Second novels are notoriously difficult to write. A new writer can produce their fiction without the weight of expectation, but once a first novel comes out there is a demand for a follow up which trips up many of the most talented writers. So it’s really great to see that the Royal Society of Literature dedicates a prize exactly to this category of book with The Encore Award. I’m particularly excited by this year’s shortlist as I’ve read all these novels and can highly recommend each of them. I won’t even begin to predict a winner; it’s simply enough to say these are highly accomplished novels that represent a wide variety of styles and subject matter.

I’m particularly pleased to see two novels on the list which specifically include complex and well-rounded transgender characters: “The Sunlight Pilgrims” and “The Lauras”. It’s so rare that this happens in fiction! Also, something I greatly admired about “The North Water” was the way this hyper-masculine environment of a whaling ship includes a sensitively-portrayed gay character. There’s also the challenge to Victorian gender stereotypes in “The Essex Serpent” and a heartbreaking portrayal of a male child’s sexual abuse in “The Lesser Bohemians”. And, it has to be said, “Beast” disarmingly portrays a man so stripped of civilization in his pared down isolated existence he might not even be human anymore. Having also read most of these authors' first novels it's fascinating to see how their writing is evolving. Click on the titles below to read my full thoughts about these wonderful novels. The winner of the RSL Encore Award 2017 is announced April 5th.

Have you read any of them and what novel do you think should win?

The Sunlight Pilgrims - Jenni Fagan
Beast - Paul Kingsnorth
The North Water - Ian McGuire
The Lesser Bohemians - Eimear McBride
The Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry
The Lauras - Sara Taylor

One of the most exciting book prizes around that truly celebrates “fiction at its most novel” is The Goldsmiths Prize. Since 2013 its celebrated fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form.” Last year’s winner was Kevin Barry’s fantastic, funny and wild novel “Beatlebone”. The shortlist of six novels was announced yesterday and the winner will be announced on November 9th.

They’re a diverse and exciting group including Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk” which was one of my early books of the year so far and it’s also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It’s wonderful that people will see that this novel isn’t simply straightforward fiction, but Levy does something quite offbeat with both the characters and story.

I was also thrilled to see Mike McCormack’s “Solar Bones” on the list. There’s been a bit of controversy lately that this novel wasn’t considered for the Man Booker Prize because it’s by Tramp Press’ whose books only come out in Ireland. As I discussed in my post about it, the novel does something quite radical with form which perfectly suits the message that McCormack wants to convey.

Of course, Eimear McBride is famous for her highly unusual writing style after her first novel “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing” won the Baileys Prize. Her most recent novel “The Lesser Bohemians” has also made the Goldsmiths Prize list and quite rightly because she continues working with an eccentric prose style, but with a different subject. Here she explores a first love in an entirely new and refreshing way.

I read Rachel Cusk’s novel “Outline” which is a prequel to her new novel “Transit” which has been listed for the prize. While I have a copy of this new book I’ve felt trepidation about starting it because of residual conflicted feelings I had about her novel. However, I’m curious to give it a try as “Outline” was a really enjoyable reading experience. I’ve also been meaning to read Anakana Schofield’s novel “Martin John” since early on this year when I read a story of hers in “The Long Gaze Back” anthology. Finally, I’ve heard great things about Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s novel “Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun” so I’m looking forward to reading it.

Are there any novels you’ve read this year which you feel really push the form of fiction?
Have you read any books on this shortlist and which novel do you think will win?

I can still vividly remember the experience of reading Eimear McBride’s astounding debut “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing”. I was so confused initially and then utterly enthralled by its innovative voice. It plays with language and sentence structures so radically it takes a while to catch on to the level of narrative and, in fact, it helps to read the text aloud to catch the rhythm of what McBride is doing.

Her much-anticipated follow up “The Lesser Bohemians” begins in exactly the same way. For the first forty pages I was befuddled and had to read carefully to follow all the possible meaning McBride packs into her phrasing. Then my reading pace really picked up because I grew accustomed to McBride’s unique writing and got really stuck into the story of 18 year-old Eily who moves from Ireland to London in 1994 to study acting and work as a performer. She becomes enamoured with actor Stephen who is twice her age and they embark on a tumultuous and heated love affair. This is a first love story devoid of sentimentality. Instead, what McBride conveys is the complex intensity, raw passion and emotionally transformative experience of a relationship. 

It’s easy to trip up on McBride’s prose style, but it has a poetic beauty and if you take the time to unpack all that she’s saying it’s extremely rewarding. Take for instance this line about how the protagonist finds herself silenced in a social situation because of nerves: “I wish that I was someone else, a girl with words behind her face, not this one done up like a stone in herself.” It’s a really emotionally-charged way of describing common feelings of introversion. There is a lot in each sentence because, not only does McBride capture in her writing what her characters are thinking, but how they think and the experience of thought combined with action filtered through a particular sensibility.

It’s interesting how only the sections from Eily’s perspective use McBride’s quick-paced prose style, but partway through the novel we’re given Stephen’s narrative about his past as he tells it to Eily during an emotional night. The language of his extended confession about his past is written in a much more straightforward way. This comes as a relief in some ways because his back story is so complicated and unsettling I was glad it was written out clearly. Not since reading “A Little Life” have I read such a moving account of a boy’s abuse and the damaging way it affects his entire life. Stephen describes the complicate feelings which accompany his participation in being sexually abused: “wondering if the real truth was that I’d enjoyed or invited it because physically I did… and once that happens it’s like you’re implicated, like you’re an accomplice somehow.” This gets to the core of how some abuse can engender a wall of silence around it. It’s also interesting how his experiences play against Eily’s own troubled childhood which we only find out about in cryptic pieces from her recollections and exchanges with Stephen.

The original location of Foyles bookshop

The original location of Foyles bookshop

Balanced with the darker aspects of the story are lighter anecdotes which centre around the theatre scene of mid-90s London. She memorably evokes the landscape and social atmosphere of the time. I particularly liked a description of the old-style Foyles bookstore on Charing Cross Road (which has since been closed and moved down the road to a chic modern version of the bookstore). She notes how there is “No kissing in Foyles… I Anthony Burgess over my mouth.” These descriptions which convey both the comic action of their romantic encounter in the bookstore juxtaposed with the pretention of the literary allusions for this precocious theatre student made me chuckle.

Most of all “The Lesser Bohemians” so powerfully evokes a heart wrenching sense of the absolute all-consuming tumult caused by a difficult love affair. It feels emotionally honest and represents the interplay between sex and fantasy unlike any other account I’ve read before. She shows how strongly our past plays into our relationships. When reading about people’s hectic affairs it can sometimes grow tedious because (from the outside) it all feels a bit dull. But McBride’s prose are ideally suited to conveying the real physical excitement and crushing despair that her protagonist feels. So when reading a line such as “Cannot bear to think of him. OR sit amid the lost teeth look of my room.” I felt like I was fully with her and shared in her sense of anger/pain/desolation. This is a spectacularly accomplished novel that ineluctably draws you into the life and breath of its characters.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEimear McBride
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