This month Anne Miller takes a look at the nominations for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016.
It’s impossible to read all the books. It would take 500 years to read everything released in a single year and by the time you’d finished, you’d need another 250,000 years to bring your reading up to date.
That said, there are always books that pop to the top of the pile. The ones your friends push into your hands with a firm “you’ll like this”, the ones you see on every platform as you wait for a train, the ones displayed in bookshop windows. And, of course, the ones shortlisted for literary prizes. The latter are another chance to champion books that are already gathering steam, as well as ones that may have been undeservedly quiet.
The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction announces its 2016 winner on Thursday 8 June. The prize is awarded to the best novel written by a woman, in English, from the last year. Authors can live anywhere in the world and this year’s shortlist contains three Americans, two writers from Ireland and one Brit, with the judging panel headed up by lawyer and businesswoman Margaret Mountford, who you may also know from The Apprentice.
The 2016 shortlist has quite a pedigree. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild shared this year’s Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize while Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies is also up for this year’s Desmond Elliott Prize for debut novels.
Anne Enright’s The Green Road was longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker (Enright previously won in 2007 for her novel The Gathering) and takes readers through the lives of four siblings and what happens when they return home to Ireland. It is currently the bookies’ favourite to win.
Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen is a witty tale of family, a new engagement, big pharma and squirrels. I first heard about it through books journalist Anna James, who has an unbeatable reputation for recommendations and posts monthly highlight videos on her YouTube channel, which you can find here.
“Some of the layers revealed in Ruby are horrifying but it never seems gratuitous; instead it feels you’re watching a camera panning back to show you details that you didn’t see in the frame the first time round.”
Finally, there’s Ruby by Cynthia Bond, which wasn’t on my reading radar at all until it appeared on the Baileys long list but I am so pleased to have found it. There were 20,000 copies in print when it was chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club and shot to New York Times Bestseller status in the States and it is one of those books that once you’ve found it, is difficult to let go.
Set in Liberty, East Texas, Ruby is the story of one woman shunned by the small town she grew up in, and eventually left, and the secrets that emerge after she returns. Some of the layers revealed are horrifying but it never seems gratuitous; instead it feels you’re watching a camera panning back to show you details that you didn’t see in the frame the first time round.
There is real tenderness in the softer elements of magical realism throughout the book, but there’s also the threatening presence of what Ruby calls the Dyboú – an evil spirit. And there’s a love story as Ephram Jennings, a preacher’s son who has never forgotten Ruby, has to choose between honouring the big sister who raised him or the girl he’s loved since he was a boy. It’s a beautiful, hard-hitting, unusual tale of a book and one that stays with you long after the last page.
The Baileys Prize has been running since 1996 (when it was the Orange Prize for Fiction). Last autumn Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun was awarded the ‘Best of the Best’ title for the prize’s second decade, joining Andrea Levy’s Small Island which won for the first. Come Wednesday night we’ll find out which of the 2016 shortlist triumphs and enters the running for the next ‘best of’ title.
The 2016 Baileys Prize Shortlist
Cynthia Bond, Ruby
Anne Enright, The Green Road
Lisa McInerney, The Glorious Heresies
Elizabeth McKenzie, The Portable Veblen
Hannah Rothschild, The Improbability of Love
Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life
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Anne is a QI Elf. She has two Blue Peter badges, reached the semi-finals of Only Connect and really likes puffins. @miller_anne