Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Orange Prize Readings '09

Since it was founded in 1996 by Kate Mosse, The Orange Prize for Fiction has been the subject of much controversy owing to its exclusion of male writers. However you feel about this attempted affirmative action (I’m not too sure that I feel all that positively about it myself), there’s no denying that the prize-giving is one of the most significant events in the British literary calendar. With the winner set to be announced today in a lavish awards ceremony, the past couple of months have seen those on the shortlist take part in string of events to get the public familiar with their names, faces, and, most importantly, their work.

I spent yesterday evening at a night of readings and discussion with the six shortlisted authors, none of whom I have read before. The weather was unbelievably stunning – the perfect day to sit around listening to the buskers outside the venue, London’s Southbank Centre. Inside, however, the ambience was slightly less agreeable. I had expected that the audience would consist mostly of arty publishing types, but to my surprise the room was jam-packed with a very diverse range of people spanning all ages. The sweltering heat generated by the crowd combined with the coloured lighting (orange, of course) made me feel a little bit like I was toasting under a grill. I can only imagine it must have been even worse for those on stage. However, the host, Radio 4’s Fi Glover, remained cool and composed throughout. She began by introducing the six authors, describing their work as “the type of books you want to press into the hands of strangers”.

First up to the podium was the bookies’ favourite to win, Ellen Feldmen, author of the fact-based novel Scottsboro. Her prim black suit, matching prim black bob and calm American voice contrasted sharply with the highly disturbing subject matter of her reading: a false accusation of rape made by two white girls against nine black teenagers in the American South during the depression era. Feldman went on to explain that she had remained so true to the facts of the original case that there is only one character in the book that she created herself; and even this one figure, a reporter named Alice, was born out of merging two women really involved in the trial. This, as far as I’m concerned, makes Feldman’s vivid imagining of the situation, as seen through the eyes of one of the supposed victims, all the more impressive and all the more courageous. To take the bare factual bones of a high-profile case and climb inside the minds of those involved is not something to be undertaken by a timid writer and from the section Feldman read it’s obvious that she has the poise required not only to pull it off, but to pull it off with a true flourish.

Feldman was followed by Samantha Harvey, the only debut author nominated for the prize this year. She seemed, quite understandably, somewhat overwhelmed by her situation, and she endeared herself to me immediately by opening her reading with the words “this is quite terrifying, I admit”. I had been utterly in awe of those on stage since I arrived, unable to stop thinking about how daunting the task of displaying the contents of one’s imagination to the intense scrutiny of an auditorium full of people must be. It was strangely reassuring to see that one of the authors, at least, did not appear unnaturally fearless.

Harvey’s novel, The Wilderness, is about Alzheimer’s and the problematic nature of identity without memories. She read initially in a soft, faltering tone which, although most likely the product of nerves, aptly reflected the quiet sadness behind her novel. By the time she had finished her reading and sat down to answer Fi Glover’s questions, her confidence had clearly increased and she provided fluid, well-thought-out answers.

Next up was Samantha Hunt, author of The Invention of Everything Else, a fictionalised account of the life of eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla. Hunt's stage presence was such that to be bored by her would actually demand a conscious effort on the part of the spectator. She even sang parts of the text, and adopted different voices when reading dialogue from each character as one might do when reading to a child. The section Hunt read was about the relationship between her protagonist and his employer, Thomas Edison, and even in this brief reading her talent for characterisation shone through. The combination of a fascinating topic, of which I know very little, and the author’s lively performance brought the book alive, and I found myself adding it to my mental to-read list only a couple of minutes into the reading.

Deirdre Madden’s delivery of her text was less theatrical although the titular character of her book, Molly Fox’s Birthday, is an actress, and she read a passage describing Molly's starring role in a performance of The Duchess of Malfi. Madden admitted that the world of acting was something “alien” to her, having never even appeared in a school production, and it is a testament to her skill as a writer that she managed to conjure up so vividly and convincingly the atmosphere of a world so foreign to her own experience. She was very funny and more than a little bit cutting, dismissing Fi Glover’s statement that Molly had seemed to her to be older than she was described, with a sharp Northern Irish ‘I’m not sure why you thought that.’ This exchange raised a (slightly awkward) laugh from the audience.

Marilynne Robinson’s reading of a section from her book Home was characterised by rich, descriptive language which betrayed the deep melancholy at the root of this tale about the relationships between the members of a fractured family. Interestingly, Home was written as a companion to her critically-acclaimed novel Gilead, featuring a shared cast of characters and the same setting. She stressed, however, that it’s in no way a sequel, taking place as it does at the same point in time as the original novel rather than afterwards, and that she intended for each of the novels to be autonomous. The characters of Home, she added, “felt like characters who wanted a novel, so I thought I might as well give it to them.”

The last to read was Kamila Shamsie, whose nominated novel is Burnt Shadows, a book that accomplishes the rather tricky feat of spanning "sixty years and five countries". Although all the different books’ passages were wonderful, and so varied in tone and content as to be almost incomparable to one another, it was this one, along with Samantha Hunt’s, which most sticks in my mind. Some of Shamsie’s words are nigh-on impossible to shake, although one couldn’t be blamed for wanting to shake some of them; for example the description of the devastation wreaked on a church by the bombing of Nagasaki, leaving behind only melted rosaries and human fat stuck to the walls.

The event rounded off with a brief Q+A session with audience members, during which someone sitting a few rows behind me came up with the very silly yet, oddly, quite inspired idea of asking the authors to describe their respective writing processes using the metaphor of a garden. The responses were pretty impressive considering they were completely spontaneous, and the majority of the authors seemed to be in consensus that their gardens would feature a great deal of wilderness and not a great deal of control on the part of the gardener. However, judging by the evening’s readings, I can only say that this modesty seems greatly misplaced. I’m looking forward to finding out which of these deserving ladies will get their hands on the £30,000 prize, but no matter who manages to scoop top place, I have a horrible feeling my purse is going to be significantly lighter very soon as I lose the will to fight the urge to run out and buy all six of these very unique books.

Posted by Eilidh

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