The British Book Awards: Debut Book Of The Year Nominees

One of the things I love about my life is how flexible it is. I spent most of last weekend on the phone to various doctors because my body’s being a pain again. They said they’ll need to do a load more tests (cue more hospital time) and told me to take it easy, to spend lots of time resting for the next few weeks and to go to bed early. So I emailed the lovely people at FMCM and said I had a bit of extra reading time on my hands… and they sent me the nominees for the British Book Awards!

These are all up for Debut Book Of The Year. I’m going to write mini reviews of each of them, and talk about which one I’d like to see win. 

The nominees, in the order in which I read them, are:

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Why Mummy Drinks by Gill Sims
Sirens by Joseph Knox
Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

And wow, there were some gems in here. By ‘some’ I mean ‘two’. But in order to build supense, I won’t tell you which two right away… mwhahahahhaa

Imma do this in reverse order, cuz I hear that’s how it’s done.

So, beginning with the one I liked the least, and working up to the one I loved most, the nominees for the British Book Awards were…

Sirens by Joseph Knox

The Debut Of The Year nominees fell into three categories for me: (1) oh wow, this is excellent, perhaps it should win; (2) I can see why this was nominated but it just doesn’t really do it for me; (3) why the hell has this been included in the nominations? Sirens sits firmly in the latter category.

Detective Aidan Waits is a mess. Framed for stealing evidence when he was actually trying to right a wrong, he sets out on a path of alcoholism and drug abuse that can’t lead anywhere good. His boss, knowing that at base he’s not a bad cop, gives him an undercover assignment: Waits must investigate a local drug dealer and find out about the disappearance of a woman who went missing several years ago. Muddying the waters is the involvement of a local politician’s daughter, who has been swept along in the glamour of the drug-fuelled parties and ended up embedded in the criminal’s network. Soon things get messier than Waits can deal with, and it’s not obvious whether he’s going to get out alive.

There was nothing wrong with this book, exactly. It didn’t thrill me to the core, but I didn’t resent reading it. It just felt like one of those books I buy from Tesco in a 2-for-£7 deal when I want to read something brainless and ultimately not that interesting. It even had the classic “Here’s a chapter preview of the author’s next book” at the end, which seems to be the case with all my supermarket finds.

Why it was recommended for Debut Of The Year, though, I have no idea. It’s not awful, but it’s not especially good either, and there’s nothing that sets it apart from any other run-of-the-mill thriller I’ve read.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

The only Debut nominee I’d already read, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine wasn’t a bad book, and I can see why it’s been nominated. As debuts go, it’s pretty good, but I personally didn’t like it because I felt like it was trying too hard. You can find my full review here.

Why Mummy Drinks by Gill Sims

Refreshingly, this book is exactly what you’d expect it to be. It’s funny, irreverent, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are also some fairly relatable sentences in it:

The book begins with resolutions. The kind we all make from time to time, you know the drill: I will get up and get dressed and have a nice house and my children will look clean and tidy and they’ll be good at their schoolwork and I’ll be good at keeping the house clean and my husband and I will have a warm relationship in which we share our feelings and my friendships will be positive and nothing will go wrong and also I’ll become effortlessly thin because I’ll have learned to enjoy green smoothies. That sort of thing.

It then sets out what actually happens, aka life. Everything’s a mess, most stuff gets done anyway, relationships are confusing and twirly.

Frustrated with the way her life is going, and tired of constantly comparing herself to the Supermums at school, our protagonist creates an app called Why Mummy Drinks. In doing so, she discovers that she’s not the only one who feels inadequate and like she’s dragging several steps behind: she’s just the only one who’s brave enough to admit it.

Why Mummy Drinks made me laugh out loud in my living room a couple of times, which is always nice. It’s a light, pleasant read and I can see Sims becoming a popular author of lightly amusing fiction. I wouldn’t put it in the top spot, but it’s certainly fun to read.

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

Frances is one half of a spoken word duo. The other half is her ex-girlfriend Bobbi, with whom she maintains a close friendship. One day Melissa, a journalist and photographer, asks to write a profile on them. They agree, and Melissa invites them over to her house to get to know them and capture some photos.

While there, they meet Melissa’s husband Nick, an impossibly gorgeous actor. At first he seems cold, but as the four of them become friends, Frances and Nick discover shared interests and a similar outlook on life. What begins as a casual, sarcastic flirtation rapidly unfolds into something more serious – something that could threaten Nick’s marriage and Frances’ friendship with Bobbi. When the poets are invited on holiday to France with Nick and Melissa, the time they spend there marks a turning point in everyone’s lives: nothing will be quite the same again.

Conversations With Friends was the kind of book I was expecting to be nominated for Debut Of The Year. For a debut, it’s really good: the characters are well-formed, the storyline is interesting, and the writing style is sufficiently gripping to make you want to keep reading. Bonus points if you have some kind of chronic illness and you’ve been ignoring it because no one would believe you anyway, and besides you don’t want to be a ‘sick person’.

(If that quote spoke to you, read this book too.)

If I were a judge at the British Book Awards, Conversations With Friends would come in third. It’s a really good novel, and I greatly enjoyed reading it, but I don’t think I’ll remember much about it in a year’s time. The two novels competing for top spot in my imaginary ceremony, however, should be in a category all of their own.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Holy fucking shit, this book.

It was the second-to-last book I read from the BBA pile, and I was like, well this is it. Nothing else comes close to this one.

I kept stopping at various different points and wondering at Gyasi’s ability to fit so much history, so many stories, into such a slim volume. Admittedly the print is quite small. But still.

The story begins with two sisters, Effia and Esi, who grow up not knowing about each other and living very different lives. When they come of age, one of them is sold into slavery, while the other marries a slave trader. Their story starts in the 1700s, and runs down throughout the centuries to the present day. We see both lines of their family: how their lives turned out, what they did with the opportunities they had. The way Gyasi manages to do this, whilst still maintaining a coherent storyline and not losing track of any of the threads all the way through, is absolutely incomparable. I feel like this should be up for book of the year, not just debut. Speaking of which, how the hell is this a debut?! If Gyasi’s writing like this in her first novel, I cannot wait to see what she’ll bring out in the future.

This book has everything: intricate storylines, brilliant characters, historical accuracy, social commentary. Reading it just after I’d read Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge was one of the best literary decisions I’ve ever made.

The British were no longer selling slaves to America, but slavery had not ended, and his father did not seem to think that it would end. They would just trade one type of shackles for another, trade physical ones that wrapped around wrists and ankles for the invisible ones that wrapped around the mind.

We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth?

Gyasi also creates the kind of literary echoes that you only find in the best books. On page 80, for example, discussing one person’s fate and how he’s dealing with it:

She has spent the night hidden in the left corner of the room, watching this man she’s been told is her husband become the animal he’s been told that he is.

And then later, on page 174, demonstrating that the husband on page 80 had a choice, and that whatever other people decide about you, you are ultimately responsible for who you are:

H wanted to throw the man down, down to meet the city underneath the earth, but he stopped himself. He was not this con they had told him he was.

When I read that sentence I got chills. Actual chills, on my actual arms. I’d written down the quote from p.80 because it spoke to me: people do tell us things about ourselves, and in some ways the easiest thing to do is just to go along with them. But we do have a choice, even in the darkest of circumstances. So when I read the bit above on page 174, I was like, holy shit. Not only does Gyasi 100% get this too, she’s also deliberately underlining the point by contrasting these two guys, who have very little in common except that they’re in situations where the one bit of control they have is over the people they’re going to become.

Homegoing is an absolutely excellent book which I think (I hope) we will all still be discussing in fifty years. I could not possibly like the final book on the pile more than this, I thought. And then I read…

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

And, well, wow.

Do you ever feel like you’re not reading a book, but having a conversation with it? Like it’s speaking to some part of you that rarely gets heard, let alone listened to, and you’re conversing about subjects other people just don’t understand?

That’s this book for me.

Turtle Alveston lives in the woods with her father. He’s a weirdo. He believes the apocalypse is coming and he’s planning for that, although in the meantime he does let her go to school. He doesn’t really want her to make friends, though: the only friend Turtle should have is Daddy. Yes, he is that creepy.

Does Turtle want to escape? Kinda, but it’s the only life she’s ever known. She loves her father, abuse and crazy beliefs aside, and she’s suspicious of the outside world. She’s especially suspicious of women, because she sees them as weak and conniving.

Turtle stares at Caroline, thinking, I have never known a woman I liked, and I will grow up to be nothing like you or Anna; I will grow up to be forthright and hard and dangerous, not a subtle, smiling, trick-playing cunt like you.

There are scenes in this book that demonstrate some of the worst things individual humans can do to each other: in particular, some of the worst things an adult can do to a child. And that was one of the reasons I loved it as much as I did. Tallent doesn’t shy away from showing the atrocities that can be happening all around us – not the obvious ones we see on the news every day, but the ones we might not even know are happening.

Turtle is, in the strictest sense of the word, a victim. She’s grown up with an abusive father, she’s had some terrible things happen to her, and she’s trapped in this awful life with no obvious way out. She also doesn’t have a lot of opportunities for change: she doesn’t do well at school, and her family has no money.

She’s ballsy as hell, though. And she has the quiet kind of intelligence you need when you’re plotting your escape from an abusive, smothering home life.

And then she thinks, you’re forgetting what your life is, Turtle, and you can’t forget that and you have to stay close to what is real, because if you ever get out of this it will be because you paid attention and moved carefully and did everything well.

The book shivers with tension all the way through. Turtle tiptoes around, gun in hand, ready to blow everything to pieces but knowing she has to find the right moment to do it. She knows how to survive by living inside herself.

There is something in her as hard as the cobbles in the surf and she thinks, there is a part of me that you will never, ever get at.

But there comes a point when it’s not just about herself anymore: when there’s someone else’s life at stake, someone much more helpless than Turtle. And she has one of those pivotal moments when you have to make a decision about the kind of person you’re going to be (much like the men in Gyasi’s book above).

Then she thinks, but if I go back up the stairs, there will be a whole tract of myself I will have to keep half lit by remembering, and I will never come to peace with it, but if I go in there now and I do just the best that I can, that is a story I can tell myself, however it ends.

Turtle chooses well. Of course she does, she’s our heroine. And all hell breaks loose when she does. She nearly dies in the process, and so do some other people. But ultimately we have a happy-ish ending.

I say happy-ish, because Gabriel Tallent understands that leaving a life of pure hellish darkness, of abuse so profound and far-reaching that it twists your insides both physically and metaphysically, can be harder than going through it in the first place. Not only do you have to adjust to this whole new way of living, and learn to behave like a Normal Person, aka not walking around ready to cut the first person who steps across your path, you also have to deal with becoming someone you’re probably profoundly uncomfortable being.

In Turtle’s case, we see some of the bitterness she felt towards women at the start reflected back as she looks at herself in her new, ostensibly more comfortable, life.

She hates herself, hates the whiny, ineffective person she has become, hates how wounded she is, deeply and terribly wounded, and how long that road home is going to be.

So of all the books I read for the British Book Awards, My Absolute Darling is my favourite, because it has to be. Because I am Turtle.

However, I think the ultimate accolade must go to Yaa Gyasi’s genius work of literature, because whilst I’m pretty sure I’ll still have My Absolute Darling on my bookshelf in fifty years, I think Gyasi’s novel is one that will – or at least should – be read in schools and distributed in libraries and discussed at length by everybody.

So, if I were judging the Debut Of The Year? The winners would go like this:

In third place, Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney, for being a really good novel and walking the line between funny and serious.

In second place, though it pains me to put it there since I love it so much, My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent, for being a book that doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life.

In first place, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, for being just stunning and somehow managing to span 500 years in 300 pages, and teaching us important lessons along the way.

Have you read any of these? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

I received free copies of these books from the British Book Awards promotion team in exchange for a review. In reality it’s difficult to tell if this affected my view of them, because arguably we’re all affected by every experience we have, but suffice it to say I’ve trashed review copies I haven’t liked in the past, so I doubt it makes enough of a difference to skew my viewpoint on it. 


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