Just A Little Baileys…….

photoThe Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction was formerly called The Orange Prize and the winner will be announced tomorrow. This evening I went to a ‘preview’ event at The Southbank Centre in London where each of the six shortlisters was to read an extract from their novel and answer a few questions about the work.

Unfortunately, just a few days before the event it was announced that Donna Tartt, described by The Guardian as the frontrunner, was unable to make it. Instead her place was taken by Charles Dance, the actor, who joked that he had never felt so conspicuous in his life and then by her literary agent in the UK to answer questions.

First up was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with Americanah, my personal favourite.She previously won the Orange Prize for Half Of A Yellow Sun. At the risk of sounding trivial, if there were a prize for best dressed author she would win hands down! I saw  her at the Hay Festival on Sunday and on both occasions she was dressed to kill. The lady has got STYLE!!

She was asked about the two very different experiences her main characters have when they leave Nigeria….Ifemelu in the USA and Obinze in the UK. She explained that all of their experiences were based on true life experiences although not necessarily her own.

She also explained that she had wanted to describe a sense of longing and homesickness for Nigeria which she had felt as a young student in the USA. She had also wanted to recreate the sense of betrayal she had felt too when she returned to Nigeria some years later and found it had not stood still waiting for her.

Next came Hannah Kent. Burial Rites is a debut novel from the Australian writer which I enjoyed but didn’t love.The novel traces the story of Agnus Magnusdottir, the last woman to be publically executed in Iceland in 1830.During the questions, Kent explained how she had come across the story first whilst she was a young exchange student in Iceland. She stressed that fact and fiction were very closely linked in the book and that she had to rein in her imagination and not speculate if there was no evidence for a particular aspect of the story. She was asked by a member of the audience whether she had ‘inhabited’ Agnus’ character. She replied that she had been drawn to Agnus as a young and lonely exchange student and felt she had carried Agnus with her throughout working on the book. She had a sense of grieving for her character when the work was finished.

Jhumpa Lahiri was for me the most disappointing of all the readers. The Lowland is a rich and enriching novel which deals with love , loss and the impossibility of forgetting. The extract chosen was not particularly illuminating nor representative of the beautiful prose in the book.I suppose it is difficult to choose a passage that in some way reflects the book without giving too much away of the plot however the reading was rather plodding and didn’t do the work justice at all.

Next was Audrey Magee reading from her book ,The Undertaking. I must be completely honest here, this is the one book on the shortlist I haven’t read.I feel a little resistant to it given its subject matter and perhaps the fairest thing I can say here is that although the passage chosen was beautifully read, I did not change my mind.

Moving swiftly on , the next was Eimear McBride reading from A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing. This is not an easy work either in voice or subject matter but it was beautifully read by the author. When introducing her, the chair had explained that writing the book had taken McBride six months but then she had faced a ten-year struggle to find a publisher. McBride then wryly remarked that she was indeed very glad to be invited to a Bailey’s Prize event.

She was asked by the audience if she intended to change her voice for her next work. She replied that she is interested in language and what it can be made to do ‘ against its will almost’. Her next work will have an equally innovative voice as well.

Finally, Charles Dance read an extract from The Goldfinch which had, apparently, been chosen by the author,  Donna Tartt. The passage chosen comes from the end of the book when the hero, Theo, is contemplating Fabritius’ painting which has haunted his childhood. It is one of my favourite parts of the novel . The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize recently and the sheer quality of the writing shone through in Dance’s reading. During questions it was confirmed that Ms Tartt is indeed a big fan of Charles Dickens……….although J K Rowling was not mentioned.

Of course the winner will be revealed tomorrow evening…..my personal pick is Americanah, followed very closely by The Lowland. On the strength of tonight though, I suspect a ‘double whammy’ for Donna Tartt cannot be ruled out.

A great evening

 

 

 

 

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

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As my husband was quick to point out, I don’t like to admit I am wrong. in the case of  The Testament Of Mary, however, I was way off the mark. It took Fiona Shaw’s masterly performance at The Barbican in the stage adaptation of the novella for me to finally understand the message.

I usually enjoy Toibin’s writing – I loved Brooklyn and The Master, his portrait of Henry James, is one of my favourite books. I think he is particularly skillful in giving a voice to otherwise marginalised women. The ‘real’ story of the Virgin Mary seemed to be his ideal territory. On first reading, however, the book didn’t speak to me at all.

A friend had arranged tickets for us to see the staging of the book at The Barbican. The one-woman play had transferred from Broadway , where it had been met with accolades but also with pickets and protests by those offended as what they saw as its subversive message.

The staging is stark. Before the play begins, the audience is invited to look around the stage.Fiona Shaw sits in a glass box, muttering an incantation and appearing as a classic depiction of The Virgin.

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It is this portrayal that Mary is railing against in the book. She doesn’t want to become an icon in a story written by others, largely men. She wants us to know exactly what happened  and not the distorted story the followers are now  disseminating to suit their own ends.

Not until I watched Shaw’s performance did I really hear the scornful tone of Mary’s voice and her beautiful Irish lilt captures the poetic rhythm of the text.

There is also wit to Mary’s tale.She was suspicious of her son’s new associates from the start :

He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. Men who were seen smiling to themselves or had grown old when they were still young Not one of you is normal, I said, and I watched him push his plate of half-eaten food toward me me as if he were a child in a tantrum. Yes, misfits, I said. ‘

She casts doubt on some of the miracles now being proclaimed by his followers. She attended the wedding of Cana in order to warn her son that he was in danger :

‘ I wondered indeed if some of the men standing in front of our table had not had enough wine. But my son stood up and spoke to those around him , asking that six stone containers full of water be brought to him. What was strange was how quickly those containers were carried into the room.I do not know whether they all contained water or wine, certainly the fist one contained water, but in all the shouting  and confusion no one knew what had happened until they began to shout that he had changed the water into wine.’

There is an urgency to her tale. She is anxious about the way the story of what happened to her son is now being retold. Facts are being changed :

‘And each time we start again at the beginning and each time they move from being excited by a detail to being exasperated by something that comes soon afterwards, another detail maybe, a refusal to add what they want me to add, or an opinion I express on their tone or their efforts to make simple sense of things that are not simple.’

The shadowy figures of his followers stalk her. She is now their virtual prisoner , held for her safety in Ephesus having fled Jerusalem and is awaiting her own death. She is an asset to them but also a liability. With the final strength of her body and mind she wants us to hear what really happened.

The book and play serves as a warning against religious fanaticism .Her son’s followers are taking a set of occurrences and twisting and changing them to suit their own ends.The truth of what happened is lost and those around them must be brain-washed into seeing the world  through their eyes.

‘ I was back in the world of fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers, all of them hysterical now and almost of of breath with excitement even before they spoke.And within this group of men I noticed that there was a set of hierarchies, men who spoke and were listened to, for example, or whose presence created silence, or who sat at the top of the table…….’

I re-read the book after watching the play. It is a powerful  invocation of the beauty and dangers of religious belief, not specifically Christian. The play is breath taking. I hope it tours  widely so that more people get the chance to see it.

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