Monday, 12 September 2011

Academic novelists are international wall breakers

Unfortunately Caernarfon-based Patrick McGuinness’ Bucharest-set novel The Last Hundred Days didn't make the cut at last week’s Man Booker Prize shortlisting. But congratulations all the same to him and Seren, the first publisher from Wales to make the nomination stage. Seren was in good company among nine indies on the longlist, sparking debate in the mainstream book trade. Were independent publishers better placed to source literary novels while bigger houses played safe with more commercial titles? Were this year’s judges immune to Literary London’s usual prejudice against independent and small publishers (evidenced by the slog it is for a company like Seren even to get broadsheet reviews)? The presence among the Booker judges of author Susan Hill, who runs small press Long Barn Books, may have tipped the balance for the likes of Seren and Ross-shire’s Sandstone Press. While that of former MI5 DG Stella Rimington may have done so for McGuinness’ debut novel, with its themes of state security and corruption during the Ceausescu era’s dying days over Christmas 1989.

The Last Hundred Days pulls off a challenging feat: to make a phlegmatic first person narrator engaging. In an in-depth author piece in spring’s NWR, McGuinness describes his approach to the novel: to pull themes of disengagement from his poetry, apply them to a world-changing political event and focus on the figure of the ‘passive witness’. Such literary aims may be ignored by general readers in holiday mode as we soar with events into the stratosphere of the thriller. Happily we are accompanied by blackmarketeer/bon viveur/bon-mot-minter Leo and the novel’s moral and emotional heart, hospital doctor Ottilia, who struggles to hold onto her ideals while rocked in a sea of neglect, deprivation, grief and betrayal by those closest to her. More fool those of us expecting tame expat fare from a novel set in an English department by an Oxford University lecturer author.

Stevie Davies is another academic with broad horizons. Into Suez (now out in paperback), set during the postwar Suez crisis, was the holiday read I hoped not to spoil by reviewing. A surprise absentee from the Book of the Year shortlist, like The Last Hundred Days it is an early slow burner whose strengths lie in its purely foreign sections, and whose plot and pace go turbo during its second third. As with McGuinness, Davies is interested in the concept of ideological engagement, although racial prejudice, rather than political compromise, is her characters’ cultural norm. Davies’ perception of women trying and failing to understand each other across generations is acute, while her exploration of how a small girl deals with the emerging independence and ‘otherness’ of her mother is heart-rending. These writers give the lie to academia’s hoary ‘ivory tower’ cliche.

A version of this first appeared in Gwen's Insider book column, Western Mail, Saturday 10 September 2011

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