I’m not a shortlist junkie usually choosing to read only those titles that appeal to me. This means that I’d never completed either an Orange or a Booker shortlist. But this year’s Orange judges produced a shortlist that was so intriguing, I simply had to become a completist.
When I originally reviewed these novels I purposely omitted their ratings, giving myself the option to regrade as I worked through them. As it turns out, I didn’t need to. Each novel was judged on its own merit – there was no need for comparative gradings. All 6 scored 3 stars or above which is good. There were 3 4-star reads and 1 5-star read and that truly is an indicator of a quality list. So well-done Orange judges!
Now to reveal my winner. So in the sequence in which I read the novels, here are links to my reviews, their ratings and the reasons for them. (Be warned. I’m being picky but this is the shortlist for a major prize, so the gloves are off!)
1) Molly Fox’s Birthday – Deirdre Madden ***1/2
I thoroughly enjoyed this subtle comtemplation on the nature of friendship and the self-realisation that emerges as we explore our personal histories. However, at the half-way mark the novel stalled due to lack of pace. Fortunately it picked up again at the 2/3rds mark.
2) Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie ****
Coming into the shortlist this was the novel that had most blogging buzz behind it and rightly so. An epic novel analysing conflicts in the 20th century and the ongoing resonance within the 21st century. I had no issues at all with the role of Hiroko Tanaka, seeing her as a modern everywoman. I loved this novel from beginning to end. However, I deduted one star because of the final section, in which the style changes from literary novel to an at times highly implausible thriller.
3) Home – Marilynne Robinson *****
Proving that happiness of the reader (if not of the protagonists) writes white, I have nothing much to add to my original review which contained the adjective, flawless. I borrowed most of the books on the shortlist from the library. This one too but, on finishing it, I bought my own copy. A definite keeper and one which I am expecting to reread many times.
4) The Invention of Everything Else – Samantha Hunt ***
The weakest of the six but still a 3-star (i.e enjoyable) read. The fusion of fact and fiction not entirely successful. Very instructive about an unsung (in this part of the world at least) inventor.
5) The Wilderness – Samantha Harvey ****
While I didn’t care for the protagonist, his wife, his lover, his son, his daughter or his mother, I think I was alienated by the lack of timeline and logical connection in the first quarter. How can a story accurately depicting the havoc wrought by Alzheimers remain lucid to a reader still in possession of her faculties. Should it even try? At page 80 I was lost and almost stopped reading (hence the 1-star deduction) but I am convinced that this losing-the-reader is a calculated effect, designed to engender deeper empathy for Jake’s plight. The final two paragraphs are the most thought-provoking in the whole 6 books. My appreciation for this book will probably grow with a reread (not that I’m planning on it).
6) Scottsboro – Ellen Feldman ****
The second historical novel with a fictional strand on the shortlist and the synthesis between the two, an object lesson in technique. Feldman maintains a storyline that grips even though we know the outcome of the historical case. I felt that the need to see things through to Alice and Ruby’s final years was unnecessary and weakened the dramatic impact. A 1/2 star deduction for that and another because of Alice’s liberated lifestyle. I just kept wondering – how did she not fall pregnant? (Please read that as a rhetorical question. It is not a request for details !)
So, ladies and gentleman, a round of applause, if you will for Marilynne Robinson’s Home, winner of Lizzy’s Literary Life’s 2009 Orange (Cue applause.)
Will the judges agree? I do wonder if, to quote the 2007 chair, Muriel Gray, the panel will judge it as too domestic, “not expansive enough”. In which case, the global themes of Shamsie or, more probably, Feldman will win the day. The 2008 prize went to a politically motivated novel though and so my sneaking feeling is that Samantha Harvey will snatch a surprise win. There’s no threat more individual,than the loss of a life – the living death – that is Alzheimer’s. Rising numbers and increasing awareness make this novel the most topical of the six. Make no mistake it would be a deserving winner.