Journey to Publication with Nina de Pass

In early 2016, I left my job at a London publishing house to take up a place on the Faber Academy’s six-month Write a Novel course. I remember explaining this in our first class when asked to introduce ourselves. I also remember – clearly – everyone’s reaction: mostly their disbelief. The truth was I adored writing, and was doing it whenever I could – early mornings, late nights, on the bus, on my phone as I walked down the street – but I had worked determinedly for years to get that job and there I was, throwing it away for a place on a course that gave no guarantee that I’d actually complete a novel, let alone get it published. So why on earth had I just thrown myself off a cliff?

I hear all the time from other writers that the publishing industry can feel like a fortress, where editors are fierce gatekeepers. Yet, I had already worked behind those supposed iron gates, which gave me a different perspective. Over the years, I have worked with editors who care deeply about the books they publish, and fight tooth and nail to give authors the platform and reach they needed to get to readers. I remember one brilliant editor locked herself in a bathroom to cry when one of the books she worked on hit the Sunday Times bestseller list. She had worked relentlessly for and with that author – and, God, she loved that book. This made an impression on me – above all, I felt hopeful. I saw first-hand new books bought, new authors’ careers launched. I worked with many magnificent, talented authors. They worked tirelessly, they wrote tirelessly – but they showed me publication could happen, it did happen all the time. It would require hard work, of course, and dedication. A lot of writing, rewriting, editing, deleting would need to be done. But, at the end of it all, why couldn’t I be one of the lucky few? These are two words I think about a lot: why not?

The Faber course is, above all, a space to learn and write – it’s for people who take writing seriously. I am in that camp. To me, writing is a wonderful thing – something I do most of all because I love it – but it is also a massive commitment. I started working part time, I moved back in with my family, and I wrote whenever I could. My day in the Faber offices in Bloomsbury Square became my favourite day of the week. My tutor, Shelley Weiner, and my coursemates gave me the confidence to talk about my novel as though it was something more than just words and fictitious scenarios spinning around my head. It’s no exaggeration to say those days changed the course of my life.

My novel The Year After You, is about a seventeen-year-old girl called Cara who has survived the same car accident that killed her best friend. Unable to move forward, Cara is sent 5,000 miles from home to a boarding school perched at the top of a mountain, in total contrast to everything she has left behind. It’s a book about guilt and grief tied up so tightly they are indistinguishable from each other. But most of all it’s about love – the love between friends, as well as romantic love. All those people who show us how to keep living when living seems impossible.

I wrote it extremely quickly; I somehow completed the first draft by the end of the six months, so buzzed up by the energy, grit and fun of the course. When it ended, I felt both a little bereft and a little terrified. The agents’ reading, where literary agents are invited in to listen to two minute readings from students’ novels, was on the horizon. I am a horrible public speaker, so this, for me, was a nightmare. I don’t remember standing up – I sometimes wonder how my legs got me to that podium. I think I put so much importance on the reading, because my book had become so important to me. I had been living in it for six months, and thinking about it for many years before that. I am not a performer, but I reasoned that if this was the best opportunity to showcase it, it was my duty to give it its best shot.

Miraculously, after the reading, I was approached by my now agent, Laura Williams from Greene and Heaton, who requested the full manuscript. A weekend went by at a snail’s pace. Did I sleep? I must have done, but I honestly can’t remember. She emailed me the following Monday: I think your novel has huge amounts of potential, and I was wondering whether you’d be up for chatting through some editorial thoughts? I met her a week or so later, not knowing at all what to expect. Would we get on? Would she see the book the way I saw it? The meeting itself was a bit like a first date; looking back, I suppose we were both sizing each other up. I liked her instantly, I loved all the editorial suggestions she had, and I truly felt she understood the book I had set out to write. At the end of the meeting, she offered me representation.

The agent-author relationship is a professional one, but it’s a hugely important personal one too. I feel fantastically privileged to have Laura on my side – she is a cheerleader, smart and editorially brilliant. For months, she worked with me to get my novel ready to submit, then sent the book out to editors in 2017. And so it began. I read stories daily about big pre-empts, bidding wars and books that are snapped up overnight by over-enthusiastic editors in grand auctions. These things do happen and are fantastic for the authors involved, but they are by no means a given. This was certainly not what happened to me. In fact, the whole submission process took about a year.

About halfway through the submission process, I started working full-time as an assistant at The Soho Agency, a literary and talent agency in central London. When I first started, I kept my own writing quiet; a part of me worried they’d be horrified to learn I had written a book, the other part worried they wouldn’t think I was serious about my job. Neither of these things came true; I honestly couldn’t ask for more supportive or excited colleagues, who continue to be such champions of me and this book. But at the time, my hope for this book’s chance had faded somewhat. Rejections from editors poured in throughout 2017 – some of them warm, some of them lukewarm, some of them disinterested. Working for a literary agency helped me to fully understand the subjectivity of the publishing industry. It was a reminder that finding the right home for a book comes down to personal taste, timing and luck.

I was starting to make peace with the fact that this book wasn’t a goer, then, in February 2018, Laura told me that Ink Road had offered to publish The Year After You. The news came when I was working from home because it had snowed so heavily that travel in central London was a nightmare. I remember it vividly. I was sitting at the kitchen table and there was about a foot of snow on the ledge outside. I’m quite fatalistic, and this confirmed it. It must be fate – after all, my novel is set in the snow. Nine months later, just before the Frankfurt Book Fair, Laura rang to tell me that Ink Road had an offer from Delacorte Press, a young adult imprint of Penguin Random House in the US, to publish the book in North America in Spring 2020.

When I think about it, I realise my road to publication has probably been less jagged than most, but it has taken time. I have learned about patience, about subjectivity, and I have been reminded, as the first responses come in, of the generosity of all the people in the book world who have taken the time to support me. I continue to be amazed by the kindness and encouragement of those around me – my family, friends, Faber coursemates, colleagues – and all those I have met recently, and continue to meet: bloggers, reviewers, booksellers and other authors. This whole experience has been surreal; I feel very lucky and very excited about everything to come. 

By Nina de Pass

Author photo: © Alex Lloyd

The Year After You was published in the UK by Ink Road on 14th February; Penguin Random House will publish in North America in spring 2020.

Website: www.ninadepass.com 

Twitter: @marinadepass

Instagram: @marinadepass

#QUICKFIC 22/03/2019

Hello hello, and welcome to the new brighter, Spring like edition of #QUICKFIC, Faber Academy’s flash fiction competition. Yes Spring is finally here and we can all put away dreadful things like winter coats, and darkness at 4 pm. 

Before you all spring into action and write me a piece, a rules refresher:

  • Use the prompt below to write a story of 250 words or less.
  • Pop the story into the body of an email, including the title and the word count, and send it to academy@faber.co.uk. Make sure it’s in the body of the email, not as a separate attached document!
  • Do all that by 2:50 pm today. 
  • At 3:30 we meet back on the blog for the winning entries to be revealed.

In honour of World Poetry Day, this week’s prize includes two brilliant collections by Christopher Reid and Simon Armitage in addition to our usual fiction fare:

a stack of books "Istanbul" by Orhan Pamuk, "The Wolf Border" by Sarah Hall, "Paper Areoplanes: Selected Poems 1989 - 2014 " by Simon Armitage and "The Song of Lunch" Chrisopher Reid -Faber Academy's flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC

 

You ready?

You set?

Okay….

Annnd here you go:

 

a half focused image with what looks like an open door, white paneled and wooden in focus. Out of focus and to the left is an ornate picture frame with a pastoral image, out of focus, just visible. In the foreground we see a hand holding a record close to the camera, while the other hand browses through a jam packed looking shelf of other records. The image is very cluttered and cramped, but somehow still homey - Faber Academy's flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC

Back at 3:30!

By entering Faber Academy’s flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC , you’re granting us non-exclusive worldwide permission to reprint your story on our website should you win. 

#QUICKFIC 26/10/2018

Happy almost Halloween! In defiance of the calendar, we’ve (I’ve) been celebrating Halloween all week and so it is only right that today’s flash fiction competition prompt is spooky and terrifying and all things Halloween should be.

A quick reminder of the rules, before we begin.

You’re going to see a prompt. Using that prompt, we’d like you to write a short story of 250 words or less. Send your story in the body of an email, including the title and the wordcount, to academy@faber.co.uk by 2:50 pm this afternoon. No later! The winner wins these books: 

'All My Puny Sorrows' by Miriam Toews, 'Nine Lessons' by Nicola Upson, 'All the Beautiful Lies' by Peter Swanson - Faber Academy's flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC

Ready? Here you go: 

Image of a table outside of a wooden cabin. There are three people sitting at a table; two children and an adult. The young children both seem to be carving miniature pumpkins. The female child is using a knife to carve the inside of the pumpkin, while the boy has his hand inside his pumpkin, presumably about to pull out the innards. The boy is pulling a face of disgust while the adult is watching and laughing. Around the three are some fully carved pumpkins, other gourds and some pumpkin shaped food stuffs. Just visible behind one of the figures is a banner, partially obscured, reading Halloween - Faber Academy's flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC

Terrifying, right?

Be back at 3:30!

By entering Faber Academy’s flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC , you’re granting us non-exclusive worldwide permission to reprint your story on our website should you win. 

Review: THE LONG TAKE by ROBIN ROBERTSON

This review by Ruby Bamber (Senior Sales Operations Executive at Faber & Faber) is part of a series of reviews of the 2018 Man Booker Shortlist.

*

A 225-page epic long-form poem sounds like a daunting read, but  the medium is perfect for this story. Wounded war veteran Walker, returned  to North America from Europe, is roaming. Set in four parts between 1948 and 1953 (with the occasional reference to the mid-50s), Robertson’s sweeping epic takes in the glamorous grime of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago as Walker moves between cities, hitching rides where he can and taking it all in.

The period detail comes thick and fast. To use the word atmospheric would be hugely underselling it – The Long Take feels as close to being in 50s America as I’ll ever get. For anyone who has enjoyed the grubby thrill of a classic noir film, or gone on holiday to the States hoping to sit in a dark and faintly squalid bar to watch the world go by, this is very much the tale for you. There are dive bars, road trips, faded hotels, all-night picture houses. All of the mentions of films, studios and actors of the period give this book the old Hollywood vibe that is so at odds with the scores of broken characters Walker encounters.

It highlights the America that is familiar to everyone, the dual reality of a country where everymen sit in picture houses in questionable parts of town to watch the manufactured ‘America’ on film. Robertson’s book is the antithesis of a Hollywood studio film – his is not an America cleaned up and packaged for the masses. The Long Take shows us this perfectly, and, as Walker puts it himself: ‘American cities have no past, no history. Sometimes I think the only American history is on film.’

The narrative is punctuated by Walker’s memories of his time at war, his life previously, and postcards and missives to his friends and family in Nova Scotia, which all add to the scrapbook effect of the work. It feels at points like rifling through someone’s belongings, getting to pore over their diaries and photographs, getting some of your questions answered, but knowing you’ll never quite get to find out the full picture. By contrast, there are passages where you are living completely in Walker’s head.

The time stamps are subtle but effective (price changes at the cinema, tiny inconsequential details) and in 1953, when Walker returns to San Francisco, things have changed. The conversations he has show how people are moving on from the chaos of the years immediately following the war. America is settling and other tensions are rising (a graphic, if fleeting, mention of Emmett Till and Rosa Parks is particularly moving).

The Long Take is like being on an epic road trip, speeding along the American coast and catching intoxicating glimpses of places and people in a country in a period of great change.  This book should not be written off for the familiar fear of not ‘getting’ poetry – you would be robbing yourself of a moving and addictive Americana experience. I loved it.

Review: THE MARS ROOM by RACHEL KUSHNER

This review by Joanna Lee (Communications Administrator at Faber & Faber) is part of a series of reviews of the 2018 Man Booker Shortlist.

*

Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room is a book that hits you with a world so perfectly formed, so intense, that it knocks you to the ground – disoriented, intimidated and deeply sad in equal measure. It paces the confines of the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, where our narrator, Romy Hall, is serving two life sentences (plus six years).

The uncanny oddness of being condemned to serve two ‘life’ sentences (plus six years) isn’t unintentional. Logic is thrown out of the barred windows at Stanville, bulldozed by rules so rigid as to be destructive.  

Kushner’s great skill lies in exposing these bars as hollow. The truth doesn’t matter – both to the state and the inmates. There is a rumour that Betty LaFrance’s ‘legs are insured for millions’, but Romy doesn’t buy it. ‘You can’t believe anything people say. But what they say is all you have.’ The still surface of the slick, smooth prose hints at the anger and crowbars beneath.

Spiking the narrative bravado are disarming punches of pathos: ‘The women made greeting cards by hand in emulation of a machine-printed corporate look: their best work resembled cards you could buy at Rite Aid.’ Even the ‘best work’ of these women – crafted with effort, made to be individual and unique – are casually indistinguishable from mass-produced bits of tat costing mere cents. Sad, right?

The detail in the book is immense, both to its credit and its detriment. It makes for a totally immersive reading experience, but at times can feel superfluously long. Kushner builds a labyrinth filled with lifelike characters, meticulous research and myriad intricacies; but this means it’s all too easy to get a little lost.  

Overall, I’d totally recommend this book. If you’ve got a few hours to spare, spend them hanging out with Kushner’s company of inmates. They’re worth your time.   

Review: MILKMAN by ANNA BURNS

This review by Imogen Morrell is part of a series of reviews of the 2018 Man Booker Shortlist.

*

Anna Burns’s Milkman depicts the nameless, the placeless, and the quietest acts of rebellion. This seems in tension with a novel that is, in many ways, precisely situated and politically saturated. Milkman is a distinctly Irish text: Tristram Shandy looms and Beckettian cadence elucidates. And despite never saying so, the novel’s historical context alludes to Northern Ireland during the Troubles, sandwiched between ‘the land “over the water” and the land “over the border”’.

Despite certain specificities, Milkman is extensively cast with a litany of epithets and sobriquets: ‘tablets girl’, ‘maybe-boyfriend’, ‘second sister’, ‘renouncer-of-the-state’, ‘defender-of-the-state’, ‘third brother-in-law’, ‘chef’, ‘longest friend’, ‘real milkman’ and ‘milkman’. Milkman is not a real milkman, but rather a senior paramilitary who follows, stalks and quietly threatens our nameless narrator, while she walks and runs through the parks and reservoirs of her district.

This is a story supported by ‘gossips and rumour-mongers’ who amorphously sing the chorus of Burns’s novel, scrutinising, alienating, and condemning the bookish protagonist for embarking on an alleged affair with Milkman. Worse than this crime is her daily transgression of walking while reading a book; of being both unprotected and engrossed, ignorant and superior. She is criticised for her literary perversions: ‘It’s the way you do it – reading books, whole books, taking notes, checking footnotes, underlining passages as if you’re at some desk or something, in a little private study or something, the curtains closed’.

Her privacy in public is a vehicle for dissent, and is an affront to both the neighbours and her gender. Men take many shapes, yet are similar in their sometimes benign, sometimes dangerous ‘mission of idolatry’, and often ‘supreme glorification’ of women. Echoing such expectations, mothers sing the ‘female destiny’, the ‘daily round’, and the ‘common task’. Marking herself outside of such a spinning burden leaves Milkman’s protagonist ‘beyond-the-pale’, an ‘issue woman’, rumoured to enjoy ‘back-to-front reading, starting on the last page’, despite the surrounding ‘gunplay or bombs, stand-off or riots’.

Although the French class cries that ‘Le ciel est bleu! Le ciel est bleu!’, the narrator sees that the sky is ‘new colours arriving, all colours combining’; she sees the love that her mother has for the real milkman despite the years; she sees a brother-in-law regret and reclaim his adoration of a poisoned woman. Consequential violence occurs off-stage, while revelations occur irrevocably within the details.

Reviews of the Man Booker 2018 Longlistees

WARLIGHT by MICHAEL ONDAATJE
Reviewed by Alexandra Shaw

Subtlety, smoke and subterfuge pervade Michael Ondaatje’s latest work, Warlight. It is a book that I had the all-consuming feeling while I was reading it that I was only understanding, or grasping, or even casting my eyes over one half of what was truly there. It is a technique that, I hope, is an authorial sleight of hand to mimic the narrator’s own unsureness and misrememberings of his own past, though I can’t rule out that I may have to stop enjoying my novels with a companion glass of red wine.

Like reality, I felt the first half of Warlight – as the narrator, Nathaniel, reminisced on his childhood – was the more romantic and intriguing half, and a story I could have read for a hundred pages more. The first sentence explains the premise in a charmingly childlike way: ‘In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who many have been criminals.’ But these characters do not, thankfully, turn out to be Fagins to Nathaniel’s Oliver. While their way of life is unusual, at best, and borderline neglectful at worst – in the sense of an absence of care, rather than an abuse of it – it becomes apparent that Nathaniel and his sister Rachel come to care deeply for their guardians, and protect the life they lead avidly. Like all children, they have adapted to their lot and work to do the best they can out of it.

The book unfolds quietly and carefully, and shifts in its focus as it unfurls to the mother of the two children, and the realization they reach regarding their parents’ departure. In this way it perfectly represents the shedding of the ignorance of childhood, and the narrator’s growth into his own person as he begins to gain an understanding of the motivations of people around him. It’s a compact work, but one whose depth outmeasures its length, and definitely one to read.

*

SNAP by BELINDA BAUER
Reviewed by Jade-Louisa Pepper

Snap by Belinda Bauer should, in theory, have been something I devoured. It has all the hallmarks of my favourite things – it’s loosely based on the (unsolved) murder of Marie Wilks, it’s based in a small town that wouldn’t be out of place on an episode of Midsomer Murders, it’s a well endorsed thriller on the Man Booker Longlist — and yet I can barely summon an ‘it’s alright, I guess?’ when people ask about it.

Uneven is the best way to describe Bauer’s latest, as the taut and tension-filled opening chapters become a distant memory when we sit through yet another instance of Catherine – the pregnant woman so afraid of eating the wrong thing in case it harms the baby – ignoring death threats, break-ins and robbery in case she is blamed for leaving the bathroom window open.

Catherine isn’t the only character to fall into absurdity for no reason I could see other than to keep the plot going. The entire police force seems to be staffed by plot devices and characters dropped in from various comedy sketches from the 1980s. The latter half of the book hinges on the idea that the maverick city cop (why yes, he is a misogynist, good-old-boy, drill sergeant–style boss, however did you guess?) accepts the proposal of the 14-year old he’s arrested for committing a series of robbery and helps him investigate the murder of his mother. Hanging a lampshade on how ridiculous this is doesn’t make it easier to swallow.

Jack, our Artful Dodger of the book, is a bright spot. His trauma around the death of his mother and the strain of having to take care of his two sisters after his father abandons them is depicted brilliantly. The increasingly terrifying dreams he has about the roadside murder of his mother are genuinely unsettling and he actually reads like a teenage boy thrust into an awful situation.

Snap has its moments of brilliance – the final scenes in the car genuinely had my heart racing, for one – but a few good scenes aren’t enough to keep the book together or my interest up. Crime and Thriller novels absolutely deserve their place on the Man Booker long and shortlists, no matter what the naysayers might cry, but I’m afraid this one remains an unlikely candidate for winner.

*

SABRINA by NICK DRNASO
Reviewed by Anne Bowman

28-year old Chicago native Nick Drnaso’s second novel Sabrina is creating a lot of buzz in the literary world. His first novel Beverly won the LA Times Book prize for the Best Graphic Novel and was shortlisted for many more. Sabrina has already been hailed by Zadie Smith as ‘a masterpiece’ and ‘the best book – in any medium – about our current moment.’

There is an unsettling mystery at the heart of Sabrina involving a missing woman, a videotape and a violent murder. US Airforce engineer Calvin Wroble works the night shift. Upon reporting to duty each evening he is required to fill in a questionnaire – a box ticking exercise designed to measure his mental stability. ‘How many hours of sleep did you have? How many alcoholic drinks have you consumed? Do you feel suicidal yes or no?”’His wife recently left with their young daughter and he spends his free time playing war simulator games online. One day, Teddy – a childhood friend whose girlfriend is missing – arrives to stay. He is in catatonic shock and Calvin is determined to help him get back on his feet. Shortly after Teddy’s arrival, a mysterious videotape depicting a violent murder is delivered to a local news outlet. Calvin is drawn into a dark web of fake news and conspiracy theories. The answers on his daily questionnaire become increasingly worrying.

The story unfolds slowly, weaving narratives in a sophisticated way. We are offered several perspectives, from the painfully withdrawn Teddy, to Sandra – the grieving sister of the missing girl, to Calvin’s estranged wife. The storytelling is rich and very clever. The world that Drnaso creates is one of sparse human interaction and sterile habitats – the artificial glow from the television, computer or fast food restaurant often the only light – creating palpable unease and tension as the story builds. Within the first fifty pages, I found myself tearing through the book desperate to uncover the truth.

Recent years have seen an extraordinary rise in the popularity of the graphic novel. The beloved primary colours of superheroes have paved the way for writers such as Adrian Tomine and Alison Bechdel to bring new genres to new audiences. Even staples like Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman are now perhaps a little “retro”, and modern readers look to graphic novels as worthy challengers to the “traditional novel” – creating works that blend high literature and art, forging an exciting, innovative way in which we consume stories.

Shocking, disturbing and utterly addictive, Sabrina is a graphic novel about our time, for our time. Drnaso’s storytelling is delicate and heart-breaking, with echoes of American greats like Raymond Carver or John Steinbeck, and well-deserving of its spot on the Booker longlist.

*

FROM A LOW AND QUIET SEA by DONAL RYAN
Reviewed by Katryna Storace

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan tells the stories of three very different men each in search of something or somewhere to call home. Tossed about on a metaphorical sea of love and loss are Farouk, a Syrian refugee, Lampy, a young man recovering from a broken heart, and John, an elderly accountant.

The men’s stories are unfolded slowly and quietly by a dispassionate third-person narrator. The language is lyrical and involving nonetheless; it draws you into an intimate space with each of the three men. This where Ryan is at his strongest. He weaves a narrative net around that reader that makes them invested in the lives of his characters, and in their individual struggles. Their voices are distinctive – what Martina Evans, in the Irish Times, calls a ‘dazzling array of voices’. We believe in Farouk’s hopes for a brighter future in Europe with the same vehemence as our belief in John’s deep regret over his failed relationship with a younger woman.

The novel culminates in the final section, ‘Lake Islands’, when the connections between the apparently disparate narratives of the three men are revealed. Herein lies the book’s power: these are genuinely surprising revelations. There is nothing contrived about the way that these lives merge and overlap. The characters become more real – if this is possible – as it comes to a close. 

From a Low and Quiet Sea is a superbly crafted, haunting novel and consolidates Donal Ryan’s reputation as a master storyteller. Its short extent – 181 pages in total – makes for a quick yet affecting read that stays with you, well after its echoing final lines.

*

IN OUR MAD AND FURIOUS CITY by GUY GUNARATNE
Reviewed by Joey Connolly

You wouldn’t call In Our Mad and Furious City an unambitious novel. It has the sentence ‘See London.’ in the first paragraph. It’s narrated by five characters of wildly various ages, national origins, religious habits, world-views. It aims to both capture the experience of North-London estate life, but also to comment on the currents of racism and nationalist politics currently on the rise in the UK. And it aims to do so in part by placing those currents in the historical contexts out of which London’s many first- or second-generation immigrant populations have arrived. 

The book even wants to make some suggestions for the solutions to these problems. It’s a lot for a debut novelist to take on, but Gunaratne’s novel – while not without its flaws – manages some remarkable successes.

Two of the novel’s older narrators, Caroline and Nelson, originating from Monserrat and Belfast respectively, find contemporary events (the novel has a Lee Rigby–style murder in its recent past, prompting far-right demonstrations around the estate) directing them backwards, towards previous iterations of the violence simmering underneath the multiculturalism of contemporary London. For Caroline it’s the horrors of the troubles; for Nelson it’s the Enoch Powell–era fascist, anti-black thugs and the pushback from black immigrants.

Gunaratne’s ability to paint these previous conflicts as a shadowy presence in today’s struggles is impressive. He invests the prose with recurring symbolic touchpoints (fire, provisional soldiery, the struggle for innocence) allowing the connection to be implied, without the necessity of any heavy-handed or reductive comparisons to be drawn; the troubles aren’t simply comparable to the Islamophobic violence of today. But England’s history is a history of colonialist and religious oppression, and remembering that is crucial, Gunaratne argues tacitly, to understanding discord in London today.

Although Gunaratne’s capable of strong prose, even raising to occasional moments of beauty, his main weakness is in the creation of the voices of the novel’s younger protagonists. Too often throughout the book we’re left with the impression that a generic ‘literary’ voice has been sprinkled with the buzz-words of the contemporary London demotic, and the task of narrative stylisation has been left there. The problem’s heightened by the fact that the book’s narrative perspective is somewhere between spoken monologue and reported thought. But take passages like Ardan’s: ‘I just dussed out. Drank bare spirit that night as well, I was mad depressed and mangy. Came up here to look at the Ends at night because the view from the West Block is as nice as it is dismal in the daytime.’ But inserting ‘ennet’, ‘yuno’, ‘road’, ‘tho’, ‘bare’ into a text isn’t sufficient to create an authentic or convincing diction. Although it has convinced other reviewers – Shahidha Bari (a Cambridge-education Romanticism scholar) in the Guardian, for example – so perhaps it’s my understanding of the vernacular that’s lacking. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

There are other flaws beside these. Most significant is the fact that the book’s sprawl and scope requires at times that the characters perform actions necessitated by the plot rather than their own internal compulsions, desires or will. As a result of this, the central event of the novel’s story (I’ll avoid spoilers by not specifying) comes to feel simultaneously predictable and underdetermined; we knew it had to happen, but we never get any sense of why it happened. Aside that it’s useful for the novel’s storyline.

I’d be inclined to forgive such things, though; they’re a flaw precipitated by the novel’s ambition. During an extremely multicultural football match on the estate, Yusuf says (or writes, or thinks) ‘For a few hours the Square would cast us at the Nou Camp with our Gerrards and Ronaldos, Figos and Rivaldos and a few Cryuffs. These names, ghosting through our movements as we played, the cage with its concrete turf and cracked centre circle, made us free.’ It’s a bitterly ironic moment, as that ‘cage… made us free’, and as we feel the ghosts of historical violence ghosting through the movement of this novel’s protagonists, and drawing the story towards its brutal and inevitable conclusion.

 

Review: THE OVERSTORY by RICHARD POWERS

This review by Alexandra Shaw is part of a series of reviews of the 2018 Man Booker Shortlist.

*

The Overstory is a beautiful book. It’s beautiful on the face of it, with its gorgeous colourful colour depicting snapshots of trees all merging into one. It is beautiful in its structure, with the three parts named aptly after  sections of a tree, merging and branching sometimes at unexpected moments, and sometimes at totally expected ones. It’s beautiful in its prose, which kept the distance of an overarching narrative but the personal twists and snaps of a short story. It is a structure that I can see would put some people off, people who would prefer a more singular thread to follow, but the payoff for the willing that follow the nine different strands to their conclusions is huge.  I struggle to remember a book that has conveyed quite the same sense of enormity, of centrality, and the importance of trees, or indeed anything, in our lives as efficiently and as comprehensively as this novel.

It would be good, of course, if I could compare it to another work of his that I have read, and looking at the page that lists them I am surprised both by their number and the fact that I have read none of them. The silver lining of this cloud is, of course, that I came to this book with no preconceptions, no expectations and no ideas of what I should or could expect. All I knew, as I told everyone that asked, was ‘it is a novel about trees.’ And about trees it is. Trees permeate every landscape in this book, both with their presence and noted absence. At times they are as obvious as the huge oaks that litter our English landscape, at other times as hidden and ignored as the mass of roots that lie underneath us.  At times the environmental aspect can threaten to veer into the preachy, as is always a danger with a novel on this subject, but Powers is also plain and simple with his facts, and doesn’t give every tree-hugger a free pass. One of the characters in the book manages to finally get across the importance of trees in a court case, leading to a change in the regulations.  It is counted as a success, until a member of the opposition points out that all it is likely to do is sentence more trees faster, as logging companies rush to fell as much as they can before the new law comes into action. It is a success, but it is also a failure, in the same way that in their numbers trees are most useful to us still living, but as singulars most useful as fuel. The Overstory by no means claims to have the answers, but the long hard look in the looking glass it provides is necessary, and timely.

Man Booker 2018 Shortlist: the Faber Academy guide

The Man Booker Prize is a funny thing, and there are lots of ways in which it’s not perfect. But, if it’s a flawed thing, it’s our flawed thing, and if you’re involved in books in the UK it’s difficult not to get excited about the longlisting, the shortlisting and the awarding every year of the prize.

There was lot to celebrate on this year’s longlist. Particularly notable were the inclusion of three books: Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina is the first graphic novel that’s ever made it onto the longlist. The Long Take, by Robin Robertson, is a classic noir novel entirely in verse. Snap by Belinda Bauer too pushes boundaries by residing more completely in the ‘genre fiction’ neighbourhood than in the suburban culs-de-sac and byways of ‘literary fiction’ from which the Booker normally draws its contenders.

In many ways, then, this year’s longlist – quietly, but firmly – redrew the constituency lines on the literary map. In this instance, though, it feels like a good thing.

And now the shortlistSeems to us like good stuff (although… no The Water Cure? No Normal People?!). And if, like us, you’re anticipating having a whole bunch of avoidable and unavoidable conversations about the shortlisted books, then you’ll need something clever and discerning to say about them. That’s where we’re stepping up. Here are six short reviews, written by our colleagues here at Faber (except, of course, Anna Burns’ Milkman, which is reviewed by an out-of-house books colleague, since asking a Faber employee to review a Faber title seemed, well… sketchy af). Enjoy!

Alexandra Shaw on THE OVERSTORY by Richard Powers

Ruby Bamber on THE LONG TAKE by Robin Robertson

Iman Khabl on WASHINGTON BLACK by Edi Edugyan

Jade-Louisa Pepper on EVERYTHING UNDER by Daisy Johnson

Joanna Lee on THE MARS ROOM by Rachel Kushner

Imogen Morrell on MILKMAN by Anna Burns

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And, because our critical passion knows no limits, we actually also have reviews of the longlisted books, too! There are some fantastic books there, so check out the fringe.

 

 

Review: EVERYTHING UNDER by DAISY JOHNSON

This review by Jade-Louisa Pepper (Academy Assistant at Faber Academy) is part of a series of reviews of the 2018 Man Booker Shortlist.

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Everything Under by Daisy Johnson shines thanks to its quiet and easy naturalness. Thanks to the crisscrossing of fairy tales and legends and the lingering presence of the eldritch horror – known only as ‘The Bonak’ – throughout the book, that might seem like a bizarre statement to make, but it’s absolutely true. Yes, there is (sort of) a monster and yes, the whole thing is wrapped in the well-worn trappings of a myth, but at its heart Johnson has produced one of the best depictions of the enduring family relationship that I’ve read in recent years.

The novel Johnson has produced is hard to distill into a blurb, let alone plotted out in a review. We move from Gretel, our lexicographer-narrator, coaxing Sarah – the mother who abandoned her as a teen – into telling the truth of her childhood, to Gretel searching for Sarah in hospitals and river locations, to the story of Marcus, and back again, without the signposting of chapter headings or helpful date stamps in the corner. For a lesser writer, that might losing your reader in the twists and turns, but this book somehow manages to keep you spellbound and hanging on until it all clicks together and you feel the full force of Johnson’s writing hit you in the face.

The end result is a mind-bendingly good, eerie and enduring novel that nods to myth and legend without feeling derivative. Everything Under has stuck with me for long enough that I was unwilling to even let the book off my shelf, despite the multiple people that begged to let me borrow it (sorry!) as though losing sight of it would mean I forgot how gorgeously and almost casually Johnson interrogates family, gender, language and ideas of fate and self-determination. It’s my front-runner for the winner of this year’s Man Booker, but if it isn’t at least on the shortlist I’ll be completely shocked.