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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”.

DES WILLIE/BBC
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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

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 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution