Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

"Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4", John Freeman (ed), Granta Publications, 2013

The authors (all under 40) have impressive credentials, packing a lot of prize-winning into their few years. I've already read books by 4 of them. Jon McGregor failed to make the cut. Here are some sample bios -

  • Naomi Alderman writes and designs computer games and is a professor of creative writing
  • In the last 4 years Nadifa Mohamed has been longlisted for the Orange Prize; shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, the Dylan Thomas Award, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the PEN/Open book award; and won the Betty Trask Award.
  • Evie Wyld is winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys prize and a Betty Trask Award, shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
  • Sarah Hall has won Commonwealth Writers' Prize for best first novel, the Betty Trask Award, the John Llewellyn Rhys prize. the James Tiptree, Jr Award and the Portico Prize. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Arthur C.Clarke Award for science fiction, etc.

They can all write. I made a note of some images and passages -

  • "Fate was all around me, like the crimping on a beer-bottle top" (Adam Thirwell)
  • "Filsan begins to blow a kiss at his back but feels ridiculous and just follows his white shirt as it disappears into the night like a ship's sail surrounded by high waves and low clouds" (Nadifa Mohamed)
  • "The sulphur lights fizzing beyond the windows. All the frenzy and dissolution and sobriety beyond, the unknowable lives and everything I see just one layer upon further layers of long-buried ruins, rivers under concrete, grassy knolls smothered by city blocks. I can hear bells ringing far away in a nearly abandoned church and engine noise rising and falling, footsteps on asphalt, elliptical cries" (Joanna Kavenna)
  • "There was a wasp in the ashtray, almost dead, shivering in small circles like a mobile phone left to vibrate on a table" (Ned Beauman)
  • "In sleep, Rachel has stopped breathing. Her brain's electrical state is unknown. Snow is falling on the cabin roof; the computer in the office is winking slowly, storing emails and enquiries and data; elk season is open. Her British passport is in her jacket pocket. Her mother is dying a long way away. The den has been abandoned and the pack is moving single file through the white Bitterroot terrain. She is not breathing. In the dream it stands looking for her. Pure yellow gaze. A mystic from the Reservation once asked her to describe the feeling of contact with them. What did her heart feel? I don't know, she said. I don't believe what you believe." (Sarah Hall)

Here, very briefly, are the story settings

  • Indians fighting for Britain at "Vipers".
  • Set in Thailand. Drugs.
  • Set in Dubai. Immigrant, exploited builders from the East
  • Fantasy humour set in modern day London
  • Set in Somalia. A female Somalian soldier
  • East Europeans involved in London prostitution
  • A female sheep-shearer. An attempted suicide.
  • A chauffeur in Ghana
  • After a night of drugs, a man wakes in a hotel beside a dead/dying woman
  • Man watches wife on Reality TV show. His friend has died
  • Man returns to English home after army training, ready to join WWII
  • US college life at Yale
  • London. Single mother with nearly-murdered friend
  • US
  • Someone revisiting England after years away in the States - a stately house then an old people's home.
  • Lausanne refugee camp
  • US
  • The M4
  • Indians newly in England, 15 to a house, visa problems.
  • US/UK. Magic realism

Note the almost total absence of the here (in the UK) and now (a sign of maturity I guess), and of the mundane. Granta tends to lean towards gritty realism - even journalism - so I'm not surprized that there's downtroddenness galore, an exception being Alderman's story which starts "On the first night of Passover, the Prophet Elijah came to the house of Mr and Mrs Rosenbaum in Finchley Lane, Hendon" and later "It is not often, even in Hendon, that one witnesses a miracle" ... "Elijah had found an old Argos catalogue and leafed through it". Shades of Catweazle. I liked Taiye Salasi's and Ross Raisin's pieces. I liked the style of Sarah Hall's, though England's seen in an unfortunate light. I'll read more of Sunjeev Sahota. I didn't see the point of Marovits', or Stephen Hall's. Guo's piece is less than 4 pages long - I wouldn't buy a novel on the strength of it. In Raisin's symbolic piece (it mentions a governor - US? It mentions rugby posts - UK?) people on holiday see on TV their hometown flooded, their father asleep on an armchair drifting down the flooded high street. They return, make a raft they can barely control the direction of to find their father. People repeatedly say they should have returned earlier. At the end there's a fire, onlookers taking photos with their mobiles.

Other reviews

  • Tim Adams (Guardian) (The dominant tone is of poignant uprootedness, anxious displacement)
  • Katy Guest (Independent) (Unfortunately, it does not make for a very readable collection. ... this uncohesive collection does not work as an anthology, or serve as a guide for readers hoping to join in the futurology)
  • Tom Cruell (Literateur) (Fans of the well-rounded short story may be disappointed to find themselves reading what is basically a series of trailers for forthcoming attractions ... A Best Young British Writer should not be including phrases like ‘I went the other day to the loft of a friend’s house’ (Joanna Kavenna) ... It is when we look for the authors who are trying to expand the horizons of the novel that the project starts to fall down ... there is a real absence of authors engaging with theory or style in a meaningful sense ... In recent years, Granta has attempted to reposition itself as an international brand, in part as an attempt to address a declining UK market, and this wider outlook is reflected in the broad range of backgrounds represented in this decade’s selection ... Don’t blame the writers, blame the judges. Overall? Granta 123 lacks style, and goes down as an opportunity missed)

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