Friday, 31 May 2013

Thoughts on the 'Orange' Prize, #1

In an utterly shocking turn of events, it turns out I have so much to say about the six shortlisted novels for the 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction that I'm going to break this into two posts, which will detail my thoughts on the six novels, state which one I think ought to win, and then predict which one I think will win. The winner will be announced on Wednesday 5th June, so I'll post again then to comment on the result. So, in no particular order (though don't worry, I will be ranking all six at the end of my second post):

1. Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple: In a (mostly) strong shortlist, this novel stood out to me as being an odd contender. This is not to say that it is weak; thinking back to Orange Prize shortlists of previous years, I would certainly have placed it among my top three or four novels. But for all its wit and charm, it feels a little lightweight and ephemeral, especially as I read it immediately before the Homes, which draws on similar themes in its satire of American consumer culture, but is a far more original and memorable read. Bernadette is a once maverick architect turned semi-recluse, scandalising the other mothers at her fifteen-year-old daughter Bee's exclusive Seattle prep school. The novel, which is largely told through emails, notes and letters, chronicles Bernadette's descent into 'madness' while simultaneously highlighting the mad behaviour of everybody around her. Unfortunately, I can't see that it does much more, although it is an amazingly quick and entertaining read. I adored the section set on an Antarctic cruise at the end - but then I can't think of much set in the Antarctic that I couldn't enjoy. The characters were largely played for laughs, and although I suspected that Bee is meant to form the moral centre of the novel, she was too much of a cliche - super-intelligent teenager isolated by a childhood illness - to perform this function properly. I also found Bernadette frustratingly unsympathetic, perhaps because of the misleading title - I kept on expecting her to disappear long before she actually did! - and perhaps because she was an unsympathetic person (a spendthrift who seems to think it's appropriate to pay her Indian PA a $1 hourly rate - of course, it turns out to be a scam, but that's not really the point). In a way, it's a shame this was put up for a prize against so many literary heavyweights, because I now don't feel able to enjoy it for what it is.

2. May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes: On the other hand, this kind of novel is what the 'Orange' shortlist is for. I would never have picked up this book otherwise, and I'm so glad I read it, bizarre, meandering and ultimately a little unsatisfactory as it was. Harry, a university lecturer pursuing a lengthy obsession with Richard Nixon that he hopes will culminate in a book, finds his life turned upside down when his brother George kills a family (except the youngest son) in a hit-and-run accident and then murders his wife Jane after finding out that she is having an affair with Harry. After that, one does wonder what else can happen in the novel, but it traces a series of increasingly random events in the course of a year of Harry's life - from strokes to internet sex to curious prep school initiations to schoolteachers preying on their pupils. Any review of this novel, I feel, risks dwelling on its faults, which are easy to list, without recognising its virtues, which are harder to describe; the Guardian's review manages to achieve a balance which I largely concur with. Props to Theo Tait; I'm not usually a massive fan of broadsheet reviews, feeling that they often tread too carefully and spend too much of their limited word count rehashing the plot, but Tait's review gave me plenty of food for thought. The comparison to Little Miss Sunshine, and to The Corrections, is remarkably apt; there is something of a cop-out about the 'melting pot' of an American family that Harry brings together at the end of this novel, embracing the orphaned child of the hit-and-run accident, George's teenage children, one (or two?) women met over the internet, and even a South African village. As adventurous and riveting as this book is, I did feel that it ultimately became a little banal, even as I was exhilarated by Homes's daring storytelling. (Zadie Smith - why wasn't White Teeth more like this?)

3. Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver: So, I've had mixed experiences with Barbara Kingsolver so far, and one of my biggest problems with her otherwise excellent and well-written novels is that she sometimes lets the message overwhelm the story. While this is absent from some of her early work (The Bean Trees) it is overwhelming in The Poisonwood Bible and The Lacuna, neither of which I particularly enjoyed, and a slight problem in Prodigal Summer, which I otherwise loved. Therefore, 'Barbara Kingsolver tackles climate change' was not a formula that filled me with joy, although the obvious similarities of this novel to Prodigal Summer made me eager to read it anyway. After reading a number of internet reviews that condemned it as 'preachy', I felt that I knew what I was in for. So I started reading and...

This is possibly one of the least 'preachy' novels I have read that deals with a serious subject about which there can be no serious debate. It is astonishingly difficult to bring home a message that readers already 'know' about but have not internalised, but the emotional power of this narrative is such that it made me reassess my lazy complacency about climate change all over again, which is surely what Kingsolver intended. Our heroine, Dellarobia, has been an Applachian farmer's wife since she accidentally fell pregnant at the age of seventeen. Ten years later, she uses potential and actual affairs as a means of escape from her dreary existence as a full-time mother to two young children. Hiking up a mountainside to run away with her lover, the trajectory of Dellarobia's life is instead altered in a much more profound way when she discovers a colony of monarch butterflies. The entomologists who swiftly arrive in the area know that this change to the butterflies' migration pattern - they normally winter in warmer Mexico - shows something is wildly out of sync. A motley camp soon forms of climate change activists, evangelical worshippers, and hippy knitters, all wanting something from this event. Meanwhile, we trace Dellarobia's personal trajectory as for the first time she returns to her high school ambition to pursue further education and make something of her life.

The reason why this novel is not 'preachy', perhaps, is because it deals not with climate change - the implications of the butterflies' behaviour are spelt out in a relatively short amount of page time, and Kingsolver does not need to resort to hyperbole to make the message frightening - but with the reasons why humans are unable to accept that climate change is happening, or even if they do accept it, are unable to act on their knowledge. Many of the characters are uninterested or disbelieving when Ovid, the head of the scientific team, tries to convert them, and this is shown to be an integral part of their sympathetic and nuanced characterisation, rather than an individual moral failing. Indeed, Ovid's flailing about when confronted with denial is also subtly criticised, as Kingsolver suggests that scientists need to be able to communicate better to get their message across. Best of all, though, is Dellarobia's conversation with an environmental activist who wants her to sign the 'pledge' to use less carbon. After they have run through reusing clothes, machinery, less electricity, second-hand computers, and so forth, all actions that Dellarobia's poverty has forced her to take anyway, they reach the nadir of his motivational spiel: '"Okay, this is the last one," he said. "Fly less."'. "Fly less,"' Dellarobia repeats; she has never left the state.

Therefore, through this exploration of this poor community's reaction to climate change, Kingsolver forces us to consider why people choose to be wrong about climate change, rather than simply telling us that they are wrong; and, reading between the lines, suggests that globally, such rhetoric may have little meaning for those developing nations that have yet to climb out of poverty. This is not a novel that preaches a message; it is a call to action, a warning against complacency, but also an aid to understanding.

Tomorrow, I'll be discussing Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, NW by Zadie Smith, and linking back to my thoughts on Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, as well as giving my overall rankings - so watch this space.

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