Posted on 24th June 2014

Posted by Sophie

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Eight successful novels powerfully exploring failure

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death.
I’m very disappointed with that attitude.
I can assure you it is much more important than that”
Bill Shankly

So wrote Bill Shankly whose words crystalized the mood on the warm summer’s evening that the eight winners of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize winners were announced in the Jerwood Space in which canapes, wine and nervous energy aplenty flowed. Shankly’s words also form the epigraph to one of the winning novels, Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? by Gareth R Roberts (published by The Friday Project). A topical winner indeed, for the announcement happened to clash with the World Cup England match against Uruguay and one attendee thanked their other half for choosing the announcement rather than the television screen, whilst another forgave their partner for being glued to the football instead.

These eight titles definitely score a literary goal, including Whatever Happened to Billy Parks?, about a West Ham footballer who failed to score a goal; forty years on from a disastrous football match of 1973, Billy’s liver is failing, his family have abandoned him and his friends wearied of him, as he desperately wonders: are second chances possible?

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better”, wrote Samuel Beckett and these eight successful novels are often most poignant when they are exploring failure. Indeed, Roberts’s novel opens with a prologue headlined “The Unbearable Weight of Failure”.

Other of the winning novels powerfully explore failure not on the football pitch but in the claustrophobic arena of romantic relationships, such as the compelling Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood (Picador), a beautifully written exploration of Ernest Hemingway’s messy love life depicted from the point of view of his various long-suffering wives over the years, who become sidelined in favour of mistresses. Meanwhile, Bernadine Evaristo’s catchily-titled Mr Loverman (Hamish Hamilton) is a searing exploration of seventy-four year old, Antiguan born Barry whose marriage disintegrates under the weight of the secret relationship he has been harbouring. Betrayal kickstarts the plot of the humorous Lolito by Ben Brooks (Canongate): when Etgar’s long-term girlfriend Alice betrays him at a house-party, Etgar is moved to seek love in cyberspace, there meeting the middle-aged woman, Macy. Chair of Judges Matt Haig has described the novel as “a twisted age-gap love story that is deadpan and grubby and strangely poetic and funny and wrong and also very right. It is like how The Graduate would have ended up if Dustin Hoffman had watched a lot of Loose Women and drank Strongbow and spent too much time on the internet”.

Variously displaying verbal dexterity and masterful control of stylistic technique, these novels range far and wide in theme and setting.

The struggle for survival in both the human and animal realms is unflinchingly depicted in All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld (Vintage) which opens with a moving, memorable scene of the carcass of a dead sheep at an old farmhouse where Jake Whyte is the only resident. Both humans and animals must deal with the elements stacked against them – from the ferocity of the wind and rain to an unnamed menace encroaching. In The Dig by Cynan Jones (Granta), humans and animals are also closely juxtaposed in the stark, vividly evoked rural setting, as this short, sharp shock of a novel skillfully explores the intertwined lives of a farmer struggling through lambing season and a badger-baiter.

These are narratives which are as deep as they are wide; novelist Lesley Glaister tunnels through layers of time in the terrific Little Egypt (Salt), the title also the name of a country house in the north of England which is now derelict but not quite deserted, for nonagenarian twins Isis and Osiris live there, a house which their Egyptologist parents left in the 1920s to search for the fabled tomb of Herihor; Glaister widens her story to become not only a geographical but emotional search for a deeply buried secret. The relationship between art and life is at the heart of Gerard Woodward’s prizewinning Vanishing (Picador), which, with a wide palette of human emotion, from dark to light shades, creates an immensely evocative portrait of the young British artist Kenneth Brill who is arrested towards the end of the Second World War for painting landscapes which authorities suspect contain coded information – exploring the thorny nature of perception and truth, Woodward gets to the very heart of what fiction can do.

These eight winners each add a distinct voice to the landscape of British fiction. “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced”, wrote James Baldwin, the epigraph to Bernadine Evaristo’s excellent novel. These eight novels show writers facing topics ranging from badger-baiting and animal cruelty to the strength it needs to survive after failure, in engaging prose that would distract even the most diehard football fan from the latest World Cup triumph or disaster, to read novels that capture the complexities of life in all its humiliation and glory. Indeed it would be interesting to substitute the word “football” for “fiction” in Bill Shankly’s phrase so that it reads:

“Some people believe fiction is a matter of life and death.
I’m very disappointed with that attitude.
I can assure you it is much more important than that”.

Anita Sethi is a journalist, writer and critic. Her website is www.anitasethi.co.uk and she tweets at www.twitter.com/anitasethi 

Find out more about the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014 winning titles here.

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