By Ian G Evans, on 10 May 2019
Following the announcement of the Desmond Elliott Prize’s 2019 longlist, ten students from the Publishing MA course were invited to review the ten nominated titles. The 2019 longlist reveals ‘recurring themes of trauma, ownership and abandonment’ and features an extraordinary range of stories. This year is the 12th edition of the Prize, which celebrates debut novels written in English and published in the UK. It is named after Desmond Elliott, a literary agent and publisher.
The Desmond Elliott Prize’s 2019 Longlist:
By Ian G Evans, on 10 May 2019
‘Of the boy I was, there is no trace. It comes down to memory. And I remember nothing.’
An identity deliberately wiped out by memory, Testament tells the story of Joseph Silk – esteemed artist, beloved grandfather and Hungarian Holocaust survivor. Kim Sherwood’s Bath Novel Award winning debut is a compelling yet harrowing novel, inspired by true events, which explores the complexity of grief and identity.
Upon Silk’s death, his granddaughter Eva finds a letter from The Jewish Museum in Berlin. They request to publish Silk’s testimony as part of an exhibit on Jewish artists impacted by the holocaust. The document reveals Silk’s traumatic experiences throughout the Holocaust from labour to death camps. A past life once well hidden and shrouded in secrecy, has now been exposed. Eva searches to unravel Silk’s true identity, discovering her grandfather’s haunting tale and the way in which it has constructed fragile familial relationships. Eva must decide what to do with the testimony. She knows that by allowing her grandfather to be portrayed by his hidden history, the narrative of his identity will be changed indefinitely. Yet, the atrocities Joseph faced from his experiences during the war and as a refugee must be preserved. Silk’s new found past has given Eva access to an unexplored family history. This complicates her decision on how to immortalise her grandfather – as the artist he worked so hard to become, or as the man who so desperately deleted his history. The combination of the two creates an impossible burden for Eva.
Sherwood admirably transitions between narrative voices seamlessly from Eva in the present day to Silk as a teenager. Through this dual narrative, the reader bears witness to Silk’s testimony. This narrative choice is a clear strength of Sherwood’s. Alongside the cleverly interspersed testimony questions throughout the text, a vivid image of Silk’s suffering is created. He reveals the trauma of loss and the guilt of survival, a feeling he can never shake, and one that forces a wedge between himself and his brother, László who he fears he has lost forever. Silk’s experiences have left him with an irreversible psychological scar, one that will haunt his family for generations to come.
This is an incredibly ambitious debut. In her Acknowledgments, Sherwood exhibits the depth of her research, including work with the Hungarian Committee for Attending Deportees and The Royal National Institute of Blind People. Her research is convincingly explored through an impressively beautiful text. I was gripped by the events that underpinned the man he had become in the exposition of the novel. The story demonstrates how perceptions can quickly change with knowledge. The twists and turns of the novel emphasise this, successfully managing to keep readers on their toes. The novel so well encapsulates the themes of grief, guilt and cross generational identity as well as what it means to be Jewish today. Although deeply emotional, what I found impressive was the author’s ability to leave the reader contemplating the formation of identity: ‘We are here because history doesn’t happen in the past tense.’ This poignant message assured me of Sherwood’s talents. Tackling such a sensitive topic through intelligently written prose is no mean feat. I look forward to whatever comes next from this talented author.
Testament is published by riverrun
By Ian G Evans, on 10 May 2019
Following three generations of women across decades and countries, Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s debut novel Stubborn Archivist explores trauma and identity through the eyes of a young Brazilian British woman.
The unnamed protagonist, born in South London to a Brazilian mother and English father, documents her life through a mix of prose and prose-poetry. The lyrical, experimental style is as complex as the emotions it explores. Stuttered repetition and blank pages reveal an intimacy that feels more like reading a stranger’s diary than a work of fiction.
English and Portuguese are woven together erratically and cleverly. A section titled ‘Natal’ plays on the interlingual homograph’s dual meaning of Christmas and birth, both of which feature prominently in the chapter. Stubborn Archivist embraces the complicated duality of a bilingual identity without italics or translation, a refreshing refusal that languages other than English must be less, secondary, foreign.
The protagonist’s documentation of her life is interwoven with glimpses of three influential women: her mother Isadora, a former activist who left Brazil to build a life in England; her aunt Ana Paula, a troubled romantic; and her grandmother Cecília, who sees Brazil through rose-coloured glasses. The multiplicity of narratives reflects the reliance of second-generation immigrants on those who came before them—mother, aunt, grandmother— to understand their own identity. In passing down stories, we are all stubborn archivists. Only we control what is known about us, especially by the generations that come afterward.
Rodrigues Fowler captures the intrinsic saudade that comes with navigating a dual identity. From the changes missed while in another country (‘more white hair, less hair, a new boyfriend, a lost job, more chairs on the beach, a new hotel, traffic traffic traffic’) to the desire to belong in both places (“and then the golden snitch — When did you move to London?”), there is never a true sense of home.
Despite the novel’s deep exploration of personal identity, it never shies away from the larger political forces that shape these identities. From gender to class, our intimate selves are always in conversation with the constructs that define them. Stubborn Archivist pushes past, ‘How do I identify?’ to ask, ‘How was it imbued with this meaning, and more importantly, by whom?’
Underlining the entire text is the protagonist’s experience of sexual violence at the hands of her former boyfriend. It is not always the archivist that is stubborn, but the memories. How can you reconcile trauma when it was caused by someone you loved? (‘There were good times. Come on. Be honest with yourself.’).
The protagonist’s exploration of trauma is always anchored to her physical body and its vulnerability. She grounds herself in the bath, cataloguing parts of her body: ‘foot, foot, feet, leg, calf, thigh, thigh’. Stubborn Archivist reckons with the fact that, in the search for identity, the physical body seems true, real, and concrete until it is violated. Until you are left with a ‘broken up body’ that can’t be archived or forgotten because of the trauma it has endured.
Throughout the book are blank pages, imbued with a quiet defiance that refuses to give up every piece of the story. Even in an act of confession, we always have a right to ourselves. The power is not in confessing our truths, but in doing so on our own terms. These narrative gaps can be frustrating as a reader, but they force us to confront our need to understand the trauma of others. Why do we have to be convinced with explicit details? Can’t it be enough to believe the barest truth, and celebrate the joy and healing that we can bring?
With all its exploration of difficult subjects, Stubborn Archivist is not without its laugh-out-loud moments. In both life and literary fiction, things are never too dire for a healthy debate about whether or not Mr. Darcy was going down on Elizabeth Bennet. This is not a story of moving past trauma, as if that’s ever something that can be done. It is a story about learning to live with a fractured identity in a traumatized body and allowing yourself to feel joy in spite of it.
Rodrigues Fowler has crafted an intimate, visceral debut novel that remains hopeful and accessible. Stubbornness is not always a refusal; sometimes, it’s a determination to keep living, sharing, and remembering, even when it’s difficult.
Stubborn Archivist is published by Fleet
By Ian G Evans, on 10 May 2019
“This is something Cures don’t know about their curing.
The sickness isn’t gone.
It just goes elsewhere.” (p. 10)
Sue Rainsford’s debut novel Follow Me to Ground is an exploration into the vulnerability of humanity, the desperation derived from illness and the intoxication of desire and lust. The text is riveting, drawing the reader into a world of Cures and Ada’s role in a seemingly desolate existence. There are a lot of different facets to this narrative, each playing a significant role. First, Ada’s infatuation with Samson, a Cure, who has a sickness that everyone can see but her. Second, Ada’s strained relationship with her father, remaining in a state of routine and blind acceptance of her purpose in life. Lastly, Ada’s interactions with the Cures (humans), requiring her help but still keeping her at arm’s length.
There is an obscure, lyrical style to this writing. It allows just enough information to the audience that they become suspicious of the ulterior motive of the protagonist. The preface of the narrative is set in a world where Ada and her Father are creatures, born with the power to cure the sick and rid them of their pain. But, as Ada says, the illness doesn’t just disappear, it ends up moving somewhere else. It was difficult to decide what genre this book exactly fit in. It is fiction, but fantasy didn’t seem to fit its abstract style and it didn’t seem to be set up in the usual dystopian format. It seems to be placed in a category of its own. There is almost a fairytale aspect to it; the darkness entwined throughout reminds me of Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
Sue Rainsford experiments with form, playing with the standard prose-chapter format and moulding it into her own style. It felt more like prose with poetic elements added in, along with short character perspectives interwoven throughout the narrative. Ada is a voice that is compelling, lingering throughout the pages in a resemblance of her as a character. She is a child forever left out of the life that Cures live, lingering on the sidelines and viewing a life she is told she can never have.
Reading how she aids Cures feels like looming on a intimate moment, being allowed to view humans at their most vulnerable position; their lives in the hands of another. Ada and her father aren’t the type of healers we know nowadays with stethoscopes and medicine. They also aren’t the type of healers that brew potions or tell fortunes. Their process is different. They tend to Cures by entering their bodies, looking around and searching for the cause. It can get difficult to read at times as the descriptions and process are detailed and vivid, but also captivating to read. It’s also a strange concept to imagine. Allowing somebody to get that close to you. It made me eerily relate to the feelings I have about doctors and the uncomfortable notion of having somebody know that much intimate information about you and your body.
“How do you talk to someone who’s been inside you? Who’s seen more of you than you’ve seen of yourself?” (p.135)
Another concept that I found to be interesting was the idea of The Ground. The healing process of a Cure involved being placed in The Ground to be reborn again, themselves but better. Ada herself was born from The Ground, created by her father to aid him, but something seems to not be right with her.
Desire is an odd emotion, especially unwanted desire. That seems to be a consistent theme throughout this narrative – what occurs when you try to bury unwanted desire. Feelings are a human’s most detrimental crux. It can provide compassion, empathy and love but also desire, obsession and cruelty. It’s easy to pretend and to convince oneself that certain secrets and wishes are false, but the subconscious is inevitably there, slowly dripping them out one way or another through dreams, impulsive decisions or begrudging words.
The ending itself didn’t feel satisfying. I found myself wanting more, more explanations, more development as Rainsford’s writing provided more questions than answers. But, I also feel that’s what made this such a phenomenal read. There wasn’t an explanation given, there weren’t endless pages of exposition. There was just a narrative and a journey that the protagonist takes the reader on. It brought up emotions and feelings that I couldn’t describe. Rainsford, through this astonishing novel, has created a masterpiece.
Follow Me to Ground is published by New Island Books
By Ian G Evans, on 10 May 2019
Darragh Martin’s debut novel Future Popes of Ireland tackles love, loss and life’s contrasting moments. The book opens to Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit to Ireland, and is fundamentally based on how ‘the Popemobile has scarcely shut its doors before the race was on to conceive the first Irish Pope’. Humour mixes with tragedy as Grandma Doyle’s desperate desire to have her grandchild become Pope is contrasted and opposed in a constantly shifting narrative.
The novel spans 40 years of Doyle family history, centring around the Doyle children. In the contemporary timeline, older sister Peg is a graduate student in New York after fleeing Ireland to get an abortion. The triplets born after the Pope’s visit have grown up: John Paul is a YouTube-famous Pope imitator; Rosie a blue-haired environmentalist; and Damien a semi-closeted Green party politician. None of the siblings have a functioning relationship, and only two are in contact with the aging grandmother who raised them. The novel’s political aspirations are obvious, and the book is largely successful in combining the private and political by ascribing different issues to the Doyle siblings.
The contrasts defining life in Ireland between 1979 and today are the binding element of the book. The morning after the Pope’s visit, for example: the film roll with pictures of the Pope is filled up with naked pictures of the expecting and soon to be deceased mother of the Doyle children. This interconnection of sin and virtue, the everyday and the elevated, asks what really matters, and who gets to decide.
Martin makes bold moves with Future Popes of Ireland. The greatest thing about the book is the constantly changing narrative structure. The book moves back and forth in time, gradually revealing how the siblings’ relationship came to be as fractured as it is. In chapters portraying Peg’s teenage infatuation with a posh boy, the narrative is structured around the French phrases they read together. When Rosie despairs about the sisters’ relationship, her frustration takes the form of magazine quizzes. Towards the end, the chapter length rapidly decreases, their urgency underlined by the desperation of never having enough information. This is a clever ploy, as it allows Martin to underline how the political changes affect actual humans. The novel’s form fractures and resettles, underlining the fragility and permanence of family ties.
Future Popes of Ireland takes its reader from 1979 and Pope John Paul II to Barack Obama’s visit in 2011. The novel is an excellent consideration of a tumultuous period in modern Ireland through the eyes of a turbulent family. While largely outstanding, the book sometimes tries to do too much at once, and occasionally swerves on the predictable and obvious. However, the novel’s wit in observations like ‘shortly after her First Confession, Peg Doyle succumbed to the first sin that every Catholic girl commits once she reaches the age of reason: unbridled vanity in the face of one white Communion Dress’, and ability to see the humans in the situation carries it through. Martin has written an impressive debut examining recent Irish history with abundant charm, humour, and affection.
Future Popes of Ireland is published by 4th Estate