Founded in 2013, the Goldsmiths Prize has already established itself as one of the most important award in English fiction, having most notably launched Eimear McBride towards success, handing her its inaugurative prize for A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. Its ethos, to promote and reward the most “innovative fiction” (or so the venerable New Statesman’s culture editor Tom Gatti avowed), was on full display at last night’s shortlist announcement event. Invited to give a lecture, novelist Howard Jacobson brought his trademark wit and easy grin (or is it the other way around?) to bear on the question: why does the novel matter? After likening Herzog to Hamlet and Leopold Bloom to blotting paper (the character used to sell it, after all), and critiquing Nabokov’s “florid” writing while skewering the adepts of “spare prose”, he argued that the novel allows one to “exult in the meaninglessness of things”. In other words, to take pleasure, beauty, and emotion from the fact that real life is grand neither in heroism nor in tragedy.
To enjoy, then, the glorious blandness of the day-to-day, the judges this year have once again offered six novels for consideration, chosen from a pool of 111 submissions. Five of the nominees were written by women, while three were issued by independent publishers (including one candidate by the cult Nigerian imprint Cassava Republic Press). This shortlist is also noteworthy for marking the return of Eimear McBride, whose second novel The Lesser Bohemians puts her in the running for a second win. The other big name nominated this year is playwright and novelist Deborah Levy, whose book Hot Milk also happens to be on the Man Booker shortlist.
Transit by Rachel Cusk
The second novel in a planned trilogy, Transit follows the critically-acclaimed Outline (2014), and continues to portray the travails of Faye, left with her two sons after her earlier marriage has collapsed. For this book the children are with their father while she has her new flat in London renovated. But never mind the what, here’s the how: if her prose itself may be labeled as spare and precise — “pared-back grace”, as it’s been better described — it is haunted by a certain fear. Of change (and the lack of it), yes, but also of evil itself, animal aggression and the general struggle of life. Quite a reflective short novel, then.
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
Inspired by ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, an essay by Algerian-French feminist Hélène Cixous, the book centers on the erratic relationship between a young Englishwoman, Sofia, and her hypochondriac mother Rose. The two have moved to Almería, Spain to visit the clinic of one Dr. Goméz, an eccentric but celebrated orthopaedic consultant, and something of a solution of last resort for her mother’s psychosomatic troubles. Witty, unhinged and increasingly intense, Hot Milk uses as disparate subjects as sinister psychology and playful sexuality to force through Cixous’ message: ‘It is up to you to break the old circuits’.
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
McBride’s anticipated follow-up to A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is ostensibly about a young Irish woman who falls in love with an older actor, after moving to London to attend drama school. However, the story is, more than anything, about sex — in all its persuasions (save for one) and forms, from magical to horrible, loving to scarring, and every little bit in between. Her language, brilliant and fractured in her debut, is for the first half of this novel just as virtuosic, before becoming more conventional as we near the finish.
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
Endorsed by last year’s winner Kevin Barry, Irish novelist Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones delivers an eerie, magnificent free-flowing third novel. Set during All Souls’ Day, which was once believed in Ireland to be the day when souls of the dead visited their family home, it follows Marcus Conway, a middle-aged engineer. He’s just returned to his kitchen table, and contemplates the events that led him away and brought him back again. Written very much like a prose poem, and innovative in structure, this is experimental fiction at its best.
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika
Anglo-Nigerian writer Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s second novel comes courtesy of Cassava Republic, the publisher responsible for bringing the likes of Teju Cole and Lola Shoneyin to the wider world. The story centers on the memorable Dr. Morayo Da Silva, a retired English professor living in San Francisco, who pursues an animated and entertaining life until she suffers a fall. Though no lasting damage is done, her thoughts then turn wistful, transforming the book into a “meditation on loneliness” — a fantastic and contemplative character study.
Martin John by Anakana Schofield
If damaged minds explored through damaged language isn’t necessarily a new thing (looking at you, Faulkner), Anakana Schofield takes it a step further by darting in and out of a sex offender, his worried Mam, and, at some point, his victim. Yet besides its worrying enjoyable use of language, Martin John manages to be dangerously hilarious, and occasionally even touching (no pun intended). A daring and virtuosic work.