterise Buccmaster as the one true hero of Anglo-Saxon culture.  But what becomes clear is that he’s a petty little man, not willing to accept any challenges to his authority.  As the novel progresses and he finds himself at odds with the men in his posse, his paranoia and jealousy flourish into outright madness.  In his delusions the old Gods turn their back on him, more inclined to support Hereward, a historical figure who fought to push back the Norman invaders.  As it happens both men failed to stop the inevitable.  In the case of Buccmaster, though, his own flaws as a person, as distinct from an Anglo-Saxon, were what eventually led to his demise.

It’s easy to see why this novel caught the eyes of both the judges for the Man Booker and Goldsmith Prize.  The novel provides a unique perspective, a post colonial narrative, on a moment in Western history that’s more remembered for when the pivotal battle occurred then the subsequent outcome of that battle.  Kingsnorth clever use of language, his shadow tongue, not only gives us a taste of Old English but reminds us that the way we speak, the way we dress, the Gods we believe in and the laws we follow are often a product of military invasion and cultural domination.

Nov 20

And The Winner of National Book Award For Best Novel Is….

… Phil Klay for Redeployment.

Very happy to be wrong about who would win the award.  My money was on Anthony Doerr.

As I stated in my review, the hype for Redeployment, which began in February 2014, is absolutely justified.  The collection features a number of powerful, confronting and at least one laugh out loud funny story that provide a unique perspective on the War in Iraq.  So congratulations to Phil Klay.  It’s also his first novel… so not a bad effort at all.

If you don’t trust my adoration of the book have a gander at Larry Nolen’s fine review.  It was his favourite on the shortlist.

Nov 20

Book Review: The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves

Because not every review can be 1,000 words long, I’m going to keep my remarks about The Absent Therapist nice and short.  Just like the novel.

Except it’s not really a novel, but a collection of disparate voices, a series of vignettes that jump from person to person.  It’s a bit like walking through a crowd of people, picking up fragments of what’s being discussed.  Sometimes you’ll circle back and pick up another snippet of the same conversation, but for the most part, all you’ll ever get is that one moment.

What’s remarkable about The Absent Therapist is how accessible it is.  While it’s obviously very experimental, and while there’s no story to take hold of, there’s a human and emotional quality to most of the vignettes that makes them immediately engaging, even if we only stay with them for a few minutes.  Take this as an example:

I don’t see the point of boxer shorts.  No support.  And the gap for your sticky wicket, why bother?  Too fiddly.  You end up groping about for the opening while your fellow man casts suspicious sideways glances.  And as my beloved put it, why poke your head out of the window when you can jump over the wall?

or this

Samuel and I heard this morning that the refugee camp in Tanzania containing our two sons, Amos and Zizwe, is to be closed.  The government is closing it and sending everyone in it back to Burundi, where we know that Amos and Zizwe will face great danger.  We think of them at this time, and we would ask that you say a silent prayer for them, too.

or this

If the vacuum were not so complete, the sound of every culture speeding by, from bacteria to late macro-sentient galactic entities, would be that of a cistern filling in the ears of the creator, the soft flare of emptiness nixed and life’s brief quelling of the silent storm, which rages on and on.

While these tonal shifts can, at times, be sudden and jarring, as Nicholas Lezard points out in his review, after awhile the prose just washes over you.  This doesn’t mean that The Absent Therapist is either disposable or just a blur of words.  Instead, as a glimpse into the human condition it’s a book best enjoyed as a meditative experience rather than picked apart.

Nov 19

And the Costa Book Award Finalists for 2014 have been announced

Apparently Costa makes fine coffee.  Also, apparently, they’re interested in promoting fine literature.  I can’t say much about their coffee because I don’t live in the UK, but I’m sure I’ll have a few things to say about the finalists of the First Novel and Novel awards.  Here are the shortlists for those two categories:

2014 Costa Novel Award shortlist

  • Neel Mukherjee for The Lives of Others (Chatto & Windus)
  • Monique Roffey for House of Ashes (Simon and Schuster)
  • Ali Smith for How to be Both (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Colm Toibin for Nora Webster (Viking)

2014 Costa First Novel Award shortlist

  • Carys Bray for A Song for Issy Bradley (Hutchinson)
  • Mary Costello for Academy Street (Canongate)
  • Emma Healey for Elizabeth is Missing (Viking)
  • Simon Wroe for Chop Chop (Viking)

I’ve read the Mukherjee (which I liked) and the Smith (which I adored).  The novels by Toibin and Roffey are going to have to be extra special to knock the Smith off it’s very high pedestal.

I’m always excited by first novels, and from a quick skim of the four presented it looks like we have a varied bunch of books and voices.

Also, very nice to see the predominance of female writers on both lists.  Across all 20 books that were nominated the gender split was 50/50.  This is something that should be recognised and applauded.

So, roll on the books.  Except reviews to start appearing next week.

You can find the finalists in the other categories here.

Nov 18

Book Review: Outline by Rachel Cusk

The TL;DR Review For Those Who Haven’t Read The Book 

What’s The Book About?

Faye flies to Greece to give a two-day writing class.  Each chapter is made up of the conversations she has on her trip.  It’s also a book where the narrator barely makes an impression and what’s discussed mostly centres on broken relationships and the struggle of family life.

Should I read it?

Yes, but you might want to read the Kindle Sample first.  It’s a novel with no plot, no character arc and no dramatic tension.  There’s very little direct dialogue so at times there’s a rambling quality to the conversations.  But at it’s best the writing is striking and visceral and strangely intimate.

The Long Review For Those Who Have Read The Book

We first learn the name of Outline‘s narrator, Faye, about 84% into the novel (at least according to my Kindle).  It’s a blink it or miss it moment.  In fact, I didn’t register her name until I saw it cropping up in reviews of the book.

Cusk’s Goldsmith Prize nominated novel isn’t so much a story as it is a fragment of time in the life of the narrator.  Faye has traveled to Greece to instruct a two-day writing class.  When she arrives in Athens she teaches her students, has dinner with friends and spends time on a boat with a man – referred throughout the book as “my neighbor” – who she met on the plane during the flight over.  For Faye, there’s no character arc, no dramatic tension, no epiphanies or revelations.  She fades out of the story just liked she faded in, with barely a ripple.

And yet Faye is anything but a passive character.  While she might reveal very little of herself, she is able to exert influence on those around her.  Within minutes of meeting Faye, “my neighbor” on the plane is providing intimate details about his failed marriages.  The people she visits and dines with in Greece – both stranger and friend – are quick to unburden themselves of their life story.  The students in her class, asked by Faye to write a story about an animal, provide stories that are personal and confronting.

The most striking of these is Penelope’s story about Mimi the dog.  Penelope initially buys the puppy for her children.  But as often happens, the responsibility for the dog quickly changes hands from the children back to Penelope.  Unfortunately Mimi is a naughty dog, making messes all over the house and shredding the furniture.  Because she now feels obligated to care for the dog, Penelope grows to hate Mimi (Trigger warning in regard to animal abuse):.

“One day when she has been barking all afternoon and the children had refused to take her out, and I discovered her in the sitting room chewing to shreds a new cushion I had just bought while the children stared, unconcerned, at the television, I found myself seized by an uncontrollable fury that I hit her.  The children were deeply shocked and angry.  They threw themselves on Mimi to protect her from me; they looked at me as though I were a monster.  But if I had become a monster, it was Mimi, I believed, who had made me one.”

The relationship between Penelope and Mimi fractures even further to the point that the dog runs away after an incident with a cake.  (Trigger warning in regard to animal abuse):

“I crossed the kitchen and grabbed her by the collar.  In front of my sister, I yanked her off the counter and sent her scrambling to the floor, and I proceeded to beat her while she yelped and struggled.  The two of us fought, me panting and seeking to punch her as hard as I could, she writhing and yelping, until finally she succeeded in pulling her head free of the collar.  She ran out of the kitchen, her claws scrabbling and sliding on the tiled floor, and into the hall, where the front door still stood open, and then out into the street, where she tore off up the pavement and disappeared.”

Penelope paused and placed her fingers gentle and then probingly to her temples.

This is visceral, gut wrenching stuff and at its best the conversations in Outline are raw and honest with a confessional vibe.  That said, not all of them are these compelling or interesting, and there are times when the ramblings of the people she’s talking to becomes tedious.  Given that Faye is only exposed to people who are either educated or wealthy (or both) they smack of the torturous ennui of the upper middle class (yes, I stole that phrase from the internet).

What’s also odd, though not necessarily a deal-breaker, is that we never really get a sense of Greece or Athens from these conversations.  There are some brief mentions of the protests that occurred after the announcement of the austerity measures in Greece, but generally this book could have taken place anywhere.  Even the descriptions of the boat ride with “my neighbour” have a blandness about them.  It might be that Cusk is making a point about the universality of a certain type of story, one that deals with relationships.  It’s also possible she didn’t want to exoticise the location.

Because it eschews the conventions of the traditional novel, Outline is not going to be for everyone.  But when the writing is firing on all cylinders it is confronting and visceral and strangely intimate.  Rather than be about the erasure of woman in literature, the novel explores the empowerment of silence, of listening and of allowing others to be heard.

Nov 16

Book Review: In The Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman

The TL;DR Review For Those Who Haven’t Read The Book 

What’s The Book About?

It’s a conversation or confession between two close friends – Zafar and an unnamed narrator – who haven’t seen each other in six years.  It’s about colonialism, class, the Global Financial Crisis, maths (especially Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem) and the Bangladesh War of Liberation circa 1971.  It has a non-linear structure and there are no talky marks for the dialogue.  It was a finalist for this years Goldsmith Prize (it didn’t win).

Should I read it?

No.  The stuff about colonialism and class and the Bangladeshi uprising is fascinating, insightful and thought provoking.  The same can’t be said for Rahman’s treatment of woman which is appalling and unfortunately overwhelms the novel’s good bits.

The Full Review For Those Who Have Read The Book.

In my round-up of the National Book Award finalists I noted the stylistic tendency of telling stories out of order.  Having just finished Zia Haider Rahman’s In The Light of What We Know I think I’ve found the most extreme example of this non-linear approach.

On the face of it the novel has a straight-forward premise.  The narrator – an investment banker who’s facing the end of his marriage and his career, the latter due to the global financial crisis – comes home to discover an old friend waiting for him.  Zafar, who like the unnamed narrator is of South Asian descent, is a math’s prodigy who disappeared under mysterious circumstances six years previously.  Now penniless and bedraggled, he has come back to America to confess where he has been.  Or so it seems.

It’s a deliberate choice of the unnamed narrator not to provide us with a chronological order of his conversations with Zafar.  He admits this early on in the narrative saying,

I won’t deny that I have already altered his narrative, not the details of each episode, to be sure, nor the order in which things happened, but the order in which he recounted them.

While the narrator speculates that he’s re-ordered Zafar’s story so as to “put off the things that I myself fear to confront,” he concludes that as this is not a biography, but rather a “private and intimate connection between two people” then a chronological approach is not warranted.  But it becomes clear that both explanations are true.  After so many years apart, this three month conversation / confession / interrogation does bring the men closer.  But it’s a conversation that constantly circles and avoids the heart of the matter.

Zafar’s avoidance technique is to discuss a wide range of topics and move the narrative from place to place.  His story zips between Afghanistan, London, Paris, Islamabad, Bangladesh and New York.  In terms of topics he explores colonialism and post colonialism, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, the GFC and the Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971 (the year Rahman was born).  And throughout it all, Zafar constantly refers to scientific papers or thought experiments or just bits of trivia that sometimes reinforce whatever point his making and sometimes are just there because both Zafar (and Rahman) thought they were interesting.  For example, it never occurred to me that trees transform the carbon part of carbon dioxide into wood.  So, in a sense, wood comes out of thin air.  Neat, isn’t it.

As a number of reviewers have pointed out, knowledge, whether it’s knowledge about how trees grow of near genocidal slaughter of Bangladeshi’s in 1971, is a key theme of the novel. In particular the power dynamics that comes with knowing stuff. Personally I was less interested in the theme than what’s actually being discussed. Zafar’s deep exploration of class, colonialism and Bangladesh post 1971 is genuinely interesting.  While this is a novel I have deep reservations about, and I’ll get to those in a second, the random, near chaotic nature of the discussion between Zafar and the narrator means it’s never boring. One striking aspect was the cultural scars left by British colonialism, especially in terms of class.  Sparked by Zafar’s dissection of the ruling classes both in the UK and the sub continent, the narrator – who unlike Zafar comes from a place of privilege and wealth – makes the following observation:

My grandfather spoke diplomatically, but his message was clear enough. I was going to marry beneath me, and he thought that this could cause problems. I loved my grandfather, but as I looked at the old soldier sitting in the armchair, the titan of Pakistani industry, I saw a man whose homes were crawling with respectful servants, a man who couldn’t bear “all this queuing one has to do in London and New York.”… His suggestion that the success of my parents’ marriage was founded on something like shared class status did trouble me. I knew that other families would rather a child marry outside, marry a Westerner—which always meant white—than marry a Pakistani of lower class or birth. But weren’t they other families, not mine?

Rahman also critiques how post colonialism has effected his journey as a novelists.  At one point the unmanned narrator suggests that Zafar write down his story, about his life, about what happened in Bangladesh.  Zafar dismisses the idea saying sarcastically,

“You’re right.  What the world needs now is answers to all its questions about Bangladeshi history.  And it especially needs to hear these answers from me, an alien in his native land and interloper amongst his hosts, because I know so much about Bangladesh.  I’m a bloody authority, that’s what I am, a leading international luminary on the history of Bangladesh.”

And when the narrator follows this up with, “what about writing for a Western audience,” Zafar quotes Naipaul who said that:

“Indian literature written in English is astonishing because nowhere in history has a literature been produced that is written by one people about the same people but for another people to read, a literature sustained by a market abroad, the book readers of the West.”

It’s powerful stuff, partly because Rahman is shining the torch on his own endeavor and essentially questioning it’s worth and partly because it raises all sorts of questions about appropriation and this offensive notion of having to dumb down complex cultural and political issues to the very people who caused them in the first place.

However, it’s when Zafar eventually broaches the heart of the matter that the book falters.  Throughout the novel reference has been made to Zafar’s ex-fiance Emily Hampton-Wyvern.  As the hyphenated surname suggests, Emily comes from wealth and privilege.  Emily and Zafar become a couple after they’re introduced at a party by the narrator (though we later find out that Zafar was aware of Emily before they met).  Their relationship is strained from the outset.  Emily is aloof, detached from her emotions and often treats Zafar as a pet to show off to her friend rather than a real person.  Zafar also grows increasingly jealous as Emily spends more of her time with other people.  On a couple of occasions the narrator asks Zafar what he saw in Emily.  Zafar mentions something about being attracted to her surname and her position of privilege.  Oh, and the sex.  It’s all very unsatisfying.

Zafar’s confusion and frustration and jealousy comes to a head when he commits himself to psych award.  While there, Emily never visits.  Instead, she has a brief affair with the narrator, becomes pregnant, convinces Zafar, once he’s left the ward that the baby is his, and just as Zafar is becoming a bit starry eyed at the idea of being a father, she aborts the pregnancy.  Of course, Zafar and the narrator focus on the betrayal of the affair – that’s one of two revelation that this novel has been leading too.

The second revelation is that Zafar raped Emily while they were both in Afghanistan in 2002.

There’s more then a misogynistic whiff to Zafar (and Rahman’s) treatment of Emily.  We only ever see Emily through Zafar’s eyes (and briefly the eyes of the narrator who knew her when they were young) and his description of a cold, aloof, calculating woman who is incapable of emotional engagement but is great in the sack actively dehumanizes her.  As Hannah Harris Green states in her lengthy, but excellent review of the novel for the LA Review of Books:

We are never given evidence that Emily has feelings or thoughts of any depth. She is introduced as almost a non-entity. The first time Zafar sees her, she is rehearsing the violin in a church, and he is struck by how profoundly she has failed to move him with her playing. Her main two emotional states seem to be envy and annoyance. She never smiles out of genuine feeling, only with some ulterior motive in mind. Zafar is smarter than she is, and she resents him for it. When they arrange to meet, she often shows up hours late.

I don’t believe Rahman is crass enough to want us to think that Emily deserved to be raped due to her betrayal.  But you can’t help but feel that way given how she’s been depicted, how we never get her side of the story and how in the last third of the novel she becomes the focus of Zafar’s hatred.  And yes, I get that in 1971 Bengali woman were dehumanized and sexually assaulted by Pakistani soldiers, and I get that Zafar is a product of this and I get the sad, tragic irony that a man appalled by what happened to his people would end up committing the same act to the woman he supposedly loved.  Yes, all those boxes were ticked.  But it doesn’t change the fact that Rahman asks us to focus on the perpetrator – Zafar – and not the victim.,  That there’s no room in his lengthy novel for the victim to be heard.

The title, In The Light of What We Know, suggests that we’re not going to be given the full story, that knowledge is going to be withheld.  But, in the case of Emily, its’ not so much that information has been held back but that there’s no attempt by Rahman or his characters to cast Emily as anything but a cipher, a vessel for some of the larger themes of the novel.  The real tragedy here is that a novel so brilliantly insightful about class and colonialism, is so appalling in its treatment of women.

Nov 13

And the Winner of the Goldsmith Prize is…

… Ali Smith for How To Be Both.

I haven’t read all the finalists of the Prize (though expect to see reviews in the coming weeks), but having finished all but two I can say I’m overjoyed with this result.  How To Be Both is inventive and playful both with its characters and the way it’s been structured (two linked novellas that can be read in any order).  It’s about art and art appreciation, but also incorporates themes about gender and dealing with grief.  And it’s a fantasy novel (sort of) that wouldn’t look out of place on a Shirley Jackson or World Fantasy ballot.

So congratulations to Ali Smith.  A very well deserved win.

Nov 12

And The Winner of The World Fantasy Award is…

… Sofia Samatar with Stranger in Olondria.

In my round-up of the award I picked Neil Gaiman as the winner and I’m glad to have been proven wrong.  Stranger in Olondria is wonderful novel, with lush prose and a fascinating setting.  You can read my review of it here.  Congratulations to Sofia and all the other category winners.

Nov 11

Who Will Win The National Book Award?

Click on the link for my review of each of the finalists:

While I’d love to see Station Eleven win, I can’t see it happening.  For me it’s a toss-up between All The Light We Cannot See and Lila.  The Doerr screams award winner with its lyrical writing, it unconventional love story and its wartime setting.  I had major issues with the book but I can’t pretend that it’s not the sort of sweeping, epic, tear jerking novel that usually ends up with a movie deal and a trophy.  I’d be surprised if it didn’t take out the award.

Lila, though, is a good contender.  I might not have heard of Marilynne Robinson, but critics and judges in the US most certainly have.  She’s previously won a Pulitzer and Orange Prize and was a National Book Award finalist for Home.  Given her form, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her add the National Book Award to her trophy cabinet.

That said, if I have to choose I think the winner will be All The Light We Cannot See.  Of course I’d like to see one of the other three novels – Station Eleven, An Unnecessary Woman and  Redeployment – trump the Doerr, but I can’t see it happening.

While I have my reservations about All The Light We Cannot See and Lila, I’d still rate this as a strong shortlist.  There isn’t a single theme that links all the novel (which for the sake of variety is possibly a good thing) but structurally they have similarities.  The four novels take a non-linear approach to story-telling with heavy use of flashbacks.  What used to be an innovation, telling stories out-of-order and a blurry delineation between the past and present, is now just another tool in the writer’s kit.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I do wonder whether this a new trend or something that’s been trending for some time.  Others more versed with the literary scene will have a better idea.

What I can say with some confidence is how rarely a non-linear structure is used by genre writers.  This years Hugo winner, Ancillary Justice, borrowed the non-linear approach for its first half, but didn’t sustain the effect.  That, however, is the only example I can think of based on the forty or so genre books I’ve read this year.  Which does play into the idea that genre writing, in the main, is conservative in its content and stylistic approach.  It’s something I’ll keep a note of as I read through next years batch of award listed books.

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