Being on the shadow panel for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award was a bookish highlight of 2017 for me. I’m pleased for this year’s panelists, especially blogging friend Marina Sofia, to have had the same opportunity, and I look forward to hearing who they choose as their shadow panel winner on December 3rd and then attending the virtual prize ceremony on December 10th.
At the time of the shortlisting, I happened to have already read Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan and was halfway through Catherine Cho’s memoir Inferno. I got the poetry collection Surge by Jay Bernard out from the library to have another go (after DNFing it last year), and the kind folk of FMcM Associates sent me the other two shortlisted books, a poetry collection and a novel, so that I could follow along with the shadow panel’s deliberations. Here are my brief thoughts on all five nominees.
Surge by Jay Bernard (2019)
As a writer-in-residence at the George Padmore Institute, a research centre for radical Black history, in 2016, Bernard investigated the New Cross Massacre, a fire that killed 13 young people in 1981. In 2017, the tragedy found a horrific echo in the Grenfell Tower fire, which left 72 dead. This debut poetry collection bridges that quarter-century through protest poems from various perspectives, giving voice to victims and their family members and exploring the interplay between race, sexuality and violence. Patois comes in at several points, most notably in “Songbook.” I especially liked “Peg” and “Pride,” and the indictment of government indifference in “Blank”: “It-has-nothing-to-do-with-us today issued this statement: / those involved have defended their actions and been … acquitted / retired with full pay”. On the whole, I found it difficult to fully engage with this collection, but I am reliably informed that Bernard’s protest poems have more impact when performed aloud.
Readalikes: In Nearby Bushes by Kei Miller, A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson and Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
Inferno by Catherine Cho (2020)
Cho, a Korean American literary agent based in London, experienced stress-induced postpartum psychosis after the birth of her son. She and her husband had returned to the USA when Cato was two months old to introduce him to friends and family, ending with a big Korean 100-day celebration at her in-laws’ home. Almost as soon as they got to her in-laws’, though, she started acting strangely: she was convinced cameras were watching their every move, and Cato’s eyes were replaced with “devil’s eyes.” She insisted they leave for a hotel, but soon she would be in a hospital emergency room, followed by a mental health ward. Cho alternates between her time in the mental hospital and a rundown of the rest of her life before the breakdown, weaving in her family history and Korean sayings and legends. Twelve days: That was the length of her hospitalization in early 2018, but Cho so painstakingly depicts her mindset that readers are fully immersed in an open-ended purgatory. She captures extremes of suffering and joy in this vivid account. (Reviewed in full here.)
Readalikes: An Angel at My Table by Janet Frame and Dear Scarlet by Teresa Wong
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan (2020)
At 22, Ava leaves Dublin to teach English as a foreign language to wealthy preteens in Hong Kong and soon comes to a convenient arrangement with her aloof banker friend, Julian, who lets her live with him without paying rent and buys her whatever she wants. They have sex, yes, but he’s not her boyfriend per se, so when he’s transferred to London for six months, there’s no worry about hard feelings when her new friendship with Edith Zhang turns romantic. It gets a little more complicated, though, when Julian returns and she has to explain these relationships to her two partners and to herself. On the face of it, this doesn’t sound like it would be an interesting plot, and the hook-up culture couldn’t be more foreign to me. But with Ava Dolan has created a funny, deadpan voice that carries the entire novel. I loved the psychological insight, the playfulness with language, and the zingy one-liners (“I wondered if Victoria was a real person or three Mitford sisters in a long coat”). (Reviewed in full here.)
Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt (2020)
In the title poem, the arboreal fungus from the cover serves as “a bright, ancestral messenger // bursting through from one realm to another” like “the cones of God, the Pentecostal flame”. This debut collection is alive with striking imagery that draws links between the natural and the supernatural. Sex and grief, two major themes, are silhouetted against the backdrop of nature. Fields and forests are loci of meditation and epiphany, but also of clandestine encounters between men: “I came back often, // year on year, kneeling and being knelt for / in acts of secret worship, and now / each woodland smells quietly of sex”. Hewitt recalls travels to Berlin and Sweden, and charts his father’s rapid decline and death from an advanced cancer. A central section of translations of the middle-Irish legend “Buile Suibhne” is less memorable than the gorgeous portraits of flora and fauna and the moving words dedicated to the poet’s father: “You are not leaving, I know, // but shifting into image – my head / already is haunted with you” and “In this world, I believe, / there is nothing lost, only translated”.
Readalikes: Physical by Andrew McMillan and If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton
Nightingale by Marina Kemp (2020)
Marguerite Demers, a 24-year-old nurse, has escaped Paris to be a live-in carer for elderly Jérôme Lanvier in southern France. From the start, she senses she’s out of place here – “She felt, as always in this village, that she was being observed”. She strikes up a friendship with a fellow outsider, an Iranian émigrée named Suki, who, in this story set in 2002, stands out for wearing a hijab. Everyone knows everyone here, and everyone has history with everyone else – flirtations, feuds, affairs, and more. Brigitte Brochon, unhappily married to a local farmer, predicts Marguerite will be just like the previous nurses who failed to hack it in service to the curmudgeonly Monsieur Lanvier. But Marguerite sticks up for herself and, though plagued by traumatic memories, makes her own bid for happiness. The novel deals sensitively with topics like bisexuality, euthanasia, and family estrangement, but the French provincial setting and fairly melodramatic plot struck me as old-fashioned. Still, the writing is strong enough to keep an eye out for what Kemp writes next. (U.S. title: Marguerite.)
Readalikes: French-set novels by Joanne Harris and Rose Tremain; The Hoarder by Jess Kidd
After last year’s unexpected winner – Raymond Antrobus for his poetry collection The Perseverance – I would have said that it’s time for a novel by a woman to win. However, I feel like a Dolan win would be too much of a repeat of 2017’s win (for Sally Rooney), and Kemp’s debut novel isn’t quite up to scratch. Much as I enjoyed Inferno, I can’t see it winning over these judges (three of whom are novelists: Kit de Waal, Sebastian Faulks and Tessa Hadley), though it would be suited to the Wellcome Book Prize if that comes back in 2021. So, to my surprise, I think it’s going to be another year for poetry.
I’ve been following the shadow panel’s thoughts via Marina’s blog and the others’ Instagram accounts and it looks like they are united in their admiration for the poetry collections, particularly the Hewitt. That would be my preference, too: I respond better to theme and style in poetry (Hewitt) than to voice and message (Bernard). However, I think that in 2020 the Times may try to trade its rather fusty image for something more woke, bearing in mind the Black Lives Matter significance and the unprecedented presence of a nonbinary author.
Shadow panel winner: Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt
Official winner: Surge by Jay Bernard
Have you read anything from this year’s shortlist?
I love interspersing poetry with my other reading, and this year it seems like I’m getting to more of it than ever. Although I try to have a poetry collection on the go at all times, I still consider myself a novice and enjoy discovering new-to-me poets. However, I know many readers who totally avoid poetry because they assume they won’t understand it or it would feel too much like hard work.
Sinking into poems is certainly a very different experience from opening up a novel or a nonfiction narrative. Often I read parts of a poem two or three times – to make sure I’ve taken it in properly, or just to savor the language. I try to hear the lines aloud in my head so I can appreciate the sonic techniques at work, whether rhyming or alliteration. Reading or listening to poetry engages a different part of the brain, and it may be best to experience it in something of a dreamlike state.
I hope you’ll find a book or two that appeals from the selection below.
Thousandfold by Nina Bogin (2019)
This is a lovely collection whose poems devote equal time to interactions with nature and encounters with friends and family. Birds – along with their eggs and feathers – are a frequent presence. Often a particular object will serve as a totem as the poet remembers the most important people in her life: her father’s sheepskin coat, her grandmother’s pink bathrobe, and the slippers her late husband shuffled around in – a sign of how diminished he’d become due to dementia. Elsewhere Bogin greets a new granddaughter and gives thanks for the comforting presence of her cat. Gentle rhymes and half-rhymes lend a playful or incantatory nature. I’d recommend this to fans of Linda Pastan.
Thousandfold will be published by Carcanet Press on January 31st. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Sweet Shop by Amit Chaudhuri (2019)
I was previously unfamiliar with Chaudhuri’s work, and unfortunately this insubstantial book about his beloved Indian places and foods hasn’t lured me into trying any more. The one poem I liked best was “Creek Row,” about a Calcutta lane used as a shortcut: “you are a thin, short-lived, / decaying corridor” and an “oesophageal aperture”. I also liked, as stand-alone lines go, “Refugees are periodic / like daffodils.” Nothing else stood out for me in terms of language, sound or theme. Poetry is so subjective; all I can say is that some poets will click with you and others don’t. In any case, the atmosphere is similar to what I found in Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamela Timms.
My thanks to Salt Publishing for the free copy for review.
Windfall by Miriam Darlington (2008)
Before I picked this up from the bookstall at the New Networks for Nature conference in November, I had no idea that Darlington had written poetry before she turned to nature writing (Otter Country and Owl Sense). These poems are rooted in the everyday: flipping pancakes, sitting down to coffee, tending a garden, smiling at a dog. Multiple poems link food and erotic pleasure; others make nature the source of exaltation. I loved her descriptions of a heron (“a standing stone / perched in silt / a wrap of grey plumage”) and a blackbird (“the first bird / a glockenspiel in C / an improvisation on morning / a blue string of notes”), Lots of allusions and delicious alliteration. Pick this up if you’re missing Mary Oliver.
A Responsibility to Awe by Rebecca Elson (2018)
Elson, an astronomer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, died of breast cancer; this is a reprint of her posthumous 2001 publication. Along with a set of completed poems, the volume includes an autobiographical essay and extracts from her notebooks. Her impending mortality has a subtle presence in the book. I focused on the finished poems, which take their metaphors from physics (“Dark Matter”), mathematics (“Inventing Zero”) and evolution (indeed, “Evolution” was my favorite). In the essay that closes the book, Elson remembers long summers of fieldwork and road trips across Canada with her geologist father (I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye), and traces her academic career as she bounced between the United States and Great Britain.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
These next two were on the Costa Prize for Poetry shortlist, along with Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems, which was one of my top poetry collections of 2018 and recently won the T. S. Eliot Prize. I first encountered the work of all three poets at last year’s Faber Spring Party.
Us by Zaffar Kunial (2018)
Many of these poems are about split loyalties and a composite identity – Kunial’s father was Kashmiri and his mother English – and what the languages we use say about us. He also writes about unexpectedly developing a love for literature, and devotes one poem to Jane Austen and another to Shakespeare. My favorites were “Self Portrait as Bottom,” about doing a DNA test (“O I am translated. / The speech of numbers. / Here’s me in them / and them in me. … What could be more prosaic? / I am split. 50% Europe. / 50% Asia.”), and the title poem, a plea for understanding and common ground.
Soho by Richard Scott (2018)
When I saw him live, Scott read two of the amazingly intimate poems from this upcoming collection. One, “cover-boys,” is about top-shelf gay porn and what became of the models; the other, “museum,” is, on the face of it, about mutilated sculptures of male bodies in the Athens archaeological museum, but also, more generally, about “the vulnerability of / queer bodies.” If you appreciate the erotic verse of Mark Doty and Andrew McMillan, you need to pick this one up immediately. Scott channels Verlaine in a central section of gritty love poems and Whitman in the final, multi-part “Oh My Soho!”
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (2017)
Like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, this is a book whose aims I can admire even though I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. It’s about being black and queer in an America where both those identifiers are dangerous, where guns and HIV are omnipresent threats. “reader, what does it / feel like to be safe? white?” Smith asks. “when i was born, i was born a bull’s-eye.” The narrator and many of the other characters are bruised and bloody, with blood used literally but also metaphorically for kinship and sexual encounters. By turns tender and biting, exultant and uncomfortable, these poems are undeniably striking, and a necessary wake-up call for readers who may never have considered the author’s perspective.
Up next: This Pulitzer-winning collection from the late Mary Oliver, whose work I’ve had mixed success with before (Dream Work is by far her best that I’ve read so far). We lost two great authors within a week! RIP Diana Athill, too, who was 101.
Any recent poetry reads you can recommend to me?
I was a veritable social butterfly this past week: I went out two evenings in a row! (Believe me, that’s rare.) On Tuesday I met up with bloggers Annabel, Eric and Kim at the Faber Spring Party held at Crypt on the Green in London, and on Wednesday my husband and I attended a performance at the University of Reading of Michael Mears’s one-man play on the plight of Britain’s conscientious objectors during World War I, This Evil Thing.
Faber Spring Party
I’ve never been to an event quite like this. Publisher Faber & Faber, which will be celebrating its 90th birthday in 2019, previewed its major releases through to September. Most of the attendees seemed to be booksellers and publishing insiders. Drinks were on a buffet table at the back; books were on a buffet table along the side. Glass of champagne in hand, it was time to plunder the free books on offer. I ended up taking one of everything, with the exception of Rachel Cusk’s trilogy: I couldn’t make it through Outline and am not keen enough on her writing to get an advanced copy of Kudos, but figured I might give her another try with the middle book, Transit.
For the evening’s presentation, each featured author had a few minutes to introduce their new book and/or give a short reading.
Rachel Cusk opened the evening with a reading from Kudos. If you’re familiar with her recent work, you won’t be surprised at this synopsis: a man on a plane recounts having his dog put to sleep. (Out on May 3rd.)
William Atkins’s book on deserts, The Immeasurable World, is based on three years of travel and is, he is not ashamed to say, in the old-fashioned travel writing tradition. (Out on June 7th.)
Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems is a hybrid work of poem-essays. #2 is more philosophical, she said; #3 is about her father’s death and her son’s birth. She read sonnet 3.21. (Out now.)
Clémentine Beauvais’s In Paris with You is a YA romance in free verse, loosely based on Eugene Onegin. I don’t know the source text but started this on the train ride home and it’s enjoyable thus far. I’m in awe at how translator Sam Taylor has taken the French of her Songe à la douceur and turned it into English poetry. (Out on June 7th.)
Chris Power’s Mothers is a book of linked short stories, three of which are about a character named Eva. He read a portion of a story about her having an encounter with an unpleasant man in Innsbruck. (Out on March 1st.)
Elise Valmorbida’s The Madonna of the Mountains, set in 1923–50, is a saga that resembles “an Italian Mother Courage,” she says. She read a scene in which a character comes across a madwoman. (Out on April 5th.)
Zaffar Kunial read the poem “Spark Hill” from his forthcoming collection Us. It’s about a childhood fight in the area of Birmingham where he grew up. He had a folder open in front of him but, impressively, recited the long poem completely from memory. (Out on July 5th.)
American novelist Benjamin Markovits was a professional basketball player in Germany for six months. Like the tennis-playing protagonist of his upcoming book, A Weekend in New York, he got tired of being measured. After 15 years, his hero is eager to escape a life of being constantly ranked. This is the first in a quartet of novels that inevitably invites comparison with John Updike’s “Rabbit” books. (Out on June 7th.)
I confess I didn’t previously know the name Viv Albertine; she was the guitarist for the female punk band The Slits, and To Throw Away Unopened is her second memoir. Albertine realized that it was her mother who had made her an angry rebel; the title is the label on a bag she found in her mother’s room after her death. (Out on April 5th.)
Sophie Collins incorporates hybrid forms in her poetry – what she calls “lyric essays.” The theme of her book Who Is Mary Sue? is perceptions of women’s writing (with “Mary Sue” as a metonym for the stereotypical good girl). She read from “Engine.” (Out now.)
Katharine Kilalea’s debut novel Ok, Mr Field is about an injured concert pianist who becomes obsessed with a house he buys in South Africa. (Out on June 7th.)
Elizabeth Foley and Beth Coates are the authors of two Homework for Grown-Ups books. Their new book, What Would Boudicca Do?, is about lessons we can draw from the women of history. For instance, the sampler booklet has pieces called “Dorothy Parker and Handling Jerks” and “Frida Kahlo and Finding Your Style.” There’s a heck of a lot of books like this out this year, though, and I’m not so sure this one will stand out. (Out on September 6th.)
Richard Scott read two amazingly intimate poems from his upcoming collection, Soho. One, “cover-boys,” was about top-shelf gay porn; the other was about mutilated sculptures of male bodies in the Athens archaeological museum. If you appreciated Andrew McMillan’s Physical, you need to get hold of this the second it comes out. I went back and read “cover-boys” in the sampler booklet and it wasn’t nearly as powerful as it was aloud; Scott’s reading really brought it to life, in contrast to some other authors’ dull delivery. (Out on April 5th.)
Sue Prideaux’s forthcoming biography of Friedrich Nietzsche is entitled I Am Dynamite! She encountered her subject when she wrote her first biography, of Edvard Munch. Although Nietzsche has been embraced by far-right groups in America, he was in fact against racism, nationalism, and anti-semitism, so he has important messages for us today. I’ll be keen to get hold of this one. (Out on September 6th.)
Guitar in hand, Willy Vlautin closed the evening with a performance of the title track from the soundtrack album to his fifth novel, Don’t Skip Out on Me – he was the singer in Portland, Oregon alt-country band Richmond Fontaine, which has recently stopped touring. He said the novel asks, “can you make the scars of broken people bearable?” (Out now.)
Now that I’ve got this terrific stack of books, wherever do I start?! I’m currently reading the Beauvais; from there I’ll focus on ones that have already been released, starting with Vlautin and the two poetry collections. The titles that aren’t out until June can probably wait – though it’s tempting to be one of the privileged few who get to read them nearly four months early. One Faber book per week should see me getting through all these by the final release date.
This Evil Thing
Michael Mears plays about 50 different characters in this one-man production. He’s an actor and pacifist who has written a number of solo pieces over 20 years. In this commemorative year of the end of the First World War, he knew we would hear a lot about battles, soldiers, and their families back home. But conscientious objectors weren’t likely to be remembered: theirs is a “story that’s rarely told,” he realized. This Evil Thing sets out to correct that omission. The title phrase refers not to war in general but specifically to conscription.
The two main characters Mears keeps coming back to in the course of the play are Bert Brocklesby, a Yorkshire preacher, and philosopher Bertrand Russell. Brocklesby refused to fight and, when he and other COs were shipped off to France anyway, resisted doing any work that supported the war effort, even peeling the potatoes that would be fed to soldiers. He and his fellow COs were beaten, placed in solitary confinement, and threatened with execution. Meanwhile, Russell and others in the No-Conscription Fellowship fought for their rights back in London. There’s a wonderful scene in the play where Russell, clad in nothing but a towel after a skinny dip, pleads with Prime Minister Asquith.
As in solo shows I’ve seen before (e.g. A Christmas Carol with Patrick Stewart), Mears had to find subtle ways to distinguish between characters: he used a myriad different voices, including regional accents; he quickly donned a jacket, hat, or pair of glasses. Russell was identified by his ever-present pipe. The most challenging scene, Mears said in the Q&A at the end, was one with four characters in a French street café.
Mears reveals during the play that his grandfather fought in WWI and his father in WWII, but he has never had to put his own pacifist views to the test. What about Hitler? people always ask. Mears is honest and humble enough to admit that he doesn’t know what he would have done had he been called on to fight Hitler, or had he faced persecution as a CO in WWI. Ultimately, what Mears hopes audiences take from his play, which won acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is that “this is not an irrelevant piece of history.” Standing up for what you believe in, especially if it goes against the spirit of the times, is always valuable.
I thought last year’s reading total could never be beat, but somehow I’ve done it. In the meantime I also exceeded my Goodreads goal by a whole 20%. I don’t like to crow, so I’ve worked out the statistics below in terms of percentages rather than absolute numbers. (But, if you’re curious, you can see my final tally here.)
Average rating: 3.6 out of 5 stars
Longest book: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Shortest book: Physical by Andrew McMillan (in general, reading poetry is one way I boost my reading totals; although the books require time and attention, most only have between 50 and 100 pages)
Average length: 258 pages
Male author: 40.4%
Female author: 59.6%
(Really interesting as I never consciously set out to read more books by women.)
Print books: 66.3%
(I’m surprised this isn’t closer to half and half!)
Works in translation: 8.3%
(Must do better!)
2016: What a year, huh? World events left so many of us reeling, but books kept me going.
How did 2016 turn out for you reading-wise?
Wishing all of my readers a very happy new year. I look forward to another year of reading and blogging.