Friday, 3 October 2014

The Goldsmiths Prize 2014

Six novels shortlisted for the 2014 Goldsmith Prize this year:

Rachel Cusk
Faber & Faber
Will Eaves
CB editions
Howard Jacobson
Jonathan Cape
Paul Kingsnorth
Zia Haider Rahman
Ali Smith

(The above novel covers and links come from the Goldsmiths Prize website, which is worth a look)

Last year's winner was, of course, Eimear McBride's astonishing debut A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. This went on to win almost every major literary prize you can think of, has been triumphantly adapted for the stage and is now getting rapturous reviews from heavyweight critics in the United States, where it was published last month. I cannot think of any other serious writer past or present who has enjoyed such a reception, nor of one who deserved it more. This is a book that will outlive us all.

Who should win the 2014 Goldsmiths? For once I'm in a position to express a half-formed opinion, having read four of the six shortlisted titles. This is unusual for me, and really a coincidence, of sorts. I read The Wake because Eimear McBride reviewed it for The New Statesman and I was intrigued. The Absent Therapist came warmly recommended by two trustworthy and unrelated acquaintances. The others were gifts or review copies. 

Rachel Cusk's Outline is hardly the sort of novel the Goldsmith Prize was set up to recognise and I'm afraid that writers writing novels about writing, and being a writer, leave me gasping for air. This is such a novel - elegantly written, polished, thoughtful and the kind of fiction I can't stand at any price because it lacks bite, or the thump of life. Howard Jacobson is a favourite broadcaster and journalist, and I read his reviews and columns with great admiration and attention but (how to put this?) as a celebrated comic novelist he leaves me unmoved and stone hearted. This is because as a comic novelist he simply isn't funny in the way, say, Waugh and Wodehouse and Pym are funny. He's funny in the same way Eric Linklater wasn't. I've read his latest (and I've read three or four of his other novels over the years) and it's not bad, not bad at all. But Eimear McBride set a fantastically high bar last year and (for me at any rate) 'not bad at all' isn't good enough, not now.

I've just started reading Ali Smith's How to be both (she was also shortlisted last year for the same prize) and it's too early to have any strong feelings about a clever, tricksy novel by a writer I admire but can't work up a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for. The one shortlisted novel I haven't read (and one can't read everything) is In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman. I'm afraid the portentous title puts me off - it sounds a bit up itself (and the worst novel I've read this year was the similarly-titled All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, so perhaps this is just guilt by association).  Zia Haider Rahman used to be an investment banker. The main character in his novel is an investment banker. Has there ever been a good novel by an investment banker about an investment banker? Can such a thing really exist?

Two of the shortlisted books stand out for me and are what Goldsmith judges are supposed to be looking out for. I  really admire The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth's Booker-longlisted account of life in the Lincolnshire fens in the immediate aftermath of the Norman invasion of 1066. He has created a 'shadow language' that is essentially Anglo-Saxon and which the reader initially struggles with but which, within a few pages, settles into a clear and gripping account of guerrilla warfare in the 10th century. It is also a brilliantly rendered investigation into how a particular man, a free tenant farmer, lived and thought at the time - his mind is narrow and deep. Publishers take note - the book was crowd-funded. "There is sum thing cuman".

But my money's on Will Eaves' The Absent Therapist, from the tiny independent CB Editions. Eaves was for some years Arts Editor at the TLS and I'm catching up - this is (I think) his third or fourth book and it's . . . well, see for yourself. It's short and original and, it strikes me, perfect. I couldn't for a moment find anything to fault, and I'm picky. Worth a punt, I'd say.

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