As you might expect, the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction has a knack for finding truly excellent writing. This is only the second year that I have followed the prize closely, but looking at my bookshelves, it’s remarkable how many of my favourite novels have been long- or shortlisted for the Bailey’s (formerly Orange) Prize over the years. Laline Paull’s The Bees, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Emma Donaghue’s Room – the list goes on.
As part of their calendar of events, each year the Bailey’s Prize hose an evening of readings and Q&A sessions with the shortlisted authors. I first attended this event last year, and loved it so much that I convinced three friends to join me again for the 2017 readings on Monday night (5th June), in spite of the fact that none of them had read any books on the shortlist.
Once again it was a great night, with five of the shortlisted authors attending (the sixth, C.E. Morgan, had only given birth a few days before, so understandably could not make it down in person – her editor attended in her place). Each author read a few pages from her novel, then answered two questions from Tessa Ross, the 2017 Chair of Judges. The most memorable exchange was shared between Tessa and Naomi Alderman, author of The Power: when discussing whether power inevitably corrupts, Alderman reflected on the horrid events of recent weeks and the potential for one person to wreck havoc on a great many people, noting that “power does not have to corrupt everyone for the results to be absolutely devastating.”
I have read The Power, along with three other titles on the shortlist: Madaleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s Stay With Me, and Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle (which I reviewed last week). Having heard her speak last night, I am also intrigued by Gwendolyn Riley’s First Love – there was a quiet power in Riley’s reading that definitely makes me want to hear more. Although I did not pick up a copy of her book last night, I plan to in the future.
While I would love to throw my hat into the ring and say which book I think should win, I don’t think I am able to give fair judgement. All four of the books I have read were brilliant, and brilliantly incomparable – I do not envy the judges their decision. I actually read Thien’s and Alderman’s novels late last year, before the books had even been longlisted, meaning that I did not read them with such a critical eye as I did with the other two titles. It would be nearly impossible for me to give a balanced assessment of them all and choose my winner.
That being said, I remember truly loving Do Not Say We Have Nothing when I first read it. Listening to Thien speak, I was reminded of her exquisite writing, with its interwoven themes, nuanced characters, and (literally) musical prose. I do not want to definitively place her book above the others, but I will certainly be pleased if Thien wins.
I doubt this choice will surprise many people I know, as they seemed to have a sixth sense about me and Do Not Say We Have Nothing. I received my copy of the book as a surprise birthday gift from work colleagues. I then received another copy from a friend as a Christmas present. A few weeks after that, another friend informed me that they nearly bought me the book as well, until they realised I had already read it.
At the book signing after the event, I told Thien this story. She asked if I was a fan of classical music, if that was what prompted my friends to see her book and think of me. That is definitely not the reason – I don’t listen to classical music at all.
I have no idea why this kept happening. I very rarely receive unrequested books as gifts, so to have three people choose Do Not Say We Have Nothing for me was certainly curious (and most definitely appreciated). I look forward to finding out whether the Bailey’s Prize judges choose it as well.