I’ve been looking forward to today because it’s hard to not talk about what you’re reading, especially when you’re enjoying it. These four books together are a lot shorter in length than last year’s list but the potential to stun is just as high. In this context word count truly doesn’t matter. So far I’ve read two and will now start to review them. I think we five bloggers are in for a very interesting conversation and I’m looking forward to seeing what the main judges think, too. The descriptions below are a mix of the official award copy we’ve been given and my own thoughts.
A stunning début of raw and intimate poems about masculinity and male desire. Raw and urgent, these poems are hymns to the male body – to male friendship and male love – muscular, sometimes shocking, but always deeply moving. We are witness here to an almost religious celebration of the flesh: a flesh vital with the vulnerability of love and loss, to desire and its departure. In an extraordinary blend of McMillan’s own colloquial Yorkshire rhythms with a sinewy, metaphysical music and Thom Gunn’s torque and speed – ‘your kiss was deep enough to stand in’ – the poems in this first collection confront what it is to be a man and interrogate the very idea of masculinity. This is poetry where every instance of human connection, from the casual encounter to the intimate relationship, becomes redeemable and revelatory.
Andrew McMillan was born in South Yorkshire in 1988. This, his début collection, was published in 2015 by Jonathan Cape and was the first poetry collection to win the Guardian First Book Award. It also won a Somerset Maugham Award, an Eric Gregory Award, the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize for Best First Collection and a 2015 Northern Writers Award. It was shortlisted for numerous others including the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Costa Poetry Award. He currently lectures at Liverpool John Moores University and lives in Manchester.
One of the two I’ve read already – poetry collection; short – and there are some mind-blowing lines in it. McMillan has a special style, double meanings split across lines, that have a big impact on the whole.
A rich and immersive story of love, obsession, creativity and disintegration. On a forested island off the coast of Istanbul stands Portmantle, a gated refuge for beleaguered artists. There, a curious assembly of painters, architects, writers and musicians strive to restore their faded talents. Elspeth ‘Knell’ Conroy is a celebrated painter who has lost faith in her ability and fled the dizzying art scene of 1960s London. On the island, she spends her nights locked in her blacked-out studio, testing a strange new pigment for her elusive masterpiece. But when a disaffected teenager named Fullerton arrives at the refuge, he disrupts its established routines. He is plagued by a recurring nightmare that steers him into danger, and Knell is left to pick apart the chilling mystery. Where did the boy come from, what is ‘The Ecliptic’, and how does it relate to their abandoned lives in England?
Benjamin Wood was born in 1981 and grew up in North West England. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, Canada, which he attended with the support of a Commonwealth Scholarship. In 2012, Benjamin’s first novel The Bellwether Revivals was published. It was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, the Commonwealth Book Prize and le Prix du Roman Fnac, and has gone on to become a bestseller.
A highly original collection of stories from a startling new voice. The twelve stories range over centuries and across the world. There are stories about those who are lonely, or estranged, or out of time. There are hauntings, both literal and metaphorical; and acts of cruelty and neglect but also of penance. Some stories concern themselves with the present, and the mundane circumstances in which people find themselves, some stories concern themselves with the past.
Jessie Greengrass was born in 1982. She studied philosophy in Cambridge and London, where she now lives with her partner and child. Her shortlisted title won the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2016.
About the book: Once upon a time there was a crow, a fairly famous Crow, who wanted nothing more than to care for a pair of motherless children. In a London flat, two young boys face the unbearable sadness of their mother’s sudden death. Their father, a Ted Hughes scholar and scruffy romantic, imagines a future of well-meaning visitors and emptiness. In this moment of despair they are visited by Crow – antagonist, trickster, healer, babysitter. This sentimental bird is drawn to the grieving family and threatens to stay until they no longer need him. This extraordinary début, full of unexpected humour and emotional truth, marks the arrival of a thrilling and significant new talent.
Max Porter was born in 1981 and works in publishing. He lives in South London with his wife and children. This is his first book.
The second book I read; it’s incredibly experimental and there’s a fair amount going on but it all links up. Some knowledge of Ted Hughes’ work and the various debates regarding his relationship with Sylvia Plath is good to have prior to starting – a brief bit of Wikipedia reading should suffice. I’d heard a lot about Porter previously – he was at the Curious Arts Festival in July (I didn’t get to listen to him but there’s a photograph somewhere) and many have spoken of him since.
With two more books to read I can’t yet make a prediction – neither personal nor overall vote can be estimated – but if Greengrass’s and Wood’s books are anywhere near the same literary quality as McMillan and Porter, which is very likely, it’s going to be close.
Have you read any of the shortlisted books and what do you think of the selection?
November 7, 2016, 12:12 am
I’ve only read one – Grief is the Thing with Feathers. It was our last book club read, and from everything I’d heard I expected great things. It just fell a bit flat though for me. Some nice bits which echoed Under Milk Wood here and there, but overall it didn’t really make an impact. I don’t know what the rest of the group felt, because no one turned up! One of the Waterstones staff had read it though, so we had a mini-book club, and she felt much the same as I did.
November 10, 2016, 4:48 pm
I’ve read Grief is the Thing with Feathers and really liked it. I liked the experimentalness of it but wish is could have been a bit more intimate, there was a sort of distance maybe because of the style?
November 12, 2016, 10:01 am
Mary: I get that completely – it’s a very different beast. I’m posting my review Monday so won’t repeat too much, but I think its success does depend in part on how much background you have in the subjects yourself and the time you have to give it – and by time I mean the extra amount when it becomes confusing (rather than any idea of effort). Did you attend his talk at Curious Arts?
Stefanie: I like the differences of opinions here! Interesting you say that – I hadn’t thought it not intimate, as such, but yes, there’s a stylist distancing. I did wonder if that was intentional as it kind of fits the feeling of isolation and otherness grief can create.
November 14, 2016, 5:38 pm
Sadly I didn’t catch Max Porter at Curious Arts, and I wonder if I had, would it have changed my perception of the book … Stefanie comments though on the ‘distance’ between reader and book, and that’s something I felt (and part of why I didn’t like it much). The emotions of father and sons were talked about, but I couldn’t feel them.