The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016 is awarded this week. Here’s my take on the shortlist.
Ruby by Cynthia Bond
Synopsis: In small-town Liberty, Ephram Jennings still holds a candle for Ruby Bell, who has returned to home to the demons she has been trying to rid herself of for years.
Review: Ruby is very readable and its unique style makes it very different to anything else I’ve read this year, with its merging of historical fiction and magical realism. I love the way it examines religion and faith, small-town politics, and family. This is a devastating read – just when I thought it couldn’t get any more heartbreaking Bond would throw in a starkly horrifying chapter that brought tears to my eyes. But because these sections with tempered with gorgeously rendered, very relatable relationships and situations, it all really works. This is my winner.
The Green Road by Anne Enright
Synopsis: Four siblings return to their family home when their domineering mother announces she wants to sell up.
Review: Wow. This is my first Enright and I am stunned (although I probably shouldn’t be) by just how wonderful a writer she is. This book is essentially five character studies, of Rosaleen Madigan and her four children, Hanna, Dan, Constance and Emmett. The Green Road is all very down to earth – there are no big explosions or tragic events, but there are fireworks aplenty in all the little things that make up a life. The way Enright tells the story of the Madigan family will have you nodding in familiarity and also marvelling at just how fascinating ordinary lives can be.
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
Synopsis: A murder in post-financial crash Ireland brings together five very different people, and affects their lives for years to come.
Review: This is so cleverly done, with McInerney weaving together the lives of teenager Ryan, his dad Tony, prostitute Georgie, accidental murderer Maureen and her son and local gangster Jimmy. This is another book on the shortlist that examines religion and faith, although that faith and religion is very different to that in Ruby. McInerney effortlessly takes us through modern day Ireland, with little observations about the way Cork and its people have been affected by the economic crash. For me Ryan was the heart and soul of the story, and arguably the person who both changed the most and in some ways stayed exactly the same.
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
Synopsis: A newly-engaged young couple navigate life in the run-up to their wedding.
Review: Spoiler alert – a Veblen is not a thing, it’s the name of the protagonist in this absolutely delightful novel. From its opening page it’s clear that this is going to be a joyful read, even as it addresses serious topics from medical testing to corporate greed and, of course, what it means to love someone and how relationships work. A fun read with an unusual voice that keeps you hooked.
The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild
Synopsis: Annie McDee buys a painting from a junk shop – a painting with an illustrious history and that has the art world, from dealers and auctioneers to party planners and Russian oligarchs, in a storm.
Review: A love story, a study of class and an art mystery, The Improbability of Love (named after the painting at the centre of the book) is many different things, and some of those things work better than others. I think this is meant to be a satire, although I personally didn’t think it quite got there – it didn’t have the depth needed. Annie, for a start, is too lightly drawn and comes across not as a realistic struggling chef, but rather as what the novel’s rich folk think a struggling, poor person should be like. There are parts I loved – no spoilers but the reveal of the painting’s most recent history is compelling and I wish more space had been given over to that whole plot line. Overall, an entertaining read but for me, the weakest on the shortlist.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Synopsis: In New York successful lawyer Jude is haunted by his past, and friends Willem, JB and Malcolm try to help him come to terms with what happened to him.
Review: A hugely accomplished piece of writing, A Little Life is a stunning achievement. Yanagihara is brilliantly observant and there are times her prose is just absolutely beautiful. There is no emotional let up during A Little Life, and it’s an all consuming read. Ultimately, for me it was just too much – there were plot points that felt farcical and the book’s relentless misery regularly felt manipulative.