Blind Man with a Pistol

James Tait Black Memorial Literary Prize

I volunteered to read for the 2008 James Tait Black Memorial Literary Prize for fiction. It is a prize organized by the University of Edinburgh and will be awarded this August during the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I received a stack of nine novels, and I decided that a fitting debut blog entry would be the reviews I submitted to the panel of judges to help them compile their short list. Beware: the quality of the submissions is unwieldy.

Ronan Bennett, Zugzwang. Bloomsbury, 2007

Zugzwang is a term used in chess commentary where a player remains obliged to move although all possible options weaken the current position. Bennett, chess commentator to The Guardian, writes a taut political thriller set during a 1914 chess tournament in St. Petersburg. Despite some onerous love scenes between the middle-aged protagonist and his lithe, young Baltic-beauty love interest, Bennett’s prose is energetic and lean while he builds and sustains suspense throughout the narrative. One of the most skilled writers of my stable, Bennett was a pleasure to read, and almost made my short list. Unfortunately, he falls short of the medal round because while Zugzwang excels in the thriller genre, it fails to transcend it. Tight, fun and exciting, but not really prize material.

Tom Harper, Lost Temple. Century, 2007.

What could the publisher have possibly been thinking when they submitted this book for a literary award? Harper’s novel, the first book I read in my set, was awful. Awful. The words “high-octane!” and “non-stop action!” come to mind, along with any hackneyed chestnuts you might see flashed wildly across the trailer of the latest Vin Diesel offering. Sam Grant kills Nazis, Soviets and Palestinian terrorists in a plot so confused, it’s not sure if it’s stealing from The Da Vinci Code, Indiana Jones or The Illiad. About halfway through, I decided to start looking for a sentence that exemplified the horribly trite prose, when eventually realized that every page offered a new and wonderful candidate. How bad is Lost Temple? I think that Tom Harper answers it best on the website, replete with YouTube teaser, that he concocted to promote this book. YouTube? Cripes.

Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Hamish Hamilton, 2007.

A wonderful addition to my pile, this late entry redeemed a particularly poor stack of books. Hamid concocts an allegory of America’s relationship to its historical legacy, its national myths, global capitalism and the distasteful conflicts the intersection of those social forces have wrought. A suspenseful itch begins harmlessly and almost unnoticeably with the title and the unnamed Pakistani narrator that has sat down beside an American tourist to cheerfully tell him about his life in the United States. The itch spreads with ghostly insistence, as the narrative subtly unwinds the social netting that form the Western conception of the East-West divide. The beast of fundamentalist terrorism that frenzies Western thinking bursts into an expertly derived conclusion even as it lingers on a hopeful reconciliation. My only criticism of the book touches the difficult form of the oral allegory employed by the novel. The narrator’s love interest, remains bizarre, one-dimensional and unconvincing—and her allegorical name, (Am)Erica, is perhaps a bit too precious. Overall, an excellent book, and deserving of progression to the next round.

Edward Docx, Self Help. Picador, 2007.

Edward Docx is a witty, inventive writer and Self Help provides an energetic stage for him to flex his artistic muscles. The book examines the lives of an estranged bicultural family, Russian and English, fast upon the death of their loving though brooding (Marxist!) matriarch. Various narrative strands following twin brother and sister, separated bisexual dandy father, and unknown orphan from a previous affair intertwine along the lines of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth or Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Unfortunately, Docx staggers under the weight of his ambition, and 500-page text never really gets off the ground. Moreover, while Smith’s effort revels in its breadth of vision and diversity, Self Help remains firmly planted in white, middle-class navel gazing. Docx’s strong writing and occasional wit rescues the novel somewhat, but his stretch for clever metaphor sometimes shows the strain. Ambitious, but ultimately uninteresting.

Mary Gaitskill, Veronica. Pantheon, 2005.

Gaitskill’s evident talent distinguished her and her novel from the also-rans in my list. Veronica investigates the complex, lurid friendship of the dead title-character and our narrator, Alison, an ex-glamour model now full of self-loathing, regret, and Hepatitis B. Gaitskill beautifully illustrates the weaknesses and hopes that invite debasement, pettiness and failure. As we follow Alison as she revisits her past in an assortment of vignettes about her teenage flight from home, humiliation and success in the modeling industry, and a homecoming to a life of unrewarding temp work—a world where she meets the theatrical Veronica, full of affectation and chutzpah, who both confronts and reassures the illusions around which Alison has structured her life. Veronica’s death by AIDS equally offers hope and hopelessness, meaning and rage to Alison’s own terminal illness. Gaitskill allegedly dreamed up Alison and Veronica over a decade ago; and therein dwells my only criticism of this otherwise provocative and insightful novel. The novel’s preoccupation with the emotional vacuity of the 1980s and generation-specific attention to AIDS and STDs are notably behind the times. Veronica’s datedness—and the fact that the book was originally published in 2005—could disqualify it from the Tait Black 2007 prize, but these issues do not eclipse its force and pleasure.

Susanna Jones, The Missing Person’s Guide to Love. Picador, 2007.

I don’t really have much to say about this novel, even though it was less disagreeable than Harper’s Lost Temple. It was rather like an American soap opera, especially if the soap opera likes to draw on colonialist, orientalist assumptions of exotic Turkey. The writing is strong and fluid, if forgettable, the characterization plastic, and the plot was derivative, although a bit punchier than most homecoming thrillers that seek to uncover a horrible, far-reaching secret. But, like the soap, you find yourself on the couch at three o’clock in the afternoon and the remote is just sitting there, almost within reach. Why not read another page? Pap.

Stephen Thompson, Meet Me Under the Westway. CHROMA, 2007.

Thompson’s cleverness sometimes gives the impression of someone who laughs too hard at jokes about David Mamet. Westway is funny, surely, and a confident, satirical romp through the British theatre scene and Notting Hill, but his eye is too focused on the approving nod after a successful name drop or literary allusion than the actual comedy of his quips. Indeed, this strategy proceeds apace in the trendy, West London setting, where every Portobello restaurant, bar, pottery and piggery is referenced with barely concealed self-satisfaction, even as he smugly eschews their falsity and superficiality. Thompson operates too much in lockstep with Nick Hornby’s less-talented cousin, and occasionally confuses pomp and profundity like a drunk swaggering on moonshine he mistook for Macallan. A decent effort, but certainly not prize-worthy.

Amanda Eyre Ward, Forgive Me. Harper, 2007.

Forgive Me depicts a young hardnosed, no-nonsense journalist struggling with an unfulfilling home life in Nantucket and her desire to uncover truth and meaning that apparently manifests itself through African apartheid. It’s exactly the kind of reductionist move you would expect from such a simplistic, moralizing fable that represents Western women as universally cowed and ignorant and black South African women as determined warriors. Apartheid South Africa essentially stands in for white existential angst. Nevertheless, Ward’s prose is excellent, and is appropriately economical considering the protagonist’s vocation. There is real emotional conflict in the book, even if it sometimes belittles the real trauma of apartheid. Most disappointingly, Ward chooses to wrap up the conflict and the novel by becoming a mother and moving home to Massachusetts. In the world of Forgive Me, having a baby can erase the pain of racism, poverty, war and heartbreak. Unfortunate.

Gee Williams, Salvage. Alcemi, 2007.

The jewel. A masterful stylist, Williams is constantly inventive and inspiring in her craft, and boasts a knack for stunning images and observations. Where has Wales been hiding this woman? Well, in Wales, presumably, but that is besides the point. Salvage masquerades as a murder mystery while exploring the murky, aphotic character of the Welsh seaside and of the human soul. Dominant and daring in her prose, Williams relishes the act of writing and constructs five distinct characters with genres particular to each, including a wonderful Cosmo send-up for the gorgeous gold-digging nurse as well as a provocative intervention of the author herself. Clichés and generic conventions only provide more writerly ammunition, as Williams constantly shifts her literary goalposts from crime to romance to a metafictional crisis while never losing the immediacy of the characters or the suspense of the crime. If Gee Williams was a more celebrated author she could win this competition. Brilliant.

4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I’m overwhelmed. And so-o glad you liked it.

good wishes Gee

Comment by gee

Ms. Williams, it was a pleasure to read and I am humbled to find that you read my feeble review.

Good luck, and I can’t wait to read the next one!

Comment by Catchfire

Dear Catchfire
Thanks for a fantastic review of Salvage. We are the publishers – please note it’s Alcemi not First Impression. Just to ask: you are you exactly: James Tait judge; official shadow or unofficial shadow of the judges? I presume it’s OK to quote the review to raise Gee’s profile. Cheers for your enthusiasm

Comment by alcemi

You are so right. Have read Salvage 3 times. KS

Comment by kate steer

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