Baileys Women’s Prize- in the Hope Valley!

You will all know by now that the winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction is Elmear McBride for her debut novel ‘ A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’, but what you may not know is that while the judges were emailing, texting, tweeting and sweating over their last minute decisions we in the Hope Valley were holding our own Baileys Women’s Prize evening as we have done for some years now. What this consists of is a number of book groups in the Hope Valley getting together and each presenting one of the shortlisted books to the rest of the company, whereupon we vote for which we think is the winner. The evening is organised by one of the groups acting as the hosts ; as soon as the short list is released, this year in mid April, the host group allocates the books to the participating book groups so that they have time to read them as a group and then work out how to present them on the night. The host group organises the venue and refreshments and then the fascinating presentations, lively discussion and finally the excitement of the vote all make for a great evening’s entertainment. Last night we started off with an attentive and appreciative account of ‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche: a book about Nigerians in America, the racism they encounter, but also a moving love story. Then we heard a range of views on ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing ‘ by Elmear McBride. Firstly, that the unconventional language, with its stream of consciousness style and half finished sentences, was influenced by Joyce and while doubtless apt to describe the terrible experiences of the protagonist was not  easy to read. The subject matter- a young woman suffering abuse of various kinds-was also grim. The group was divided on whether they had enjoyed the book but even those who  hadn’t found it a worthwhile read. Thirdly came a presentation from two groups of ‘The Undertaking’ by Audrey Magee, about a marriage and family relationships in Nazi Germany, their involvement in  rounding up the Jews and then fighting in Stalingrad and on the Eastern Front. Noteworthy was the predominance of dialogue in the novel and its brevity- but the presenters felt it did convey both what individuals are capable of doing in war and the horrors of war itself. Fourthly came our Bamford group’s presentation of ‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent, a beautifully written historical novel set in Iceland around 1829 and based on real life events- the last few months in the life of a convicted murderess. Then we heard about Jhumpa Lahiri’s book ‘The Lowland’, reviewed here by me and thought to successfully convey the different geographical locations lived in by the characters and the times they lived through (post Partition to the present day). (Few people had come across Jhumpa Lahiri before so for those who haven’ t, here is my review of her superb short story collection,’Unaccustomed Earth’). Last but not least came a witty and loving appreciation of Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’. Obviously the characterisation, particularly demonstrated in the writer’s ability to see into the  mind of a teenage boy, was one of the main achievements of the novel for this presenter. Our vote was overwhelmingly for ‘The Goldfinch’ to win the prize, so there was some surprise to find that the real winner is ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’. However, over sweeping up crisps and washing wine glasses at the end of the evening a few of us said, yes the language sounded interesting and yes wasn’t it great that a small publishing company was going to reap the rewards of their faith in a new writer with a unique voice and yes actually we were going to give it a go…. So great to hear all those committed and passionate readers talk about the wonderful range of shortlisted books and great too for me to be nudged out of my reading comfort zone to try something I might not otherwise have considered…….The other great outcome was that we also raised £60 for English Pen, appropriate for today which is the 25th anniversary of the massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The marking of this event in China has been suppressed and journalists and writers arrested in the lead up to the anniversary.


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