As a reminder here is a list of the nominees with a helpful link to my reviews:
- Karen E. Bender, “Refund”
- Angela Flournoy, “The Turner House”
- Lauren Groff, “Fates and Furies”
- Adam Johnson, “Fortune Smiles”
- Hanya Yanagihara, “A Little Life”
If you’ve read my reviews you’ll know that my favorite book on this ballot was Karen E. Bender’s Refund. And if I’d had the final say in relation to the Fiction category this is the book I would have awarded. But I’m not at all upset with the eventual winner – Adam Johnson’s dark and confronting Fortune Smiles. The stories featured in the collection are uniformly good and while they may have not have crept under my skin like those pieces in Bender’s book, this is still high quality and intellectually honest writing that’s worthy of recognition.
The real disappointment is with the novels. I really liked Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House a vibrant family drama, set in Detroit, peopled with characters that I came to care about. It’s easily the strongest novel on the list and I look forward to seeing Flournoy’s work – this is her first novel – feature on many a future awards list. However, the two heavy weights, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies and Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life failed to impress me. And I’m not alone. While all the talk before the awards was that one of these novels would win the category, the negative reviews that have emerged since both books have been published (and especially since the shortlist was announced) have led some to believe that this tainted their chances. And yes, there’s no doubt that both books are polarizing – a quick skim of the internet shows either gushing adulation or utter hatred from critics. I’m in the second category, especially with the Groff which I found to be a poorly conceived and bloated novel with its unsympathetic characters and its attempt to be dark and edgy, while really coming off as a poor person’s version of Gone Girl. A Little Life is a much better novel, and within its 900 pages there are genuine heartfelt moments that linger on well after you’ve completed the book. However,Yanagihara’s over the top depiction of sexual abuse – AKA torture porn – undermines the novel’s subtle notes in regard to recovery and friendship and love.
So a definite hit and miss year for the National Book Award. But the two collections are marvellous and if you do nothing else at least give those books a try.
[This is the last in a series of lengthy blog posts about books and awards. The blog will return in a few days but in a retooled format that suits the author’s busy lifestyle.]