Ariane Koch, Jonathan Buckley, Liz Berry

Eyes on the prizes — and the surprises

Every literary season has a book that comes from nowhere and seems to gallop ahead of the competition


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

What a lot of literary prizes there are nowadays. The great grandaddy, the Booker, is surrounded by awards that capture every category: novels by women, experimental books, debuts, historical fiction, debuts — and there are also a few prizes for debut novels. For serious literary fiction, book prizes are one of the few ways to boost hardback sales beyond the hundreds — and even then results are far from guaranteed. But there are enough book awards around that this month’s compendium consists solely of novels that have won prizes — two of which came before publication in the UK.

Every literary season has a book that comes from nowhere and seems to gallop ahead of the competition. This year it is Liz Berry’s novel-in-verse The Home Child which, since its publication last year, has been rapturously received everywhere, adapted for radio tout de suite and won the Writer’s Prize poetry category before going on to win the overall Book of the Year prize. Berry is no stranger to the winner’s podium: her previous full-length collection Black Country (2014) won three heavyweight gongs.

The Home Child blends technical excellence with emotional engagement, the latter admittedly almost guaranteed by the subject matter. The book is inspired by the story of Berry’s great-aunt Eliza Showell, who was a “Home Child”, that is, one of around 100,000 impoverished British children who were expatriated to Canada between 1860 and the 1940s to work as farm labourers or domestic servants.

The Home Child, Liz Berry (Vintage, £9.99)

Part of the sadness of Eliza’s story is that we do not know much about it, except that she never married and died in 1978. Berry therefore has used the accounts of other Home Children to shape a likely course for her great-aunt’s life, representing all those who underwent the same experience.

The result is consistently impressive. Berry uses individual short poems to chart the discrete steps of Eliza’s life, beginning in “that terrible hovering rook of the workhouse”, where a hellish setting — “spirits fly from the flames of the furnaces’ — foreshadows her destiny. Shifting between the formal language of official papers — “the managers have every reason to believe her best interests will be served by her emigration” — and the Black Country dialect of Eliza’s upbringing — “the soil-oss prances er fancy clop” — the story records her move to Canada, and her separation from brother Jim.

Once abroad, she is set up in the McPhail farm, where “the wiry ones grow tough / when worked, earn their keep, / bow their heads, learn to close / their jaws upon the bit”. The style is varied, incorporating prose poetry, sonnets, blank verse and more. There are individual similes that, once read, will permanently reshape your view of the subject (“the boats crossing the lake like needles through cloth”) and potent imagery, such as this in a dream-premonition of Eliza’s: “Who is carrying that coffin? / Who is lying inside? Who is going — again — / to a grave with no name?”

But a novel, even in verse, needs a story, and Berry gives Eliza a love affair to sweeten the reader’s experience. A fellow farm worker, Daniel, has a laugh “like a kite / I had once seen in Port Hood / which broke free from its strings”. The style, again, is crucial: the brevity of Berry’s lines prevents the tender scenes between Daniel and Eliza from tipping into sentimentality. She gives him a pear (“ungodly sweet”); he shows her a soft lamb’s-ear leaf in the forest, “And it’s soft, so soft, / that when I fold it in my palm, / the tears come like rain.”

Between these scenes, Eliza’s brother continues to write to her, receiving replies that are either redacted entirely, or clearly edited before being sent. “Jim, will should you look for me — / they call me by a different name.” What distinguishes this book is not just its form but its approach.

Novels of exile are common enough, but usually come from voices who have left or fled their country of birth, rather than being forcibly expatriated. In her adopted country, Eliza must finally recognise what meeting Daniel has taught her. “Home’s not a place, you must believe this, / but one who names you and means beloved.”

No review of a Jonathan Buckley novel can begin without a lament that his work is under-appreciated. Well, up to a point. I have read a couple of Buckley’s previous eleven novels and enjoyed them without feeling an urge to snap up his backlist. He is one of those mid-career novelists — his debut was published in 1997 — who has moved from big publishers to the small presses that are the chief champions these days of midlist writers.

Tell, Jonathan Buckley (Fitzcarraldo Editions, £12.99)

His new novel, Tell, comes from the coolest publisher in town — Fitzcarraldo Editions, famous for their Nobel winners and Yves Klein Blue covers — but its route to publication is unusual. Tell won the Novel Prize co-run by Fitzcarraldo, and publication of the book is part of Buckley’s winnings. Whether this means Buckley was unable to place his novel elsewhere is unknown, but it anyway fits (fitz?) this publisher’s usual modernist bill.

The book that Tell most resembles is Buckley’s own 2006 novel So He Takes the Dog. It beguiles the reader with a suspenseful conceit (there, a dog walker finds a human hand; here, a rich entrepreneur disappears), taking the form of a discursive monologue by a figure loosely connected. The third link is that it also disappoints the reader hoping for the conceit to be more traditionally honoured.

The story is told by the woman who worked as a gardener for fast-fashion pioneer Curtis Doyle, and who is being interviewed about his disappearance. Her narrative is unstructured — except insofar as it teases us repeatedly with the promise of goodies yet to come. “We’ll come on to her,” our narrator repeatedly says, as new character names appear with alarming frequency.

The voice is brisk, no-nonsense, friendly but not warm, and she seems to know everything about Curtis’ family and the women in it, including his many flings (“non-speaking roles”, as she winningly puts it). Yet she says little about Curtis himself, and he becomes one of those characters — like Virginia Woolf’s Jacob Flanders — who’s defined by the shape around him.

This is one of the many clever elements of Tell; another is that this is a complex story told in a deceptively casual style. The corollary, however, is that names and anecdotes come thick and fast — Lily, Jan, Lara, Josefine, Katia, Ulla, Karolina (“A thoroughbred. [ … ] Sleek. Magnificent legs”) — and it becomes a task to keep on top of them all. This is verisimilitude — people don’t talk in a structured way to make it easy for the listener — but it makes for a read that can be as frustrating at length as it is impressive in detail.

We do get back to the premise, Curtis’ disappearance, eventually, but by then it hardly matters, and the narrator knows it, and Buckley knows it too. “This isn’t a TV thriller,” he has her say in the closing pages. “There’s not going to be any great revelation.” But we’d worked that out by now anyway.

Equally unusual in its structure, but to my mind more satisfying, is Ariane Koch’s Overstaying, translated by Damion Searls. The premise is simple: a young woman has taken a visitor into her home, and the experience throws her off-kilter. Being off-kilter might be in the blood, as we learn on the first page that her great-grandfather “was a well-known cult leader”. She has a photo of him on her desk, “gazing into a visionary future”.

Overstaying, Ariane Koch, translated by Damion Searls (Pushkin Press, £10.99)

The tone exemplified in that quote is what drives the book: an eccentric, wry voice, where she describes her hometown as “where I have come to rest” and vows never to answer the phone “because you never know if it might be an unresolvable family conflict”. She is always worried that her siblings will claim rights to her house, which just adds to her sense of paranoia.

As for her mysterious visitor, whose name “is so long that one simply cannot remember it, however hard one tries”, “there’s something not quite right about him” but she puts up with him because he does the boring household jobs.

She determines nonetheless to “tame” him with a household rule book, which when complete will constitute “a true scripture, which others too will find extremely useful”. Perhaps she has been staring too long at her great-grandfather.

If all this sounds insufferably whimsical, it isn’t, because it’s tempered by a darkness that bleeds slowly through the pages. Needless to say, it’s never quite clear how real the visitor is, and when he starts to take up more and more space, we wonder whether this means in the house or in our narrator’s head. There are also memories of her ex-partner Lawrenz, including a short scene — no spoilers — which treads the finest line possible between poor taste and good comedy.

The loose structure of Overstaying succeeds where Tell struggles because each vignette is self-contained and lasts no more than a couple of pages, as well as offering a healthy variety of forms: aphorisms, confessions, blank jokes. It both welcomes and distances the reader, which is a rare feat and may be why the book won prizes in Germany and in Koch’s home country of Switzerland. If there’s any justice, it should do the same here.

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