handiwork – Sara Buame

Writer and visual artist Sara Baume’s latest book ‘handiwork’ is her non-fiction debut and has been shortlisted for this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize, along with another work from Tramp Press, Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s wonderful ‘A Ghost in the Throat’.

Sara Baume won the 2014 Davy Byrnes Short Story Award for ‘SoleSearcher1’, and went on to receive the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, the Rooney Prize for Literature and an Irish Book Award for Best Newcomer in 2015. Her debut novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, the Warwick Prize for Writing, the Desmond Elliott Prize for New Fiction and the International Dublin Literary Award. It was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, and won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.

‘handiwork’ is a short contemplative work that compares the flights of migratory birds to the art of creation, both writing and sculpture, as well as her daily artistic practices:

I HAVE ALWAYS FELT a terrible responsibility for time.

The impotent urgency manifests at minimum as an internalised twitch, at maximum as the murmuring of a voice in my head, arguing that the solid form at hand is not symmetrical enough – the wrong angle, the wrong shape, the wrong stroke – causing me to carve it smaller and smaller in the name of an inconceivable perfection – to carve it away completely, back into plaster dust.

The nemesis voice never acquiesces to flow; it is always reasoning and glancing ahead into the coming weather. You could stop now, the voice murmurs, or you could get ahead for tomorrow. And then, tomorrow – you could stop now, it will murmur, or you could get ahead for tomorrow….

Like the migrant birds who, one year, find they have to go a little farther than the year before – for a superior food source, a safer resting spot, because the weather is peculiar.

And then, again, the year after, a little farther still…

This book is a collection of short pieces, with space for you to pause and contemplate each little thought. Some pages containing a single sentence.

‘INDEED, VERY FEW PEOPLE are aware’, José Saramago writes in The Cave, ‘that in each of our fingers, located somewhere between the first phalange, the mesophalange and the metaphalange, there is a tiny brain.’

Broken into fourteen sections, each introduced with an image of a single model bird from a series built by Sara Baume in the spring of 2019 and photographed in the autumn. Each made from plaster that has been carved, painted and mounted onto a length of timber dowel, and studded with a pair of glass beads. The creation of these birds, the moulding, the carving, the painting becomes the contemplation, as is the writing of this book, of exploring what it is to create. Meta-non-fiction? Auto-non-fiction?

Facts about migratory birds interject and then play with the text, the writer’s journey.

WHEN WE FIRST MOVED into this house, I assigned myself a room where I would write. I carried in a desk and tucked the swivel chair beneath it and raised a bastion of books around it. As for the other stations, they have never been formally designated. Instead, they have asserted themselves gradually, as if the walls and floors and furniture are somehow sympathetic to my preoccupations and repetitions and observances; as if this house has diligently ordered itself around my daily practices, my daily handiwork.

However, not simply a book about writing and creating, this is also an homage to the writer’s father, a man who created working equipment from scraps, a handyman, and her grandfather who diligently made wooden models, carts that she never thought much of until much later in life. As Sara Baume creates her bird sculptures she dwells on her relationship with her father, his dedication of a work area for her once she had completed her studies, and ultimately these contemplations become her writing, our reading. An acknowledgment of grieving:

He died of a cancer conjured from the fine traces of toxins that accumulated in his lungs over the course of decades; which emanated from his daily bashing, clanging, whirring and grinding, and hovered in the air of his sheds – the unwanted produce of his progress, ungraspable yet ubiquitous as the sky in a model railway.

A short but deep book, one that radiates joy as the writer’s keen observances and her connection to nature exude the poetic, the artistic and the melancholic. Another wonderful book from the small independent publisher Tramp Press, it is a joy to read these quality works from female Irish writers.

Jhalak Prize Longlist 2021

The Jhalak Prize was first awarded in March 2017, it is an award to celebrate books by British/British resident BAME (British Black, Asian and minority ethnic) writers.

It was started in 2016 by authors Sunny Singh, Nikesh Shukla and Media Diversified and winner of the award takes home a prize of £1000. A “sister” award, the Jhalak Children’s & YA Prize was founded in 2020, but here I will concentrate on the main award. If you are interested in the Children’s and YA Longlist you can find a list of the titles here.

The Prize includes, but is not limited to, fiction, non-fiction, short stories, graphic novels, and poetry, written by writers of colour and published in the UK. Unlike a number of awards it is open to self-published writers.

Winners to date have been:

2017 – ‘The Bone Readers’ by Jacob Ross

2018 – ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge

2019 – ‘In Our Mad and Furious City’ by Guy Gunaratne

2020 – ‘Afropean’ by Johny Pitts

The longlist for the 2021 Prize was announced earlier today. The twelve titles are as follows, blurbs taken from the publisher’s websites):

Romalyn Ante – Antiemetic for Homesickness (Chatto & Windus)

The poems in Romalyn Ante’s luminous debut build a bridge between two worlds: journeying from the country ‘na nagluwal sa ‘yo’ – that gave birth to you – to a new life in the United Kingdom.

Steeped in the richness of Filipino folklore, and studded with Tagalog, these poems speak of the ache of assimilation and the complexities of belonging, telling the stories of generations of migrants who find exile through employment – through the voices of the mothers who leave and the children who are left behind.

With dazzling formal dexterity and emotional resonance, this expansive debut offers a unique perspective on family, colonialism, homeland and heritage: from the countries we carry with us, to the places we call home.

Catherine Cho – Inferno (Bloomsbury Circus)

My psychosis, for all its destruction and wrath, was a love story.

When Catherine left London for the US with her husband James, to introduce her family to their newborn son, she could not have envisaged how that trip would end. Catherine would find herself in an involuntary psych ward in New Jersey, separated from her husband and child, unable to understand who she was, and how she had got there.

It’s difficult to know where the story of psychosis begins. Was it the moment I met my son? Or was it decided in the before, something rooted deeper in my fate, generations ago?

In an attempt to hold on to her sense of self, Catherine had to reconstruct her life, from her early childhood, to a harrowing previous relationship, and her eventual marriage to James.

The result is a powerful exploration of psychosis and motherhood, at once intensely personal, yet holding within it a universal experience – of how we love, live and understand ourselves in relation to each other.

Afshan D’Souza-Lodhi – [re: desire] (Burning Eye Books)

Afshan D’souza-Lodhi’s debut poetry collection [re:desire] explores the yearning to love, be loved and belong from a desi (South Asian) perspective. Her work sits on the intersections of flash fiction, poetry and script, echoing the hybridity of the worlds that many young British desis find themselves occupying. Drawing on the poetry of many different languages and cultures – Urdu, English, Konkani, Islamic and Christian – this collection explores how we access our traditions from a distance.

[re:desire] draws upon literary traditions and cultural references to flip the male gaze common in mushairas on its head. Common themes for mushairas are love, God and being drunk or intoxicated by love and God – but is usually seen from a male perspective. The pieces in re: desire are mainly told from a female perspective, and question the gender given to particular acts, objects and ideas.

Caleb Femi – Poor (Penguin)

What is it like to grow up in a place where the same police officer who told your primary school class they were special stops and searches you at 13 because ‘you fit the description of a man’ – and where it is possible to walk two and a half miles through an estate of 1,444 homes without ever touching the ground?

In Poor, Caleb Femi combines poetry and original photography to explore the trials, tribulations, dreams and joys of young Black boys in twenty-first century Peckham. He contemplates the ways in which they are informed by the built environment of concrete walls and gentrifying neighbourhoods that form their stage, writes a coded, near-mythical history of the personalities and sagas of his South London youth, and pays tribute to the rappers and artists who spoke to their lives.

Above all, this is a tribute to the world that shaped a poet, and to the people forging difficult lives and finding magic within it. As Femi writes in one of the final poems of this book: ‘I have never loved anything the way I love the endz.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave – The Mercies (Picador)

On Christmas Eve, 1617, the sea around the remote Norwegian island of Vardø is thrown into a reckless storm. As Maren Magnusdatter watches, forty fishermen, including her father and brother, are lost to the waves, the menfolk of Vardø wiped out in an instant.

Now the women must fend for themselves.

Eighteen months later, a sinister figure arrives. Summoned from Scotland to take control of a place at the edge of the civilized world, Absalom Cornet knows what he needs to do to bring the women of Vardø to heel. With him travels his young wife, Ursa. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa finds something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God and flooded with a mighty and terrible evil, one he must root out at all costs.

Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1621 witch trials, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies is a story about how suspicion can twist its way through a community, and a love that may prove as dangerous as it is powerful.

Tammye Huf – A More Perfect Union (Myriad Editions)

This extraordinary debut novel heralds the arrival of an exciting new voice in Black women’s writing. It is an interracial love story set in pre-Civil War America, and inspired by the true story of author Tammye’s great-great grandparents. Along with love and race, it touches on themes of identity, sacrifice, belonging and survival.

Henry O’Toole sails to America in 1848 to escape poverty and famine in Ireland, only to find anti-Irish prejudice awaiting him. Determined never to starve again, he changes his surname to Taylor and heads south to the state of Virginia, seeking work as a travelling blacksmith on the prosperous plantations.

Sarah is a slave. Torn from her family and sold to Jubilee Plantation, she must navigate the hierarchy of her fellow slaves, the whims of her white masters, and now the attentions of the mysterious blacksmith.

Fellow slave Maple oversees the big house with bitterness and bile, and knows that a white man’s attention spells trouble. Given to her half-sister as a wedding present by their white father, she is set on being reunited with her husband and daughter, at any cost.

Research included contemporary slave narratives (printed to further the abolitionist cause), digitally remastered audio recordings of former slaves, legislation on the question of slavery in the mid-19th century, historical texts on the Irish famine and first-hand accounts of English visitors to Ireland at the time, the writings of Charles Trevelyan (responsible for famine relief under Peel and Russell), historical texts on the antebellum South, and visits to the historically preserved Jubilee Plantation in Virginia on which the novel’s plantation is based.

Rachel Long – My Darling From the Lions (Picador)

Rachel Long’s much-anticipated debut collection of poems, My Darling from the Lions, announces the arrival of a thrilling new presence in poetry.

Each poem has a vivid story to tell – of family quirks, the perils of dating, the grip of religion or sexual awakening – stories that are, by turn, emotionally insightful, politically conscious, wise, funny and outrageous.

Long reveals herself as a razor-sharp and original voice on the issues of sexual politics and cultural inheritance that polarize our current moment. But it’s her refreshing commitment to the power of the individual poem that will leave the reader turning each page in eager anticipation: here is an immediate, wide-awake poetry that entertains royally, without sacrificing a note of its urgency or remarkable skill.

Deirdre Mask – The Address Book (Profile Books)

Starting with a simple question, ‘what do street addresses do?’, Deirdre Mask travels the world and back in time to work out how we describe where we live and what that says about us. From the chronological numbers of Tokyo to the naming of Bobby Sands Street in Iran, she explores how our address – or lack of one – expresses our politics, culture and technology. It affects our health and wealth, and it can even affect the working of our brains.

From Ancient Rome to Kolkata today, from cholera epidemics to tax hungry monarchs, Mask discovers the different ways street names are created, celebrated, and in some cases, banned. Filled with fascinating people and histories, this incisive, entertaining book shows how addresses are about identity, class and race. But most of all they are about power: the power to name, to hide, to decide who counts, who doesn’t, and why.

Katy Massey – Are We Home Yet (jacaranda)

Spanning the years from 1935 to 2010, Are We Home Yet? is the moving and funny story of a girl and her mother.

As a girl, Katy accidentally discovers her mother is earning money as a sex worker at the family home, rupturing their bond. As an adult, Katy contends with grief and mental health challenges before she and her mother attempt to heal their relationship. From Canada, to Leeds and Jamaica, and exploring shame, immigration and class, the pair share their stories but struggle to understand each other’s choices in a fast-changing world.

By revealing their truths, can these two strong women call a truce on their hostilities and overcome the oppressive ghosts of the past?

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi – The First Woman (Oneworld Publications)

For one young girl, discovering what it means to become a woman in a family, a community and a country determined to silence her will take all the courage she has.

Growing up in a small Ugandan village, Kirabo is surrounded by powerful women. Her grandmother, her aunts, her friends and cousins are all desperate for her to conform, but Kirabo is inquisitive, headstrong and determined. Up until now, she has been perfectly content with her life at the heart of this prosperous extended family, but as she enters her teenage years, she begins to feel the absence of the mother she has never known. The First Woman follows Kirabo on her journey to becoming a young woman and finding her place in the world, as her country is transformed by the bloody dictatorship of Idi Amin.

Jennifer Makumbi has written a sweeping tale of longing and rebellion, at once epic and deeply personal, steeped in an intoxicating mix of ancient Ugandan folklore and modern feminism, that will linger in the memory long after the final page.

Paul Mendez  – Rainbow Milk (Dialogue Books)

Rainbow Milk is an intersectional coming-of-age story, following nineteen-year-old Jesse McCarthy as he grapples with his racial and sexual identities against the backdrop of a Jehovah’s Witness upbringing and the legacies of the Windrush generation.

In the Black Country in the 1950s, ex-boxer Norman Alonso is a determined and humble Jamaican who has moved to Britain with his wife to secure a brighter future for themselves and their children. Blighted with unexpected illness and racism, Norman and his family are resilient in the face of such hostilities, but are all too aware that they will need more than just hope to survive.

At the turn of the millennium, Jesse seeks a fresh start in London – escaping from a broken immediate family, a repressive religious community and the desolate, disempowered Black Country – but finds himself at a loss for a new centre of gravity, and turns to sex work to create new notions of love, fatherhood and spirituality.

Rainbow Milk is a bold exploration of race, class, sexuality, freedom and religion across generations, time and cultures. Paul Mendez is a fervent new writer with an original and urgent voice.

Stephanie Scott – What’s Left of Me Is Yours (W&N)

In Japan, a covert industry has grown up around the wakaresaseya (literally “breaker-upper”), a person hired by one spouse to seduce the other in order to gain the advantage in divorce proceedings.

When Sato hires Kaitaro, a wakaresaseya agent, to have an affair with his wife, Rina, he assumes it will be an easy case. But Sato has never truly understood Rina or her desires and Kaitaro’s job is to do exactly that – until he does it too well.

While Rina remains ignorant of the circumstances that brought them together, she and Kaitaro fall in a desperate, singular love, setting in motion a series of violent acts that will forever haunt her daughter Sumiko’s life.

Told from alternating points of view and across the breathtaking landscapes of Japan, What’s Left of Me Is Yours explores the thorny psychological and moral grounds of the actions we take in the name of love, asking where we draw the line between passion and possession.

​Judges for the 2021 prize are Yvonne Battle-Felton, an American writer living in the UK and author of ‘Remembered’, longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2019) and shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize (2020), Louise Doughty, author of nine novels including the ‘Whatever You Love’ nominated for the Orange and Costa Novel Awards, and Peter Kalu, short story, plays, poetry, creative non-fiction and essay writer.

Indelicacy – Amina Cain

Portraiture, the art of depicting a person. With the advent of photography, the need to accurately record a sitter’s likeness gave way to more expressive forms, a raft of dimensions, for example psychological and emotional could be explored. Interestingly when you look at “people’s choice” award winners in National Portrait Prizes there is still a tendency to lean towards the more conservative “likeness” style works, with the expressionistic, or subtle nuances of other works being overlooked. Many times, I have seen people look at portraits in galleries, glance at the face and move on. However, if you stop, pause, and look deeply the more you may learn, it is not just the face, where is the subject looking, what are they observing, what are they wearing, clothing, jewelry, setting, tone, colour, furniture, the placement of the hands, are they holding something? There are a myriad of clues, hints that can give you a more in depth view of the sitter and the artist.

Amina Cain’s short novel ‘Indelicacy’ is primarily a portrait of the writer protagonist Vitória, but it is also a portrait that contains three other women, her hired help Solange, and her two friends Dana and Antionette.

Vitória works as a cleaner at a gallery, but she dreams of becoming a writer, she writes of the paintings she views whilst working, “The people in the painting are huddled together as if for protection, as if freezing cold.” This is a work that contains ekphrastic elements, Vitória reflects on the art works and creates an imaginative narrative, an amplification of the artwork’s meaning.

However. it is not only the artworks that she contemplates, a ultimately, writes about, it is also her own life, and that of her friends, her surroundings.

…the winter dragged itself though its January, its February, its March, with its dirty snow and frozen mud. I felt I was dragging myself through as well. I hated March more than any other month, with its promises of warmth that never came.
My writing was not unlike that. I would write, then read out loud what I had written and realise I was not any closer to a book than I had ever been. I began to hate writing, though I also still loved it.
I thought if I spent time in the country every day I would be able to write. Walk in the morning, write in the afternoon, walk again in the evening, then write again. Late at night, read, Then write again. Sleep.
One day I looked for a while at a small painting and saw something in it. A man and a boy in muted suits doing their engraving work, the background behind them completely dark. We are not meant to see anything beyond this task, their concentration on it. Yet we want to know, it is only a scrap. What is in the darkness?
This was my slogging through. Until spring came.

Eventually Vitória finds a wealthy husband, her dreams of being able to write become a reality. Now the mistress of the household she has hired help, people to clean up after her, and an uneasy relationship with Solange begins. Whilst cleaning her best friend was Antionette, with whom she loses touch, and once she has plenty of spare time she meets another friend Dana at dance classes. The female bonds are strong, and the portraits of these diverse women are slowly painted, layer by layer.

This work is even constructed like a painting, there is enough detail for you to picture the people, but the backgrounds are dark, the foregrounds light, the story very much implied in many places, you the viewer (or reader) has to create the depth in the narrative. Stop, pause, observe, why are the dishes on the table, why are the walls bare?

From then on, Dana asked to read from my notebook from time to time and then she would talk with me about what she’d read. ‘A humble sense of purpose,’ she said once, ‘and of fascination. You are fascinated by everything around you.’ On a few occasions I did let her take my notebook home, when I thought I wouldn’t need it, that it might be good for me to be without it for a while. If I found I wanted to write, I opened up the same book I had written in already and wrote there again. I had already defaced it, and I was starting to feel as if I were having a conversation with it.

A novel about writing, about female bonds and about life’s purpose, a wanderer who allows the day to day pass her by, simply observing and writing.

Astute readers would note the four character’s names, Vitória from Clarice Lispector’s ‘The Apple in the Dark’, Solange from Jean Ginet’s ‘The Maids’, Antionette from Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, and Dana from ‘Kindred’ by Octavia Butler. These four works are credited in the acknowledgements and the short precise sentences did remind me of Jean Rhys’ works, with the darkness of Lispector. Passages from those works appear in the novel.

A novel that feels gothic in places, or from a Brother’s Grimm tale in others, for example her meeting her future husband and her marriage are mentioned in passing, it is peripheral to the portrait, the husband merely a player. As in the quote above “what is in the darkness?”, this novel  has many dark corner’s on the canvas, things happen there but they are not for our eyes, Amina Cain drawing our attention to people in the portrait, Vitória, Antionette, Solange and Dana.

An interesting title, as the work itself feels delicate, it also has very different covers for the US and UK editions. The FSG cover for the United State’s market a glaring “wallpaper” style design, an abstract portrait? The UK cover a dark portrait by Gerard ter Borch (1617-81) titled ‘Margaretha van Haexbergen’. Visually I prefer the US cover, however based on content the UK seems to match better.

Short, precise and intriguing an ekphrastic novel constructed like a painting, a worthy contender for the 2021 Rathbone’s Folio Prize, for which it is shortlisted, worth hunting down.

Men and Apparitions – Lynne Tillman

Ezekiel Stark, a skeptic in his field, was promising. He studied small groups or areas of cultural concerns – family photographs, the basis of images, men. His dissertation pubbed by a university press, his gig in acadoomia was upped to associate professor. He walked the halls of academe, walked the line, talked the talk, and went by the book. He was a good enough colleague, if sometimes too aggressive when he thought he was right. He always seemed preoccupied. Sometimes he partied. Sometimes he was a hermit. He did his version of field work. He wrote papers, articles, books, he made a splash, and then he floated.

Late in the “novel” ‘Men and Apparitions’ the protagonist, who has been writing fragments, short experiences and expositions, writes three third person sketches of himself, one is above and the other two contain spoilers so I’ll not present them here. Here’s my attempt at Ezekiel Stark’s story:

Ezekiel Stark, a boring, mundane academic, who takes anti-depressants, and excrutiatingly mansplains page after page after page on the totally disinteresting subject of ethnography [the scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures], more specifically the study of old family photos. He is a narcissistic, misogynistic, bore of a human. He never parties, he just whines about the fact that his best friend ran off with his wife and talks about his fractured relationship with his mother, his father, his elder brother (who is more successful than him), his younger sister (who chose from an early age to remain silent), his aunt, his ancestors and any other relative he can blame for his shitty position. Ezekiel wonders if it was the rise of feminism in the 60’s/70’s that has brought on this crap life and writes a field study “Men in Quotes” which appears at the end of this book. It is no wonder Ezekiel is single, who could be enamored to such a self-centered bore of a human?

‘Men and Apparitions’ is close to four-hundred pages in length, with ‘The Spectator’ describing it as “mansplaining littered with tedious verbal tics, which is oddly compelling to read”, which is a perfect description. Unlike ethnography “photographs can create images, but they are not images per se, they are things, a physical object”, this novel is a slow feeding of images, semi-stories, a peeling back of layers, slowly (very slowly) the picture comes into focus.

Some have said that our being absorbed in images is the sine qua non for our inevitable self- and other-destruction. Some have said that narcissism, shown by our avidity for images, turned us inward, into inner-bounded psyches, away from the natural order and from a necessary empathy, both underlying our immense species failure and so on. Interiority – an illusion as great as Narcissus found the river/mirror to be.
Narcissism is part of the natural order.

These “chapters”, they read more like diary entries but are not marked as such, are random, disconnected mind explosions of Ezekiel. However, they do reveal learnings, about our protagonist, ourselves and our place in the world:

It was late for the morning, and I lay in bed like a drugged person, and that’s when the idea aced me. It flashed. It hit me, I’d look after the lost, care for the unwanted. Image detritus. I’d turn into a finder of the unwanted. Homeless photographs, the exilic.
I hunted the streets, sidewalks, under tables in restaurants (in winter, found gloves everywhere); the floors in clubs and bars; now in digital time, there’s way less. What people throw out tells an untold story. (I’m not a garbologist). There’s still purging among over inflated consumers of tech. Get rid of stuff and buy the new, so material shows up, photos left in a book, books tossed out everywhere; I’ve found thumb drives too. Meanwhile, garbage trucks drop cartons and garbage collectors run wild in the streets. The streets overflow with rejection.

Silence is also a theme throughout, the silence of his little sister who refuses to speak, his wife (“the silence grew”), his aunt who ignores him, his strange belief that he can make himself invisible, like Mr. Percy a praying mantis he used to visit in the yard when he was a child, the animosity between him and his older brother, the silence between them:

Little Sister prepared me for the silence required in thinking, writing, reading. I don’t blame her for what happened between me and Maggie [his wife]. Silence became an intangible obstacle. She has to deal with it, hers, all the time. Don’t know how she does it.

Always the academic, our protagonist quotes others’ texts throughout, here Clifford Geertz a famous ethnographer, talking about anthropologists and photographs:

They marginalize what is central. What is needed, or anyway must serve, is tableaus, anecdotes, parables, tales: mini-narratives with the narrator in them.

Here’s our novel, a series of tableaus, anecdotes, parables, tales and mini-narratives with the narrator in them. An ethnographer creating a cultural artefact that he can then digest, explore, study.

Fifty pages into this book I was willing to hurl it against the wall, the voice didn’t sound like any male I’d ever come across, the “just kidding” and “ only joking” at the end of lines, the tedious academic style, however I became slightly intrigued by this most annoying and unreliable narrator, and within another fifty pages I was strangely curious as to his fate.

At 397 pages this is overly long and I found the closing field study “Men in Quotes” completely off putting, an imaginary set of responses, by nameless “new men” subjects, to questions about the impact of feminism on their lives. Again, I do not know a single male (and I’ve known plenty) who would answer these questions in that manner. Interestingly in the acknowledgements Lynne Tillman thanks “all of the men who responded so generously and intelligently to Zeke’s questions”, so if they are actual responses then the circles that the author moves in are far far removed from the circles I move in. Not every man I know answers with academic twaddle!!!

Initially this began as a “did not finish”, slowly grew to a “I wonder what will happen next” and petered out to a “I’ve only 100 pages to go may as well finish it” book. I can imagine others liking it, just like I can imagine that I’ve completely missed the point, however I can’t see it making the shortlist of the Republic of Consciousness Prize – the reason I read it, it’s on the longlist. Next up my sixth title from the longlist, ‘Lote’ by Shola von Reinhold.

The Appointment – Katharina Volckmer

Have you ever looked in the mirror and not liked what is reflected back at you? ‘The Appointment (Or, The Story of a Cock)’ by Katharina Volckmer is one unsettling work about a person who is uncomfortable with everything about their life. Our single unemployed female, German narrator, is unhappy about being unemployed, being female, being German, being single, she is unsettled about everything in her past and her present. Can a change settle these old debts and secure a better future?

Written as a single 96-page monologue, our German narrator is being examined by Dr Seligman and during this examination, whilst he’s down there, between her thighs, she unburdens intimate and perverse details of her life.

Your assistant told me that you are very thorough and that this will take a while, especially the photos, so I don’t want you to worry, because I still think the reasons for my discharge from work were misconstrued and it’s unfair to say that I have anger issues. I was angry that day, of course – it was before I had started taking my hormones – but to get suspended like that when they have no idea what it’s like for people like me. And I don’t think that threatening to staple a co-worker’s ear to their desk whilst waving a stapler around can really count as violence. Not with those staplers, anyway. I doubt they have every tried to staple through human flesh and into a solid desk with one of those stiff little plastic things. I was probably more at risk of losing my eyesight from an errant staple, but of course that didn’t matter to them. And you don’t need to think that they had ever provided us with safety glasses, heaven knows how many casualties will be caused by all that cheap stationery. But now I don’t feel sorry anymore; let them all be poisoned from chewing on those horrible pens that turn all handwriting into a lament. Because the worst thing was not losing my job – in the city you starve either way – but that they made me see a therapist called Jason, for otherwise they would have pressed charges. Can you imagine being serious with a therapist called Jason, Dr Seligman?

The monologue lurches from the highly amusing and razor-sharp observations to perverse and outrageous, “but I thought that it would wind him [Jason] up if I told him about my sexual fixation with our dear Führer”. The topics intentionally provoking, asking readers to contemplate subjects that are considered taboo. The guilt of being born German:

I mean, I know that as Germans we can never get away from our past and simply start growing happy flowers in our front garden – our outlook will always be something that has been raked to death and closely resembles concrete.

The guilt of not being happy with her own body, the rants about sexuality, binary tags, just as disturbing. Within a paragraph you can go from laugh out loud to a grimace.

A difficult work to review without giving away spoilers, or moving to over reaction to taboo subjects, it’s not just the Hitler references, although they have seemed to get their fair share of coverage, there is also robotic sex toys, quick oral sex in public toilets, a fluid relationship with a married man where our narrator is just used for her body, a dissection of the nuclear family.

At times disturbing, and at other times simply a person bringing up their deepest anxieties and fears. I have an impression that the monologue is being conducted under the influence of an anesthetic, an unburdening of everything that brought her to Dr Seligman’s in the first place.

God, of course, was a man too. A father who could see everything, from whom you couldn’t even hide in the toilet, and who was always angry. He probably had a penis the size of a cigarette. The kind of man who shoots lions and overtakes women in the swimming pool. It’s of course much easier to be religious when you are a man, and yet I could never understand why a single woman ever went to church, or any of the other temples, Dr Seligman, because no religion I have ever come across had anything nice to say about women. I could never understand why my mother believed in Jesus and had a secret altar will all sorts of glittering memorabilia tucked away in the corner of her bedroom. Why would she worship where they teach nothing but shame and fear, where they came up with all that crap about holy mothers and whores, where they were scared of vaginas. Because that’s really what it is all about, isn’t it? Apart from trying to find a way not to die, to carry on living somewhere in the clouds with all the people you never liked in the first place, it is a way of trying to keep the difference between people with and without cocks alive. And they talk of penis envy, but look at the lengths people have gone to to cripple and defeat vaginas, to tell women that pleasure is not for them, that there is such a thing as being good. I mean, how many women have covered pages and pages of books about cocks and they way men are supposed to dress and think and dream? How they are supposed to be some sort of fuckable mother figure with clean fingernails and plenty of tissues in their handbag. I never understood how God, who couldn’t give birth, is supposed to be the source of all life – how a man could be our creator. Unless, of course, it was what we would call arschgeburt in German, something that your ass gave birth to. Maybe that’s what this world is, Dr Seligman: something that came out of a holy man’s ass, the leftovers of broken stars and an imploding universe.

A work that challenges your notions on just about every subject you could think of, a work that provokes and prods you, a work that questions the norms and pushes at the boundaries to see how far they can be stretched before they break. But this is also an important work in that it addresses subjects that people do not want to confront, German identity, non-binary identities, sexual perversions… Katharina Volckmer has arrived with a very noisy debut.

A Ghost in the Throat – Doireann Ní Ghríofa

“THIS IS A FEMALE TEXT.” Yells Doireann Ní Ghríofa in the opening line of her prose debut ‘A Ghost in the Throat’. I will not be ignored, I will not be erased, this will not sit in the shadows of texts written by men…The book closes with the same line, delivered with less force “This is a female text.” More on that later. Here is a blend of auto-fiction, research, memoir, translation and the story of poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. It is a female text.

‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, translated by Doireann Ní Ghríofa as ‘The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire’, (and which appears in both Gaelic and English at the end of the book) is an Irish lament composed by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (referred to by our author as ‘Nelly’). It has been described as the greatest poem written in either Ireland or Britain during the eighteenth century. Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, in the main, composed the keen about the death of her husband Art on 4 May 1773. And despite the claim of being the greatest poem written during the 1700’s, little is known of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill and our author sets out to right this wrong.

However, this is no standard biography, award winning poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa leading us through her journey of discovery, as well as her own life of motherhood, domesticity, the endless chores that fill her days, donating breast milk…

My months fill themselves with milk and laundry and dishes, with nursery rhymes and bedtime stories, with split grocery bags, dented tins, birthday parties, hangovers, and bills. I coax many small joys from my world: clean sheets snapping on the line, laughing myself breathless in the arms of my husband, a garden slide bought for a song from the classifieds, a picnic on the beach, three small heads of hair washed to a shine, shopping list after completed shopping list – tick, tick, tick – all my miniscule victories.

But to focus on the chores, with an occasional slip into Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s poem and life, in no way gives justice to this complex, multi layered revelation of a book. The poetry, and the possible life that Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill lived, leaks into our writer’s daily life. In the 1700’s the literature of women was not written down so the poem survived in oral form and was eventually transcribed in the 1800’s, by another woman, Nóra Ní Shíndile, our writer having to explore other female threads, for example letters, to somehow decipher the life of her subject.

I have come across a line of argument in my reading, which posits that, due to the inherent fallibility of memory and the imperfect human vessels that held it, the Caoineadh cannot be considered a work of single authorship. Rather, the theory goes, it must be considered collage, or, perhaps, a folksy reworking of older keens. This, to me – in the brazen audacity of one positioned far from the tall walls of the university – feels like a male assertion pressed upon a female text. After all, the etymology of the word ‘text’ lies in the Latin verb ‘texere’: to weave, to fuse, to braid. The Caoineadh form belongs to a literary genre worked and woven by women, entwining strands of female voices that were carried in female bodies, a phenomenon that seems to me cause for wonder and admiration, rather than suspicion of authorship.

The theme of being “carried in female bodies”, obviously, comes through with our author detailing her pregnancies:

In choosing to carry a pregnancy, a woman gives of her body with a selflessness so ordinary that it goes unnoticed, even by herself. Her body becomes bound to altruism as instinctively as to hunger. If she cannot consume sufficient calcium, for example, that mineral will rise up from deep within her bones and donate itself to her infant on her behalf, leaving her own system in deficiency. Sometimes a female body serves another by effecting a theft upon itself.

As Doireann Ní Ghríofa researches her poet, she slowly reveals her life through others, letters of others, she is performing a delicate dissection, this is shadowed by her own experiences of first year medical training at University. Whilst delving into another’s life our writer is revealing more of herself, layer by layer. This is a beautifully constructed revelation of both a writer and her subject, whilst concurrently explaining the erasure of women. Whilst on a journey to the area where Nelly’s twin sister Mary lived, Doireann Ní Ghríofa attempts to find the house, the rooms, to reconstruct, even in her own mind, the lives of these women:

He knows the Baldwins’ old place, he says, leading me to the wet meadow where Mary’s rooms once stood. ‘See?’ he says. ‘Nothing.’ He walks away, leaving me perched on a six-bar gate, peering at the empty air where a poem of beautiful rooms once stood, each stanza holding its own careful litany: the parasols, portraits, and books, the blue vases and embroidered blankets, the drapes and sideboards, the letters, the combs, and the coats, the spoons and looking-gasses and scrubbing cloths, the coal buckets and diaries and piss-pots. Now: nothing. Another grand deletion, this. Another ordinary obliteration of a woman’s life. The farmer is right, I am looking at nothing. I am also looking at everything.

This text reflects Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s allegory of being woven, fused, braided, the complex layering here is only revealed when you flick backwards and re-read passages, each section representing another thread that up close looks like nothing more than a single thread but once you stand back the full complexity of a stunningly woven tapestry is revealed.

How dare I pry on the private moments of a life, stitching frills where the pattern calls for no such thing?

There are even reasons for the addition of Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s own translation of ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, previous mediocre attempts, male translations, and our author is very modest when it comes to her work, not believing she has the talent to do the keen justice. Alone this closing of the book makes it a worthwhile addition, another “Women in Translation” addition. And when you reach the final words “This is a female text” you will be drawn back to those same opening words, written in a different tone. It is as though you’ve shared private moments with Doireann Ní Ghríofa and now the tale is complete, she is going to write a book about it.

An absolute revelation of a work, moving, powerful in its admissions, honest, brave and unique in style and substance. A book that offers up many interpretations, I’ve seen one where the rooms are presented as the theme, these threads, so many you could follow. A poet who has created a stunning prose debut, one that will surely take home more awards (it was recently crowned with the An Post Irish Book of the Year Award for 2020), be glowingly reviewed again and again as the US publication draws near, and be lauded by readers and writers the world over. A book so unique that I feel ill equipped to write about its power and beauty. Interestingly the small independent publisher “Tramp Press” is now out of stock, great to see titles by small presses, who champion the cause of this style of book, having to go to reprints.

Rathbones Folio Prize Shortlist 2021

The Rathbones Folio Prize commenced in 2014, under the name of the “Folio Prize” as it was sponsored by the London based publisher “The Folio Society” for its first two years. There was no prize in 2016.  Since 2017 it has been sponsored by Rathbones Investment Management.

The prize was created after a group “took umbrage at the direction they saw the Booker Prize taking…leaning toward popular fiction rather than literary fiction” its launch also coincided with the Booker’s decision to open the award up to international writers, writing in English, in 2013. However, during the first two years the prize was presented to an English language book of fiction published in the UK by an author from any country. The prize dropped from £40,000 in 2014 and 2015 to £20,000 in 2017 and 2018, then climbed to £30,000 from 2019 onwards.

Since Rathbone’s sponsorship, from 2017, the prize was awarded to the best new work of literature published in the English language during a given year, regardless of form (fiction, non-fiction, and poetry).

“The jury for the prize is called the Academy, a body of more than 250 writers and critics that includes Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, A. S. Byatt, Zadie Smith and J. M. Coetzee. Books are nominated by members of the Academy, three each, ranked. Points are given to each book depending on how many first, second or third rankings are earned. The top scoring books are made into a longlist of 60 books (80 in the first two years). The list of nominated titles is then judged by a panel of three to five judges drawn from the Academy who select a shortlist of eight and the final winner.” (Thanks Wikipedia) A full membership listing can be found here.

On 11 February 2021, the shortlist for the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize was announced, here are those works (listed in alphabetical order by author surname). The blurbs are taken straight from the publishers.

Sara Baume, ‘handiwork’ (Tramp Press) – Non-Fiction

handiwork is a contemplative short narrative from acclaimed writer and visual artist Sara Baume. It charts her daily process of making and writing, exploring what it is to create and to live as an artist. handiwork offers observations at once gentle and devastating, on the nature of art, grief and a life lived well. Baume’s first work of non-fiction offers readers a glimpse into the process of one Ireland’s best writers, written with the keen eye for nature and beauty as well as the extraordinary versatility Sara Baume’s fans have come to expect.

Amina Cain, ‘Indelicacy’ (Daunt Books)

In an undefined era and place, a cleaning woman at a museum of art aspires to do more than simply dust the paintings around her.  She dreams of having the liberty to explore them in writing, and so must find the way to win herself the security and time to use her mind. She escapes her lot by marrying a rich man, but having gained a husband, a house, high society and a maid, she finds that her new life of privilege is no less constrained. Not only has she taken up different forms of time-consuming labour — social and erotic — but she is now, however passively, forcing other women to clean up after her. Perhaps another and more drastic solution is necessary?

Indelicacy is an exquisite gem of a novel about class, desire, friendship, art, and the battle to find one’s true calling.

Elaine Feeney, ‘As You Were’ (Harvill Secker)

Sinead Hynes is a tough, driven, funny young property developer with a terrifying secret.

No-one knows it: not her fellow patients in a failing hospital, and certainly not her family. She has confided only in Google and a shiny magpie.

But she can’t go on like this, tirelessly trying to outstrip her past and in mortal fear of her future. Across the ward, Margaret Rose is running her chaotic family from her rose-gold Nokia. In the neighbouring bed, Jane, rarely but piercingly lucid, is searching for a decent bra and for someone to listen. Sinead needs them both.

As You Were is about intimate histories, institutional failures, the kindness of strangers, and the darkly present past of modern Ireland. It is about women’s stories and women’s struggles. It is about seizing the moment to be free.

Wildly funny, desperately tragic, inventive and irrepressible, As You Were introduces a brilliant voice in Irish fiction with a book that is absolutely of our times.

Caleb Femi, ‘Poor’ (Penguin) – Poetry

What is it like to grow up in a place where the same police officer who told your primary school class they were special stops and searches you at 13 because ‘you fit the description of a man’ – and where it is possible to walk two and a half miles through an estate of 1,444 homes without ever touching the ground?

In Poor, Caleb Femi combines poetry and original photography to explore the trials, tribulations, dreams and joys of young Black boys in twenty-first century Peckham. He contemplates the ways in which they are informed by the built environment of concrete walls and gentrifying neighbourhoods that form their stage, writes a coded, near-mythical history of the personalities and sagas of his South London youth, and pays tribute to the rappers and artists who spoke to their lives.

Above all, this is a tribute to the world that shaped a poet, and to the people forging difficult lives and finding magic within it. As Femi writes in one of the final poems of this book: ‘I have never loved anything the way I love the endz.’

Rachel Long, ‘My Darling from the Lions’ (Picador) – Poetry

Rachel Long’s much-anticipated debut collection of poems, My Darling from the Lions, announces the arrival of a thrilling new presence in poetry.

Each poem has a vivid story to tell – of family quirks, the perils of dating, the grip of religion or sexual awakening – stories that are, by turn, emotionally insightful, politically conscious, wise, funny and outrageous.

Long reveals herself as a razor-sharp and original voice on the issues of sexual politics and cultural inheritance that polarize our current moment. But it’s her refreshing commitment to the power of the individual poem that will leave the reader turning each page in eager anticipation: here is an immediate, wide-awake poetry that entertains royally, without sacrificing a note of its urgency or remarkable skill.

Carmen Maria Machado, ‘In the Dream House’ (Serpent’s Tail) – A Memoir

In the Dream House is Carmen Maria Machado’s engrossing and wildly innovative account of a relationship gone bad. Tracing the full arc of a harrowing experience with a charismatic but volatile woman, this is a bold dissection of the mechanisms and cultural representations of psychological abuse.

Each chapter views the relationship through a different lens, as Machado holds events up to the light and examines them from distinct angles. She casts a critical eye over legal proceedings, fairy tales, Star Trek and Disney villains, as well as iconic works of film and fiction, infusing all with her characteristic wit, playfulness and openness to enquiry. The result is a powerful book that explodes our ideas about what a memoir can do and be.

Doireann Ní Ghríofa, ‘A Ghost in the Throat’ (Tramp Press)

A true original, this stunning prose debut by Doireann Ní Ghríofa weaves two stories together. In the 1700s, an Irish noblewoman, on discovering her husband has been murdered, drinks handfuls of his blood and composes an extraordinary poem that reaches across the centuries to another poet. In the present day, a young mother narrowly avoids tragedy in her own life. On encountering the poem, she becomes obsessed with finding out the rest of the story.

Doireann Ní Ghríofa has sculpted a fluid hybrid of essay and autofiction to explore the ways in which a life can be changed in response to the discovery of another’s – in this case, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, famously referred to by Peter Levi as ‘the greatest poem written in either Ireland or Britain during the eighteenth century.’

A devastating and timeless tale about finding your voice by freeing another’s.

Monique Roffey, ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ (Peepal Tree Press)

April 1976: St Constance, a tiny Caribbean village on the island of Black Conch, at the start of the rainy season. A fisherman sings to himself in his pirogue, waiting for a catch – but attracts a sea-dweller he doesn’t expect. Aycayia, a beautiful young woman cursed by jealous wives to live as a mermaid, has been swimming the Caribbean Sea for centuries. And she is entranced by this man David and his song.

But her fascination is her undoing. She hears his boat’s engine again and follows it, and finds herself at the mercy of American tourists, landed on the island for the annual fishing competition. After a fearsome battle, she is pulled out of the sea and strung up on the dock as a trophy. It is David who rescues her, and gently wins her trust – as slowly, painfully, she starts to transform into a woman again. But transformations are not always permanent, and jealousy, like love, can have the force of a hurricane, and last much longer

The novel’s characters are an unlikely mix: a mermaid, a fisherman, a deaf boy, a Caribbean artist and sweetman and a benevolent white landowner. Miss Arcadia Rain’s own love story is interwoven with Aycayia and David’s and the rivalries and affections in both family and community are brought brilliantly to life. Themes of unconditional love, friendship, family and loss, are examined without sentimentality. Roffey manages to write convincingly about a mermaid, a ‘legend drawn from the sea’, returned to land, to survive, heal and live again, as a real woman in modern times.

This year’s judges are T.S. Eliot Prize-winning poet Roger Robinson, the Irish writer, editor and broadcaster Sinéad Gleeson and novelist and short story writer Jon McGregor. A well-balanced jury indeed, the winner could be the Irish debut novel (Feeney) or the Irish non-fiction (Baume) or one of the two poetry collections or any of the other four titles!!!

The 2020 Prize was awarded to Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli for her book ‘Lost Children Archive’ (Fourth Estate) becoming the first female writer to win the award.

Astute readers and followers of awards will have noticed that Monique Roffey’s wonderful ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ has appeared on yet another award list and Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s ‘A Ghost in the Throat’ was also longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize announced only a week prior, and Sara Baume was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize back in 2017 for her novel ‘A Line Made By Walking’.

I’ve recently reviewed Monique Roffey’s novel and will possibly get to Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s, a few others are tempting (especially Sara Baume’s ‘handiwork’) however I am unlikely to get to many of these books before the winner is announced on 24 March 2021.

The Mermaid of Black Conch – Monique Roffey

‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ has a very interesting back story, one I think is worthwhile sharing here, before I look at the book itself. Firstly the book was crowdfunded back in September 2019 to get into print, with an acknowledgement page appearing at the back of the book thanking the people who funded “this book out into the world.” Since then it has received rave reviews in the mainstream media and has appeared quickly on three respected Prize lists.

Prizes

In October 2020, the novel was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, and Award established by the University of London, “to celebrate the qualities of creative daring associated with the University and to reward fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form. The annual prize of £10,000 is awarded to a book that is deemed genuinely novel and which embodies the spirit of invention that characterises the genre at its best.” It didn’t win the Prize, losing out to ‘The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again’ by M. John Harrison.

In November 2020 the novel was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards, an award for the most enjoyable books of the year by writers resident in the UK and Ireland” and last month it was named winner of the 2020 Costa Book of the Year.

Then in February 2021 the book was longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize, an Award to celebrate “small presses producing brilliant and brave literary fiction” in the UK and Ireland. Small presses being defined as having fewer than five full-time employees.

A flurry of Award announcements and interestingly deemed not “daring” enough for the Goldsmiths but “enjoyable” enough to win the Costa.

The Publisher

As the longlisting for the Republic of Consciousness Prize attests, this novel is published by a small press, less than five full time employees. Peepal Tree books “a small publisher that has consistently supported international Caribbean writing for 35 years.” Two days after the Costa announcement the press had sold 12,000 copies, having to move to a different printer to cope with demand.

There is an interesting article, and interview with founder and managing editor Jeremy Poynting available at ‘The Bookseller’ where he speaks of their list of 450 titles still being available, how ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ was crowdfunded to even get printed and the demands of a small publisher having a best-selling title in their catalogue.

The novel

We were both lost people.

David Baptiste is a fisherman in the small Caribbean enclave of Black Conch, one day whilst smoking a spliff and strumming his guitar on his boat, he spots a mermaid, Aycayia. A young girl who has been cursed for her beauty and temptation of men and sealed up with a tail and forced to swim the oceans for eternity. During a big game fishing competition she is caught by “those white men from Florida”.

This novel is told in a variety of voices, excerpts from David’s journal, short innocent lyrical poem like musings from Aycayia and the omniscient narrator, using local language and slang:

The Black Conch men, Nicholas and Short Leg, backed away from the stern. Like Nicer, they knew this was wrong. They fraid bad jumbie get ketch. They didn’t want to help. They were lost for words and for what to do. The white men wanted to pull this creature out of the sea. But this fish was half-woman, plain enough. Everyone had heard of the mermen in Black Conch waters, but a merwoman? No. She carried with her bad luck, at best, and her hair had frightened them – like she could kill you with just one lash from those tentacles. She could poison them all. They’d seen spikes on her back, dorsal spikes. Scorpion fish spikes, They had seen a bloody, raging woman on the end of the fishing line and now these white men wanted to bring her in. Nah, boy, they all said to themselves.

More than a simple love story, although the cover does say “a love story”, this is a complex study revealing misogyny, sex, the colonization and maltreatment of indigenous peoples, the destruction of the environment, modern day man’s move away from spiritual connection to their environment and the USA’s domination of the Caribbean amongst many subjects, all wrapped up in a tale of David Baptiste and Aycayia’s love.

The locals see the catch of a mermaid as potential bad luck, the Florida fishermen see the potential financial rewards. David sees his friend from the ocean, all strung up like a trophy catch and has to release her:

The old man, Thomas Clayson, had spent a second day at sea. He’d taken a rifle with him, this time, and some marine flares in case they got into trouble, also an axe and a cutlass as back up to the gun. He would shoot her if need bel that would be the end of it. He’d shot big game before. He’d shot a lion in South Africa, once. The head had been stuffed and mounted and was now above his desk in his den at home. He’d shot a buffalo in the Yukon, a female too; he’d even shot a grizzly bear, once, up in the Rockies. He would shoot the bitch, no messing, bring her in. No beers on the jetty; he’d take her straight, by truck, to the other end of the island, to the port at English Town, where she would be tagged and photographed and packed on ice and taken to the larger island/ There, she would be airlifted back to Florida. This time, he knew what he was up against; a big, bad motherfucker of a mermaid. He paid his crew double. He was furious over the theft of his catch, with the incompetence of the villagers, and mostly with his weak-minded sissy of a son.

There are interlocking love stories, abandoned single mothers, deaf children with connections to the environment and weird happenings, such as the skies raining fish, a wonderful blend of folklore, romance, and a race against time. Aycayia’s short melodic interludes dragging you back to simpler times:

I swam away, the dive deep
My terror was ENORMOUS
I swam but I still ketch
I want to go down to die

Enough shame put on my head
I was a human woman once
some thousand cycles past
Cursed to be lonely
with no love

They curse me good
Goddess Jagua was the goddess of their curse
She keep me lonely all those years

I miss my life in Black Conch
I was human woman again
after they ketch me good

There is also the underlying uneasiness of a “home”, is the mermaid’s home back on land from where she was banished, is it the sea? Are David’s roots in Black Conch? Is the white overseer’s place Black Conch? This pervading sense of displacement.

Baptiste is plantation owner name, French man name from way back. Yuh think I happy with that? I figure my real name would never be known to me, a mystery.

A wonderful blend of readability and prescience, a blend of tragic love story, environmental warning, folklore, with the pace of a thriller. A worthy winner of the Costa Prize and it is magnificent to see a novel that had crowdfunding beginnings, find a small publisher and then find success.

Dublin Literary Award 2021

Viewing statistics on my blog show people love a list. So today I bring you the 49 novels nominated for the 2021 Dublin Literary Award, the longlist was announced on 4 February 2021.

Long term followers of this blog would know I have been an advocate and supporter of the Award over the years, this is an Award where the titles are drawn from member libraries all over the planet, with the longlist of 49 titles being filtered down to a shortlist of ten.

Although 49 titles could appear daunting, have a look at the last eight awards and the number of books on the longlist:

2013 – 145

2014 – 144

2015 – 133

2016 – 150

2017 – 138

2018 – 141

2019 – 141

2020 – 156

This year’s judges, Jan Carson, David James Karashima, Dr Rita Sakr, Dr Martín Veiga, Enda Wyley and non-voting chair Professor Chris Morash, have an easier time than the previous judges!

The prize for the Award is €100,000 and is awarded to the author of the winning book, if the winning book is in English translation, €75,000 is awarded to the author and €25,000 to the translator.

Of the 49 books nominated by libraries from 30 countries across Africa, Europe, Asia, the US & Canada, South America and Australia & New Zealand, eighteen are novels in translation, the titles span ten languages and ten of the books are first novels.

Onto the list (listed alphabetically by author)

‘Clap When You Land’ Elizabeth Acevedo

‘Things That Fall From The Sky’ (tr from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah) Selja Ahava

‘Until Stones Become Lighter Than Water’ (tr from the Portuguese by Jeff Love) António Lobo Antunes

‘Homeland’ (tr from the Spanish by Alfred MacAdam) Fernando Aramburu

‘The Vanishing Half’ Brit Bennett

‘The White Girl’ Tony Birch

‘It Would Be Night in Caracas’ (tr from the Spanish by Elizabeth Bryer) Karina Sainz Borgo

‘The Cat and The City’ Nick Bradley

‘The Confessions of Frannie Langton’ Sara Collins

‘The Innocents’ Michael Crummey

’The Pelican: A Comedy’ (tr from the Dutch by Jonathan Reeder) Martin Michael Driessen

‘Catacombs’ Mary Anna Evans

‘Girl, Woman, Other’ Bernardine Evaristo

‘The Other Name: Septology I-II’ (tr from the Norwegian by Damion Searls) Jon Fosse

‘Gun Island’ Amitav Ghosh

‘When All is Said’ Anne Griffin

‘The Eighth Life (for Brilka)’ (tr from the German by Charlotte Collins & Ruth Martin) Nino Haratischwili

‘Beyond Yamashita and Percival’ (tr from the Malay by the author) Shaari Isa

‘Tyll’ (tr from the German by Benjamin Ross) Daniel Kehlmann

‘The Ditch’ (tr from the Dutch by Sam Garrett) Herman Koch

‘While the Music Played’ Nathaniel Lande

‘Lost Children Archive’ Valeria Luiselli

‘The Boy’ (tr from the French by Emma Ramadan & Tom Roberge) Marcus Malte

‘Auē’ Becky Manawatu

‘The Glass Hotel’ Emily St John

‘Apeirogon’ Colum McCann

’Hurricane Season’ (tr from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes) Fernanda Melchor

‘The Silent Patient’ Alex Michaelides

‘Cilka’s Journey’ Heather Morris

‘Dark Mother Earth’ (tr from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac) Kristian Novak

‘Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars’ Joyce Carol Oates

‘Inland’ Téa Obreht

‘Shadowplay’ Joseph O’Connor

‘Mona in Three Acts’ (tr from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison) Griet Op de Beeck

‘This Excellent Machine’ Stephen Orr

‘Mary Toft; Or, The Rabbit Queen’ Dexter Palmer

‘The Pine Islands’ (tr from the German by Jen Calleja) Marion Poschmann

‘A Chronicle of Forgetting’ (tr from the Slovene by Rawley Grau) Sebastijan Pregelj

‘We Cast a Shadow’ Maurice Ruffin

‘Beside Myself’ (tr from the German by Imogen Taylor) Sasha Marianna Salzmann

‘10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World’ Elif Shafak

‘The Subtweet: A Novel’ Vivek Shraya

‘Crossing’ (tr from the Finnish by David Hackston) Pajtim Statovci

‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ Ocean Vuong

‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’ Eibhear Walshe

‘The Nickel Boys’ Colson Whitehead

‘Reproduction’ Ian Williams

‘The Bird King’ G. Willow Wilson

‘The Yield’ Tara June Winch

Most years I have read quite a selection from the list, but with the last twelve months being less than ideal for my reading output, I have only read three of the 49, and I did not write a review for any them (one I actually despised) and they were all read in 2019!!! That is quite embarrassing. I do own another handful of titles, however the challenge of securing and reading 46 more novels before the shortlist announcement on 25 March 2021 is beyond me. Getting through the ten shortlisted titles is a more achievable task with the winner being announced on 20 May 2021, leaving you almost two months to read ten books, let’s see what my mojo is like come 25 March 2021, however I must say I will be focusing on the Republic of Consciousness Prize at the same time.

Happy reading.

Republic of Consciousness Prize Longlist 2021

The Republic of Consciousness Prize was established by author Neil Griffiths with £2,000 of his own money to celebrate “small presses producing brilliant and brave literary fiction” in the UK and Ireland. Small presses being defined as having fewer than five full-time employees. The first Prize was awarded in 2017 to John Keene’s ‘Counternarratives’ (Fitzcarraldo Editions) and subsequent winners have been Eley Williams’ ‘Attrib. and Other Stories’ (Influx Press) in 2018, Will Eaves for ‘Murmur’ (CB Editions) in 2019 and last year Jean-Baptiste Del Amo took home the prize for ‘Animalia’, translated by Frank Wynne (Fitzcarraldo Editions).

The Prizemoney has changed this year with the publisher of all longlisted titles receiving £1,000, at total of £10,000. A further £10,000 will be split between the shortlisted titles, which will be announced in late March.

Earlier this week the longlist for the 2021 Prize was announced. Here are those books (listed alphabetically by publisher as the Prize has chosen to do):

•A Musical Offering by Luis Sagasti, tr. Fionn Petch (Charco Press)

The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

•Mordew by Alex Pheby (Galley Beggar Press)

Mr. Beethoven by Paul Griffiths (Henningham Family Press)

•Unknown Language by Huw Lemmey and Hildegard von Bingen (Ignota Books)

•Lote by Shola von Reinhold (Jacaranda Books)

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (Peepal Tree Press)

Men and Apparitions by Lynne Tillman (Peninsula Press)

•Alindarka’s Children by Alhierd Bacharevic, tr. Jim Dingley & Petra Reid (Scotland Street Press)

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Tramp Press)

I have read three of the titles, only giving my thoughts on one here (‘Mr. Beethoven’ by Paul Griffiths), however I will write up something about the other two in the coming weeks and will also get to a few more that sit on my shelves, hopefully before announcement of the shortlist. Links to my reviews will be updated on the list here.

This year’s judges are:

Guy Gunaratne, his first novel ‘Our Mad and Furious City’ winner of the International Dylan Thomas Prize, the Jhalak Prize and the Authors Club Best First Novel Award in 2019, also longlisted for the Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize.

Eley Williams, winner of this Prize and the James Tait Black Prize in 2018 for ‘Attrib. and Other Stories’ (Influx Press).

John Mitchinson, co-founder of Unbound the book crowdfunding platform.

Prizemoney is largely donated from two sources: The University of East Anglia, through the UEA Publishing Project; and The Granta Trust, with the remainder of the prizemoney being raised through donations and through the Republic of Consciousness small press book club. I have been a member of their book club for a little while and as part of your membership you can choose to receive a fresh small press title each month, sometimes giving you a sneak preview as to the following year’s longlist.

If you would like to join their book club visit their website here for more details, I recommend it, a new book a month (even if mail to Australia is slow), and the knowledge that you are supporting a prize for small presses, those who push the boundaries and publish “brave literary fiction”.