Orange Prize for Fiction Shortlist Announced

The Orange Prize shortlist reminds us of the international quality of the award.

This year's Orange Prize for fiction shortlist (announced this morning) has boasts an international quality that reminds of the Orange Prize's aim of celebrating fiction from "throughout the world" -- the six shortlisted writers hold six nationalities between them: Serbian, American, Canadian, British, Sierra Leonean and Irish.

Emma Donoghue - Room; Picador

Aminatta Forna - The Memory of Love; Bloomsbury

Emma Henderson - Grace Williams Says it Loud; Sceptre

Nicole Krauss - Great House; Viking

Téa Obreht - The Tiger's Wife; Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Kathleen Winter - Annabel; Jonathan Cape

Whereas Henderson, Obreht and Winter have all been shortlisted on the strength of first novels, Emma Donoghue's Room is the 7th novel of the self-proclaimed "novice to the world of big prizes" (see her interview with Jonathan Derbyshire in an October 2010 issue of NS). Alongside a coveted place on the Man Booker shortlist, Room has already won cross-Atlantic awards in the Hughes&Hughes Irish Novel of the Year, and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for Best Canadian Novel.

Aminatta Forna's second novel is also proving to be worthy of international acclaim, having already won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize 2011. Forna is known as a documentary-maker as well as a novelist, having made three films about the African continent (Through African Eyes (1995), Africa Unmasked (2002) and The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu (2009).)

Nicole Krauss, whose third novel has already been decorated with 2010 National Book Award, is famously multi-national -- although being born in New York to an English mother and American father, her maternal grandparents were German and Ukrainian, and her paternal grandparents Hungarian and Belarusian (they met in Israel). Yugoslavian-born Tea Obreht, meanwhile, spent her childhood in Cyprus and Egypt, before emmigrating to America in 1997.

Kathleen Winter lives in Canada, and beginning her career as a script-writer on Sesame Street, progressed to writing short stories (for which she won prizes). Annabel has previously been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the 2010 Governor General's Awards (all Canadian awards).

Emma Henderson breaks the international trend by being born in London. Despite a brief spell in France, she still lives in London. Nevertheless, her novel was shortlisted for both the Commonwealth Writers Prize in the Best First Book category and for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize 2010.

This year's winner will be announced at the Royal Festival Hall in London on 8 June.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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