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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

In yesterday’s blog, I discussed the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that was awarded on April 20 – before I started this blog.  Today I want to focus on the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange Prize for Fiction); the winner was announced on June 3 – again, before I started my blog. 

The winner of the award was Ali Smith for How to Be Both
The story is told from two perspectives: those of George, a pedantic 16-year-old girl living in contemporary Cambridge, and Francesco del Cossa, an Italian renaissance artist responsible for painting a series of frescoes in Ferrara, Italy.
Struggling to come to terms with the sudden death of her mother, George attends counselling sessions at her school.  She also has to look after her younger brother and cope with her alcoholic father.  She recalls travelling with her mother to see the frescos in Ferrara and asking her about the elusive painter Francesco del Cossa.  George becomes obsessed with Francesco and travels frequently to London to view his portrait of St. Vincent Ferrer.
Francesco finds his disembodied self in front of his portrait of St. Vincent Ferrer as it is being examined by a boy.  He muses on how he came to find himself in this situation, thinking back to the events in his past life, and as he does, he becomes attached to the boy.

The other finalists were
1)            Rachel Cusk for Outline
Outline is a novel in ten conversations.  It follows a novelist teaching a course in creative writing during an oppressively hot summer in Athens.  She leads her students in storytelling exercises.  She meets other visiting writers for dinner.  She goes swimming with an elderly Greek bachelor.  The people she encounters speak, volubly, about themselves: their fantasies, anxieties, pet theories, regrets and longings.  And through these disclosures, a portrait of the narrator is drawn by contrast, a portrait of a woman learning to face a great loss.
Note:  This novel also appears on the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.

2)            Laline Paull for The Bees
Born into the lowest class of an ancient hierarchical society, Flora 717 is a sanitation worker, an Untouchable, whose labour is at her ancient orchard hive's command.  As part of the collective, she is taught to accept, obey and serve.  Altruism is the highest virtue, and worship of her beloved Queen, the only religion.  Her society is governed by the priestess class, questions are forbidden and all thoughts belong to the Hive Mind.
But Flora is not like other bees.  Her curiosity is a dangerous flaw, especially once she is exposed to the mysteries of the Queen's Library.  But her courage and strength are assets, and Flora finds herself promoted up the social echelons.  From sanitation to feeding the newborns in the royal nursery to becoming an elite forager, Flora revels in service to her hive.  But then Flora breaks the most sacred law of all—daring to challenge the Queen's fertility.

3)            Kamila Shamsie for A God in Every Stone
Vivian Rose Spencer is fascinated by the history of ancient empires, and in the summer of 1914 she finds herself fulfilling a dream by joining an archeological dig in Turkey.  It is here alongside young Germans and Turks that the young English woman will fall in love with an old family friend, the distinguished archeologist, Tahsin Bey.  As she begins to see the world through his eyes, she also shares his obsession with finding Scylax’s lost silver circlet. As her idyllic summer comes to an end with the outbreak of war in Europe, her friends will become her nation’s enemies and her loyalties will be tested.
Months later, in the battlefields of Europe, Indian soldiers are fighting for the British Empire.  At Ypres one Qayyum Gul, a Lance Corporal from Peshawar, will lose an eye, and find himself recuperating in a Royal Pavilion in England.  Surrounded by the glories of empire he will slowly begin to doubt his loyalties to the British King.  
Returning to Peshawar, Qayyum Gul will share a train carriage with Vivian Rose Spencer who is on her way to his hometown in response to a mysterious message from Tahsin Bey.  As she searches for the silver circlet, he searches for a new leader to believe in.
Fifteen years later, they will meet again and their loyalties will be tested once more amidst massacres, cover-ups, and the disappearance of a young man they both love.

4)            Anne Tyler for A Spool of Blue Thread
“It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon." This is the way Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she fell in love with Red that day in July 1959. The whole family - their two daughters and two sons, their grandchildren, even their faithful old dog - is on the porch, listening contentedly as Abby tells the tale they have heard so many times before.  And yet this gathering is different too: Abby and Red are growing older, and decisions must be made about how best to look after them, and the fate of the house so lovingly built by Red's father.  The novel takes us across three generations of the Whitshanks, their shared stories and long-held secrets, all the unguarded and richly lived moments that combine to define who and what they are as a family.
Note:  This book, which I reviewed on August 2, also appears on the 2015 Man Booker Prize shortlist.

5)            Sarah Waters for The Paying Guests
The year is 1922, and London is tense.  Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change.  In South London, in a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband, and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as Mrs Wray and her daughter Frances are obliged to take in lodgers.  With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, the routines of the house and the lives of its inhabitants will be shaken up in unexpected ways.  And as passions mount and frustration gathers, no one can foresee just how far, and how devastatingly, the disturbances will reach.

(Book descriptions from