And the Winner Is…

Wednesday 8 June is prize-giving day. Another red-letter in the literary awards calendar of 2011 that has already encompassed the Commonwealth Prize and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (amongst many others) and will go on to include the Costa and the Booker and the IMPAC and so on.

But for now it is the turn of the Orange Prize to bask in the glory of literary approbation – a prize still controversial after all of these years for the fact that only books originally written in English are eligible for consideration (would Scots count?). Or is it that they all have to be written by women?

Either way, as this year’s shortlisted candidates stand by the stage, their hearts no doubt beating mightily, waiting and hoping, here is a round-up of their eclectic offerings in which we can all delight.

First up, a sophisticated, clear-eyed take on the unspeakable, Room by Emma Donoghue (Picador, 2010). Jack is five years old. He lives in a single, locked room (Room) with his mother (Ma) and Roof, Skylight, Rug, Meltedy Spoon and Eggsnake amongst others. This is the only world he knows and he is content. But like any normal child Jack is also full of questions. Questions that his mother finds harder and harder to answer until one day she admits to her son that, ‘there’s more things on earth than you ever dreamed about’. Written entirely from Jack’s inevitably idiosyncratic point of view, Room takes the reader to the centre of the small boy’s heart-stopping odyssey from inside to out. The full horror of his upbringing is laid bare in simple, evocative prose and yet it is the power of the parental bond and the possibility it offers for renewal that make this such an affecting, intriguing read.

Aminatta Forna’s novel, The Memory of Love (Bloomsbury, 2010) is a more intricate, detailed affair. Set just within the new millennium it tells a story of love and betrayal in Sierra Leone that reaches back to the coups of the late 1960’s, through the brutal war of the 1990’s. British psychologist Adrian Lockheart is the lightening rod for a series of testimonies – from the dying professor Elias Cole, troubled young surgeon Kai, madwoman Agnes – who just like the latter finds himself forever ‘crossing over’ between the living and the dead. Gradually drawn into the heart of several interconnecting narratives, Adrian is never entirely sure what is the truth, a confession or a lie. In this slow burn of a novel, Forna builds up a subtle meditation on the nature of survival, its messy compromises and the silences it breeds, gradually capturing the reader in an impossible, yet poignant, search for absolution.

By contrast Grace Williams Says It Loud (Sceptre, 2010) by Emma Henderson is an exuberant shout out of a book. A linguistic rollercoaster, it tells the story of Grace, ‘tongue-tied, spastic and flailing’, first encountered lying on a warm lawn in 1947. Other people may not be able to understand Grace, but she invites us right inside her world, narrating through a tumble of sounds, tastes and experiences just what it is that she knows. From the warmth of her father’s study to the harsh realities of The Briar, the mental institution that becomes her home for more than thirty years, Grace’s story is funny, tender and sad, not immune to the dark and the cruel, yet lit up by her friendship with Daniel, an epileptic with no arms, a ‘papillon de nuit’, the boy who above all others connects with Grace from the moment they meet to the moment he departs. A wonderful story of friendship against the odds, the book is also a deeply moving exploration of the inability of people like us to communicate with people like Grace, who is not angry or shouting but just telling it how it is.

Nicole Krauss’ novel Great House (Penguin, 2010) also deals with the power of storytelling at its most profound. A series of individuals, divided by age, by continent and by experience, are all connected in one way or another to an old wooden desk. Each individual tells their own story, details piling on details as they grapple with their deep sense of disconnection from the world. Krauss leaves the reader to try and understand how the individuals might or might not fit together, building around them instead a dense, unsettling picture of loss, misunderstanding and grief. Intermittently electric and infuriating, Great House is saturated with the slippery nature of memory, how it can act as a balm for some and as torture for others.

There are also stories unfurling in The Tiger’s Wife (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2011) by Tea Obreht: the story of the tiger’s wife and the story of the deathless man. Within these tales ‘lie everything necessary to understand my grandfather’ as the narrator Natalia explains. Natalia is a young doctor on a mercy mission in the Balkans, a land rich with stories, with passions and with horrible betrayals. At the start of the book her beloved grandfather has died and as Natalia sets out to reclaim his belongings she tells the story of his life through rich and vibrant prose. Packed with colour and texture this highly accomplished novel uses two mythical folktales as a metaphor for the story of a nation, a people forged in their fiery differences of language, religion and custom, yet all belonging one way or another to the same land. An intense and colourful experience.

Annabel (Jonathan Cape, 2011) by Kathleen Winter is, in contrast, like taking a long, cool drink from a freezing burn. Set amongst the muted greys, greens and whites of Labrador in Northern Canada, Winter’s restrained, clean prose explores what it means to be both male and female at the same time. Wayne is born in 1968 to Jacinta and Treadway Blake, yet at his birth it is not clear if he is boy or girl. His parent’s decide to raise him as a boy, yet throughout his youth and adolescence Wayne hears another self inside calling to him – a girl named Annabel. This beguiling story, shot through with the light and texture of the landscape in which it is set, breathes life and complexity into its central character, making him/her an inquisitive, restrained and fully alive, an individual rather than an absence. Just like Room, it too concentrates its haunting, subtle focus on the power of parenting to ultimately do good, rather than bad.

© Mary Paulson-Ellis, 2011