I'm feeling quite pleased with myself.
I've been trying to improve my reading, and I have just studiously read my way through last year's Orange Prize shortlist. I didn't realise that's what I was doing, if the truth be told. Somehow I got it in my head that I had all of the shortlist except the winner.
But that's not true. I had the lot, and, even more pleasingly, I think the judges got it right.
Because The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht was (in my opinion clearly, and what do I know?) far and away the best of the lot. I loved this, although I'm not quite sure why, and maybe it was only because it was the one I read last. I loved, a long time ago when I read them, the magic realism of Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel, and this somehow had that same ethereal, mythical feeling, while also being a very real story of loss, grief and the aftermath of war.
It is set in an unnamed Balkan country before and during and after the wars that broke up Yugoslavia (which is also unnamed), about which I know, shamefully, very little. Yet I suppose I had imagined that most of the residents of those now several countries would consider this dissolution a good thing and what struck me most forcefully about this book is how much it seemed also to be grieving for a lost unity that transcended ethnic or religious differences.
It made me, as we contemplate the possible dissolution (though hopefully with less violence) of our own union, think.
And what of the others?
Room I really didn't enjoy. It is the story of a woman and her young son held captive in one room, told in his voice. It made me cry, and it involved me, but I thought it felt too exploitative of the real people, such as the Fritzl family or Natascha Kampusch, who have suffered like this. If you want to read about them, read their own stories. Somehow fictionalising it felt glib and unnecessary. Misery literature by proxy.
Which is odd, because of course making stories out of real suffering is what fiction does. The Memory of Love fictionalises life during and after the war in Sierra Leone, about which I know absolutely nothing. I loved this, in the sense that I was appalled and horrified and sickened by some of it, and enraptured and grasped by the rest, right up until the last twenty pages, when it all, for me at least, fell apart. It was as though she had a fixed word limit and got to the end and realised she had to end the story and only had twenty pages to do it in. So she bunged all the rest of the plot in at the end, dusted her hands and sent it off to the publishers. A mistake, in my opinion.
The end of Annabel also seemed weak to me. Again, I enjoyed the vast majority of it, and then felt let down by the last few chapters although I loved the fluid style of Kathleen Winter's writing and her evocation of life in the Canadian wilds. Annabel is about a hermaphrodite and so, in my head anyway, was immediately comparable to Middlesex. I'm afraid I preferred the latter. Oddly too, and I only finished it a couple of weeks ago, I can't now really remember anything about Annabel, possibly because throughout it, so much is left unsaid, unspecified, that when you put it down all you remember are the gaps.
There aren't so many gaps in Grace Williams says it loud. It's all there, spelt out for you, in open, trusting detail by the internal voice of Grace Williams, polio victim and (I think although these are, in the 1940s, not the words used) cerebral palsy sufferer. Grace can barely speak, only ever stringing two words together,, yet Emma Henderson gives her voice as Grace tells the story of her life, first with her parents, and then in the Briar Mental Institute, where she meets Daniel. Parts of their story are heart-rending. I wept, copiously and obviously on a train, at some chapters of this book, and at others I felt manipulated, as though Emma Henderson was deliberately pulling my strings.
I'm not sure, either, how I feel about Great House . This felt, and still feels, like a book I will need to, and will, re-read. It is four separate stories about four separate families and individuals, all linked by a desk: a great, ugly, dark desk with nineteen drawers, one of which is locked. The novel is awash with a sense of loss and longing. All of the characters have lost or are losing something or someone, and all are trying to find their way back to it, as the reader is trying to find the link, the missing key to the story. The characters are all also linked by Judaism, and I wondered whether there was also an underlying search for an understanding of what it means to be Jewish in a post-Holocaust world. I'm not Jewish, although my father is, and I felt, sometimes, as though there was a layer of this book that I didn't, or perhaps couldn't understand as a result. Perhaps I will on re-reading.