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.

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.

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.