So tomorrow the winner of the Goldsmith’s Prize will be announced. I didn’t set out to read the shortlist, but once I’d read the Man Booker and Green Carnation longlists, I only had two more books to read. Ali Smith’s How to be both was my favourite for the Man Booker; Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake and Howard Jacobson’s J were long and shortlisted respectively. Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist was longlisted for the Green Carnation prize. The other two novels on the Goldsmith’s shortlist are Zia Haidar Rahman’s In The Light of What We Know (beautiful title) and Rachel Cusk’s Outline.
Rachel Cusk’s work is never a comfortable read. She is uncompromising; her narratives cut through appearance and deception to the truth she finds at the heart of her characters. The trouble – and the discomfort – comes because what she finds in the heart of her characters is seldom contentment, or even honesty. The narrator is as liable as anyone else to present her own story in the most flattering light to herself. As a reader, I like to anchor myself in the world of the novel. Cusk won’t let me do that – she won’t even throw me a rope in the shape of a story arc as I try to navigate around the various life stories the narrator is told by those around her. The fact that each story is mediated by the narrator (a creative writing tutor) leaves the reader on shifting sands.
In the Light of What We Know uses a similar technique – the story is told by one character, but narrated by the friend to whom he is telling his story. The writing is poetic and the story itself compelling. But when a writer experiments with traditional narrative, there needs to be a reason for it, and I found myself wondering why the author chose to keep the reader at arm’s length from the story he tells. Occasionally I found myself confused as to whether an incident happened to the narrator or to his friend, and this confusion (my fault, but who, in the real world, is able to read without distractions of any kind?) meant I was never completely immersed. Cusk’s distancing device acted as a catalyst for intellectual engagement with the storytelling process – perhaps because there is no plot as such, no suspense in the traditional sense. But Rahman’s removed narrator does have a story to tell and it was frustrating, at times, to be required to dig for it.
I’ve written about the other novels in other posts; suffice to say that, despite the many merits of its rivals, I would love to see Ali Smith’s How to be Both win this year’s Goldsmith’s prize. It certainly ‘breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form;’ it is ‘genuinely novel.’ And it’s powerfully and delicately written, with two separate stories that are compelling in their own rights as well as illuminating of each other.
Roll on the announcement.
You got it right, Antonia – or better probably: the judges got it right.
I haven’t read ‘How to be both’ yet but seeing that you’ve been accompanying it with warm recommendations through one longlist/shortlist after the other I certainly am planning to read it now.
I see what you mean about Rachel Cusk’s book. Still, amazing that a book with no plotline and actually no real characters can still get such a hold on you. I found it a very rewarding read but I’d be hesitant to e.g. give it as a present because it doesn’t deliver on the many fronts that a reader might expect.