Watch: Lars Iyer, Jim Crace, Philip Terry and Eimear McBride on the Dark Ages, sexy prizes and experimentation

Writers shortlisted for the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize read from their work and answer questions.

The £10,000 Goldsmith Prize seeks to reward innovation in fiction. It is in an exceptional position to promote British authors, particularly following the Booker announced its intention to allow entries from across the globe, so long as they are published in Britain. Last Wednesday, all six shortlisted writers were invited to Goldsmiths, University of London, to read from and discuss their novels. Lars Iyer, Jim Crace, Ali Smith, Eimear McBride and Philip Terry appeared in the flesh - while David Peace was beamed in from Tokyo via Skype. The winner of the inagural prize will be announced at a reception on Wednesday evening (13 November).

Lars Iyer’s Exodus is a book of philosophy written as fiction. It is the third novel in a trilogy which follows two academics discussing, in the dialectical tradition, everything from Kierkegaard to Beckett (via Herzog). Juliet Jacques, in an interview with Iyer, attributes his success to Iyer’s “skill in distilling ... despair.”

Harvest by Jim Crace follows widower Walter Thirsk during one calamitous week of harvest. Enclosure has uprooted a family to the edges of his village and is set to uproot him too. Leo Robson describes it as the “most seductive and enthralling of Crace's novels”

Philip Terry’s novel tapestry is about the language of propaganda. The novel tells the story the nuns who made the Bayeux Tapestry and follows their conversations and tales they tell each other. Nicholas Lezard on tapestery: “It's fun, it's intelligent, it makes you contemplate the age with new interest, and yet it does not shirk from depicting the grim realities of life at the time.

Eimear McBride’s debut A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing delves into the mind of an adolescent Irish girl as she attempts to make sense of the world. The novel has been described as “the work of a writer with the courage to reinvent the sentence as she pleases, and the virtuosity required to pull it off.”

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit