NWR Issue 68

'Tell me all the other versions'

The shortlist selection made by judges Tony Brown, Patrick Hannan and Charlotte Williams this year has brought a particularly interesting trio of books to the final stage of the Book of the Year competition.

From the numerous strong titles on the longlist, including Deryn Rees-Jones's Quiver, the judging panel has chosen three works of prose: Trezza Azzopardi's Remember Me, Richard Collins' The Land as Viewed from the Sea and Owen Sheers' The Dust Diaries. The strength of this year's shortlist - although some would rightly argue that it is also its weakness - is that it presents neither judge nor reader with the quandary of genre that usually prevails. Think of last year, for example: a baggy, fraying patchwork of a longlist (which included some weaker novels at the expense of rising star Tristan Hughes) was snipped down to a shortlist which, although clearly the right choice from the year's output, made it impossible to compare like with like. Niall Griffiths' fourth novel, Stump, eventually won the award over Gwyneth Lewis's collection of poems, Keeping Mum, and Emyr Humphreys' short story collection, Old People are a Problem. Any one of these would have been a deserving winner; but how do you compare the cerebral and linguistic acrobatics of Gwyneth Lewis with Emyr Humphreys' gentle, humane satire? How do you compare either of these with Griffiths' raw, bleak urban noir? This year the judges' dilemma will be a more pleasurable one, I suspect, for Remember Me, The Land as Viewed from the Sea and The Dust Diaries, though very different, individual works, explore with great skill common preoccupations in similar genres, preoccupations which will resonate with many other writers, as well as readers.

These books share more than a generic similarity: they also display a sophisticated self-consciousness about the novel itself as a literary form. Richard Collins's The Land as Viewed from the Sea, for example, presents a cleverly sustained story within a story. The novel's protagonist, John, is writing a novel (also called The Land as Viewed from the Sea); as he lets his friend Julian read the drafts of his book-in-progress a new plot unfolds, and fact and fiction slowly converge. A muted, subdued narrative follows the falling away of a love affair, with flashes of colour emerging in the narrator's descriptions of the natural landscape. As John travels down the coast in a small boat, that landscape takes on a metaphorical role in the novel, as the failed relationship is revisited from a distant new perspective.

Trezza Azzopardi's Remember Me, although written within the framework of the conventional plot-driven memoir-novel, is, according the author's note, inspired by the story of Nora Bridle, 'a resident of the streets of Cardiff '. Beginning with a theft and ending with a ceremonial burning, it is a dark, extremely powerful story of love and the loss of love, of the alienation of a life lived in a permanent state of dislocation, and of the power of life beyond death. Azzopardi, while sticking to the conventional formulae, infuses them with a narrative self-awareness that eventually leads to the discovery of the fallibility of the narrator. As a young girl, the narrator attempts a straightforward relation of events: 'I present the facts all the same: names are to be Learned; they are to be Remembered,' but she also displays from the very beginning an awareness of the complications and deceptions of history, especially personal memories and experiences: 'I don't say a word. I want him to tell me again, to tell me all the other versions, the ones where he can believe how it might have been. I've yet to learn that memories aren't real, that nothing except the thing itself is real, not an image of a pencil-thin woman lying flat on the bed, not the smell of sunlight baking a room, or the shape a life makes when it spills across the floor.'
Owen Sheers' The Dust Diaries also advertises itself as a work of fiction based on fact: his protagonist, Arthur Cripps, is drawn from his own great great uncle, who was an Independent Missionary to Southern Rhodesia. Like Azzopardi's main character in Remember Me, Sheers' Cripps 'was given many names during his life'. 'What follows,' Sheers tells the reader in his prologue, 'is an account of the search: the story of my contact with him and of how the unfolding of one man's life can resonate down the years in the lives of others.' The story, Sheers tells his reader, 'is written as fiction, the fiction I formed in my mind so as to better understand Arthur's life'. It's not quite that simple, though, as Sheers interpolates the fictional passages with episodes which relate his, Sheers', own journey as he travels back in time and across continents right to the heart of Arthur's existence, both imagined and real. The result is a creative fusion of fact and fiction: the reader is well aware that Sheers' interjections may be no more 'truthful' than the fictional recreations of Arthur's existence. Although this initially makes for an uncertain reading experience, such is the power of the prose that the story becomes increasingly compelling. And, while Azzopardi's novel closes into a tightly-knit resolution of her well-wrought plot, The Dust Diaries fans out to embrace the impossibility of knowing other people, even the subject of a biographical novel.

It must be a difficult stunt to pull off, retaining the emotional power and passion of a work within such self-consciously complicated narratives. Both Azzopardi and Sheers succeed, but Collins, although The Land as Viewed from the Sea is an enjoyable read that has clearly found a following - it was shortlisted for this year's Whitbread First Novel Award, for example - doesn't, to my mind at least, hold up under close scrutiny. This is very much a twohorse race, and the final decision, of course, will depend as much upon the judges' predilections as upon anything else. That's not to say that the Book of the Year Award is an arbitrary process: on the contrary, when the shortlists and winners of, say, the past ten years are considered together, certain trends and emphases do emerge. It's not simply been a case of which work is technically the best: there is evidently a preference for prose over poetry, for example. Poetry has never done well in the Book of the Year awards, particularly on the English-language side. Collections of poetry have reached the shortlist on several occasions, but rarely have they taken the top prize, Duncan Bush's Masks (1995) being a notable exception. The most outstanding example of this was the year in which Nigel Jenkins's (excellent) piece of travel writing, Gwalia in Khasia won the award over R. S. Thomas's No Truce with the Furies in 1996. There's also been a penchant for a particular kind of cross-genre memoir/travelogue, for example Gwalia in Khasia, Charlotte Williams's Sugar and Slate, and now The Dust Diaries.

Above all, there has been some uncertainty about what defines a writer as Welsh, which maybe explains the passing over in previous years of Sarah Waters's Fingersmith and Azzopardi's first novel, The Hiding Place. The award would perhaps be better off being known as the Welsh Academy/Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year, as the use of 'Welsh' to describe a set of books written by a disparate group of writers, including some who haven't lived in Wales for twenty years, who don't feel themselves to be Welsh, or whose work isn't set in Wales, could lead to a muddled sense of who the award is for and what it's about. It's also useful to think of the Welsh Academy award as one of a range of prizes and honours open to Wales-based writers and writers with Welsh connections. Think of the Welsh group selected as Next Generation Poets in 2004, for example; think of Sarah Waters and Stevie Davies on the long- and shortlists of the Orange Prize; think of Kathryn Gray being shortlisted for the Forward and T. S. Eliot Prizes last year. The Welsh Book of the Year Award is just one in a network of several UK-wide and international prizes for which Welsh authors are now serious contenders, and the Welsh literary scene is all the better for it.


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