Having posted my review of the last shortlisted book for the 2018 James Tait Black Fiction Prize, I think it’s time for my feature where I discuss whether the judges got it right. The four entries for this year are disparate and for each of them, I have both positive and negative reactions. In fact, this is so much the case that I hardly know which book to start with or to pick. I’ll just work my way toward the winner.
I guess I’ll start with First Love by Gwendolyn Riley, because I’m still not sure what Riley meant by the title. The novel depicts the main character’s two abusive relationships, one with her older, ill husband and the other with her first boyfriend. Although these depictions are realistic, the theme doesn’t give the reader much to like.
American War by Omar Al Akkad was not my genre, being a dystopian novel about the results of climate change and about how young people are radicalized for war. However, I found it completely engrossing, despite disliking its themes.
White Tears by Hari Kunzru is about a relationship between two young men in college who form a friendship and a company based on a mutual fascination with sound. However, it turns out that that neither the narrator nor the reader understands what is going on, and the novel gradually moves from complete realism to having a strong supernatural bent. Although this novel flagged for me at times, its ending was so unexpected that Kunzru was the only author of these four from whom I wanted to look for more to read. (Although this reminds me that I have not yet done that.)
The winner of the award that year was Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams. I can understand the judges’ choice, because this collection is so playful with language. Still, I only had a strong reaction to a couple of the stories and felt that its playfulness was beyond me at times. Also, I often struggle with short fiction.
So, which book did I think should get the award? I had the biggest reaction to White Tears, but didn’t think I should give the honor to a book that flagged for me at times. American War was the only one I called engrossing, but it was also really not the kind of thing I like to read. Attrib. and Other Stories was way above my head at times, but at other times it was funny and endearing. I think for this shortlist, I’ll recommend that, if you want to read one, pick the one that sounds most interesting to you. That’s right. I am totally copping out.