The Booker Prize, 2022

When the winner of the Booker Prize was announced last week (it proved to be The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, about which more shortly), I found myself in an unusual position of equanimity. In most years, I have a fairly strong view as to who should win – it’s even sometimes shared by the judges. But this year, the shortlist was of such unusual quality that I really couldn’t – didn’t want to – call it. When I attended, for the first time in a few years now, the Booker shortlist event at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on the Saturday before the ceremony, I was left feeling similarly: this really was a group of books, and a group of authors, which stood shoulder-to-shoulder.

So I decided to leave writing about the 2022 Booker Prize until after the winner emerged. Much of the joy in posh bingo, of course, is in guessing – or second-guessing – the winner. I’ve robbed myself of that this time, although I confess to a feeling of freedom from having done so: instead, I simply enjoyed each of these books. On the night, more or less any one of these titles might have been intoned by Neil MacGregor to a similar sense of satisfaction as the one I experienced when Karunatilaka took the microphone to speak for so long that the Radio 4 pips were forced to wait. It’s not often I feel this way; I aimed to savour it.

One of the questions I’ve asked myself since then, however, is why Karunatilaka was the name selected by the judges. Because in some ways, other than its consistency – perhaps as a function of its consistency – these books share rather little in common. MacGregor suggested, somewhat perfunctorily, that the six books “were all really about one question, and that is ‘what’s the importance of an individual life?’” I’m not sure what novel isn’t, ultimately, about that – the art-form’s fundamental aim, or at least trick, being to create the illusion of another’s consciousness on the page. For every book that takes a more political approach to self-hood – Percival Everett’s The Trees and NoViolet Bulawayo’s Glory chief amongst them – there are others – Alan Garner’s strange Treacle Walker and Elizabeth Strout’s charming Oh William! – that are, if asking this question in any explicit way at all, doing so very much sotto voce.

Instead, it feels to me as if the judges have simply sought books that achieve their own aims well – and perhaps smartly. Each of these books might be said to do something familiar, but in so creative a way as to spin the yarn anew. This often involved generic play. Arguably, however, it is only Karunatilaka that twines several yarns together – that is, his book does something new or notably characterful with a number of threads, and it may be this plate-spinning creative facility which let his book take a half-step further that the other five. It does the same thing as the other five books with the same level of success – but moreso.

Let me show my working.

I began my reading of this year’s shortlist with Treacle Walker, and this was entirely by accident: Waterstone’s much-publicised issues with inventory meant this slim novel was the only book available in the branch I visited in the days following the shortlist’s unveiling. It was a strange coincidence, however, since Garner’s novel was the last book to be written about my late colleague and friend, Maureen Kincaid Speller, who died around the time I was reading the shortlist and would I think have been tickled by Garner’s shortlisting at the venerable age of 87. I’m happy to report that her wonderful essay on the book is listed second only to the Prize’s own pages about the novel when one searches for ‘the meaning of Treacle Walker‘, and this is fitting: in this last long-form written piece of hers, Maureen came closer than any critic I have read so far to understanding this difficult novel in the round. Having edited the piece, I knew it well – and, as I read the book, I realised I had little more to say: “Treacle Walker is not a bad novel,” Maureen ultimately concluded, “but neither is it a work of towering genius.”

It is wonderfu to see Garner deservedly honoured by the Booker. Maureen’s ambivalence, though, captures something of the novel’s avowed inertness: it is remarkable for what it tries to do, and is impressive more in the terms of its formal play than the ends to which that is put. At Cheltenham, Garner was at pains to reject the idea he writes fantasy; “I write metaphor,” he insisted down the Zoom line from Cheshire, with such strength that he may as well have been in the room. We might be justified, then, to ask what the metaphor here is; and yet later in the same event Garner declared with equal confidence that, once the book leaves the writer’s hand, it is for the reader alone to interpret it. This might make for shaky metaphors, which tend to require concrete and agreed referents if they are to make sense. Perhaps in the place of such certainty, then, Treacle Walker scatters not metaphors but motifs: the word “daft” recurs continually, as if to draw attention to the ways in which we dismiss the ineffable of the everyday; Treacle Walker’s own rounds as a rag and bone man seem circular and repetitive (“Any rags! Pots for rags! Donkey stone!”); the plot is anchored to the cycles of the natural world, personified by the bog-person whom the protagonist, Joseph Coppock, must pinion again in place at the novel’s climax.

These recursive patterns gesture at the concept of eternity, and Treacle Walker, in its simultaneous timelessness and fixedness, seems to ask where we all sit in deep time, what that scale of existence might mean and how it might affect us. It achieves this by what is a quite captivating harnessing of the fable form, and a repurposing of language that makes a quite demotic voice feel mysterious and difficult:

“You do not have the Words.”

“What words?”

“The Wiords that give you leave.”

“What ‘leave’?”

“To command,” said Treacle Walker.

“What are they?”

“Who knows?”

(Treacle Walker, p. 105)

If this suggests the novel can be frustrating, then so it can be. Much plainer in its approach – yet rather similar in its atmosphere – is Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, itself a bold title for a novella which is almost a short story. Set in the 1980s in rural Ireland, the novella nonetheless feels as curiously out-of-time as Coppock’s stone house in Treacle Walker: with its nuns and villages, rural poverty and dark winter nights, the story is as much one of the eighteenth century as the twentieth. This, perhaps, is part of Keegan’s point: hers is a story about the Magdalen laundries, the last of which was closed in 1996 and yet the morality of which feels as medieval as a bog-person. Keegan’s protagonist, Bill Furlong, is an average man in an average village, scraping together enough money this Christmas for a small gift for both of his two daughters, and enjoying a companionable marriage with his wife, Eileen. “The years don’t slow down as they pass,” they tell each other as they spend their evenings negotiating the hardships of life out of the earshot of their children.

Whispers and secrets are the manner in which life is done in the small town of New Ross, where Bill was brought up by a wealthy Protestant woman – an outcast in the community as a result of he religion, but therefore also free of the strictures of its self-policed morality – after his biological mother became pregnant with him as an unmarried teenager. The omerta on the reality of all this is complete, and Bill proceeds through life with a great absence at the centre of his self-knowledge: “Surely some local knew who his father was – everyone had a father – and it didn’t seem likely that someone hadn’t ever said a word about it” (p. 21). On the edge of town, meanwhile, is a nunnery into the centre of which few, too, are admitted; when Bill finds himself there to delivery a last-minute Christmas delivery of lumber to fuel the nuns’ winter, he for reasons obscure to himself forces past the invisible barriers and unspoken codes of conduct to find a girl locked in a coal-shed. Something, he realises, is wrong.

If Treacle Walker holds back its meaning, then, Small Things Like These pushes its characters past the point of discovery – and asks moral questions of their new knowledge. The novella ends hopefully – although frankly also in a way that feels as if this is in truth the prologue to a novel, not the thing itself – and Furlong emerges as something of a hero. In doing something about and with his knowledge – “was there any point in being alive without helping one another?” (p. 108) – he places, too, a demand upon the reader. The novella reads like a sentimental Christmas story of the sort Dickens might have recognised; but in placing women at its centre, and asking questions not of its fictional characters but those who read them, it eschews the settled moralities of the happy ending to probe deeper into the whys and hows of unspoken injustice.

This is the project, too, of Percival Everett’s The Trees – but here it is writ large and gaudily, in a grand guignol horror-comedy in which the ghost of Emmett Till, apparently for real but in actuality in figurative spirit, returns to avenge not just his lynching but all racist murder. In the town of Money, Mississippi, the descendants of Till’s murderers are being themselves murdered – and at the scene lies the body of a beaten Black man that resembles Till himself … and springs unexplainably free from the morgue each time it is collected by the police. When first the Mississippi and then the Federal Bureau of Investigation become involved in the spiralling sequence of cases, The Trees expands what is often a laugh-out-loud satire of white supremacy outwards to an entire society that is – it seems – about to be submerged by a refusal any longer to let injustice go unspoken or unpunished, to avenge crimes in which “no suspects were identified … [no one] was arrested … [and no one] cared” (p. 177).

What lifts the novel is its wonderful characterisation. A satire can so easily fall back on types, but here Everett’s sympathy extends to characters sketched with such deep economy that they become almost instantly known to us – and make the often absurd cycle of events in the novel feel weighted with real significance. Critically, too, despite the comical names – Mr Pick L. Dill, three friends name Ho, Chi and Minh – Everett makes clear by contrast that the reality of racism is as quotidian as the Furlongs’ trusty old Rayburn: when Ed, one of the two Black MBI detectives assigned to Money, is “charged with learning as much about the four White victims [of the revenge killings] as possible”, he realises that “the three men and one woman were so unremarkable that there was little to uncover” (p. 184). In one scene, a character sings “Strange Fruit”, that song of lynching that begins in the “southern trees”; this, too, is a story about the trees from which Black men hang in America – and they are plentiful and everywhere. Ed believes the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot should not be a museum – because “It’s just a motel. That’s what it is. That’s all it is” (p. 276). There’s nothing remarkable about it; it’s just another tree.

In its fierce moral clarity and absolute commitment to its own form of generic play, The Trees was for me one of the best reading experiences on the shortlist: it’s a page-turner with philosophical complexity, a rare mix which demonstrates considerable technical skill that is worn extremely lightly. The same could be said of Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William!, a novel which begs to be read in a single sitting and which one gets to know as one might a friend. Its narrator, Lucy Barton, has featured in several of Strout’s previous novels, and her voice is captured here with beautiful and convincing attention to detail; but she’s not quite the novel’s focus. Instead, her first husband – the William of the title – comes into focus as a selfishly charming lost old man. When his third wife leaves him and takes their daughter, Lucy – despite having just lost her second husband, and while she subsumes her grief for him into caring for others – is called upon to usher William through a road-trip he has decided to take in order to understand, Furlong-like, his childhood: he has, he has discovered, a sister he never knew.

Lucy’s apparent lack of self-esteem – she places others before herself, is always surprised when people praise the writing she makes an excellent living from, rarely eats, and feels routinely subordinate and inferior to others – is captured in this novel with a rare, transparent obliviousness. Barton – of course! – cannot see herself as others clearly do. At one point, William – a flawed man who is a serial philanderer, and yet is never quite the villain of the piece – is permitted to tell Lucy some home-truths about her own methods of drawing attention to herself – “you are always hungry because you never eat anything – and so everything becomes about getting Lucy something to eat” (p. 146) – he demonstrates an insight into others that Lucy lacks. He also begins his journey of self-discovery – “You’re no more self-absorbed than any of us,” he tells her, tacitly admitting his own narcissism (p. 153) – which culminates in, ultimately, his feeling that he does not, in fact, need to meet his long-lost sister. “We are all mythologies,” Lucy realises. “We are all mysteries, is what I mean” (p. 237).

In some ways, all this makes Oh William! the most Bookerish book on this list: middle-class people on voyages of self-discovery, a writer on a road trip, neurosis attached to human experience. We’ve read this book before. But Strout lashes it to a buddy movie, and injects a glug of Frasier-like farce for good measure. Oh William! is such fun not because of the lessons it teaches its characters – but because of all the ways in which we are shown just how much they need to learn them. On another level entirely, this is exactly what happens in NoViolent Bulawayo’s Glory – itself a Booker-ish book, given that its author was also shortlisted for their previous novel. But here the resemblances end: Glory is a big novel, an allegory – not a metaphor – for Zimbabwe in its post-Mugabe years. It adopts the conceit of Orwell’s Animal Farm – all of its characters are non-human, from the crocodile who stands in Emmerson Mnangagwa to the goat who appears a third of the way through and proves the novel’s heroine – and adds an episodic approach, proceeding in chapters split into tiny, page-long sections. This enables it to cover a lot of ground quickly, and break off from its state-of-the-nation omniscience to focus where necessary on individuals and vignettes. In so doing, it shows us how broken across how many axes the political system of its nation of Jidada is, to ensure we understand how crucial it is to repair it.

This makes it an extremely noisy novel: one can hear the elephants trumpet, the zebras stampede. Bulawayo squeezes George Floyd into this story of Zimbabwe; she brings in apartheid South Africa and twenty-first-century social media; we proceed through quite Byzantine inner-circle politics and take part in the politics of the crowd. All this can be overwhelming, but perhaps in the ways it was meant to be: chaos is the primary effect of much of what happens in Glory, a novel which excoriates the destructive will-to-power of men – for it is mostly men, and their misogyny is am important element of the novel – who presume to rule. Despite this breadth, however, the novel is often at its best when it takes time to skewer with pin-point accuracy one or other particularity. Here is the Old Horse – the novel’s Mugabe figure – on his vision of leadership:

I’m not going anywhere! Because me, I was Jidada’s leader almost forty years ago, and I was Jidada’s leader thirty years ago, and twenty years ago, and ten years ago! Because I was Jidada’s leader yesterday, and I am Jidada’s leader today, and I will be Jidada’s leader when?” the Father of the Nation invited, ears now cocked at the square.

“Tomorrow and Forever!!!” Jidada Square thundered in celebration of the Old Horse’s endless rule.

(Glory, p. 16)

The strongman’s egotism – and the effect of it on their public – has rarely been so vividly summarised. “Our future was plundered and pillaged by the deposed tyrant while we were in our mothers’ bellies,” a classroom of children sneer at one point, and in this line the novel’s recurrently rapier-like moral seriousness is sharpened to an effective point. The novel ends – like Keegan’s – on a note of plangent hope. If the novel can sometimes strain to raise its voice above its own tumult, that may be one of the intended effects of its remarkable fusing of anthropomorphic fable with an immersed account of populist despotism – again, here is a book which picks an unusual lane and practically speeds down it.

Which brings us to the novel that races simultaneously down several streets somehow all at once, Shehan Karunatilaka’s winning The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. As in Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, shortlisted for the Booker in 2019, this novel begins with its protagonist already dead. What follows is a ghost-story-cum-spy-thriller-cum-noir-mystery-cum-horror-novel. It takes in Sri Lanka’s destructively complex politics of the 1980s, neocolonialism and neoliberalism, queer culture and homophobia. At its heart is the eponymous Maali Almeida character, who is given the titular seven moons to track down his murderer and come to terms with all he has left behind. Almeida was a photographer, taking shots of events many would rather not have recorded, and the secret of his death seems to lie in the box of prints that sit beneath his bed; but in reality it also and at least equally lies in the knotty interpersonal dynamics of his messy – because persecuted – private life. He and every other character negotiate the painful and impossible realities of 1980s Sri Lanka, negotiating between the Tamil Tigers and the Marxist revolutionaries, the Indian peacekeepers and the American spooks, the gangsters and the politicians and the charities and NGOs. It’s as if Dashiell Hammett met Gabriel García Márquez and decided to write with the fury of Arundhati Roy.

The novel is written in the second-person, in what I think may be its least successful – but alas most persistent – feature. The intention, of course, is to involve the reader more directly in events which may be unfamiliar and indeed unintelligible to them (in one of the novel’s many efforts to build bridges between cultures as well as genres, early on we read a note left by Maali for an American visitor to Sri Lanka, which describes – and perhaps, though I lack the insight to confirm this, flattens into false balance – the country’s various factions). But, as so often, the second person instead because a sort of barrier between the reader and the narrator, its accusatory call flattening into a “who, me?” response. At one point, we are told, “The house in Bambalapitiya was owned by your father’s mother, left to your father’s sister, and given to your father’s first wife after the divorce. You, the first wife’s son, few up here”; but of course this is all about Maali, and we know that. The elision never quite occurs, leaving the “yous” a little marooned.

Despite this, however, the novel excels: it builds worlds like Treacle Walker, allegorises politics like Glory, demands moral action like Keegan and enacts self-discovery like Strout; most importantly, it extrudes injustice from a society’s tumult like Everett. And it does all of this in several modes at once, in the style of Graham Greene at one minute and by channeling Marlon James in the next. We swerve from violence to tenderness in a couple of pages, from torture chambers to music venues … and yet always we return to characters we care about, and in whose personal lives ultimately lie the answers to this (literally and figuratively) multi-dimensional story.

I’ll be honest: had I written this piece before the announcement, and without really knowing or especially caring which of these six fine novels won, I might have suggested The Trees would tip it. I think it is probably more consistently – and finely – written, and it feels especially well-honed, perhaps well edited. But, as soon as Karunatilaka’s name was called out by MacGregor, I understood – and agreed with – the judges’ contrary reasonings. Were The Seven Moons of Maali Almedia a genre novel – and it nearly is – the critic would write of its “world-building”, the remarkable manner in which it creates its every milieu and reflects the rules not just for the profusion of forces that it depicts as tearing at the seams of its Sri Lanka, but the ones which govern its ghost-world, too: the novel has at least two worlds, and inhabits both equally; several modes, and does each justice; and many tones – each of which holds its own. It is the 2022 shortlist in microcosm – not to be read apart from or above the other five books, but perhaps in summary of them. That’s a worthy winner – and a good year for fiction.

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On The Ends of Boris Johnson

Cold War Steve, 2022.

Edward Docx has probably written the definitive statement on the departure of Boris Johnson from Number 10 – certainly the one of highest literary quality. There is little more to say. Nevertheless, I find myself reflecting on the last few words I wrote of my own about Johnson, back in June of 2019: “Boris Johnson isn’t funny; he has become Britain’s Ragnarök personified. We’re all revolutionaries now.” What did I mean by that, and has Johnson’s perhaps surprisingly short time in office held true to my initial understanding of it?

In some ways, Johnson’s premiership was blown almost entirely off course. Within months – really, weeks – of his commanding victory over Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn in the early general election he called in December 2019, SARS-CoV-2 upended everything. Lockdowns, social distancing, vaccines, the whole sad shebang of those dread days: there are those who argue Johnson’s government did too little as the virus spread, and those who argue it did too much; but undeniably whatever it did was not planned. There was no strategy at Number 10 for the coronavirus pandemic, no grand policy or comprehensive framework. (Of course, there should have been – officials during David Cameron’s first government had modelled a coronavirus pandemic, but succeeding Tory administrations had done nothing to learn the lessons or prepare for the real thing.) “Events, dear boy, events” a offer a convenient excuse for every failed prime minister; in Johnson’s case the weasel words are writ especially large – he wasn’t given a chance, his supporters say, he had to deal with so much.

The flip side of this, however, is that the absence of a plan – the gaping hole at the heart of the Johnson administration where a governing intelligence should have been – was among the most predictable things about its approach to office. Whatever else might have happened to a government led by Boris Johnson – in the alternative universe where a bat did not bite a pangolin – is ultimately immaterial. The inability to engage with policy detail, the refusal to describe reality rather than fantasy, the reliance on phrase-making over governance: all these existed in Johnson before coronavirus, and they would have found their expression, too, in every other imaginable circumstance. The sense of muddling-through that his government increasingly gave off – the improvised policy announcements, the dramatic u-turns, the repeated scandals – was not a bug of the pandemic years but a feature of Johnson’s very being, if not of his raison d’être then certainly of his joie de vivre. The Conservative Party turned to him because he seemed, in the dog days of 2019’s Brexit-fractured spring, to offer a means of cutting a Gordian knot, an anti-political solution to politics’ own dysfunction – unconventional, of course, and high-risk, but an exit nevertheless.

What this lazy conclusion failed to consider was that anti-politics is itself the dysfunction. The impasse of the indicative votes and all the rest had been reached because of the unconventional risk-raking of one B. Johnson: his devil-may-care approach to public discourse had led directly to the impossible expectations of first the referendum campaign and then the negotiations with the EU which followed the vote to leave. Johnson muddled through the EU debate, waving fish in market squares and parroting nonsense about Turkey and migration, in the way he has done since the 1990s – when as the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondence he confected and withdrew stories on a daily basis, heedless of longer-term consequences in search of shorter-term hits. This approach had led the Conservative Party down the very dead-end from which Johnson seemed the only escape. Famously, one definition of madness is doing the same thing again and again and each time expecting a different response.

This tragi-comedy of errors led the country, then, to the position in which it found itself in February of 2020: adrift, rudderless, with a head of state happily boasting about shaking hands with the clinically vulnerable. The Micawberish sense of exceptionalism – that something will come up because it must for a man like Johnson – led to the dismissal of television pictures of overwhelmed Italian hospitals, of the lockdowns being put in place in East Asia, of the expressions on the faces of the government’s own scientific advisors. Even were we to adopt a Spectatorish scepticism of COVID policy, these delays led inevitably to the need for more pronounced responses. Both sides should agree that opportunities were missed by a government that had never intended to be especially organised or effective.

And this was the nature of Britain’s Ragnarök, the one I declared in June 2019. I didn’t argue that Johnson himself was the armageddon in toto; rather, I suggested he was its personification. The great tumult in which the British found – find – themselves was the consequence of their collective assumption of a fundamental unseriousness. One might track this as far back as the sofa government of a complacent New Labour, or perhaps more immediately to the heralding of Cameron and George Osborne’s nonsense argument for austerity – that a nation-state is like a household, and must prioritise paying down its debt. This was always simplism, an at-the-time unusually glib political argument; and yet it was reported, and accepted, as fact. To come closer to the present age, one might situate the British people’s resignation from responsibility in the 2014 European Parliament elections, when Nigel Farage’s UKIP won more seats than any of the major parties. Perhaps it was in our reaction to that consequence of low turn-out: first Cameron’s promise of, then the electorate’s apparent enthusiasm for, a referendum on EU membership at a time when wages were stagnating, the banking crisis was barely over, and threats foreign and domestic were proliferating. Some will point to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, other’s Jo Swinson’s bizarre tenure at the helm of the Liberal Democrats; Change UK, Douglas Carswell, GB News – all have offered their own absurdities. We might say that the moment the scale tipped into full farce was the referendum campaign itself, or the nonsense that followed it, or the result of the 2017 General election which did for the authority of Cameron’s successor, the unpleasant yet nonetheless disproportionately maligned Theresa May. Perhaps the coup de grace was the ascension of Johnson himself, his illegal prorogation of parliament, his eighty-seat majority, Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle … any of these moments might be said to be the prime example of a nation which no longer cared. The truth is that an unseriousness in politics built up over time, by degrees and unnoticed; but it ultimately had severe consequences.

Johnson’s rapid fall from grace – from eighty-seat colossus in January 2020 to yesterday’s man by June 2022 – is in this sense not a surprise but an inevitability. Unseriousness can only persist for so long; ultimately it will have to face facts. The pandemic was an all-pervading phenomenon that affected everyone. It touched the lives of every voter and non-voter in the UK – in the world. Quite aside from its macroeconomic impacts, in particular the pandemic’s early mismanagement in the UK cost the lives of elderly loved ones in unprotected nursing homes; later, the government’s dithering cost people their Christmases at short notice; and, finally, the insouciance of its most senior figures offended the natural sense of justice shared by almost everyone. The bread and circuses of an unserious politics was insufficient to the task of muddling through such a crisis – no chimeric “oven-ready deal” or three-word slogan or smirking apology was sufficient, because this stuff suddenly mattered. As Michael Lewis has noted in The Fifth Risk, electorates in the modern West ordinarily underestimate the benefits of good government, ignore or never learn about the positive impacts on our lives made by state institutions. “The United States government,” for example, “managed a portfolio of risks that no private person, or corporation, was able to manage” (The Fifth Risk, p. 23). It is easy to take for granted that things will be OK until they are not. It is easy to be breezy when the wind is still.

Britain’s Ragnarök, then, was a titanic clash not between twilit gods but between fantasy and reality, between the rhetoric of politics and the truth of the challenges faced by a twenty-first century polity. The winter crisis in which the UK now finds itself means that the greatest cheerleader of “Boris and Brexit,” the Daily Telegraph, must paint increasingly rococo pictures of our apocalyptic fates should we not roll back a left-wing consensus that last won an election in 2005; David Frost, the man who negotiated Johnon’s much-vaunted deal, and thus left Northern Ireland adrift from the rest of the UK, must write columns in the nation’s second-most bewildered organ, the Daily Mail, and deliver lectures about how the deal which won his former master’s majority is rubbish; and, of course, the great herald of unseriousness, Boris The Clown, must be ushered off stage, protesting all the while that he’d have gotten away with it, too, had it not been for those pesky kids. Unseriousness is suddenly – and evidently – ineffective.

Johnson’s most committed supporters will remain loyal – acolytes always do. They have ensured that his successor, Liz Truss, is locked into defending him and his record while pushing in a Hayekian direction with which the statist Johnson’s disappointed hard-right backers will be more comfortable. Like his trite old hero Churchill, Johnson will seek to write his own history, repeating that trifecta of triumphs – the vaccine that every Western nation in the world has now delivered to its populations, the support for Ukraine that it is hard to imagine any post-war British Prime Minister would not have offered in exactly the same way, the breaking of the Brexit impasse which has, as even Frost admits, has led only to another – until they seem, through dumb repetition, like verities. But despite these efforts, he will be remembered as less like Churchill and as at best more like Eden, a man superficially judged to be made for office who in practice rapidly squandered his popularity and at key moments acted in bad faith. Ultimately, the wiser heads in his party know this, could see it in the polls – and it is why they evicted him from office. They are, though, yet to wrest back control of their party from the ERG clique that has now been unseriously calling the shots for the best part of a decade – and thus we are to be subjected to an ideological experiment in which taxes will be cut, regulation cut back, and energy policy once more upended, all at a time of acute discomfort for millions.

It is a sign of how perilous the next phase of Britain’s Ragnarök will be that even the billionaire Thatcherite Rishi Sunak – a studiedly bland politician remarkable mostly for his emptiness – seems the centrist in the face of this fresh Tory prescription. For twelve years now, the party of Peel has treated the country primarily as an expression of – and a canvas for – its own neuroses. Unseriousness proved for some time a good distraction from its own intellectual bankruptcy. Johnson may be the personification of that approach – but the Conservative leadership contest which followed his fall – replete with wish fulfilment but in dire need of solutions – represented its apogee. COVID was the moment the spell of this nonsense broke; but this winter’s cost of living crisis will likely be the trial by fire that tempers whatever alternative to it we may yet be able to adopt. Truss may prove up to this task, and in her abandonment of the Cameron-Osborne orthodoxy, or her unafraid explanation of a non-redistributive tax policy to Laura Kuenssberg yesterday, she is certainly attempting to ring the changes; but on the same show the comedian Joe Lycett made much hay with the idea that her vague assurances should in the present context be taken at all seriously – and others closer to the new PM agree. As the British summer limps away, someone might remind Truss that a key event in Ragnarök is the “great winter”, which in the legend puts an end to all life. Such, perhaps, are the wages of clowning.

Albums of 2021

In a year when there was a lot to keep track of – and in which I began working on another album of my own – music was most often a source of comfort as much as new experiences. This meant a lot of play for old favourites – Fleet Foxes, Fiona Apple, Iron & Wine – and getting more closely acquainted with hold-overs from 2020 – Charley Crockett, Kris Drever, beabadoobee.

This did something of a disservice to poor old 2021, however, since musically it was a pretty progressive year, even if much else about it felt weirdly cyclical. St Vincent released Daddy’s Home, her best album since her last one (everything Annie puts out belongs on that year’s top-five, but let’s accept this and pretend she waived her nomination); Villagers returned with a really interesting record which made demands on the listener while also being an obvious extension of Conor O’Brien’s well-established mien; and Teleman released an EP so full of life it may as well have been an album (but wasn’t). More locally, new releases from Sam Draisey, Howard Sinclair and John Napier were welcome filips of grassroots creativity.

But my traditional quintet of “best” albums this year reflect a combination of my gratitude for new music and my need for comfort. All of these records fulfil the usual criteria I set for these lists – that they do something different, whether for genre or artist or something else. But they’re all also pretty convivial, all told – they focus on songwriting and for the most part approach that practice fairly straightforwardly. This wasn’t conscious on my part, but that’s how the five records below looked to me once assembled. Your mileage may vary – you should listen to all of them and make your own mind up, of course.

The Staves – Good Woman

Now this is a smart record. It is both instantly welcoming and subtly sly in its innovation, quietly twisty in a way that doesn’t announce itself. The Staves might have previously answered to the description twee, even smug – the accusation would have been unfair, but their debut album in particular and even their work with Justin Vernon mixed pastoral and indie in a way that listeners in bad faith might easily have lampooned. Good Woman, though, is a properly mature work which incorporates its influences, and the sisters’ skills, in ways both seamless and productive. This is a record to put on and live with, a warm fire on an autumn’s evening.

Sierra Ferrell – Long Time Coming

If Good Woman is quiet but clever, Long Time Coming is loud but charming. Its honky-tonk instrumentation is never less than tasteful, but the country twang here isn’t exactly sanded off – if anything, the edges are given ample room to catch you. Some of Ferrell’s long-term fans have disliked this album for filling in the spaces of these songs, which Ferrell usually performs solo or with one or two other musicians. But I think the approach really works to emphasise both the attitude of Ferrell’s songwriting and the clarity and quality of her voice. These are country standards in waiting, and yet they are also sufficiently contemporary in their approach that they do not read as pastiche or museum-piece. Difficult balancing act, that; quality record, this.

Nubiyan Twist – Freedom Fables

If there’s a wild card on this list, Freedom Fables is it: Afro-Jazz heavy on improvisation, it doesn’t quite hit the songwriting bill that most of these other records slot into easily. But musically this LP really struck me: not only is it properly joyous, it also avoids the pitfalls of its concept with a fixed focus on musical structure, an unceasing commitment to keeping the core of a song clear throughout (compare this with an act like Sons of Kemet, who take their songs far more brutally through a wringer of abstract deconstruction). Given the range of influences here – from dub to Ghanain pop – this sense of focus is a really impressive achievement, especially when aligned to the album’s trademark sense of fun.

Orla Gartland – Woman On The Internet

This album might include my favourite examples of pure songwriting all year: both “You’re Not Special, Babe” and “Codependency” are as arch and knowing as the album’s title (Gartland was discovered via her YouTube covers videos) – but they also share its sense of fun, and its absence of self-importance. Given these are also vital songs with a sense of urgency, this speaks to Gartland’s rare skill in turning a phrase both witty and musical. And the melodies and arrangements here are a real thing: very often on records this smart, a production choice is made to focus on the words, and if the singer is always the centre here she is never the only focus – or rather, her focus is on songs understood holistically, as little hybrids of lyric and tune. This album more than any other on the list made me excited about songwriting again. Don’t take this sort of gift for granted.

Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure

She’s not “Rebecca from Slow Club” anymore. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a particular fan of that duo’s 2011 LP Paradise, but Self Esteem – and this record in particular – is another thing entirely, and yet despite its impressive experimentation and provocation it has caught the zeitgeist and appeared on any number of 2021 “best of” lists. From the title track to “I’m Fine”, “I Do This All The Time” to “How Can I Help You”, this is songwriting without fear (or indeed favour), with bags of humour but also entirely earned seriousness of purpose. It isn’t afraid of making the listener uncomfortable, yet also wants them to dance; it faces down any number of cultural and musical shibboleths and yet somehow crafts instantly accessible tunes. It’s blummin’ alchemy, this record, and it is something else. 2021 was a year indeed.

“Signs of Intense Emotion”

In a quick exchange of tweets the other day, I reflected with some fellow amateur Sherlockians on the close of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”, that Holmesian adventure I read every Christmas Eve.

It struck us that the story ends in a far more perfunctory manner than do many of its adaptations, most obviously the Granada version with the peerless Jeremy Brett. In that iteration of the story, Holmes is persuaded – after some brief cajoling by Watson – to go out of his way to ensure the release of John Horner, the man wrongly accused of the crime that the great detective has just solved. The scene is touching in its seasonality: as the snow floats downwards, an innocent man emerges from a forbidding Victorian jail to embrace his wife and young children. In this telling, Holmes’s yuletide triumph is to save this family from disgrace and penury. Merry Christmas to all!

In the original story, however, this isn’t quite what happens. In fact, Holmes is fairly perfunctory about the fate of the wrongly accused, relying on the true thief’s promise not to testify: “If Horner were in danger it would be another thing, but this fellow will not appear against him, and the case must collapse.” Anyway, moving on: it’s wildfowl for supper. Holmes’s Christmas gift here is really to himself – the satisfaction of a case well solved – and to the perpetrator of the crime, who is allowed to leave 221B a free man, on the proviso that he flees the country. Horner is left rather on the hook, in what modern readers can find an unsatisfactory resolution – particularly at Christmas.

In a recent episode of the excellent However Improbable podcast, Marisa and Sarah also pause over this moment, and have some fun expanding on Holmes’s curious politics: he is simultaneously anti-establishment, berating the deficiencies of the police, but also fundamentally conservative, never acting in anything like an activist or revolutionary capacity. The crime is solved, and the miscarriage of justice is a sort of second-order event. In this, Holmes is a common type of the English gentry – the genteel bohemian, at odds with society but also comfortably above it.

It occurred to me that in this the story is at odds with another Victorian Christmas staple, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. This story is famously engaged with social issues, taking its own protagonist on a journey from active malevolence (as opposed to Holmes’ detached ambivalence) towards enlightened fellow-feeling with those less fortunate. Next to Ebeneezer Scrooge, Sherlock Holmes is in danger of seeming stubbornly complacent, a full forty years on from the Ghost of Christmas Future’s dire warnings.

The animating ethics of A Christmas Carol are of course Christian. Conan Doyle, however, was, while writing “Blue Carbuncle”, a lapsed Catholic, an agnostic in search of a new faith. He had explored Mormonism (and fed much of what he’d learned into A Study in Scarlet), but abandoned it primarily because of his views on polygamy – and, importantly, also because he professed to have originally abandoned Catholicism to escape a priestly elite that in Mormonism he found in altered form retained. He was en route, of course, to his embrace of Spiritualism, but had yet to reach full conversion. In “Blue Carbuncle”, we find Holmes figured not as an intercessor between Horner and justice, powered by an almost evangelical zeal to do good; but as a man full of doubt in the judicial system – and yet unable to offer a wholly imagined alternative. This is an unresolved tension, but then perhaps this is a characteristic of the agnostic.

On one topic, however, let there be little doubt: this blog wishes everyone the very best of the holiday season. May we all feel the joy of a John Horner redeemed.

“An Impossibly Complex System”: Maggie Shipstead’s “Great Circle”

It has for some time now been fashionable to suggest that writing big books is unfashionable. Grand narrative is not, according to this shibboleth, en vogue; the saga, the epic, the sweeping story, is a preference of a bygone age. Every time one of these sorts of book pops up, then, it is posited as going against this notional grain.

But this cliché is demonstrably untrue. The dominant narratives of our time are all megatexts, entire worlds whose stories are expanded outwards constantly: the Marvel Cinematic and Star Wars Universes are the obvious examples, but modern media’s taste for adapting and re-adapting makes this ever more the case: from Lord of the Rings to The Wheel of Time, big books are once more not just fashionable but the default.

This isn’t just a genre or cinematic phenomenon, however. In the literary world, too, the big book – if it ever went away – is now once more common, and among the most popular example of the form. Hilary Mantel has won the Booker Prize twice for doorstop novels with a spread of decades; Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries was intricately plotted and expansive; from Could Atlas on, David Mitchell has cobbled all his novels into a megatext. All three of these writers have been adapted for television; surely Paul Auster’s shortlisted alternate histories of 4321 will also get their time.

The appearance of Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle on this year’s shortlist, then, is not the oddity that some reviewers might suggest it to be. In the New York Times, Lyn Steger Strong suggests that, “At a moment when so many novels seem invested in subverting form, Great Circle follows in a long tradition of Big Sweeping Narratives”; as I’ve argued, Great Circle is part of a zeitgeist, not running against it; but Steger Strong gets other things right: “it’s at the level of the sentence and the scene, the small but unforgettable salient detail, that books finally succeed or fail,” she writes, subtly suggesting that the novel’s greatest achievements are not in the execution of its breadth, but in its many solitary moments of depth.

Certainly the novel is discursive, and much of it is concerned with plot, with stuff happening: ships are wrecked, cars are crashed, the Lindberghs spy on Germany, Amelia Earhart goes missing; wars happen, lovers love, people die. The novel’s two main strands – one following the life of an Earhart-ish figure named Marian Graves, who goes missing in 1950, the other focusing on Hadley Baxter, a Hollywood startlet who takes a last chance to save her career by playing Graves in a movie of her life – are constantly interspersed with the stories of other characters, families, localities, nations. The earliest event described in the novel happens 15,000 years ago. Shipstead is not afraid of scope.

Amid all this, the novel’s length – around 600 large pages – is the way it works enough human-level detail into proceedings to make us care. Marian and Hadley alike struggle through worlds not set up to make life easy for them; they, along with many other women in the novel, suffer sexual assault and abuse, but – like all the other women in the novel – they also persevere. Marian’s story is told in the third-person, Hadley’s in the first – but both connect, albeit in very different ways (perhaps Marian’s as tragic-comic, Hadley’s as comi-tragic). They include a rich cast of secondary characters, and a repeatedly euphonic set of recurring motifs.

From sea-going vessels to flight, complicated romances to the perils of public opinion, the relationship of small things to larger is the critical theme of the novel. For one new mother, “the horro of the birth had merged with the horror of the war” (p. 24); for another the movement is in another direction, all the ambition of “her labour […] almost forgotten to make back what had been spent” (p. 135). Ultimately, the novel moves through a world in which “ungovernable forces come to roost inside heroic human bodies or are shrunk down and carted around in vials and briefcases” (p. 107).

The great circle of the novel’s title is the circumference of the cut side of a sphere’s perfect half, “the largest circle that can be drawn on a sphere” (p. 3). This emphasises the interrelatedness of everything in the novel, the mirror images and fitted echoes that structure its often baggy storytelling. Characters from one narrative show up in another, older and with messages from the past; the editorial choices of Marian’s biographers, and in turn the director of the movies made of those books, reflect and refract the realities of her life; Marian’s heroism – but also the facts of her quotidian existence – inspire and enhance Hadley.

A recurring concept in the novel is that of bravery: Marian is routinely described as courageous, but as a pilot she is trained to be “safe, not brave”. Another character is accused of cowardice when he acts to save two children, even imprisoned for it; on Hadley’s social media it feels, in the face of the legion of trolls online, bold even to post a photo. In the ambivalent way it treats courage – is it selfish to be bold? – the novel offers a complex treatment of an issue many of its characters are seeking to reduce to an over-simplistic core. The central figure of Marian – literally and unexplainably absent at the heart of her own story – offers a fulcrum around which they gather. To them, she is a cipher; to Shipstead’s reader she is anything but.

At one point, Hadley expresses scepticism about a biography of Marian: “it was trying to force Marian to be something – someone – more familiar and reassuring than she actually was” (p. 257). Certainly in its capacity for granular detail as well as sweep, Great Circle creates in Marian the figure of a real human being, complex and difficult. But I’m also less sure that the novel creates truly strange human beings; it reads much as one might imagine a book of this sort to read, like Sunnyside by Glen David Gold or Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: episodic and wise, informed by history but also willing to take liberties with it. This novel, too, could rather easily be adapted – perhaps into a Netflix limited series. It is not unfamiliar.

That expresses my experience of reading Great Circle in a nutshell: for all its imaginative sympathy, roving focus and layered themes, it didn’t feel like a transformative novel. Throughout Great Circle, characters try in various ways to take flight; it closes with one of them “held aloft by pure possibility, as though she were about to see everything” (p. 589); the novel tries to evoke that feeling whilst also compensating for the distance height provides with copious on-the-ground detail. I’m not sure it quite achieves the right balance here, and ultimately the novel felt to me rather more firmly anchored than it might have been – even, perhaps, a tad leaden.

That being the case, which of the shortlisted novels should win this evening? I’ve not yet written about Richard Powers’ Bewilderment here – that review will be appearing soon (ETA: here, in fact!) – but, spoilers, I don’t think it should win … yet it’s possible, in its capturing of the COP26 moment of existential dread, that it might do. The best book on the shortlist – as opposed to its most relevant – is, however, Damon Galgut’s The Promise. Like Great Circle, it achieves breadth; but like Bewilderment it also has focus. It is neither reductively aphoristic like Patricia Lockwood’s novel nor overly abstract like Anuk Arudpragasam’s. Perhaps for me it’s biggest rival is Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men – but Galgut, I think, not just avoids Mohamed’s structural issues but has written a novel which is entirely without seams. Indeed, I’m not sure the contest is even especially close: The Promise is the finest novel of these six by some margin. Good luck to it tonight.

“All Of Us Fighting Over Crumbs”: Nadifa Mohamed “The Fortune Men”

The English novel (as distinct from the novel-in-English, which has thanks to American literature in particular long been better served in this regard) has only a relatively recent tradition of the social novel that focuses on race. Notable exceptions such as Eliot’s Daniel Deronda aside, it is only really in the twenty-first century that the novels of England have considered the experiences of people not of the imagined “ethnic majority”: from Hanif Kureishi to Zadie Smith, a generation of writers who came of age at either end of the 1990s heralded a movement which has created much of the best literature in England of the past twenty years. Sunjeev Sahota, Taiye Selsasi, Mohsin Hamid and Diana Evans have all in recent years produced memorable and successful novels which have focused on elements of English society which were entirely invisible in much of the work most prominent even as recently as the 1980s (in, for example, the work of Amis, Barnes, Byatt, Drabble et al).

This has immeasurably enriched English literature, and it is notable that these are the writers which have managed for the most part to keep authors of the British Isles in the Booker shortlist now that the panel is able to select novels from across the English-speaking world, rather than from the rather hokey notionality of the “Commonwealth”. Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men is an extremely good example of the form. Somali-born, and resident in Britain since the age of four, Mohamed’s capturing of the 1950s Wales in which the novel is set is pitch-perfect, as evocative a work of historical fiction as Sarah Waters might ever manage; but her depiction of the Somali community in Cardiff at that time is also fierce and full, notable for its controlled but unmistakable elucidation of the impossible injustices that were contained within a Tiger Bay replete with cultural diversity even as the authorities sought to maintain a ruthlessly genteel majoritarianism.

The novel’s central figure is Mahmood Mattan, a former sailor who has, in order to stay near his estranged Welsh wife and their children, adopted a more stationary life at the edges of the maritime economy: a fixer, odd-job man, gambler and even would-be rake, he adopts – even when he cannot afford – the trappings of dandyism in an attempt to break out of the subordinate role it is demanded he assume, even as his activity is essential to maintaining the luxury of his betters. In this, he is no different to anyone else in the polyglot community of Tiger Bay, where “everyone [is] bending the law a little to make life easier”: after all, the law was not made for them. Still, Mohamed doesn’t make him relatable or likeable per se – his view of women is not entirely enlightened (he tells his mother-in-law that he will “kill [his wife] dead if he saw her with another man” [p. 77]); his obstreperous arrogance can be frustrating; he makes some poor choices. But Mohamed also encourages and achieves an intense empathy for Mattan’s positionality, the relationship with authority and wider society that is is not chosen by but forced upon him.

Mattan’s reckoning with his situation is complex. Early on, he visits the Employment Exchange in an attempt to obtain some regular – and respectable – work. Given his experience as a boilerman on sea-going vessels, he is an ideal heavy industry man. But there is a problem. “There is one foundry job here,” the woman behind Counter 4 tells him “but I don’t think you will be suitable.” She leaves “the rest unsaid”, and Mattan “meets her gaze, swallows a bitter smile” (p. 23). Proper work – factory work – is for white men, of course. Mahmood knows, too, what those white men think of him: “‘The blacks take our jobs and take our women.’ They talk like that in all the papers, and say it to your face if they’re feeling bold” (p. 231). This knowledge he learned on leaving Somalia, on the various vessels on which he found work: “the ship revealed to him the gulf between the life he had been living in Africa and the world beyond” (pp. 232).

On the other hand, Mattan labours under the belief – the hope, the delusion? – that he can join this other world, become part of the world of privilege that exists in another sphere to the land of his birth. With his clothes and his Welsh wife, he believes himself to be achieving a toe-hold in this new world – but he soon comes to understand that in fact such entrance is denied to him, that so-called tolerance is always conditional. “Isn’t this what the world is like?” he reflects late in the novel while looking at a chequers board. “With countries and seas instead of black and white squares, the white man spread all over, the black man picked off wherever he might be and left to eke out a life on the fringes if the board” (p. 321). Mattan ruminates in a cell on death row, awaiting his execution for a crime he did not commit – but one for which he has been convicted by, of course, an all-white jury.

All this is based on a true story. Only one name has been changed – that of the murder victim, the Jewish shopkeeper Lily Volpert, here referred to as Violet Volacki. This understandable delicateness somewhat informs those of the novel’s passages – common in its first half, rarer as it proceeds – that focus first on Violet and then on her sister, Diana, and and niece, Grace. These sections are sometimes overly polite, somehow less incisive or as deeply characterised as those which revolve around Mattan; Violet is defined by work, Diana by grief. Compare this with the layered depiction even of the secondary characters in Mattan’s chapters – Laura, who is “using black men knives to hurt herself with” (p. 76), or Mattan’s benefactor, Berlin, who from his seafront bar “struggles to keep old worlds alive; friends, lovers, even children seem to deliquesce when he turns his back” (p. 39); it is little wonder that the Volecki sections reduce in number until they cease to insert themselves into Mattan’s narrative.

This may or may not be a missed opportunity, but it certainly makes the novel a little bumpy in its structure. So, too, does the switch to scripted dialogue when the narrative moves to the trial of Mattan for Volacki’s murder, on the basis of mere circumstantial evidence and – of course – racist suspicion. The sudden shift from prose to transcript feels unnecessary, and works against the novel’s otherwise ever-present imaginative sympathy. This is a pity, since an exploration of why the diversity of Tiger bay does not help Mattan would have immeasurably deepened this section of the novel: “They have a West Indian, a Welshman, an Arab, a Maltese, an Indian, a Jew, almost the League of Nations accusing him” (p. 210); Mattan has no friends even among those who are also subject to arbitrary authority. “YOU WOULD NOT HANG A DOG ON HER EVIDENCE,” rages Mattan of one of his accusers, and yet there is no stopping a prosecution case which seems paper-thin.

Mattan is blamed even for this. “You seem to be forgetting your own role in this debacle,” his defence lawyer tells him. “[You] came across as belligerent and shifty” (p. 307). What other choice would a man in Mattan’s position, falsely accused and asked absurd questions based on the testimony of malicious accusers, have? It is the corner into which he has been knowingly forced. Some of the novel’s most poetic moments come when Mattan first adopts and then rejects Islam as a consoling influence in prison; ultimately he can find no satisfactory explanation, not justice, in his situation. “They’re doing this because they haven’t broken me,” he ultimately decides. “If I had lost my mind and sat weeping in my own shit, maybe then they’d be happy to send me to a madhouse” (p. 361). Reader, Mattan is not sent to the madhouse; he instead goes to a gallows hidden behind his own wardrobe.

The Fortune Men espouses a cold anger – its rage is incisive for its patience. If the novel might have been even more focused – if it makes a few mis-steps here or there in its attempts to encompass its case – then it nevertheless remains an unusual and challenging mixture of conviction and conditionality, a novel clear as to what it thinks but also open to the complexity of real life. Real life, indeed, is its subject: not the myth of Britain, but the reality of its locaity’s “post-colonial” experiences, the truth of its various communities and the reckonings that they require. For the Booker to be able to shortlist a novel such as this – which is not just critically about but of Britain – is a sign itself that writers such as Mohamed are, slowly, but with undeterred diligence, having their desired effect.

“The Circular Daydream of Everyday Life”: Anuk Arudpragasam’s “A Passage North”

There was a moment late in Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North when I experienced if not a revelation then certainly a realisation. It came as the novel’s protagonist, Krishnan – a young and bookish Tamil academic who knows Sri Lanka has been through trauma but who has been displaced from it both while studying in India and as a function of his wealth and status – is part of a rural funeral procession. As the mourners carry the bier holding the body towards the place where it will be burned, Krishnan looks out across the beautiful landscape of the deceased’s native Northern Province, and is in particular drawn by a beautiful body of water he feels he has seen before. I quote at length because, in this novel, style matters:

It was hard to say whether the lake had formed naturally or whether it was one of the man-made tanks constructed centuries ago by old kings and chieftains, tanks that had been around so long that they were now an intrinsic part of the ecology, but studying it as he continued walking, the water calm and waveless, lapping softly and peacefully upon its banks, the feeling grew in Krishnan that he’d been to this place before, that he’d walked across this same path and sat there by the banks of this same lake. There couldn’t have been many bodies of water this size in the northeast, he knew, and taking out his phone he tried to see if he could find the place on Google Maps, which was unhelpful since there was, he saw, no signal on his phone. He wondered whether it was possible he’d passed it on one of the visits he’d made to the district back when he was based in Jaffna, but he knew for certain that he’d never been to Rani’s village before, and couldn’t remember having spent much time in the general vicinity before either. He could ask one of the men in the procession for the name of the lake, but none of them seemed to be paying it any attention and it would have been out of place to ask in any case, he felt, especially when everyone seemed so lost in their own thoughts. (p. 237)

Out of context, no doubt, this passage lacks the flash of light I experienced when first reading it. But it comes at the end of a novel which emphasises the dilatory, and after a series of persistent – and lengthy – sidebars in which Krishnan occupied himself with a range of reveries which rarely, if ever, felt apropos of much at all. This passage is the first time that he acknowledges – as if he is himself experiencing a revelation about subjectivity – that his own preoccupations may not be central, that in fact everyone experiences the same uncontrolled streams of consciousness, the same uncertain and often inapposite enthusiasms, very similar senses of their own disjunctions. In the novel’s final pages, Krishnan reflects that “people also carried deeper, more clandestine trajectories inside their bodies … trajectories which were sometimes strong enough to push people in certain directions despite everything that took place on the surface of their lives” (p. 283). A Passage North’s exercise in disconnect, then, may well be its point.

A Passage North has an extremely simple plot. A woman who has until recently been the carer of Krishnan’s sick grandmother – herself having in her dotage retired to the countryside of her childhood – dies after falling into a well. Krishnan travels from Colombo to the Northern Province to represent the family. That’s it. That’s the book. The key element of the novel that is missing from this summary is Krishnan’s relationship with Anjum, a Sri Lankan activist whom he met during his student days in Delhi; he still mourns their break-up, and he is reading a new email from her when the news of Rani’s death reaches him. “He felt not so much sadness as a kind of embarrassment for the way the news had caught him, in the midst of his self-involved thoughts about Anjum’s email” (p. 14), and this tension between what Krishnan feels deserves his attention and what in fact is absorbing it persists throughout the novel.

Krishnan and Anjum’s romance was intense but brief, meeting in the faintly radical confines of student social spaces but drifting apart as Anjum’s activism proved to be rather more consistent than those of her peers – Krishnan’s included. Nevertheless, Krishnan pours over their short relationship, “the sterm beauty of her face and her distinctly southern darkness” (p. 105), seeking meaning and significance where perhaps there is none:

Falling in love, or what deserved to be called falling in love, he had realized that night, was not so much an emotional or psychological condition as an epistemological condition, a condition in which two people held hands and watched in silent amazement as the world around them was slowly unveiled … (p. 157)

There is a lot of this stuff, and it ultimately goes nowhere: “she was resistant to becoming too close to him” (p. 138). The ever-decreasing circles become tiresome because, short of that email at the opening of the novel, Anjum’s voice is entirely missing – she is an object only, a focus of attention rather than an attending entity herself. This might again be fitting – given that Krishnan’s student relationship proves really to be a proxy for his sense that he has not been sufficiently connected to or active in Sri Lanka’s civil war and its aftermaths, his knowledge that “some forms of violence could penetrate so deeply into the psyche that there was simply no question of fully recovering” and yet his absence of any such experiences of his own – but it remains undeniably recursive.

Still, Krishnan does little except reflect in this novel, which after all primarily takes place over the period of time he spends travelling – slowly, by train, with only himself for company – from Colombo to the Northern Province. Arudpragasam is often praised as a prose stylist (Peter Gordon in the Asian Review of Books: “what might feel affected or even tedious in the hands of a lesser writer becomes atmospheric in Arudpragasam’s extraordinary prose”); but for me his writing – in the curiously diffuse precision that is so often lauded by critics – fails really to grasp how humans truly think. Routinely throughout the book, Krishnan remembers texts or films or speeches that he first read or saw or heard years ago; he remembers them in perfect detail, his précis of one poem or another often lasting for many pages, his plot summaries of this or that epic or documentary offering granular detail which matches not the true nature of human recollection but Arudpragasam’s literary purpose at that juncture in the text. In particular Krishnan’s recollections of Sri Lankan literature certainly place A Passage North in important dialogue and relation with the culture its characters inhabit; but they only work to enhance, rather than illuminate, the feeling the novel creates – and which was for me only broken at the climactic funeral – that much of its contents is orthogonal to its matter.

If the violence of a civil war that has largely passed him by is what most animates Krishnan beneath the surface of his concerns that Rami’s death was a suicide and not an accident, or only one layer deeper his obsession with Anjum, then the implications for human beings of the sort of trauma it represents is the end-point of the novel’s philosophical journey.”Krishnan’s notion of the elderly had always been of people who accepted [their] condition” (p. 53), but in the figure of Rani – who fled the Northern Province to serve as a carer precisely to escape the war, and whose sons were killed in it – the true consequences of conflict are made flesh for him. Despite this, he still struggles to connect: Rani’s habit of chewing betel had been a response no doubt to everything she’d seen and lost during the war, but […] Rani was so different from them […] Krishnan found it hard to believe […] that their lives intersected in any substantial way at all (p. 72). Similarly, years earlier it took Anjum to show Krishnan how “years of being subject to these [male] gazes [had taught] women who lived in the capital […] to curb the movement of their own eyes” (p. 119) – that is, Krishnan finds it hard to see how people are shaped by experiences he does not himself share. But his solipsism – the novel’s bug – is a feature of the continuation of those experiences for others.

A Passage North is in this way an argument for presence in the world. It begins by propounding that “the present […] eludes us more and more as the years go by” (p. 5), but ends with Krishnan newly alive to focusing not on the lake on the horizon but the people around him. None of this is simple – “moments of violence [are] for some people were just as much a part of life as the moments of beauty [… and both limit] how far we [are] subsequently able to see” (p. 261) – but there remains in the novel a clear sense that some have more privilege than others – “those for whom coming and going wasn’t simply a matter of choice” (p. 191) – and that it is for those people to offer service to those with less. “The purpose of all the government’s demolition and renovation in the northeast had, of course, been to erase any memory that might spur the Tamil population back toward militarism” (p. 226); bearing witness has value and force.

Ultimately, however, I think the novel makes heavy weather of all this. Even reviews which are broadly positive about this “intensely introspective” novel – such as Tara K. Menon’s in the New York Times– note that “sometimes sentences strain under this heavy burden”. Arudpragasam is routinely compared to WG Sebald (here’s Nilanjana Roy doing this in the FT), but Sebald – while superficially adopting the same air of immersive reverie as is attempted here – is far less programmatic, his prose much less leading, his allusions always lighter. Much of this is because, I think, Sebald’s preference – albeit in Anthea Bell’s crystalline translation –  for shorter words and tighter sub-clauses works against their container – those dilatory, drifting recollections. A body of water features, too, in Austerlitz:

And then, Austerlitz continued, somewhere beyond Frankfurt, when I entered the Rhine valley for the second time in my life, the sight of the Mäuseturm in the part of the river known as the Binger Loch revealed, with absolute certainty, why the tower in Lake Vyrnwy had always seemed to me so uncanny. I could not take my eyes off the great river Rhine flowing sluggishly along in the dusk, the apparently motionless barges lying low in the water, which almost lapped over their decks, the trees and bushes on the other bank, the fine cross-hatching of the vineyards, the stronger transverse lines of the walls supporting the terraces, the slate-grey rocks and ravines leading off sideways into what seemed to me a pre-historic and unexplored realm. While I was still under the spell of this landscape, to me a truly mythological one, said Austerlitz, the setting sun broke through the clouds, filled the entire valley with its radiance, and illuminated the heights on the other side where three gigantic chimneys towered into the sky at the place we were just passing, making the steep slopes on the eastern mountains look like hollow shells, mere camouflage for an underground industrial site covering many square miles. (Austerlitz, pp. 317-8)

The precision, the humour, the diction, the frame: I’d suggest that in every aspect Arudpragasam’s purported cover version of Sebald’s style is much the inferior. Indeed, I’m not at all sure the comparison does either writer any favour, and that Arudpragasam should be afford the courtesy of standing alone as a writer of much promise but as yet an under-developed sensibility. In this, I’d echo Marcel Theroux in the Guardian: “the detail and particularity of memorable fiction requires a form of wondering that is both deeper and less abstract than this.” I can see why the Booker jury felt that A Passage North, in its ambition, theme, subject and promise, deserved a place on the shortlist; I am much less sure that it should detain them for long when they meet to arrive at their winner.

“Promises Don’t Mean A Thing”: Damon Galgut’s “The Promise”

I was a great admirer of Damon Galgut’s 2010 novel, In A Strange Room. At the time, some questioned whether the book – a sequence of three linked novellas (short stories, really – the novel as a whole was rather short, much less its constituent elements) – could properly be called a “novel”. This hoary old debate need not detain us – the pieces fitted together thematically, and shared a main character. The book was a novel, and a good one.

It did not, however, win the Booker Prize, for which it was shortlisted that year; perhaps the judges disagreed that the question of what a novel can be so easily resolved (though since the Booker rules avoid the word “novel” in favour of “long-form fiction”, perhaps they’ve found their own circumlocution). Certainly it was beaten out by a far more traditional novel, Howard Jacobson’s amusing – but ultimately surely minor – comedy, The Finkler Question. That Galgut now has his second chance, with his rather more novelly novel, The Promise, is reason for celebration.

The Promise, though, again splits itself across separated sections. Each about eighty pages long, the novel’s four parts focus in turn on a different protagonist, although in each case the through-narrative is far clearer and the support cast entirely shared. This, after all, is a family saga, although as is Galgut’s wont it is a pared-down saga, a pithy kind of epic tragedy. It is set across three or four decades of South Africa’s recent history, from the final years of apartheid through to the presidency of Jacob Zuma. Its focus, however, remains tightly on the Swart family, a white family with a grand house and a large-ish estate in the countryside outside Pretoria, “a big mish-mash of a place, twenty-four doors on the outside that have to be locked at night, one style stuck on another“ (p. 12). History passes around and through this house; its inhabitants don’t live the great events – “trouble in all the townships, it’s being muttered about everywhere” (p. 9) – but are carried along, almost unknowingly, in their wake.

The Swarts’ bigotry is of the banal kind. The eldest child of Manie and Rachel Swart, Anton, is in a last-flush-of-adolescence relationship with the daughter of an NNP government minister whom we later learn confessed to some awful deeds as part of Truth and Reconciliation; but the Swarts don’t involve themselves any more than that with matters of state. They simply squat on their land, heedless of their own absurdity, and of the frustrated humanity of the Black people who serve them – most especially Salome, who lives with her son Lukas in another house on the Swart lands.

The titular promise of Galgut’s novel is an agreement between Rachel and Manie, overheard by their third and youngest child, Amor, that Salome will be given ownership of her house upon Rachel’s death. It is in the aftermath of this event that the novel’s first part takes place: Amor is collected from her boarding school by Manie’s domineering sister, Tannie Marina, and returned to the Swart family home for a period of mourning and fractious family politics.

Religion is a recurring theme of the novel, and the first part’s principal drama is driven by Rachel’s return to her family faith, Judaism. Years ago, in order to marry Manie, she converted to his strict Dutch Reformed Protestantism, but, as the reality of her long illness became impossible to deny, she began to insist on a Jewish funeral. When Rachel’s family arrive at the house to ensure her wishes are met, they are not greeted amicably. This despite the fact that Manie’s faith is far from strong: he is a gambler and a philanderer, and long ago Rachel “judged him and found him greatly wanting” (p. 29), in one of the unsatisfying moments of absolution that litter the text. One person’s wishes, another’s desires: this tension, too, permeates the novel, and, when Amor tells Lukas that Salome’s house is now theirs (“It’s always been his house … what is the white girl talking about?” [p. 21]), the family’s competing wills are brought into even greater tension than they are over Rachel’s funeral service.

Anton takes up Amor’s insistence that Manie keep his promise while the middle child, Astrid, desperately – and with some vanity – seeks to make the peace. But Anton’s attempts are driven not by Amor’s sense of charity but by his pronounced vengeful streak. He has returned to the family home from a compulsory tour of duty with the South African army – he has recently shot a woman dead in a township, and is racked by a self-regarding guilt – and finds himself resentful of all the trappings of Afrikaner respectability. “This country! he exclaims. He’s not sure why the country is to blame, but he repeats it. This country!” (p. 66)  Anton’s diffuse anger, his lack of willingness to name the problem, persists throughout the novel.

In this way, The Promise isn’t a broad satire of apartheid, or even an angry denunciation of white privilege. It is a novel of character, living with these white characters. It puts us inside their milieu rather than within the wider context of the well-known heroic story – “When Mandela appears in the green Springbok rugby jersey to give the cup to Francois Pienaar, well, that’s something” (p. 151) – and certainly not in the day-to-day experience of Black South Africans, who are as mysterious to the narrative as they are to the Swarts. In the novel’s second part, Manie follows Rachel to the grave (though as we learn in The Promise, “the dead are frequently unable to accept their condition,” and haunt us in myriad ways [p. 43]); the family reunite again, Anton from a long period in self-exile (“the surface closes over as if you were never gone” [p. 98]), Amor from a period of post-school travelling. Only Astrid has stayed put, wracked by an eating disorder but marrying and in some ways modelling the role expected of her: wife, mother, homemaker. 

Apartheid, too, has gone, though its primary impact is that Manie lies next to a Black man in hospital: “we die right next to each other now, in intimate proximity” (p. 99). This equivocation over the story of South Africa, the value of its progress, is another of the novel’s unifying characteristics: The Promise isn’t the story of a victory, but of a series of contingencies. Amor knows that “one day she will have to answer” (p. 113) – for Manie’s promise, but perhaps also for everything else – while Anton is equally aware that “Holding on, holding out, [is] an old South African solution” (p. 95). Little is resolved, except for the fate of some land at the extremity of the Swart estate: Manie has been persuaded to leave it to the Dutch Reformed Church that Anton so despises, and the minister of the congregation, Alwyn Simmers, is the most viciously filleted of all Galgut’s characters: “he’s a pastor these days, peddling a softer line in salvation to his customers, ahem, that is to say, his flock, so that everyone benefits” (p. 120). He is a knowing hypocrite; the Swarts are simply oblivious.

Both obliviousness and salvation come to be key focuses of the novel in its third part, in which Astrid – now in a second marriage while having an affair with an ANC politician (she “always used to find blacks unattractive, but she’s noticed lately that they’ve started to carry themselves more confidently” [p. 169]) – attends a Catholic confessional and her priest refuses her immediate absolution (again, holding on and holding out). The reader is by now conditioned to expect the title of each section to feature the name of the person whose death will be its focus, and so Astrid’s passing is not a surprise – but its violence is shocking, and its suddenness seriously disconcerting. The family again regroup, with the omniscient narrator once more skipping preternaturally fluid between them. The novel’s voice is a rare feat of prose. Sometimes, in moments of telling and equally supple slippage, it adopts first-person pronouns briefly to ground the narrative in a sense of self; at others, it explains away supposed structural defects or lapses of attentions – “the conversation takes place in the garden behind the church … [no,] more likely it happens inside” [p. 186] – in ways that both add a pleasing wryness and emphasises the novel’s conditionality. It is capable, then, of reintroducing us to characters and developing them at the same time. Anton is now the family patriarch, Amor a nurse on an HIV ward – and now they discuss once more Manie’s promise. Its keeping is again deferred, the Swarts’ knee-jerk insistence on their land much like Astrid’s need for absolution: “like a furnace that consumes whatever you throw into it and requires more” (p. 171).

Anton has become man who “appreciates it when people do their suffering offstage, out of sight” (p. 191), and this leaves he and Amor “on opposite sides”– but of what he can’t quite say: “what that division is, and where it lies … [there is] no answer to that” (p. 206). In the Catholic priest’s sermon, however, is the clue: “we are in exile, among the seed of Cain,” he tells the congregation, while reflecting privately that “he can’t entirely quell the unpleasant thought, which has stayed with him, of what he failed to do. Much easier to blame Cain!” (p. 216)   All of this refusal to grasp the nettle – that he “can see the right action and will not perform it” (p. 242) – tortures Anton as it tortures South Africa, and the novel’s fourth and final part is named after him. We know, then, what his fate will be – but it is Amor’s which is most interesting. The novel has posited her as a sort of martyr, working off her sin by ministering AIDS patients; but when she finally goes to Salome’s tiny, almost ruined, house and gives to her and Lukas the deeds, she is treated only to anger. “My mother was supposed to get this house a long time back,” the now middle-aged Lukas sneers. “Thirty years ago! Instead she got lies and promises. And you did nothing” (p. 285). Amor, the ANC politician having an affair with Astrid, the churches: none have done anything. Even the token reparation which has been established in the characters’ minds throughout the novel as the crucial act of atonement cannot make up for this. “Three fucked up rooms with a broken roof. And we must be grateful?”

Anton’s wife Desirée – his teenage lover and the daughter of the “morally repugnant” NPP minister – has a close friend (Anton thinks a lover) named Moti. He is a new-agey sort of yoga instructor, a motivational speaker with a line in vapid self-fulfilment. When, attacked by a drunk and angry husband, he intones righteously, “Aggression ultimately hurts the aggressor,” the reader might agree that this is on a certain true – but that it is also partial. Anton – a morally bankrupt character, but also an unerringly insightful one, tortured by his ability to understand but his refusal to know – snaps back, “I don’t know, I find the object of aggression suffers more” (p. 243). Everyone in The Promise suffers, but Lukas and Salome most of all – and only in its last pages do they even think to take the chance to express that. In this way, The Promise – a remarkably subtle, coherent, composed and balanced a novel – is not about the Swarts at all, but about the consequences of their solipsism. “Oh, I can deal with the tragedy,” Anton groans at one point (p. 245), “it’s the farce I can’t handle.”

“Really More Of A Magician”: The Women’s Prize, 2021

I have tended, in the past, to review literary awards shortlists before their winner is announced. In this, as in so many other things, I suppose I am disappointingly conventional: joining in the game of guessing the victorious volume is part of the generally accepted point of shortlists, which encourage us after all to buy six novels where we might otherwise only buy one. This is the way it’s done: read the shortlist, pick a winner, explain your reasoning. Then rage at the jury who choose otherwise (and therefore unwisely).

Fortunately I – and you – have been spared that spectacle this year, at least when it comes to the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Mostly because I simply didn’t manage to read the whole shortlist before the announcement of the winner on September 8th (about which more anon), I’m left offering this somewhat redundant post-match analysis. Except – and here you’ll forgive me for rationalising my own failures – reading the shortlist from this perspective is probably more instructive than doing so in the usual way: it guides the reader towards not bemoaning the jury’s selection but seeking to understand it.

In fairness, the Women’s Prize jury for 2021 picked what for me was the right book – in other words, we agree, and so I don’t need to work their decision backwards in order to parse it. I read Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi some months ago, and Facebooked briefly about it at the time. As I began to read the shortlist – starting with Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom and continuing on to Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This – I began to suspect that my love for this novel was not about to be supplanted by any other volume on the shortlist. It turned out I was right: I completed my reading of the shortlist well after the announcement (I came to Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground last of all), and none of the five other books struck me as better.

What is odd about this in the context of the Women’s Prize, however, is that Piranesi is very much the shortlist’s odd-one-out. Each of its other five books are quotidian and granular: they focus on the everyday lives of a relatively narrow set of characters, lingering over the details of how they live them. In Cherie Jones’s How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, for example, we are treated to pungent descriptions of its Barbadian milieu: “The beach stinks of stewing moss, sargassum seaweed and the putrefying guts of beached fishes, rotting in the warming air” (p. 139). In Unsettled Ground, Fuller’s no less degraded English countryside is similar picked over, in a sort of sub-folk horror mode that reminds one of Fiona Mozley’s Elmet: “The sun turns the tomatoes a deep red, searching the skins until they split, while its heat dries out the cottage thatch and drives the mice and insects further in” (p. 263).

This recurrently lyrical focus on the rather ugly features of their characters’ daily routines lends the five losing books on the shortlist the air of a shared approach, a similar mode. This will be a familiar style to many, since creative writing classes often emphasise the important of an accumulation of detail in achieving a sense of versimilitude. According to this orthodoxy, lists lend authenticity. Here’s a passage from The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (MFA, University of Michigan), the story of two twins and their daughters who must negotiate the racial politics of the second half of the USA’s twentieth century:

The winter she saw Jude Winston again, Kennedy starred in an off-off-Broadway musical called Silent River. She played Cora, the sheriff’s rebellious daughter who longs to run away with a rugged farmhand. For months, she obsessed, more than normal, about getting sick. She drank so much hot tea with lemon that by February she could barely stand the smell of it and pinched her nose, gagging it down. She swallowed chalky zinc pills and triple-wrapped her neck in a scarf before stepping outside. She scrubbed her hands furiously after she climbed off the subway. She wasn’t build for a New York winter under any circumstances; landing her biggest role since she’d moved to the city certainly fit the bill of extraordinary. (p. 294)

None of this is important to the main plot, except the final – in context, rather pathetically phrased – note that the role is Kennedy’s biggest to date. The Vanishing Half piles incident and information up in this way to create a sense of reality which ultimately it doesn’t quite know what to do with. At times – for example, its scenes set in an arid sixties suburbia familiar to readers from the first seasons of Mad Men – the details work to create atmosphere. In others – and 1980s New York is one of them – they simply … exist. Increasingly, The Vanishing Half lacks follow-through. It proves to be all set-up, all scenery.

This is a fault not limited to Bennett. I mentioned that my progress through the shortlist was slow, and unfortunately the book I stumbled most on was the fifth I read, Jones’s. Like Bennett’s, How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House seeks to be a multi-generational family epic; but these are hard to do well, and sweep can sometimes come at the expense of nuance. Lists are no replacement for avoiding cliche. Where Bennett ticks all the boxes of a received vision of post-war America, Jones at least gives us a vision of Barbados which deliberately sets itself against the common-in-the-West positioning of it as a joyful paradise. The novel derives its title from a tale told to its protagonist, Lala, bu her grandmother, Wilma, in which a curious girl loses her arm to a monster living in the hole into which she thrusts her limb; Jones tells us to watch where we put ourselves. But it doesn’t feel to me that she achieves this as well for Barbados as for example Tsitsi Dangarembga achieved it for Zimbabwe: How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House lacks the cross-currents of the latter’s This Mournable Body, and the reader misses that ambivalence. The novel closes with the contrast of a police car – a prison on wheels, a moving cell – and a aeroplane – movement, freedom, escape. For all the novel’s detail and sense of place, that still feels a contrast too pat to sustain itself.

Patness is a fault also found elsewhere in the shortlist’s quintet of runners-up. Patricia Lockwood is a poet and critic I’ve come to rely on, especially in her pieces for the LRB (her 2019 review of Updike was in particular resplendent). But in No One Is Talking About This, her debut novel – which pushes the list approach to a calculated breaking point, eschewing traditional narrative in favour of a constant barrage of bite-size vignettes and reflections – she ultimately falls into an unfair and unproductive bifurcation not dissimilar from Jones’s. M’learned friend Adam Roberts has sought ingeniously to spring Lockwood out of this trap she has set herself, arguing that her novel adopts a deliberate “two-ply” structure to introduce precisely the countervailing tendencies I argue above are missing in the Jones. I think this is an overly generous reading of a novel which, in its first part, skewers Twitter (what Lockwood calls the “portal”) for its emptiness and immaturity, following its protagonist in her successful but ultimately pointless manipulation of, and celebrity within, this atomising algorithms – and in the second hits the rather mawkish breaks when a very sick baby is born to her entirely innocent and rather decent sister. Her intent here is entirely obvious, and – alas and again – rather bathetic: “No vehicle ever invented for the transmission of information – not the portal, not broadcast radio, not the printed word itself – was as quick, complete, or crackling as the blue kiosk ball that the baby kept tucked against her chin as she slept, her small mouth open to say oh my answers” (p. 179).

That said, Lockwood writes beautifully. If her aphoristic style – all short, summative sentences, whip-smart references and hipster ennui – doesn’t quite nail the psychological experience of living in an information age with the same totality as something like Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, I’m not sure that is either quite its aim. Despite its ultimately unconvincing – because overly loaded – juxtapositions, I think No One Is Talking About This is the work of a great prose stylist who has yet to find the appropriate mode or subject. Indeed, I enjoyed Transcendent Kingdom far more in terms of its rather better balanced story – even if structurally and on the sentence level Yaa Gyasi cannot yet quite match Lockwood’s verve. The story of a Stanford biology grad student whose Ghanaian mother’s deteriorating health means she must learn once again to share her life, the novel reminds one a little of Brandon Taylor’s Real Life – another recent laboratory-bound story of coming to terms with one’s past, and with the structural racism of one’s host society. But it has more charm, and more hope, than Taylor’s novel (though perhaps neither of these things are warranted or desirable). In particular, though, I found its exploration of the place of Christianity in modern society fascinating: the novel ends with the protagonist gazing on Christ’s ecstatic face, and in examining the pressures she feels both to hide her faith and accept its failings, the novel offers a subtle treatment of a theme that is not often explored with this kind of sensitivity and insight.

Transcendent Kingdom boasts a genuinely unique flavour, then, that its competitors, for all their superficial differences, could occasionally lack – although its ending is rushed and its prose itself is usually more transparent than it is characterful. On balance, it belongs in the top tier of the shortlist alongside Piranesi and for me what is the shortlist’s sleeper hit – Fuller’s Unsettled Ground. It’s not that this novel is surprising or revelatory, transformational or even shocking (of its several plot twists, I was surprised by only one); it is simply that it is extremely well tooled. It’s a professional job, is Unsettled Ground. It is also quietly bold: in order for the novel to work, Fuller must ensure that its protagonists – two fifty-one year old twins who have lived their whole life in an isolated cottage with their apparently hermit-like mother – have our sympathies; but she insists upon their oddness, and in many ways the reader cannot engage with them. Julius and Jeanie are stiff and forbidding, frustrating and forlorn; their absence from society has rendered them unable to participate properly in it, but driven them towards often harshly partial judgements. In its quiet weirdness, it reminded me of Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, tracking as it does the unsightly underbelly of the English pastoral. Had the shortlist been rounded out by a sixth quotidian novel seeking to immerse its reader in telling detail, Unsettled Ground may well have been my pick of the pack.

But instead – and I’m not sure why or how – the jury topped off its half-dozen contenders with Piranesi, a novel which so entirely eschews the quotidian as to punch right through to it. In other words, this depiction of a man who lives in a huge, ruined and possibly endless neoclassical country house, who spends his days inspecting statues and avoiding floods, captures in its neat evocation of ontological disorientation precisely the feeling of living in a period of dislocating change, in which all that is solid melts into not just the air but the ephemeral ether. As the novel’s protagonist undertakes the tasks given him by the Other, the reader cannot fail to ask hurriedly: where is this? Another planet, an apocalyptic future? An experimental lab of some sort, a parallel universe? Purgatory? The answer is none of these – Clarke offers something genuinely new, and she does so by expertly walking the line between realism and fantasy that David Mitchell has of late been routinely tripping over: when, as in all the shortlist’s other novels, Piranesi‘s mysteries and questions begin to break down into something clearer and more resolvable, there is no sense of let-down, no sense that the set-up has not been worth the pay-off. Piranesi holds the attention to the last.

Why? I think because it is a distillation. I was not a fan of Clarke’s previous novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which though popular with SFF fans and even general readers – it was dramatised by the BBC, no less – felt to me of a mid-2000s piece with novels such as The Crimson Petal and the White, mistaking mere girth for seriousness or world-building. What’s so fascinating about Piranesi‘s relationship with he other novels on this shortlist is that it has no interest – despite what might have been the understandable expectations of Clarke’s readers – in the accrual of detail as an end in itself. Instead, it contains so much history and philosophy and art and metaphysics but also reads like a dream. It is no portmanteau of ideas – it is, like the house in which the protagonist finds himself, a singular construction that is entirely itself whilst also suggestive of much more besides. This is a – perhaps the – singular artistic achievement. As I suspected, the other books didn’t stand a chance.

Albums of 2020

Everyone’s habits – not just for listening, but I’d imagine for almost everything – had to shift this year, and I don’t suppose mine were any different. I discover new music, dinosaur that I am, through record stores, live shows and conversations with other musicians … all of which were in short supply this year. That left me relying at least in part, and as in so many walks of life during 2020, on algorithms. I confess I also listened to older music more – the comfort of the familiar, and perhaps the past, was often welcome this year.

Nevertheless, I think 2020 was actually an extremely good year for new music – the best in some time, perhaps. Some musicians completed projects they hadn’t dreamed of at the start of the year (Dan Bern’s Quarantine Me); others released more albums than usual (Taylor Swift, with both Folklore and Evermore); still others brought forward releases – though some, of course delayed them. I’ve enjoyed music this year from Charley Crockett and Calexico, Fiona Apple and Sturgill Simpson; Pharis and Jason Romero, Phoebe Bridgers and Darlingside, beabadoobee and Bob Dylan.

But this year more than any other, the five albums that stand out are – though, I’d naturally argue, musically outstanding and often sharply innovative – primarily those which gave me most joy, that afforded the most catharsis or escape. And these are they – the albums I’ll take with me from this strangest of years.

Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter

Originally slated for release in August, Marling brought forward this album – releasing it digitally in April – in an attempt to “provide some sense of union”. She deserves a medal. This album and its songs – from wonderful opener ‘Alexandra’ to evocative closer ‘For You’ – offered real rays of light for me during that first, queasily uncertain period of lockdown here in the UK. Not only is Song For Our Daughter a thorough-going gift in context, though; in content, too, it is easily the best album Marling has produced since I Speak Because I Can, and it may be the best of her career: melodic but also subtle, full of lyrical cleverness without being over-wrought. It is a proper album for the ages. Most importantly, though, it was an album for this one. I’ll be forever grateful to it.

Waxahatchee – St Cloud

In an interview for BBC 6 Music in the summer, Phoebe Bridgers called this sinuous, sly record her album of the pandemic: it came at just the right time in the US to soundtrack Bridgers’ stay-at-home period, and Katie Crutchfield’s wry, witty songwriting – backed unerringly by a unique harmonic palette and taste for phrasing – gave me as close to an arms-raising moment as I reached in 2020. This is an anthemic LP for anti-anthemic times, and in ‘Can’t Do Much’ it might boast my song of the year. This is the album I’ll continue most to associate with 2020, I think – for better and, perhaps, for worse.

Thundercat – It Is What It Is

While we’re on the subject of wit and wily humour, Thundercat’s resplendent LP has been under-accounted for in year’s best lists – for reasons I can’t figure. Made up mostly of short, but symphonic, snatches of song, from its samples to its collaborators this is an expertly curated tour through Thundercat’s innately fascinating blend of jazz, hip-hop, funk and soul. Stephen Lee Brunner’s background as a bassist is in full evidence in many of these grooves; but his excellences as a lyricist should also not be in doubt – ‘Black Qualls’, ‘Dragonball Durag’ and ‘King of the Hill’, for example, are all pitch-perfect mini-dramas. Beautiful vocals, lush-but-spare arrangements, a wickedly brief run-time and some of the most glorious transitions since of Montreal in their pomp – it’s all here. Give it the Grammy, already.

Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers

This one’s tricky. As old-fashioned a country break-up album as you can imagine, Old Flowers is replete with crystalline songwriting and utterly luminous vocal performances – record opener ‘Burlap String’ is improbably good on both counts. But, like the rest of the album, it is almost unseemly in its sadness. This year, it wasn’t always the right time to listen to so acute a record about loss; but you’ll search long and hard to find so lovingly put-together an album this year, so complete a statement, so beautiful a thing. It’s glorious. It draws you to it despite how miserable it threatens to make you feel at a time when you don’t need any particular help to feel doomy. And yet, like all good break-up albums, at the flickering heart of the matter is love – is hope. It takes your breath away.

John Craigie – Asterisk The Universe

Whatever raised a smile in 2020 had to work hard to do so. But in this, perhaps his most rounded release to date, folksinger John Craigie applied a lightness of touch that got under your defences easily – and left you smiling. Mostly, this is thanks to Craigie’s raconteur spirit, on which he has built his growing reputation amongst the Americana cognoscenti. But there’s more here than a troubadour with a guitar – some properly catchy arrangements and some very tasteful production really lift the material to the next level. If ‘Can’t Do Much’ is my song of the year, it has strong competition from ‘Don’t Deny’; and my lyric of the year? “I always wanted to be a healer and give out medicine / I was too dumb to be a doctor so I do this.” In 2020, the hierarchy between these two healers might have been in greater relief than usual; but both, in their own ways, mattered.