Some may find it odd that I decided to start at 2019 and work backwards but I think this will give me the best chance of continuing on with this challenge. When I’m finished we can see if this was true!
2019 – An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
I jumped into this story feet first without reading the synopsis beforehand. I had no expectations, outside of the title and an endorsement by Barak Obama(!), and ended up thoroughly swept away by the moving plot.
Tayari Jones writes beautiful prose and does not shy away from hefty topics such as: imprisonment, the strain of marriage, fidelity, racism in America and the intersection of race and class privilege as well as challenging parental relationships. I could go on, but I think this list gives you enough of a picture of just how deep this story goes.
Ultimately, this is the kind of novel that compels you to talk to others about it, so I would recommend it for a book club. In the edition I have the author has kindly included some discussion questions that I found useful when reflecting on the story later. To say I loved this book feels wrong, but I did thoroughly enjoy it and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a profoundly insightful character-driven story that gets them thinking long after finishing it.
2018 – Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Hmm, where to begin with this one. Home Fire is a modern retelling of the Greek myth Antigone but is in essence a literary thriller that exposes the reality of prejudice and a young man’s slide into radicalisation. In my opinion you don’t need to know the Greek myth to follow this story but obviously it would give you insight to how the story will evolve and wrap up.
Initially, I struggled to get in to it as I wasn’t loving the disjointed writing style but after fifty pages you get used to it and it starts to feel right for the narrative. The thing I loved most about this story was the sibling relationships and how Shamsie pushes this ‘unconditional’ love to its furthest point by exploring the fine line between loving your family and appearing sympathetic to radical ideologies. I also loved the London setting as it was described with such an intimacy and captured diversity and the gentrification of the capital particularly well.
The story challenges its reader to see things differently and to step out of their preconceived misconceptions about what radicalisation means and the impact it has on the rest of the family regardless of gender, class or ethnicity. Overall, I enjoyed reading this but I wasn’t satisfied with how the story wrapped up.
2017 – The Power by Namoi Alderman
I first read this back in August 2017 but luckily, I’ve been writing book notes for a while so I have them to hand. The Power is considered feminist speculative fiction and is endorsed by the one and only Margaret Atwood, which is one of the main reasons I picked this up during a time when I didn’t read much adult fiction.
In this story, Alderman swaps the power dynamic of gender roles and makes the men the ‘weaker sex’ and gives women (literal) electrifying powers. Much like The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrative is then framed by another layer of storytelling. In these bookends, two characters are writing emails back and forth discussing their research and their plans to write the book ‘The Power’ five thousand years after the events have happened.
I can see why this won the Prize, but for me it was too simplistic, lacked necessary nuance for such big topics and felt much too reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale which is just rather disappointing. If you love Atwood, or stories that tackle gender stereotypes then give this a go as you might have better luck than me.
2016 – The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
Now this is an interesting one. When I first put it down I felt it was quite average but the longer I’ve been away from it my feelings have only intensified and I’ve since purchased the sequel.
The Glorious Heresies centres around a singular event – the murder of a young man by an unsuspecting 59 year old woman named Maureen. Instead of attempting to ‘solve’ this murder the author zooms in on the micro-repercussions this act has on an inter-woven group of characters. What happens to the dead man’s girlfriend? What happens to the man roped in to clean the body up? How does this impact that man’s family?
What we get is a very clever spiderweb of actions and reactions. The author focuses on the everyday and put’s you right in the middle of it. She doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities that these characters face either so you get up close and personal with the ‘darker’ side of life in Ireland. McInerney’s style is honest, raw and humorous. I would definitely recommend you pick this one up – it’s fantastic.
2015 – How to be Both by Ali Smith
I would like to start by saying that Ali Smith isn’t for everyone and I would put her work at the upper end of challenging adult fiction. Smith doesn’t write traditional prose and omits speech marks, paragraphs and chapters so that it becomes a long stream of consciousness that flips between the present and reminiscing about the past. It works to create a fast paced reading experience but it’s also exhausting to follow as it’s overly complicated.
How to be Both has an interesting publishing quirk – the two sections of the novel can be printed in either order and it’s left up to chance which one you get. My edition has the story of George first and the story of Francesco second. I would be interested to hear the thoughts of someone who read them the other way round to see if the order really does have an effect on the reading experience.
Other than this publishing quirk, this story explores the idea of being ‘both’ and being ‘other’ whether that be gender or sexuality. We follow young George who has recently lost her mother and then Francesco a renaissance artist from the 1460s who has stepped into another time.
I think that Smith’s writing has moments of beauty but can be pretentious and inaccessible to readers. The stylistic choices can be at odds with the content of the story and work to overshadow the narrative to create a barrier for the reader which I’m not a fan of. If she simplified her writing it would pack a bigger punch.
Phew. What an interesting start to this challenge! It’s been a mixed bag of books that I’ve loved and some that haven’t worked for me. As I’m going along, I’m keeping track of what aspects I really love/hate so that as I continue to explore more literary fiction I know what to look out for.
Have you read any of these? Tell me your thoughts!