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The Goldsmiths Prize 2015 shortlist

A debut novel invoking Ted Hughes’s Crow joins an all-male shortlist for the influential award for innovative fiction.

A slim debut novel about a bereaved Ted Hughes scholar visited by Hughes’s poetic creation Crow has been shortlisted for the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize for “fiction at its most novel”. Grief is the Thing with Feathers, described by Eimear McBride as a beautifully rendered and deeply moving meditation on bereavement, love and life in its aftermath, is the first book by Max Porter, an editor at Granta who previously worked as a bookseller. (Erica Wagner's review for the New Statesman is here.)

It is joined on the list by five other novels (listed below), including Tom McCarthy's Satin Island, also shortlisted for this years Man Booker Prize, and the forthcoming Beatlebone by the IMPAC-winning Irish writer Kevin Barry. In marked contrast to previous years (both previous prizes were won by women), this years shortlist is all-male.

The Goldsmiths Prize was founded by Goldsmiths University with the New Statesman in 2013 to to reward fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel for. The first prize was won by Eimear McBride for her novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, which had taken a decade to find a publisher. McBride went on to win the Baileys Womens Prize for Fiction and has a second novel coming out with Faber and Faber next year. Ali Smith, who won the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize for How to be Both, recently told the Bookseller that the award had changed the industry

The change it’s made is that publishers, who never take risks in anything, are taking risks on works which are much more experimental than they would’ve two years ago. That to me, is like a miracle. And that’s the Goldsmiths Prize. The prize has already its two years running changed the industry. That’s what it took, for Goldsmiths to launch a prize which was novel about the novel and understood the novel form.

The judges for the 2015 prize are Eimear McBride; Jon McGregor, the award-winning author of If Nobody Speaks of Unremarkable ThingsLeo Robson, the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer; and Josh Cohen, Professor of Modern Literary Theory at Goldsmiths and author of The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark, who is chairing the panel.

The winner of the £10,000 award will be announced at a ceremony on 11 November 2015 at Foyles Bookshop in Charing Cross Road, London. The winner will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 29 November.

The Goldsmiths Prize 2015 shortlist

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry
In the second novel from the Irish author of the IMPAC-winning City of Bohane, John Lennon wants to visit his island off the west coast of Ireland – but events conspire against him. The judges described it as “stylistically adventurous and utterly inimitable”.

Acts of the Assassins by Richard Beard
Beard’s sixth novel leads the reader on a hunt for the body of Jesus, telescoping time so that smartphones and shepherds collide. “This novel,” the judges said, “takes a circular saw to received ideas about belief, fate, will and storytelling.”

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
The author of Remainder and the Booker-shortlisted C returns with a novel that comprises the uneasy reflections of U, a corporate anthropologist. It “draws humour from the driest material” and “manages to be beautiful”, too.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold by Magnus Mills
The eighth novel from the author of The Restraint of Beasts is a fable, written with “brutally deadpan humour” and set in a camp in a great field. Mills “appears to be no less than a prophet of our own history”.

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
This slim debut is set in a quiet flat in London, where two little boys are left motherless, and their Ted Hughes scholar father bereft. Then Hughes’s creation, Crow, arrives. It is “that rarest of birds, the truly poetic novel”.

Lurid and Cute by Adam Thirlwell
Thirlwell has twice been named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. His third novel, featuring a dead body and a spree of armed robberies, is “a brilliantly sustained stylistic tour de force” and “horrifyingly funny”.

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Fasting and Feasting: the eccentric life of food writer Patience Gray

Journalist Adam Federman clearly venerates his subject, and his research is overwhelmingly diligent. 

It is hard, these days, to open a food magazine or a news­paper’s colour supplement without finding an article extolling the charm of foraging. So fashionable has the Instagram-friendly pursuit become that the botanist James Wong recently  wrote of his alarm at finding pictures of food – often published on blogs proclaiming the evils of sugar, gluten and dairy – prettily decorated with flowers of extreme toxicity: narcissus, catharanthus, lantana and rhododendron.

The food writer Patience Gray loved narcissi, whose springtime appearance on Naxos she described in her 1989 account of a year spent on the Greek island, Ring Doves and Snakes; but she would have known better than to use them as a garnish. Her passionate interest in foraged and seasonal food, which began during her wartime years spent in a primitive cottage in Sussex, where she pursued a scholarly interest in edible fungi, developed over the many decades during which she lived with her partner, the sculptor Norman Mommens, in some of the remotest parts of the Mediterranean.

On Naxos, in Carrara in Tuscany and for the last three decades of their life together at Spigolizzi, a masseria (farmhouse) in Apulia, Gray and Mommens found a way of life still governed by the elemental rhythms of sowing and growing, feasting and fasting – rhythms they adopted and incorporated into the practice of their work. “Métier” was a talismanic term for Gray.

“It sometimes seems as if I have been rescuing a few strands from a former and more diligent way of life, now being fatally eroded by an entirely new set of values,” she wrote in Honey from a Weed (1986), her evocative fusion of memoir and cookbook. “As with students of music who record old songs which are no longer sung, soon some of the things I record will also have vanished.”

Patience was one of a formidable cohort of female writer-cooks whose celebrations of food in muscular, elegant prose sprang from the privations of the Second World War. A contemporary of Elizabeth David, M F K Fisher and Julia Child, she wrote just three cookery books, only two of which were published in her lifetime: the bestselling Plats du Jour (1957), co-written with Primrose Boyd and warily subtitled “Foreign Food”, and the eclectic Honey from a Weed. The Centaur’s Kitchen, a book of Mediterranean recipes written in 1964 for the Chinese cooks of the Blue Funnel shipping line, was posthumously published in 2005. She also wrote two wayward volumes of memoir: Ring Doves and Snakes and Work Adventures Childhood Dreams (1999).

Despite this comparative reticence (she wrote bitterly in Work Adventures Childhood Dreams of her mother, whom she accused of valuing only published work: “But Patience, is there anything you have written that is actually in print?”), the publication of Honey from a Weed turned her into a celebrity, and the austere household at Spigolizzi, devoid of electricity, telephone or sanitation, became a place of pilgrimage for such keen food fanciers as Paul Levy (the co-author of The Official Foodie Handbook) and the late Derek Cooper of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. As her biographer, Adam Federman, remarks, “A full account of her remarkable life is long overdue.”

Gray divided her adult life into two parts: before 1962, when she began living with Norman Mommens, and after. On either side of that meeting her life was eventful. Of her upper-middle-class upbringing she wrote, “I have listened to other people’s accounts of their happy childhoods with sadness mingled with disbelief.”

Educated at Queen’s College in London (where Unity Mitford was a contemporary) and the London School of Economics, she worked for the designer F H K Henrion on the agricultural and country pavilions at the Festival of Britain, and had three children by Thomas Gray, an elusive  married “artist-designer” whose name she took.

Having left him, she won a competition to become the women’s editor of the Observer. Sacked after three years (by the paper’s new features editor George Seddon, under whom things “became dull, more serious”), she “began a different and more creative life”, sharing and recording the ancient traditions of seasonal food production and preparation of the communities among which she occupied an ambiguous position as both participant and observer until her death in 2005, aged 87.

Federman – a journalist, academic and “former line cook, bread baker and pastry chef” – clearly venerates his subject, and his research is overwhelmingly diligent. While Gray possessed the sharp observing eye, selective memory and comic timing of an instinctive writer, Federman is dogged and respectful.

His book is dutifully strewn with the names of Gray’s wide acquaintance, but he lacks the gift of characterisation and conveys little impression of their personalities. Even Gray, so vivid a presence in her own books, seems oddly muted in Federman’s portrait (though he gives a lively account of her exhilaratingly awful behaviour at her daughter’s wedding).

For admirers of Patience Gray’s remarkable prescience in anticipating what has become known as the “Slow Food” movement, Federman’s exhaustively detailed biography will be a valuable resource. But for those who long for a flavour of her personality – as pungent and earthy as the dishes she recorded – it is best read with a copy of Honey from a Weed to hand. 

Fasting and Feasting: the Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray
Adam Federman
Chelsea Green, 384pp, £20

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder