If you didn’t already know, I’ve been taking part in the Baileys Prize Shadow Jury this year. Along with five other passionate readers we made it our mission to read the twenty longlisted books, select our own shortlist and crown our own winner. We met over dinner and drinks for the long final debate during which each of the novels we shortlisted was discussed in detail – as well as several books we wished had been included on the judges’ original longlist. Personally, if Marilynne Robinson’s “Lila” had been listed for the prize I would have argued that it should have won.

Our own shortlist (slightly different from the official judges’ shortlist) included the books:

“Dear Thief” by Samantha Harvey
“The Country of Ice Cream Star” by Sandra Newman
“How to be Both” by Ali Smith
“The Shore” by Sara Taylor
“A Spool of Blue Thread” by Anne Tyler
“The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters

I’m delighted to announce our selected champion is Ali Smith!

I’m very happy with this decision as “How to be Both” is the book I wanted to win and I think it’s the book which will actually win the Baileys Prize. However, part of me does feel regretful that we didn’t choose “The Country of Ice Cream Star” because this is a tremendously inventive and radical novel which does deserve more attention. As I discussed in my review, I think there are flaws but these are outweighed by the tremendous vision Newman had to create such a complex alternative future and original narrator. Nevertheless, “How to be Both” is a tremendous novel that deserves to be celebrated. I’ll have all my fingers and toes crossed for Ali Smith at the Baileys Prize award ceremony!

Check out the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction site for more info about the shortlist and a fun The Brilliant Woman’s Guide to a Very Modern Book Club. 

Who do you want to win? Are there other novels you wish had been on the Baileys Prize shortlist?

Laline Paull’s novel “The Bees” is the story of an ordinary low-level worker bee named Flora 717 and her extraordinary journey. It sounds like a dubious premise upon which to base a novel and I was sceptical at first. The concept felt to me to be too similar to the 1998 movie ‘Antz’ in which Woody Allen is the voice of an existentially-troubled worker ant who questions life’s meaning when you are an anonymous being amongst millions. The movie was a fun way to express aspects of human angst in an indirect way via anthropomorphism, but it didn’t give you much appreciation for the way consciousness must work differently amongst insects compared to humans. Paull’s novel does this by showing you the way Flora 717’s thoughts and feelings are inextricably tied to the collective hive. In doing so she creates a compelling tale which gives a fascinating perspective on social interaction, hierarchies in society and will likely spark a keen interest in melittology (the study of honey bees) that you never thought you’d have.

The author vividly captures the extraordinary way in which bees communicate not strictly through language but more through scents and chemicals. Information is communicated through their antennas and dances are performed to let other bees know where to locate the best places to collect pollen. There is also the “hive mind” which seems to be a sort of collective intelligence that lets the bees know how to act – especially in times of crisis when the hive is being invaded or there is an insidious illness. Don’t make the mistake in thinking that because this novel depicts the lives of honey makers it’s going to be cute. There are scenes of really gruelling savage horror when there is conflict between sects of the hive or rivalry or bees that need to be disposed of because they’ve lost their usefulness. The drones (male bees) are amusingly portrayed as swaggering, greedy and bullying. I particularly appreciated how the female majority which kowtow to them in a really sickening way when exposed to their masculinity take on a very different attitude towards them when these males lose their place amongst the hive.

Since the hive is a monarchy the queen is a figurehead worshiped by the masses but she also bears the largest practical use to the hive as she is the only one that lays eggs. Without her the population would rapidly diminish and collapse. It’s fascinating the way she is for the most part a benign presence whose dirty work is carried out by a sage elite class of the hive which also has the support of the militant ants. Paull impressively demonstrates the complex politics which go into maintaining power and keeping the masses in check with slogans and prayers. The only time I felt this didn’t work so well is in one section where the bees give a revised version of the holy prayer in praise of the queen bee which felt like a bit of a silly appropriation. There political conflicts with wasps and there are negotiations with spiders who have access to a more in-depth knowledge that bees don’t possess because of their limited life span; the payment needed for this information is also impressively horrific. The queen maintains a library with stories which aren’t understood by the bees but whose importance into play over the course of the hive’s life cycle.

At times it does feel like a bit of a stretch that the character of Flora 717 who is born in the lowest social group can so rapidly rise up through different levels of the hive. Through demonstrations of a range of talents and the encouragement of other workers she participates in almost every aspect of the hive from cleaning waste to nursing eggs to attending the queen to making wax to gathering pollen to defending the hive from attackers. I assumed that the rigid social structures of the hive would prevent her from moving so freely amongst these different levels of workers, but it is true that worker bees can adopt a number of different responsibilities within a hive during their lives. But it does feel that there are some instances where the author is ushering her character through these layers of bee society simply to show the fascinating inner workings of a hive. The novel does give this validity by hinting that Flora 717’s sometimes rebellious behaviour is supported by secret dissenters in the ranks. Also, it didn’t really bother me as I felt myself so swept up in the sheer adventure of the story as complex politics play out amidst a year in the life of the hive.

Along with the thrill of the story, “The Bees” does give an interesting perspective on individual will versus the collective need. Those entrusted with directing the hive at times abuse their power out of self interest. It offers up numerous ways of looking at how the political philosophy of a monarchy versus that of democracy has different pros and cons. Flora 717 is a true royalist and worships as the other bees do, yet she is guided by an inner logic that isn’t self-servicing so much as directed by an interest in the survival of her kinfolk. Her role has a compelling trajectory when the bees’ carefully ordered society begins to break down. It’s also so refreshing to read a story that is all about a female-dominated society. This is a very creative, intelligent and entertaining novel which is a joy to read.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLaline Paull
6 CommentsPost a comment

It’s unsettling and frustrating at first. Rachel Cusk’s novel “Outline” begins with a narrator (who remains nameless throughout most of the novel) taking a plane to Athens in order to teach a writing course. She strikes up a conversation with an older semi-wealthy man in the seat next to hers. Despite a long monologue where he divulges the most intimate details of his failed marriages, family strife and financial struggles, he is only referred to as her neighbour and continues being labelled as such throughout this novel even after several lunches and boat trips she takes with the man. The narrator also has a series of meetings with other teachers, writers and the students of her class where she prompts them to outline possible stories they could write. All the while personal details about the narrator remain largely unknown.

Why the aversion to giving her central characters names or filling in plot details about these characters’ lives in the present? Maybe it’s because the narrator senses that there is something inauthentic about this thing we call identity. When she plunges off a boat into the water she “felt that I could swim for miles, out into the ocean… it was an impulse I knew well, and I had learned that it was not the summons from a larger world I used to believe it to be. It was simply a desire to escape from what I had. The thread led nowhere, except into ever expanding wastes of anonymity.” So she is trying to lose herself. As fervently as she wishes to remain a mere sketch, the more ardently I wanted concrete details about her identity. We know she’s divorced and has estranged children. There are occasional flashes of personal memories like a beautiful description of being a child dozing in the back seat of her parents’ car while being driven home from the seaside. Larger issues in the narrator’s life remain unclear. She checks her phone as she’s tense about receiving approval on a loan, but we don’t know what it’s for exactly. The need for physical escape, money and anonymity are what she wants. The awareness of this is the tantalizing thing about her which will alternately frustrate and intrigue the reader throughout the experience of this novel.

Souvlaki is a recurring meal in the novel

Souvlaki is a recurring meal in the novel

There is a lot of pleasure to be had in this book. There is light and dark humour. For instance, in a scene where the narrator imagines falling off the boat driven by her neighbour she imagines becoming part of just another anecdote that he relates to his new neighbour on his next plane ride. She imagines him referring to the incident as “the full disaster” - the turn of phrase he uses to describe monumental tragedies in his life. The exchanges between her writing students are particularly funny and well observed. Potent symbols are scattered throughout the novel such as a photograph of a couple in a cafe outside the comfortable apartment she’s allowed to stay in while teaching. The couple are suspended in a pose of intimate conversation where a joke or anecdote is being shared and seems “terrifyingly real.” This couple suspended in a moment of exchange is repeated in different forms throughout many of the narrator’s experiences in the novel where people’s stories are told over drinks and meals of Greek food. The ceaseless, searching, self-justified speeches accumulate into a kind of yearning people have to give structure and meaning to their lives. Yet, once they’ve defined their personal histories into a certain shape they become frozen as in a photograph. 

I found myself highlighting many passages throughout the book as there are so many intriguing thoughts and clever observations to ponder. They range from thoughts about the writing process to the meaning of identity. “Outline” is predominantly a novel about ideas, but unlike Tom McCarthy’s recent “Satin Island” (which I somewhat harshly critiqued) I was mesmerized by it because of the way these thoughts are framed within the distinct identities of a revolving set of characters. The chorus of voices builds to a moving understanding of the tension between living one’s life in the moment and maintaining a frame around it like a constantly running narrative where you’re the protagonist in your own movie. The neighbour follows his passions through one disaster after another, steadily building the story of his life that he can relate to strangers he meets on airplanes. He remarks at one point that “I discovered that a life with no story was not, in the end, a life that I could live.” Yet this is the only kind of life that the narrator seems to want. She’s desperate to avoid the crisis the next teacher who comes to replace her in Athens experiences where a man made her into “a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank.” Through an immolation of the self the narrator (eventually referred to as Faye) achieves a defiant freedom to define her life as she pleases. The outline of who she is cannot be filled in by the interpretation of any listener within the story or reader of this novel.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRachel Cusk
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It's always felt to me that at the centre of Anne Tyler's novels about genteel middle class Baltimore life there is horrific fear. What if this life you've worked so hard for is something you wake up wanting to escape from? What if the people closest to you and the family you've known all your life turn out to be strangers? Tyler presents these insolvable dilemmas by following the daily life of her characters while also acknowledging the absurdity and uselessness of the questions. Of course there are a multitude of possibilities in life and we can't choose them all because we're caught in the unstoppable flow of time which necessarily limits the options we have. Even though we can spend our lives with people we're linked to by blood or marriage and we can know their habits, we cannot know what's truly in their hearts. In Tyler's fiction people can walk out the door one evening to become someone new or wake in the morning to see that their partner of forty years is someone they've always hated. It's this daily risk which makes the finely constructed domestic detail of her narratives both terrifying and thrilling.

In “A Spool of Blue Thread” she takes a new approach to this by writing a family saga which moves backwards through the generations. At the start we're introduced to the Whitshanks who live in the perfect suburban home. They have four adult children, but it's their third child Denny who is the wayward black sheep. He flashes in and out of family's life unable to settle. Unsurprisingly, it's the troubled child which gets the most attention and therefore draws resentment from his siblings. Tyler then shifts focus to the mother Abby. She writes about Abby and Red's uncomfortable transition from old age to elderly. The family rally together to decide how to care for their parents Red and Abby while still allowing them to maintain their independence. Finally the story moves back to the family's origin: Red's parents Junior and Linnie with their mysterious past. At the centre is the Whitshank family home, an idealized space built by Junior himself for a middle class family and gradually purchased for his own family. The home is passed through the generations as a symbol of self-creation, a quintessential American family who started with nothing and have formed a lineage with many branches.

This novel in triptych form reminds me of Gauguin's incredible painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? from the way it unpretentiously displays every stage of life and multiple generations. At the same time it quietly asks these fundamental questions about the nature of being. Tyler is also cleverly disentangling the myth of the idealized nuclear American family. On the surface, the Whitshanks give an impression of established stability. Yet, everything about them was acquired, if not exactly immorally, but on the sly. Junior schemed to purchase the family home from the Brills, the family he worked for. Red's sister Merrick connived to gain the wealthy husband her good friend intended to marry. A child who is suddenly made an orphan is taken into the Whitshank home and raised as one of their own without any formal adoption taking place. These are all things which the family have appropriated as aspirational accessories to present themselves to the world as who they want to be. The great tension in this novel is between becoming and being. Whether you have truly earned what's in your life or not, when do the people/things around you turn from a symbol of what you want to become into a fundamental part of who you are?

The impressive thing is how lightly Tyler addresses all these concerns in her writing. There is nothing ponderous about her narrative at all filling it with so much detail about the delicate balance of family relationship and the minutiae of daily life. She includes a good degree of humanity and humour into her prose. When recounting one of the two stories which are marked as vital to the family's oral history, Tyler writes of Junior: “In 1936, he fell in love with a house. No, first he must have fallen in love with his wife, because he was married by then.” This sort of wry observation has all the humorous qualities which you can recognize as characteristic of a tale endlessly retold over the dinner table. Only later in the novel does it take on a darker quality. There is a fine balance to the way the family narrates their own story in this novel and the facts of their history which are doled out by Tyler herself.

Many of Tyler's observations about her characters behaviour come across as true to life, things you can relate to yourself or things which you can recognize as similar to people you know. There is the odd occasion when she does slip. When describing in parentheses an example of one character's generosity of spirit she remarks: “(He traded his new bike for a kitten when Jeannie’s beloved cat died.)” It makes me wonder, what sort of transaction would estimate a bike as equivalent value to a kitten – animals which are notoriously given away for free when a family has a cat that's given birth? And even if a trade like this did take place what parent would allow their young boy to make it? Aside from some small quibbles I had at times, Tyler's characters come across as well-formed and relatable.

In this novel's best moments it has all the heft and pleasures of “To the Lighthouse.” Virginia Woolf was a writer who cherished the physical detail and small interactions of life because these tiny realities are the line of life. They add up to saying something substantial and meaningful about existence. “A Spool of Blue Thread” gives us a deep insight into the type of family you could live next door to. At the lake where the Whitshanks vacation every summer there is a family who rent a cabin adjacent to them. They see them every year, but never make contact. Instead they observe subtle changes about how the family grows and changes from a distance. The Whitshanks feel that their story is parallel to their own, but essentially unknown. Tyler's writing is about making that contact where polite society does not. In doing so, she shows all the passion and fear that is a part of every family life.

A new Sarah Waters novel is always a cause for celebration. I’ve read three of her previous novels and loved the experience of each with “Fingersmith” topping the pile. But I think “The Paying Guests” may be my new favourite. Waters has that special ability as a writer of gripping you from the start. Even though there isn’t much action at the beginning of this new novel, I was totally entranced by the vividly-described characters and their suffocating sense of claustrophobia as they awkwardly learn to live together. And you know that with this author’s talented ability for writing a long sumptuously twisted plot that the action will come soon enough and boy when it starts it is totally gripping! It’s 1922. At a large well-to-do house in south-east London, spinster-ish Frances Wray and her aging mother anxiously await the arrival of their paying guests, The Barbers. Frances has redecorated some upstairs rooms to rent out to lodgers because they are a respectable family who have fallen on hard times. She lives alone with her mother since her father died of heart trouble and her two brothers died in the war. The too-large house has fallen into disrepair. As Frances’ mother admits: “It’s heart stopped… years ago.” They can’t afford servants. They can barely afford to keep the heat going to stay warm. They need an income of rent money. However, being a respectable family the neighbours refer to the Wray’s new lodgers as their paying guests.

Even though she’s only in her 20s Frances feels like she’s already past her prime spending her days making murky cups of cocoa for her mother and scrubbing the floors of the house. Her thoughts about her position in life are that she should “Be content with your 'role', that you are settling so nicely into, like an oyster digging its dumb way into the sea-bed.” In the past she’s not been so satisfied with such a modest role in life. Years ago she had an affair with a woman which was found out by her family and put to a stop. When Frances unexpectedly finds love again, the affair threatens to completely unhinge her life and the story takes a series of gripping unexpected turns.

What Waters is supremely accomplished at doing in her writing is detailing the psychological intricacies of romance, the ebb and flow of lust and the overriding indecisiveness of love. The awakening of passion, the heat of the moment and the stupefaction at when it goes are all described in utterly convincing scenes. It leads Frances to wonder at one point “if their passion had ever been real.” Although we like to believe that once we’ve found the love of our lives our feelings will remain constant but they always fluctuate. We can be clingy and possessive about a person one minute, then revolted and spiky towards them the next. In “The Paying Guests” Frances and her lover’s relationship undergoes unusually extreme tests as the plot develops and their circumstances drive them physically and emotionally apart.

Watch Sarah Waters discuss THE PAYING GUESTS

Lingering behind so many intense affairs in Waters’ novels is the suspicion that the other person may not genuinely love them back. This is true in any relationship, but particularly so in the times in which Waters writes about homosexual love. The fear of betrayal that could lead to exposure and shame exerts terrifying pressure on the binding which holds these unique relationships together. Frances is a woman unusual in her time in that she is confident about her sexual desires for women. She ardently wishes to settle down in an apartment of her own with the woman she loves. Ironically, Mrs Wray says to Frances at one point, “all I’ve ever wanted for you were such ordinary things: a husband, a home, a family of your own. Such ordinary, ordinary things.” These are the ordinary things that Frances so desperately wants as well with the small substitution of having a wife rather than a husband. Herein lies the real tragedy.

There are a great many things I’d like to discuss about this novel, but can’t because it would give too much about the plot away. But rest assured you’ll find the thrill of passion, criminal intrigue, drunken parties, nosey neighbours, snooping detectives and a heated courtroom battle – all played out against the magnificently rendered backdrop of post-WWI London. Waters is that rare kind of literary writer who creates thrillingly-told historical novels. “The Paying Guests” demonstrates how this writer is at the height of her powers. It’s a novel with real heart.