For those of you who have forgotten (which includes me) here are the nominees and links to my thoughtful, though confusing, reviews.
- Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (Canongate)
- Acts of Assassins by Richard Beard (Harvill Secker)
- Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (Cape)
- The Field of the Cloth of Gold by Magnus Mills (Bloomsbury)
- Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
- Lurid & Cute by Adam Thirlwell (Cape)
Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone was announced as this year’s winner of the Goldsmith Prize. And while I really liked the book – enjoyed both the wonderful prose, the inventive structure and Barry’s exploration of genius and creativity via the psyche of John Lennon – it wasn’t my favourite novel on the shortlist. Similarly, as much as I adored Satin Island I would not have awarded it the prize. Rather, in a moment of reflection, I realised that the book I liked the most, the book that affected me emotionally and intellectually, the book that does dazzling things with structure and prose, was Max Porter’s début novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers. At 13,000 words it’s not even a novella and yet it’s the most honest and unflinching portrayal of grief I’ve read in a long time (and given how many literary novels deal with grief that’s saying something). But it wasn’t to be, and that’s fine, because Beatlebone is certainly a worthy winner, though unlike Satin Island I’m not convinced we will see it appear on other award lists in 2016.
However, for an award that strives to “open up new possibilities for the novel form,” I don’t think any of the books on the shortlist achieve this lofty goal. That’s not to say there wasn’t experimentation on display, whether it’s Barry intruding into his own narrative with an extended author’s note, or Porter mixing poetry and prose while blurring the line between the symbolic and the real. And yet none of these books, as magnificent as some of them were, challenged my preconceived view of what the novel is capable of achieving. I suppose in this multimedia age I’m expecting the Goldsmith Prize to deliver me works of fiction that straddle the divide between the analogue and the digital, and do so in a manner that’s more than just a gimmick but instead reshape the novel for this century.
It would also have been nice to have seen more diversity in the authors nominated. 6 white men smacks of a narrow look at the field. I say that, though, with very little awareness of what was published this year and how much of it falls into the specific purview of the Goldsmiths. Others versed with the literary output in 2015 are likely to have a more informed view.
Having said all that, looking at the shortlist as a whole, this was a good year for the Goldsmiths. Three standout novels – that I’ve noted above – a very good book in Richard Beard’s Acts of Assassins with its playful and yet intelligent take on Jesus and the apostles; a nice, but slight, novel (or novella, again, it’s very short) in The Field of the Cloth of Gold by Magnus Mills; and one truly execrable novel – Adam Thirwell’s pointless and indulgent Lurid & Cute. It’s the only real duff note though. I’d still recommend five of the six finalists and that’s a damn good hit-rate for any awards shortlist.