Last night was a wonderful evening spent catching up with an old uni friend and listening to the amazingly talented authors that have been shortlisted for this years Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. It truly is a great experience to hear authors read their own work and to hear them talk and answer questions regarding their books.
The event opened with a speech from Kate Mosse, author and co-founder of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (originally the Orange Prize). She stated that these shortlist readings always sell out before the shortlist is actually announced, which is a great indicator of the support and success these prizes receive. Despite the debates around whether or not we still need a women-only award, the Baileys Prize continues to thrive and give the recognition such talented authors deserve.
Although the shortlist readings were just over an hour long (not long enough for me!) the chair judge of this years prize, Helen Fraser carried the readings and Q&A along seamlessly. First up was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a previous winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, reading an extract from the beginning of Americanah. When asked by Helen Fraser if the experiences Ifemelu encounters in America were drawn from personal experiences, Adichie responded by saying that most of the stories are real, though not necessarily ones she has experienced first-hand. As a Nigerian who moved to America, the instances of acute homesickness that Ifemelu feels in the novel are drawn from Adichie’s own feeling of homesickness when she left Lagos. Also, when she returned to Lagos, as Ifemelu does towards the end of Americanah, she had that same sense of mourning for the Lagos she used to know, as described in the book.
Hannah Kent then read from her debut novel, Burial Rites – a dark and haunting extract from Agnes Magnúsdóttir’s point of view. She was asked what her inspiration was behind setting her first novel in Iceland, being a native Australian herself. Kent described her experience of living in the Icelandic countryside when she was seventeen for a year, and how she regularly passed a curious site of historical significance. By asking around she found out that this was the site of the last execution in Iceland, where a woman was beheaded for her involvement in the murder of two men. However, when she pushed people for more details, such as the motives behind this woman’s actions, she found that no one could give her an answer other than how unequivocally evil Agnes was. Kent was inspired to find out more about the human behind the monster Agnes had been turned into through history. Though she warns that it is very hard to draw the line between fact and fiction in Burial Rites.
An extract from The Lowland was read next by Jhumpa Lahiri. She chose the part where Gauri engineers different ways to leave the young Bella on her own whilst she carries out short errands and is inevitably caught by Subhash when he returns home early one day. This extract led on nicely to the question Helen Fraser chose to ask her, about who, of the three characters, Lahiri feels for the most. Lahiri responded by saying that she deliberately created characters who were not entirely innocent. Even Bella, as she gets older, is culpable for some of her actions. Though, undoubtedly, she feels for all of the characters in her book (as do I!).
From The Lowland we then moved on to Audrey Magee’s debut The Undertaking. Reading the extract where the Spinell’s move into a new house that has been forcibly taken from a Jewish family, Magee highlights the ‘shrouded silence’ of this era in German history. As I hardly knew anything about the motives behind her choice of time and setting I was glad that this was the question posed to her by Helen Fraser. Magee described a trip she made to a German concentration camp as the inspiration for this first novel.
Next up was Eimer McBride with her amazing debut, A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing. I couldn’t wait to hear her read from it – to hear the flow and rhythm her prose evokes when heard aloud – it was almost poetic. As time was quickly coming to an end, Helen Fraser asked her only one question: How far can the Catholic church be responsible for the ‘girl’ of the title’s behaviour? McBride responds that the church is very responsible as the ‘girl’ has no way of expressing what is happening to her outside of this moral framework that forms her society.
Last but not least was an extract from Donna Tartt’s mighty novel, The Goldfinch, read by the incredible actor Charles Dance (aka Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones!). Dance was such a magnificent reader, you could definitely tell he was an actor – he gave a great performance, joking about how he had never felt so inconspicuous before. When it came to the quick Q&A Donna Tartt’s UK literary agent took over. Helen Fraser asked her if The Goldfinch was Tartt’s big Dickensian novel. Gill agreed and said that Tartt has always been an admirer of Charles Dickens, having claimed to read Oliver Twist when she was only nine years old.
Overall, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist readings at the Southbank Centre was such an inspirational evening and has really made me excited for the announcement of the winner this evening! After reading all of the shortlisted authors, the judges have such a difficult job of choosing the overall winner. If I were to pick my top favourites, I would have to go for Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch!
You can watch clips of the readings here: