Sunday 30 December 2018

Reviewing the Costa Novel Shortlist*

This post is a paid collaboration with Costa. All words, images and opinions are entirely my own.

This month I've been working with the Costa Book Awards to review the Novel shortlist ahead of the category winners announcement on the 7th January. I've spent the month reading the four shortlisted novels: The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, Normal People by Sally Rooney and From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan. I'm here today to give you my reviews and share my own prediction for the category winner.

The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman
A slow-building character-driven novel with a pacy plot towards the end, The Italian Teacher begins in Rome, 1955, at a party to celebrate Bear Bavinsky. Bear is an artist with a magnetic, larger-than-life personality who seduces everyone he meets. His tendency to burn any work he is not entirely happy with creates an air of mystique and grandeur around the surviving works - making him a cult figure in the art world. But this isn't Bear's story, it's his son's - Charles 'Pinch' Bavinsky. As we read from Pinch's perspective, we begin to see Bear as an egotistical nightmare of man, who doles out rare and limited affection to his many scattered children, which they crave like a drug. The Italian Teacher explores all kinds of toxic relationships, between father and son, man and woman, artist and art.

I really enjoyed Rachman's exploration of the art world. I don't read a lot of books about art and it's something I used to really love. I know a bit about famous twentieth century artists so the references peppered throughout were quite fun for me and it was really interesting to learn a bit about how the art world works. Rachman's reflections on the importance of status and character in the art world were really thought-provoking and I found the consideration of how we leave a mark on the world and others' lives really quite moving.

The main character, Pinch, is kind of unlikeable but that isn't a downfall for me. I don't mind feeling frustrated with a character or questioning their decisions as long as I can still empathise or connect in some way. I found myself growing fond of Pinch, despite his huge flaws, because I could see myself in parts of him. The Italian Teacher is a portrait of vulnerability, loneliness and compromise who makes the reader consider what makes a life well lived.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of the Trojan War from the women's perspective. It is historical fiction in a time that we see as so far removed from our own yet the fear and horror running through it unfortunately has such relevance today. The Silence of the Girls is brutal, it is about as far away from the romanticisation of Trojan war retellings as you can get. The women are slaves, prizes for the man who slaughtered their families. Their treatment is appalling and the book doesn't allow the reader to forget this. We read from the perspective of Briseis, whose city was sacked and family murdered by Achilles and the Myrmidons, who is then taken as slave and Achilles 'prize'.

I was a little surprised that Achilles had quite so many of his own chapters in a story that is conceptualised as being focused on the women. Achilles was presented as a complex character and humanised to an extent but his brutality and complicity in the enslavement of women was never shied away from. I did appreciate that Achilles was a fleshed out character with emotions rather than just being a one dimensional villain, this human aspect of him made his brutal actions more despicable. I also appreciated that Achilles' POV was told in third person to Briseis' first person. However, I do wish there was more of Briseis, what we got of her was so raw but her story felt a bit undeveloped. In a book focused on the women it is a little strange to feel like Achilles is the more developed character - but perhaps that's the point.

Normal People by Sally Rooney
Probably the most hyped book on the shortlist, Normal People is quite a stunning read. Sally Rooney's prose is stark, even harsh, in places, yet even as someone who loves lush description, I fell for this book. It's a love story without being a romance and is moving and frustrating in equal parts. It's about how the unsaid things can twist a relationship and the people within it. Rather than hook us in to root for the couple or entertain us with their romance, Normal People presents the raw truth of the youthful experience of a relationship, complete with awkwardness, awe, pain and external pressures. The emotions within are so accurately depicted; it's almost shocking.

An issue I had that I've not heard many speak about is that it felt like modern historical fiction rather than a current portrayal of youth. I think because the characters attended university between 2011 and 2014, the exact years I did, I was subconsciously comparing and their vastly different experience threw me off. This is most likely a fault with me rather than the book but I felt it had quite strong 80s/90s/early 2000s vibes rather than current day eg. they wrote each other lengthy emails, which wasn't really something we did in 2012. It's nitpicky, but it did throw me out of the story a little too often and therefore affected my feelings about the book.

Overall, Normal People is a compelling, emotionally jarring read that cuts to the core of human relationships.

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan
This was my first time reading Donal Ryan's writing and I was absolutely blown away by it. The expression of emotion in his writing is beautiful and almost lyrical but feels raw and cuts deep. There were times when I was reading this that is almost painful and so real. From A Low and Quiet Sea is told from the perspective of three very different men whose stories crash together at the end in unexpected ways. Donal Ryan's command of structure and interweaving detail is excellent and so much is conveyed in less than 200 pages. Like the others on the shortlist, this is very much a character-driven novel, which I usually prefer anyway. Donal Ryan does weave story and plots together in such interesting ways but the stars of the show are the complex and vivid characters whose inner lives we come to know through exquisitely constructed sentences. From a Low and Quiet Sea reflects on empathy, familial strain and how the past echoes through the present. It was a real joy, and an ache, to read.


So there we have it, my thoughts on all four books in the Novel category. Honestly, I think they are all fantastic in their own right so it's quite difficult to choose a winner. I have a feeling that Normal People may win because it's just been so hyped, but my personal winner is From a Low and Quiet Sea, it moved me the most and it's definitely made me want to pick up more of Donal Ryan's work.

The winners of each of the five categories: First Novel, Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children's, will be announced this coming Monday 7th January and the overall winner will be announced at the awards on Tuesday 29th January.


*This post is part of a series of posts that are sponsored by Costa. All words and images are entirely my own and 100% honest.

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