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George Orwell’s books were one of my first great loves. Like many students I was first introduced to his writing through “1984” and “Animal Farm” but soon after I also came to discover his other fiction including “Burmese Days”, “A Clergyman’s Daughter” and “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” as well as his nonfiction journalism in “Down and Out in Paris and London” and “The Road to Wigan Pier” – not to mention his many incisive essays. The Orwell Foundation awards a number of prizes for work which comes closest to Orwell’s ambition “to make political writing into an art” and it’s exciting that this year they’ve launched the inaugural Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. This award specifically aims to reward outstanding novels and collections of short stories that illuminate major social and political themes, present or past, through the art of narrative.

The shortlist has just been announced today and includes a number of familiar novels as well as some books I’m so glad to see celebrated. It’s notable how the novels listed range from books which consider the past, present and future. From Tshuma’s account of a massacre in Zimbabwe to Evans’ survey of modern life in contemporary London to Zumas’ frighteningly relevant projection of an America where abortion has been strictly outlawed these books consider how individuals are trapped in the politics of their time. Still others straddle a long space of history such as Brown’s account of working class life within a Middlesbrough housing estate to evoke a sense of place as much as character.

It’s amazing to see how Anna Burns’ “Milkman” was first published to relative obscurity but has since gone on to win the Man Booker Prize and be shortlisted for both the Rathbones Folio Prize and Women’s Prize. It’s particularly apt Burns’ novel has been nominated for this award since its central message is about a young woman being helplessly trapped by the crushing political strife within her community. Also nominated for the Man Booker Prize last year was graphic novel “Sabrina” which hauntingly depicts an America emotionally hollowed out by the reverberating effects of gun violence. Taking a different track, Evans’ “Ordinary People” features larger political events in the background as two different black couples wrestle with the pressures of modern day life. I was drawn to reading “Red Clocks” because of its allusions to Virginia Woolf’s writing, but found myself gripped by its story and its prescient depiction of an America which regimentally controls the bodies of women.

The remaining two novels “House of Stone” and “Ironopolis” are both books I’ve been aware of for a while and really want to read. So I’m glad this prize has prompted me to make these novels a priority and bump them up my TBR pile. Have you read any of the books on this list? Any favourites? Are there other recent novels that you also feel meaningfully engage with politics? The winner of this award will be announced on June 25th.

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When I recently heard that Leni Zumas’ new novel “Red Clocks” was partly inspired by Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” I felt I had to read it. I love Woolf’s poetically-charged novel so much and it’s lived with me for so many years I feel like it’s a part of my body and soul. The plot of Zumas’ novel doesn’t directly relate to Woolf’s writing but it gives several nods to it and pays tribute to her predecessor so part of the great pleasure of reading this book was knowing I was in the company of a fellow Woolf lover. The epigraph of this novel is a line from Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”. Set on the western US coast it portrays the interweaving lives of four different women in a time when abortion is outlawed in America and legislation is coming into place that requires any child who is adopted to have two parents. Sadly, it’s easy to imagine such regressive laws being put into effect with the current administration. Chapters are headed by a part that these four different women play in the story: the biographer, the mender, the daughter and the wife. So the novel is partly about the way that women can become defined by their roles in life and how society brackets women within a specific function. Of course, their characters are really much more complex than these parts and the story dramatically shows the way women can work together under a political regime that seeks to suppress and control them.

A few of the characters’ names relate directly to “The Waves”. The Mender is named Ginny (spelled differently from the character Jinny in “The Waves”) and whose demeanour is very different from Woolf’s creation in that Ginny is a modern-day apothecary who only uses natural herbs and organic concoctions to treat women in need. She lives in rural isolation, pines for the affair she had with a man’s wife and aspires to self sufficiency which make most of the local community “think she’s unhinged, a forest weirdo, a witch.” Ginny’s surname is Percival and comes from a lineage of “menders” she aspires to emulate and who were equally misunderstood and scorned women. In “The Waves” Percival is the elusive hero at the centre who all the characters admire and love. So, in a sense, it feels that by giving her character Ginny this surname Zumas is seeing her work as a writer in a tradition aligned with Woolf.

The Wife of the story is named Susan. Her promising legal career has long been left behind in order to become a full time mother to two children and her relationship to her husband has severely deteriorated despite her efforts to rescue it. It’s interesting how the character of Susan in “The Waves” is the most maternal and domestically-orientated one of the bunch, but over the course of her life she finds herself steeped in regret and sorrow for her stymied passions despite finding so much superficial contentment. I’ve always felt a deep affection for her so I enjoyed how Zumas creates in a modern version of this character the ability for her to pursue new avenues in her life that can exist alongside motherhood (without being anyone’s wife). 

The most fascinating character relationship between “The Waves” and “Red Clocks” is with Zumas’ character Roberta Stephens. Obviously, Stephen was Virginia Woolf’s maiden name. But Roberta is a teacher and writer working on a biography of an obscure woman named Eivør Minervudottir who was a polar hydrologist and arctic explorer “whose trailblazing research on pack ice was published under a male acquaintance’s name”. (Incidentally, Minervudottir’s uncle is a lighthouse keeper.) Short passages of her writing about Minervudottir are positioned in between the sections about these modern-day women. In “The Waves” each section is interspersed with a passage about the movement of light over the course of a day. So, by including these passages about Minervudottir, Zumas shows the way the struggles and ambition of historic women still resonate in the lives of women today. I also highly appreciate how these passages show Roberta’s writing process with lines crossed out as she assiduously attempts to articulate what she wants to express in the biography she’s writing.

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While these are specific references that relate to “The Waves” in ways that might be incidental (but which excite me to read about because I’m such a fan of the novel), the overall tone of the writing is unique and compulsively readable. Zumas uses such unique turns of phrase. In one section, a character feels as if she’s surrounded by “a crowd of vulvic ghosts”. But there are occasional lines which feel so resonant of Woolf’s writing they might be lifted from one of her novels. Zumas describes “the ocean beyond, a shirred blue prairie stretching to the horizon, cut by bars of green. Far from shore: a black fin” and later on how “Canned tomatoes make loud red suns across her vision.” The novel has touches of this Woolfian description and imagery which gives another sort of lovely tribute to the modernist writer, but overall it is infused with a much more modern sound and resonance.

I also appreciated the way these characters’ stories make a larger message about the way women relate to their bodies changes when put under restrictive legal measures. More generally, women are often made to feel that they inhabit a biological clock which gives them a limited time frame in which to bear children. Zumas poignantly describes how this is a pressure that some women feel dearly. The larger political message this story creates is skilfully envisioned especially in how the relationship between the US and Canada changes when a “pink wall” is created that disallows American women from seeking out abortions across the border. “Red Clocks” feels like such a timely book and it’s an imaginative and enjoyable read. You certainly don’t need to be a fan of Virginia Woolf to appreciate it, but it adds another dimension to how you can read this novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLeni Zumas