For nearly 20 years, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction has been honoring the contributions of women writers around the world for their extraordinary contributions to contemporary fiction. This year’s winner, announced on Wednesday, June 3, is How to be Both by Ali Smith.
Prize judges describe the winning book as a story of “grief, love, sexuality and shape-shifting identity.” Two separate narratives, entitled Camera and Eye, take place 500 years apart with a glorious painted fresco as the link to both. Camera is the story of George(ia), a contemporary English teen who is thinking over exchanges with her mother who has since died. Eye tells of Francescho, an Italian girl, also motherless, masquerading as a boy in order to gain entrance as a painter in the 15 century art world. Smith says her inspiration to write How to be Both came from viewing Renaissance artist Francesco del Cossa’s beautiful works.
The shortlist of nominees included beloved local author Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which follows a Baltimore family as its younger generations cope with their aging parents. A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie combines Ottoman Empire history, archaeology, a treasure hunt and romance against the backdrop of World War I. Rachel Cusk was nominated for Outline, a book of revelatory conversations between a woman and an assortment of people who cross her path while she is teaching a writing class in Greece. Rounding out the shortlist are two titles which appeared earlier on Between the Covers: The Bees by Laline Paull, which immerses the reader in an imaginative, totalitarian honeybee hive society; and Sarah Water’s The Paying Guest, which explores the effects of societal constraints on women, resulting in a crime of forbidden passion in post-World War II England.
Don’t judge this book by its simple cover; the stories contained within Arthur Bradford’s collection Turtleface and Beyond are highly original and situationally hilarious. Turtleface and Beyond features a series of stories starring Georgie, a hapless, lackadaisical fellow who seems to be a magnet for the bizarre.
In the titular "Turtleface," Georgie is canoeing down a lazy river with his friend Otto and their girlfriends, when Otto spies an imposing cliff and wants to leap from it. Against Georgie's advice, Otto scrambles up the mountainside and dives into the river below, where his face meets a meandering turtle. Georgie is racked with guilt not because of Otto's foolish accident, but because the turtle's shell is fissured.
"Lost Limbs" is the story of Georgie's unrequited interest in Lenore, a woman with a prosthetic arm. Lenore interprets Georgie’s lack of interest in her prosthesis as self-absorbed and ignoble, but poor Georgie didn’t even realize her arm was fake until their second date. Lenore breaks things off with Georgie, who is content with her decision until months later when he gets his leg caught in a wood chipper. As his calf is mangled in the machine, his first thought is, "Hm, I should call that lovely girl with the fake hand."
Georgie works the graveyard shift in an attorney’s library in "217-Pound Dog," where he meets Jim Tewilliger, a partner at the firm whose life is beginning to unravel. Sensing Georgie's kind nature, Jim asks him for help acquiring some marijuana. Georgie senses Jim is a man in need of a rare kind of help, so he acquiesces. Jim's behavior around the office becomes increasingly erratic, and Georgie, left vouching for him in a whirlwind of unfinished work and fast food wrappers, wonders what his acquaintance’s endgame entails.
Arthur Bradford’s imagination illuminates Georgie’s misadventures in Turtleface and Beyond, a collection genre lovers will find funny, laconic and clever.
When a novel depicts a brief period of time, the pacing becomes just as crucial as the plot and the characters of the story. Hannah Pittard’s new novel Reunion takes place in the mourning period between a death and subsequent viewing. During those emotional few days, readers witness genuine exchanges between siblings who revert to old tendencies as soon as they’re in the same room together.
En route to Chicago via plane, Kate Pulaski checks her phone and discovers her estranged father Stan has killed himself. Her older siblings Elliot and Nell are pausing their busy lives to fly to Georgia to be with Sasha, Stan’s fifth wife, and their daughter Mindy. Kate is baffled by how quickly her brother and sister have booked their flights, and is forced onto another flight by her husband Peter — right before he tells her he wants a divorce. Kate remembers an affair she had and isn’t surprised by her husband’s scorn, but the timing couldn’t be worse. Wondering how any of her siblings, half-siblings or mothers-in-law could possibly want to mourn Stan’s death, Kate tries in vain to bolster her head and her heart for a tumultuous next couple of days. Days spent drinking far too much wine and attempting to read into familial relationships that she barely knew existed — what else is there to do at a family reunion predicated on a suicide?
Hannah Pittard opens and nurses complex relations between her cast of lovingly crafted and completely human characters, illustrating that a sense of familiarity — with people, places or things — can cause people to take an introspective look at what they’ve become and where they’re headed. Coming-of-age fans will find lots to like in Reunion, as will teens and new adults who enjoy relationship-centric stories.
Prepare to embark on a journey through desolation in Laura van den Berg’s debut novel Find Me. Reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Find Me is a deglamorized record of post-pandemic survival, one where recovery cannot begin until what’s held dear is forsaken.
Joy Jones is in the hospital, but not because she is sick; rather, she’s flotsam in the wake of a new virus that has left America 400,000 people fewer. Joy is one of around 90 survivors living in quarantine at the hospital, hoping to avoid the sickness which manifests as silver skin lesions and deteriorates the memory until the body forgets how to function. Under Dr. Bek and his armada of imposing nurses clad in hazmat suits, the 90 undergo daily stress tests to increase their chances of survival. Despite the uncomfortably close monitoring, some of the interned contract the illness and are sent to the upper floors to die. Joy knows that things at this medical sanctuary aren’t as they seem, and the sudden imposition of a localized media blackout exacerbates her fears. Armed with a photo of her estranged mother bequeathed to her by a deceased aunt, Joy plans her escape with the hopes of finding all she has squandered and relinquished.
Find Me is about loss both immediate and lifelong; it’s a mural of a populace haunted by all things unrecoverable. In a world where there is no hope or love left to fill voids, chasms consume those desperate souls who can’t bring themselves to let go. Laura van den Berg writes in a superb literary voice without betraying her young heroine, and brings ancillary characters to life through their unique memory mnemonics and coping mechanisms. Readers who enjoyed or who are anxiously awaiting their copies of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven should go to great lengths to track this one down.
Miranda July is an extraordinary artist capable of channeling her creativity into any medium, and her debut novel The First Bad Man surpasses the ambitiousness of her fantastic short collection No One Belongs Here More Than You. In The First Bad Man, July makes a mockery of relationship conventions and proves through her quirky, heavily flawed characters that for love to exist, it simply needs to be felt.
Manic, obsessive, middle-aged Cheryl works from home for a nonprofit women’s self-defense studio. Her bosses Carl and Suzanne are looking for a volunteer to shelter their obstinate daughter Clee who is in desperate need of a change of scenery, but they’re met with little enthusiasm around the office. So when Clee shows up on Cheryl’s doorstep with her stuff, neither she nor Cheryl is prepared for how violently their disparate worlds are about to collide. At first, the two avoid each other when they’re both home, but once they’re forced to acknowledge how weird this is, the avoidance devolves into nightly wrestling matches inspired by the self-defense exercises constituting their livelihoods. Ritual gives way to shame, which cycles back to anger between the estranged housemates, and it takes a grounding realization for Clee to feel open to reconciliation with Cheryl. Will their relationship bloom into something even more complex and beautiful, or break down like everything else in their lives has?
Cheryl and Clee waver between the roles of optimist and pessimist, offsetting the absurdity of their situation with a sense of “I guess it could happen” realism. With a supporting cast including a pair of psychiatrists with more problems than their clientele and a philanderer who needs a spiritual permission slip to do his thing, The First Bad Man is a strangely perverse, endearing and memorable warping of the tale of two people united by calamity.
For Lady, Vee and Delph Alter, suicide runs in the family. Now, the clock is ticking for the three sisters in Judith Claire Mitchell's dynamic turn-of-the-century family saga A Reunion of Ghosts. The Alter siblings believe their fates are sealed and have selected midnight, December 31, 1999 as the date they, too, will end their lives. But first, they want to chronicle the story of four generations of Alters in a sort of tell-all group memoir that is also their suicide note.
The Alter sisters come from a long, complicated line of suicidal tendencies going back to their great-grandmother, Iris. Iris was married to Lenz Alter, a Jewish Nobel prize-winning chemist who ironically developed the poison gas used by the Germans in World War II. Eventually, the scientist, their son Richard and his children (including the sisters' mother), also killed themselves. (Readers will find it helpful to refer to the detailed family tree included in the front of the book to keep track of who's who.)
Now, the Alter siblings are stuck. "The truth is, we all fell through the cracks, and that's where we've stayed," they said. They even live in the same inherited Upper West Side apartment, complete with a "death and dying room" no one has slept in for years. Lady, divorced and miserable, has already attempted suicide once. Vee, whose husband died, is facing a cancer recurrence. The youngest Delph contemplates what being cursed really means. They want to hasten what they feel is the inevitable course of events.
Mitchell has crafted here a stylistically complex, intertwining narrative through the unified voice of the three protagonists. It is their pragmatism and wry, dark humor that lend this family portrait its memorable quality. While Ghosts is about an imaginary family, Mitchell does use some historical material. The German-Jewish scientist Fritz Haber and his first wife, Clara, were the inspiration for Lenz and Iris Alter. Readers interested in Mitchell's research will find a thorough bibliography at the end of this achingly elegant story.
There may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but for Anna Benz there is only one way to meet your lover…and that's by train. Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut novel, Hausfrau, watches Anna’s downward spiral as she grasps at physical intimacies in an attempt to fill the gaping emotional void of her life.
Anna, an American living in a hamlet in Switzerland, is profoundly unhappy. She finds the Swiss — including her banker husband Bruno — remote, and her few friendships with expats are unfulfilling. Her struggles with the local Schwiizerdütsch dialect increase her feelings of alienation, even from her three children. The train leaving the village beckons Anna with an escape. She enrolls in a German class, but quickly finds herself in an extramarital affair with a classmate. Soon after, she drifts into another sexual relationship with a family friend.
Essbaum writes Anna as a passive woman with little will, or does she? Anna enters into liaisons readily, yet resists female friendship. Frustrated with her sadness, her husband suggests psychotherapy. As her Jungian analyst probes Anna’s psyche and interprets her dreams and her language teacher parses grammar, Anna holds back, refusing to fully participate in the very activities she’s chosen to allay her distress. Essbaum’s use of language is precise as she slowly reveals Anna’s story by cycling between past and present, illuminating the nature of her discontent as her decisions become increasingly reckless and self-destructive. Doktor Messerli tells Anna in a therapy session, “…there’s no need to seek out those mistakes. For now it is they who seek you.” Intense and disconcerting, Hausfrau is an unforgettable portrait of a desperate woman.
Few collectives of the 20th century grabbed as much attention or gathered as much talent as the prolific Bloomsbury Group. Made up of luminaries of the art, literary and academic world, their indelible stamp on the thoughts and trends of the turn of the century still resonate with fans today. Much has been written and dissected of the Group’s offerings, particularly the writing of E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. While Virginia’s remarkable career and personal struggles may consume most of the spotlight, author Priya Parmar has delved into the mind of Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, in her novel Vanessa and Her Sister.
Told through a series of fictional diary entries, letters and telegrams, Vanessa attempts to carve out her painting career amidst the chaos of falling in love, having children, grieving and dealing with Virginia’s violent and troubling moods. Vanessa often feels on the outside of the literary world she is forced to inhabit. While her friends are off having love affairs and traveling the world at large, she wonders if she is meant to fall behind because of her family obligations. Her creative mind will not allow her to give up on her art. As it becomes clear that Virginia’s jealousy extends beyond Vanessa’s artistic talents and moves to her family life, she grapples with the knowledge of how devious and manipulative the very people she loves most can be.
Rich in characterization and detail, fans of the Bloomsbury Group and of novels like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours will find this sumptuous novel a treat for the brain.
M. O. Walsh’s heartbreaking novel My Sunshine Away follows a man looking back at tragic events that formed him into the adult he became. It was 1989 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and a teenage girl is raped in a middle class neighborhood, throwing suspicion on several of the people that live there. One of the suspects is a teenage boy who has become obsessed with the victim, and his obsession leads him on a quest to discover the truth, even when the victim herself just wants to leave the past behind her. While he ruminates over the event that will ultimately change him, life continues to move forward, throwing more tragedy and grief his way. He must find a way to come to terms with where he has been in order to become who he is meant to be.
My Sunshine Away is beautifully written but is not an easy read. It deals with the darker corners of the human heart, and the sense of loss and longing is palpable. M. O. Walsh is a gifted writer, and, even if you don’t genuinely like the narrator at times, the reader will be captured by his story and his need to press forward. The author uses events in American history to further capture the sense of place and time, and his descriptions of Baton Rouge bring the city to life. Ultimately, it is a coming-of-age tale, told from the male perspective. The author does an amazing job getting inside the narrators head, slowly revealing things needed to be said. Truly a discussable novel, My Sunshine Away would be a perfect fit for book groups. After this, you may want to try The Little Friend by Donna Tartt or Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward.
Missing children show up on milk cartons. What happens to missing adults whose disappearance may not trigger the same sense of urgency from law enforcement investigations? Novels The Missing Place by Sophie Littlefield and Descent by Tim Johnston combine taut suspense with a look at the family dynamics at play when an adult child vanishes.
Descent opens with Grant and Angie Courtland lazing in a Colorado hotel room bed while their son and college-bound daughter are out on an early morning mountain trail jaunt. A ringing telephone conveys the news to the parents that their Rockies summer vacation is now officially a nightmare. Sixteen-year-old Sean was found on the trail, unconscious and with a shattered leg; his older sister Caitlin has disappeared without a trace. Johnson examines the remaining Courtlands’ unique reactions to the tragedy while unraveling the mystery of Caitlin’s fate. Part family drama, part dark psychological thriller, Descent will keep the reader on tenterhooks to the end.
In The Missing Place, suburban Boston housewife Colleen Mitchell is flying to North Dakota armed only with a handful of text messages from her son Paul, who’s gone missing after he dropped out of college to work as a roughneck in the booming hydrofracking industry. Colleen ends up sharing lodgings with Shay, mother to a young man who went missing along with Paul, and the two women from opposite sides of the tracks form an uneasy alliance to search for their sons. Colleen brings her corporate lawyer husband’s financial resources to their quest while Shay brings tech savvy and street smarts, but is that sufficient to breach the cone of silence engineered by gas companies intent on guarding their bottom line? Littlefield, an Edgar Award nominee who writes for both adults and teens, deftly portrays the anguish of mothers determined to find their sons who end up uncovering some unexpected adult secrets, too.