2020 Shortlist Reviews
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous - Ocean Vuong
Review by Danielle Bowen
Little Dog is penning a letter to his illiterate mother. Maybe she will never read his words but the catharsis of allowing them to flow upon the page, and the past pain to reveal itself, holds an unstoppable allure.
The only sensation to accurately describe this book is that it reads like pressing on a bruise. That sensation lingered throughout. There were pain and misery prevalent in every scene. The hurt sometimes passed by indirectly but it was always there, lingering directly below the skin, and brought back to the surface, and in fresh waves of hurt, with every repeated press upon the wound.
The emotions were felt so strongly throughout as it was impossible to view this as a work of fiction. The characters felt too real and their experiences too raw to be nothing but art. But this is not a memoir. Just a vividly recounted story of one boy’s youth and the innocence he quickly lost throughout it.
Review by Bronte Reynolds
Gorgeous, Not Brief: Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
This is not an easy read. Ocean Vuong’s book demands attention, creating a new experience by slowing the reader down. Each sentence reads like a line of poetry. It’s the kind of text that should be studied, each paragraph providing enough scope for an essay of analysis. The narrative is told by Little Dog, a Vietnamese-American boy being raised by his Vietnamese mother in poverty, as a letter to his mother.
It is told in memories, snippets and moments, delivering strong and shocking images. It delivers commentary on multilingualism and how it links to identity– emphasised by Vuong’s literary creativity. The style of writing, while beautiful, will not be for everyone. The prose is lyrical, dense and hard going.
The content is traumatic: themes of child abuse, war tragedies, prostitution, suicide, drug abuse, racism, homophobia, you name it. The Vietnam War & aftermath is featured heavily, and there are many scenes which feature the horrors that it entailed. He discusses masculinity and LGBT+ themes with gentle skill. This is probably the most quotable book I will ever read; I didn’t go one page without highlighting at least a phrase. It is stunning and I haven’t read anything like it before.
If All the World and Love Were Young - Stephen Sexton
Review by Rebecca Foster
If All the World and Love Were Young, Belfast poet Stephen Sexton’s first collection is a highly original hybrid of video game imagery and a narrative about the final illness of his mother, who died in 2012. As a child Sexton was obsessed with Super Mario World. He overlays the game’s landscapes onto his life to create a hallucinogenic fairy tale. Into this virtual world, which blends idyll and threat, comes the news of his mother’s cancer:
One summer’s day I’m summoned home to hear of cells which split and glitch
so haphazardly someone is called to intervene with poisons
drawn from strange and peregrine trees flourishing in distant kingdoms.
Her doctors are likened to wizards attempting magic – until they acknowledge the limitations of medicine. Super Mario settings provide the headings: Yoshi’s Island, Donut Plains, Forest of Illusion, Chocolate Island and so on. There are also references to bridges, Venetian canals, mines and labyrinths as if to give illness the gravity of a mythological hero’s journey. While readers will identify more intensely with the poems if they are familiar with Super Mario World and/or are gamers themselves, it is a striking book that examines bereavement in a new way.
Review by Danielle Bowen
This poetry collection piece together a memoir of Stephen Sexton's younger years, structured around his obsession with Super Mario World. I had anticipated this to be a fun anthology, due to the brightly coloured cover and the gaming elements the synopsis hinted at. It was far from that and all the more poignant because of it.
Through the lens of the games that consumed him, Stephen details his mother's cancer and his inability to fully understand what ails her. When saving princesses is so obtainable in one world, saving one's own mother is so out of reach in another. It is the juxtaposition between the two that these poems return to, again and again, creating a sorrowful and heart-felt anthology full of raw emotion. The cultural references were the springboard for far more hard-hitting topics and I deeply appreciated the honesty and beauty each poem conveyed.
Review by Bronte Reynolds
Sexton’s Super Sad World: If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton
Stephen Sexton’s pixel-infused poetry collection’s title, If All the World and Love Were Young, comes from the pastoral poem ‘The Shepherd’ by Walter Raleigh, evoking nostalgia for A-Level English classes. The vivid blue cover with hints to videogames promises the reader a light-hearted and entertaining anthology, but that very fact makes its contents seem even more heart-breaking. Sexton recalls his younger memories of his mother’s cancer treatment through the reflective lens of Super
Mario World. Each section is inspired by a level of the videogame, offering a journey that develops slowly to reveal the poet’s pain. Sexton expands the defining features of the nineties by making references to pop-culture, global warming, escapism and generational identity. Underneath the layers of chocolate, mushrooms and rainbow roads lie the deeply emotional realities of grief that juxtaposes dramatically against Super Mario. The collection works best as a whole as some poems seem purpose-made to work towards the bigger picture. The ‘credits’ that Sexton provides at the end provides a fast-paced, chronological, emotive look at the downward spiral of his tragic experience which restores the energy lost in the staler moments. Sexton combines traditional lyrical poetry with pop-culture in an exciting step for the future of poetry.
Surge - Jay Bernard
Review by Daniel Hinds
I Haunt You Back (A Prose Poem Book Review of Surge by Jay Bernard)
Clad in two tragedies / the red tongues squirm / to unobscure the voices crossed out at New Cross / to catch and green and dress / the words fallen / from Grenfell heights. / Bernard has sifted through the soot and looted the guilty words / etched in black burn marks – Mark! / The poet comes not with the first responders / feet walk slowly with the burden / of rhyme and trepidation and care / not to disturb the crisp bodies / like Orpheus on a day trip to Pompeii / here to make the stone souls speak. / – Hear! / A new poet has erupted onto the scene / (of the investigation) / these poems are the smoke that spills / from the cleft mountain lip.
Inhale the sweet smell of meat / breathe out the sweet sixteen fourteen / the dead languages learned. / They haunt you / you haunt me / I haunt / until we have a legion of ghost children / flyting down Fleet Street / in sheets / that ripple like clear pools disturbed by dreams.
Review by Harriett Fisk
A Haunting ‘Surge' of Political Panic and Grieving Parental Passion.
In a multi-dimensional insight into black discrimination in the heart of London, Jay Bernard has created a passionate, heartfelt eulogy to the New Cross fire. Along with paying homage to the victims of past tragedies, Bernard warns the reader of the cyclical nature of black oppression, and the relevance this collection of poetry will continue to have in the future.
The author is forming a generation of activists, primed with lessons from the past, and a passion sparked from the graphic description of panic and pain inflicted on innocent lives. If one poem doesn’t grapple with your conscious, the next one will; the ebb and flow of this seamless collection are undeniable. Sewn together with references to black culture, Bernard manipulates each word into evoking a response from the reader; Whether that be anger, frustration, despair or pure passion, there is not a poem in this collection that needs development.
Without undermining the dramatic impact this fire had on the black community, Bernard also threads a personal element into the text by writing about their own experiences regarding sexuality, relationships, and being non-binary. In a truthful eulogy to the lost victims in 1981, Bernard has formed a relevant collection powered by fear, sexuality and grief, that is worthy of any award.
Flèche - Mary Jean Chan
Review by Rebecca Foster
Mary Jean Chan’s Flèche is a set of exquisite poems of love and longing, with the speaker’s loyalties always split between head and heart, flesh and spirit. Over it all presides the figure of a mother – not just Chan’s mother, who had difficulty accepting that her daughter was a lesbian, but also the relationship to the mother tongue (Chinese) and the mother country (Hong Kong):
my languages are like roots
gnarled in soil, one and indivisible
except the world divides me endlessly
some days I dare not look at the trees
they are such hopeful creatures
In form the poems range from prose paragraphs to aphoristic lines, and from stanzas to columns. Fencing terms are used for structure. Chan has remarkable clarity about how others perceive her and is able to generously imagine herself in her mother’s experience.
Inland - Téa Obreht
Review by Tegan Warman
The mythical world presented in Tea Obreht’s Inland is like stepping into your own personal Western tale. Unlike the untamed cowboys who usually rule these tales, we find an almost dauntless Nora Lark who tries to keep her home and family safe, and Lurie Mattie, who on his journey across the US, speaks to the dead and his faithful companion, Burke.
I really enjoyed the journey I was taken on with this novel. The characters play on your heartstrings as they struggle to find water. Which was ironic for me as I read most of this book sat in the bath. The Arizona Territory, a place I have never been before, felt familiar and like home by the last page of the book. Obreht is a brilliant wordsmith who invites you into this wilderness of a landscape, one you never want to leave. When I finished reading this book, I knew that it would be a book that would be re-read and own its spot on my bookshelf.
Lot - Bryan Washington
Review by Dessie Tsvetkova
Bryan Washington’s debut short story collection, ‘Lot’, aptly encapsulates the lives and struggles of the people living in the slums of a fictionalized Houston, Texas. While predominantly focusing on the voice of an unnamed mixed-raced boy as the main narrator, the collection also includes the stories of people from every corner of the city, from drug dealers to cheating husbands, making it a striking portrait of a neighbourhood that is rapidly becoming gentrified, as well as the inhabitants who struggle to make ends meet during a turbulent socio-political climate in contemporary America.
There is certainly a communal spirit within the collection as all characters are in the same unfortunate predicaments – while they’re all faced with a variety of hardships, they share a mutual understanding of one another that comes with living in the same geopolitical location. The narrative may be split into an array of voices, yet the collection isn’t concerned with the individual, but with the neighbourhood as a whole. Washington creates a sense of the communal ‘we’ rather than the singular ‘I’, thus, emphasizing how marginalized people are often pinned under the same denominator, but also how shared hardships create an air of unity within a diverse community.