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Granta’s Best Young British Novelists – an update

Ian McEwan's first book. Did it show promise?

Ian McEwan’s first book. Did it show promise?

I have now read at least one book by all twenty of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists so I feel I should now make a few comments. A couple of caveats. Firstly, with four exceptions, I have only read one work by each of them. Many of them have only written one novel but some have written more. Is it fair to judge them on such a limited output? Probably not but I am going to do so anyway. The second caveat is very obvious. Many novelists do not shine with their first or earlier books. Indeed, some novelists make a determined effort to reject their earlier work. Some novelists, of course, produce brilliant early work and then fade away. However, while some of these may turn out to be brilliant later in their careers, I can only judge them on what I have read.

Kamila Shamsie - not British

Kamila Shamsie – not British

First let’s start with the problems. Granta has always tried to be inclusive and that is as it should be. If you have British nationality, even if you might have been born and bred elsewhere, have another nationality and essentially write about elsewhere, you can qualify. The first list included an Indian (Salman Rushdie), a Nigerian (Buchi Emecheta) and a Trinidadian (Shiva Naipaul). Given that the list says British novelists, I do have something of a problem with that. Yes, Rushdie and Emecheta lived a long time in the UK and Naipaul some time but they were were writing about their culture which was not British. This current list has an American (Benjamin Markovits), a Bangladeshi who studied in the US (Tahmima Anam), a Chinese woman whose forthcoming novel is called I am China (Xiaolu Guo), a Pakistani (Kamila Shamsie) and an Afropolitan (Taiye Selasi) – it’s her term; she has a Ghanaian father, Nigerian mother and was educated and lives in the US, though she was born in London which is presumably why she qualifies. I do not consider these people British and they should not be on the list. I have no problem at all with Nadifa Mohamed, born in Somalia but has lived in the UK since she was five, David Szalay, born in Montreal but moved to the UK when he was one and Evie Wyld, who grew up in New South Wales. And, of course, British literature has been very much enriched by writers with immigrant backgrounds such as Zadie Smith (also on this list) and Hanif Kureishi.

An autobiographical novel

An autobiographical novel

The character Benjamin Markovits in the real Benjamin MarkovitsChildish Loves says The kind of book I like to read, the kind of book I have been trying to write, is a straightforward but textured account of a mildly interesting experience. I think that he is saying that he likes (semi-)autobiographical works of fiction rather than fully imagined ones. The (semi-)autobiographical novel has long been a staple of fiction and there are many fine examples. We are seeing it currently in autofiction, a technique used by many contemporary French writers but there are many other examples. I have to admit that I prefer fully imagined fiction. However, the point to make here is that once you have written your (semi-)autobiographical fiction, where do you go afterwards? You could do like Karl Ove Knausgård and keep on producing more. I must admit that I was not terribly excited by his first one (though many people were) and I have yet to read his second one (though I will) and his third one will appear later this year. But Karl Ove Knausgård was in his forties when he started. These twenty writers are, by definition, all under forty. Do they have enough to sustain more autobiography? Of course, many writers of imagined fiction incorporate autobiographical elements in their work but that is not the same thing.

Showed potential

Showed potential

I enjoyed eighteen of these writers. I did not really enjoy Mr. Fox and The Raw Shark Texts. Both were too contrived and tried to be too clever for my taste. However, by the same token, with the possible exception of Sarah Hall and Zadie Smith, I did not think that I was really going to look forward too much to the future writing of these novelists. Of course, some of them will prove me wrong and produce future works of high quality that I and others will really enjoy. Of the twenty writers, I have only high regard for four of them. As well as Sarah Hall and Zadie Smith, I did like Naomi Alderman‘s The Lessons and thought it showed considerable potential. I felt the same about Taiye Selasi‘s Ghana Must Go, though given its very autobiographical nature, I wonder where she will go with her next work. Zadie Smith needs no introduction. She is one of the finest contemporary British novelists. Yes, I am aware that all four are women and,no, this was not a conscious decision to select women writers, though given that twelve of the twenty were women, maybe this is showing that women are going to take over, particularly when we think of the Man Booker and German Book Prize and Nobel Prize winners. I shall keep a close eye on Alderman and Selasi and will continue to read Hall and Smith.

Kamila Shamsie: Burnt Shadows


The latest addition to my website is Kamila Shamsie‘s Burnt Shadows. This is a story about allegiances (and lack thereof) and identity. All of the main characters struggle with who they are. The main character is Hiroko, a Japanese woman whose father is deemed to be a traitor, who is engaged to a German and who is in Nagasaki when the atom bomb is dropped. She ends up marrying a Pakistani and living in Karachi. Her husband is born an Indian and lives in and loves Delhi but has to become a Pakistani. Their son speaks many languages and seems more sympathetic to the Afghans than to any other nationality. Their friends in India are British (him) and German (her) whose son considers himself Indian, hates England and works for the CIA. Shamsie moves through key historical events – the atom bomb on Nagasaki, the independence and partition of India, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and 9/11 as a background – and her characters move round the world, unsure of where exactly they belong. This is both the strength and weakness of the his novel as her point is a key one for the present day but, at the same time, the novel tends at time to lose focus. Shamsie was one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.

Helen Oyeyemi: Mr Fox


The latest addition to my website is Helen Oyeyemi‘s Mr Fox. This is a modern updating on the Bluebeard legend. St John Fox is a 1930s US writer whose novels features unpleasant things done to women. Mary Foxe, who is entirely a figment of his imagination, berates him for his treatment of the women. Oyeyemi, using Yoruba myths and inventive storytelling, including fairy tales, as Fox and Foxe slug it out, gives us a fascinating but contrived account of their relationship. When Fox’s real-life wife, Daphne, gets involved and jealous of Mary, things get more heated. While the book is very inventive, witty and has a very valid message, it did not quite work for me. Oyeyemi was one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.

Benjamin Markovits: Childish Loves


The latest addition to my website is Benjamin MarkovitsChildish Loves, his third novel about Lord Byron. Unlike his previous two, this one mixes in (semi-)autobiographical details with Byron’s story, as we follow the story of an author/teacher called Benjamin Markovits, who receives the manuscripts of two novels about Byron, written by a former friend who had killed himself, which happen to have the same titles as the ones written by the real Benjamin Markovits. The fictional Markovits then decides to study Peter Sullivan, the dead author, to find out what you can learn about people from the books they write – how much is true. Sullivan had been forced to leave his previous school for an alleged homosexual encounter with a student (the charge was subsequently withdrawn) and Markovits the character is eager to see how this affected his views of and writing on Byron. The book is interesting for its study of the nature of truth, how we find it and how we recognise it but its prurient study of the lives of Byron and Sullivan tend to get somewhat boring. Benjamin Markovits was selected as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.

Steven Hall: The Raw Shark Texts


The latest addition to my website is Steven Hall‘s The Raw Shark Texts. I found it a rather contrived novel that did not really work for me. It tells the story of a young Englishman, Eric Sanderson, who has had something of a breakdown – eleven times – since the accidental death in Greece of his girlfriend. The latest incarnation of Eric Sanderson has the task of trying to ward off conceptual sharks which, while conceptual, can also bite and kill, while trying to track down a mysterious guru, with the aid of the Un-Space Exploration Committee. Of course, a girl joins him to help him, in good sub-Murakami style and together they save the world from Mycroft Ward, who is trying to take over everybody’s consciousness. I may have enjoyed this when I was young and carefree but, frankly, it now seems a little silly and proof and that no-one can wrote Murakami like Murakami. Steven Hall was selected as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.

Adam Foulds: The Quickening Maze


The latest addition to my website is Adam FouldsThe Quickening Maze. This a story about the poet John Clare and, to a much lesser degree, the poet Alfred Tennyson. Clare spent much of his adult life in asylums. This one tells of his time in an asylum in Essex, managed by Matthew Allen. Also an inmate in the asylum was Septimus Tennyson, brother of the poet (though Septimus had also written poetry). Alfred takes a house nearby to keep an eye on his brother. Clare is slowly sinking into madness, looking out for Mary, a young woman he had loved many years ago before his marriage who, unbeknown to him, is now dead. But he also loves to wander around the countryside and it is his love of nature that Foulds brings to the fore. The asylum is run on more or less liberal lines (for the period) but there is still brutality and cruelty, particularly when Dr Allen neglects his asylum for his new wood carving machine. Foulds was one of the Granta’s Best Young British Novelists and this is his second novel.

Ross Raisin: God’s Own Country (US: Out Backward)


The latest addition to my website is Ross Raisin‘s God’s Own Country (US: Out Backward). It is a story told by Sam Marsdyke, a solitary eighteen-year old who lives on a farm on the North Yorkshire Moors, with his parents, a grumpy father and an unhappy mother. Sam is a (probably) unreliable narrator. He was asked to leave school aged fifteen, allegedly for attempting to rape a fellow student. His story is that there was mutual consent. However, we know that he has a streak of wilful violence in him. The area is becoming gentrified and Sam falls for one of the new arrivals from London, a fifteen-year old girl called Josephine Reeves. They gradually become closer and, when she has had enough of her parents and wants to run away, it is to Sam that she turns, not least because of Sam’s detailed knowledge of his beloved moors. Raisin tells a good story, even though things do not really get going till they run away. Raisin is one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.

Joanna Kavenna: The Birth of Love


The latest addition to my website is Joanna Kavenna‘s . This is a novel about childbirth. There are four separate but linked stories about childbirth. The first is set in 1865 and is about Ignaz Semmelweis who discovered the link between infection and the death of women in childbirth. He went mad and, in this story, we follow his last days, as a man called Robert von Lucius interviews him in a mental asylum. The second and third stories are set in the present day. In the first we follow a forty-one year old woman who is pregnant with her second child. The baby is two weeks overdue. We follow what happens between the contractions starting and the birth. We also follow the story of a fifty-three year old novelist who has written a novel (his first one published) on Semmelweis. The final story is set in 2153 when all births have to be in vitro rather than in utero but one woman has managed to get pregnant the old-fashioned way and a group of people try to save her and her baby. They have been caught and we follow their interrogations. It is an interesting idea but, apart from the Semmelweis story, it all seems somewhat conventional. As the novelist’s agent (a woman) says, men are not interested in novels on childbirth. I do not think that that is so in my case but this one did not quite work for me. Kavenna is one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.

Nadifa Mohamed: Black Mamba Boy


The latest addition to my website is Nadifa Mohamed‘s Black Mamba Boy. Mohamed is one of the Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, though she is Somali and this novel is very much a Somali novel. It tells the story of her grandfather, Jama Mohamed, and his difficult but adventurous life growing up in the 1930s and 1940s. Unable to find work, his father leaves what was then British Somaliland and goes to Sudan. When he does not return for a while, his mother takes him to Aden where she works long hours in a coffee factory and he roams the streets. He returns to Hargeisa but is not happy there and, one day, he leaves his relatives and sets out for Sudan to find his father, despite not knowing where Sudan is or how far and where exactly his father is. He has a difficult journey but is often aided by other Somalis who seems to be scattered all over East Africa. Things do not go well for him and he gets caught up in the Italian-British battles in World War II and is nearly killed. After the war, he seems to be doing well but things fall apart again and he is again off on his travels, heading to Palestine, Egypt and even England. He leads a very adventurous life and Mohamed tells her tale well of all his adventures and the political background to what is happening at that time.

Xiaolu Guo: 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth


The latest addition to my website is Xiaolu Guo‘s 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth. Though nominally written in English, it was in fact her first novel published in Chinese. However, when it was translated into English, she decided to rewrite the English so it is a sort of newish novel. It tells the story of a young woman called Fenfang Wang, clearly based on Xiaolu Guo herself, who suddenly, aged seventeen, leaves her home village, leaving only a note for her parents, and sets off for Beijing. Her first four years in Beijing are difficult. She does a series of menial jobs and has very poor accommodation. However, after four years, she gets a job in a cinema, tidying up, and that introduces her to the wonders of film. When she finds an umbrella left behind by an assistant director, he recommends that she apply to become a film extra. Initially, she does not get much work but gradually gets more. She meets an assistant to a producer and has an affair but that does not work out but gradually gets more roles and starts screenplay writing. Xiaolu Guo tells a gentle tale of a young woman facing the world in the maelstrom of Beijing and how she copes. There are no fireworks but it is an enjoyable story.

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