Category Archives: Books

Orange Prize Awards Ceremony

I had a brilliant time at the awards ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall last night; making my way up the orange carpet and being greeted with a glass of  champagne was just the beginning! The atmosphere was fantastic, although one of the best moments for me was meeting Emma Donoghue, whose shortlisted novel Room was our Orange Prize youth panel’s winner.

Above all, congratulations to Téa Obreht, whose debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, was the 2011 winner (and the youngest ever winner) of the Orange Prize! To read my full review of The Tiger’s Wife, click here.

Téa Obreht on winning the Orange Prize:

M.

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Review: ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ by Téa Obreht

WINNER OF THE ORANGE PRIZE FOR FICTION 2011!

The Tiger’s Wife is set in ‘Balkan country still scarred by war’ and tells the story of a young doctor, Natalia, who wants to discover the real reason for her grandfather’s mysterious departure from home days before his death. Natalia has reason to believe that her grandfather died searching for ‘the deathless man’, but why would a man of science pursue a mere myth?

As well as following Natalia’s struggle to understand her grandfather’s quest, Obreht weaves in folk tales and myths from the region. Two myths in particular represent a large portion of the books; the story of a tiger who escaped from a zoo during the bombing of Belgrade in World War 2, and who settled near the secluded mountain village where Natalia’s grandfather grew up; and the curious tale of the ‘deathless man’ and his various encounters with Natalia’s grandfather.

Obreht’s writing is magical – she does not get drawn into the politics and history of the war-torn setting of the Balkans but focuses instead on the human stories and tales which live on despite (or perhaps because of) the war. She has a clear talent for forming a character and describing the entirety of their life in a few pages – which she does, regularly, in order for the reader to see what the main characters cannot, and to enable the reader to understand and even sympathize with the more brutal characters in the book.

However, Téa’s talent for storytelling means that, in places, the book goes off on tangents and departs from the main story. The plot of The Tiger’s Wife is winding and varied, but the lack of focus can lead to confusion as to where the novel is taking you. Sections of the book are not always as smoothly connected as you would wish – the book takes you on a looping journey which is disruptive to the central plot. However, the clever links between past and present; between myth and reality, are ever present in the novel and prevent the story from veering too far off track.

The book deals with the complicated themes of the dangers and benefits of superstition and folk-lore, as well as the eternal struggle for man to come to terms with death. The dark background of war only serves to bring out the bright colours of the characters, although not much context is provided and the setting can be hard to understand if you, like me, have little historical understanding of the area.

All in all, The Tiger’s Wife is a spell-binding first novel which manages to bring together ancient myths and modern logic. The book is made rich with the superstitions and stories of a place, and is told with great love and understanding of the area: there can be no doubt that 24 year old Téa is an astonishingly accomplished storyteller.

M.

If you want to find out more about the Orange Prize, go to http://www.orangeprize.co.uk/ or check out their facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/orangeprize

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Review: ‘Great House’ by Nicole Krauss

Great House is not so much one novel but four: split between past and present, its five narrators each tell their story. Although the blurb states that it is ‘a desk of many drawers’ which connects these tales, the narrations are bound more tightly by questions of heredity, roots and loss.

The novel starts with Nadia, who for 25 years has written at the desk which was left in her flat by a young Chilean poet who disappeared into the hands of Pinochet’s secret police. Then there is Lotte Berg, a generation older but also a writer who worked at the desk for many years. Lotte’s story is told by her husband, who has found out his wife’s darkest secret only after her death, and is haunted by what the desk represents. The Weisz family feature too: George Weisz – the commanding father of Leah and Yoav – devotes his life to finding the desk, which belonged to his father. For Leah and Yoav, the desk represents their continual struggle with their father and his obsession with the past. Their tale is told by Isabelle; Yaov’s lover and outsider to the Weisz family.

The only story with no link to the desk is Aaron’s – the story of an old Israeli who, coming to the end of his life, has to face up to the void between him and one of his adult sons, who he has never been able to relate to. This, for me, is the most resonant story: Aaron’s resentment, anger and unexpressed love for his son make for a thrilling narration.

“We search for patterns, you see, only to find where the patterns break. And it’s there, in that fissure, that we pitch out tents and wait”

The novel can be confusing – the sudden changes of character and setting (the book straddles four cities: London, Oxford, New York and Jerusalem) do disrupt the flow of the book, and the links between the stories can seem tenuous. But the disjointed tales are all connected one way or another, and in the end the links are almost irrelevant: Krauss is challenging the reader to overcome the lack of structure, to step back and to see the big picture – the Great House.

Despite this, the beauty of the book is not in the larger picture but in the detail of the narrations: Krauss’s skill as a writer is undeniable. Her characters are made human by their pride, lack of faith and inability to identify with each other. The novel can be hard to piece together when you’re reading it (even after reading it I feel like it needs a second going through to identify all of the smaller links) but it is so rewarding to piece together. It is a novel I know I will not forget.

M.

To find out more about the Orange Prize, go to http://www.orangeprize.co.uk/ or check out their facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/orangeprize

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The Orange Prize Youth Panel’s Verdict!

Following our judging meeting last week, the youth panel‘s decision was announced yesterday: our winner is Room by Emma Donoghue, although the real winner of the prize will be announced this evening.

To read more about the youth panel’s decision, visit the Orange Newsroom.

This is what I had to say about the novel and our decision as a panel:

“We all agreed Room stood out. For us, it was the most accessible and gripping, and a real page turner. It’s an horrific tale told with powerful innocence – we all felt it changes the way you view the world and makes you question your environment.”

To read my full review of Room, click here. I loved the novel, and it was clear from the start of the youth panel’s meeting that Room was the most popular.

M x.x

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The Orange Prize Youth Judging Panel

Yesterday was the Orange Prize youth judges’ meeting, so we met in central london to discuss the shortlist and pick our winner. It was so much fun meeting the other 5 youth judges and even though all the novels were amazing it was pretty clear which book had the most support from the start. I’m really pleased with the result, which will be announced next week…

Bring on the awards ceremony!

If you want to find out more about the Orange Prize, go to http://www.orangeprize.co.uk/ or check out their facebook page http://www.facebook.com/orangeprize

M x.x

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Review: ‘Grace Williams Says it Loud’ by Emma Henderson

A debut novel, Grace Williams Says it Loud is another novel on the Orange Prize shortlist. It tells Grace’s story – the story of a “spastic” and “mental defective” who is sent to a mental institute at the age of eleven. Set in the 1950s onwards, the novel explores the stigma attached to disability at the time, and now.

The novel focuses particularly on Grace’s relationship with Daniel, an epileptic who she meets at the Briar. They are both friends and lovers – Daniel is the one person who treats Grace with love and care. Essentially the novel is the story of Grace and Daniel’s love: love against the odds.

Grace narrates the story; her voice is poetic and assured but at the same time very detached and matter of fact. The removed tone Grace uses can seem at odds with the brutality of some of the scenes, sometimes detracting from the potency of some of the sadder and more shocking events. In places, the tone of the novel seems downright wrong: Grace reports violence and sexual abuse in a disconnected and even inappropriate way which makes it hard to be affected by her voice.  The novel can be jarring – the contrast between how the reader gets to know Grace (from inside her head) and how others view Grace is claustrophobic.

However, one incident in the book touched me deeply – when Grace is taken by her parents to visit the house of  a cellist in order to buy a cello for her younger sister. The man who sells them the instrument has a ‘different’ daughter, too, and although Grace’s parents fail to understand and appreciate their daughter, this man knows how to approach Grace. It was only here, when Grace was treated as a valued individual by someone other than Daniel, that I was struck by the tragedy of Grace’s situation.

Since I’ve finished the book, I’ve come to appreciate its beauty and pertinence. But I can’t help thinking that Emma Henderson’s attempt to voice the thoughts of a disabled person fails to bridge the gap between normality and disability: Grace remains distant and hard to relate to for most of the novel.

M.

If you want to find out more about the Orange Prize, go to http://www.orangeprize.co.uk/ or check out their facebook page http://www.facebook.com/orangeprize

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Review: ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue

As promised, here is a review of Room by Emma Donoghue- which is on the Orange Prize 2011 Shortlist:

Told through the eyes of five year old Jack, Room is inspired by cases such as those of Elizabeth Fritzl and Jaycee Lee Dugard. Trapped in a shed with only his Ma for company since the day of his birth, Jack has absolutely no concept of a world outside Room.

Naturally, the novel is grim and disturbing at times: every evening comes the inevitable time when ‘Old Nick’ enters Room through the locked door and gets into bed with Ma whilst Jack hides in the wardrobe and counts ‘till he makes that gaspy sound and stops’. But the sickening is constantly balanced with the uplifting and the author has managed to salvage something honest and beautiful from the most suffocating of circumstances.

What makes the novel so convincing is the relationship between mother and son. Jack’s love for Ma shines through his narrative, despite his gradual realisation that Ma is lying to him and that there is indeed a world outside Room.

Jack’s voice is unique: as a 5 year old his words, often half formed and inarticulate, are striking and often poetical, and his language does progress throughout the novel – his fluency improves with his growing understanding of the real world.

In the second half of the novel the setting shifts to outside Room, and Jack is overwhelmed with a world that is infinitely bigger than eleven square feet. With a realistic yet hopeful ending, Ma gradually learns to come to terms with her past in Room. Although it is clear that they have a long way to go, there is a sense of release and closure when they return to Room for one final goodbye before finally resuming – or beginning – their lives.

It’s hard not to be moved by Jack’s voice: told in his words, the disturbing story is honest and innocent, creating a novel that is darkly beautiful. I can truthfully say that I have never read a book like Room; it is a novel which leaves you with a lingering feeling that  something, somewhere within you, has changed.

M x.x

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