2021 SHORTLIST REVIEWS
Alligator and Other Stories - Dima Alzayat
Review by Holly Porter
In her short story collection, Alligator and Other Stories, Dima Alzayat depicts a series of painstakingly real, yet sublimely composed, accounts of exploitation, prejudice and isolation. The author establishes a level of intimacy with her stories and thus, an authentic understanding of a situation is conveyed that would otherwise be inaccessible to many people. This introspective approach works impeccably well in the stories ‘Summer of the Shark’ and ‘Only Those Who Struggle Succeed’ – Alzayat doesn’t tell the reader how to feel, but rather allows her characters to do the talking for her.
Collections like Alzayat’s explain why the literary form of the short story is becoming increasingly popular. The author delivers snappy tales about contemporary issues and sprinkles them with something remarkably unprecedented that only Alzayat seems to be able to pull off.
Review by Adrijana Dzukovska
Alligator and Other Stories is a striking and achingly diverse collection of stories concerning minorities. Dima Alzayat brings a poetic vision to the world of short-storying in ’Ghusl’; with craftily translated nursery rhymes turned into poetry we are invited to take the first step into this collection and its vivid, and gruesome world. Alligator and Other Stories is unlike any other collection. It blends well into current times as it deals with topics of fear, media, and racism. Alzayat uses a poetic language flourished with vivid descriptions to bring us into the realities of these different individuals whose stories all meld into one as a similar course rests within them. We’re taken from the Middle East to America, yet the struggles of these characters all feel the same.
From the fear displayed in ’Disappearance’ over the temporary loss of a friend, to coming to terms with the death of a brother in ’Ghusl’, Alzayat displays emotionally taxing moments in an eloquent and intimate way which puts the reader there, unable to look away. This collection of stories can connect with any reader, and although gruesome, Alligator and Other Stories depicts moments that feel hauntingly real— masterfully blended with precise imagery, and stories of death and womanhood.
Kingdomtide - Rye Curtis
Review by Nina Oates
Kingdomtide is a tale lost in the wilderness. There are beautiful reflective moments in these unforgiving landscapes, lifting the more gruesome and distorting spectacles; the brutality of the air crash, the horror of death and the basic instincts that the scramble for survival entails.
Curtis excels in his depiction of Cloris and we see her initial shock of the mountain disaster develop into a powerful drive for endurance. In the endless days awaiting her rescue, she reflects on her prudent life and religious faith, allowing the story to offer us gentle forgiveness for the inevitable failures in humanity.
Our rescuer, Debra, is a murky and drunken park ranger. Stubborn in her search for survivors, she pulls together a dark yet humorous ramshackle crew of characters; each distracted in their own personal quest for salvation, to assist in her efforts to find Cloris.
As the ghostly plot develops, there is a wider exploration of morality with the reader being questioned as to whom and what is good or evil? Who is seeker, who is sought and of what should we really be afraid?
Review by Annabel Gaskell
A quirky page-turner, Kingdomtide is a smart tragicomedy that’s also frequently gross, often bizarre, but always human. I was instantly invested in the alternating lives of its protagonists.
Cloris Waldrip from Texas is seventy-two, holidaying in Montana. In the first paragraph we learn she’s the only survivor of a small plane crash in the mountains. Luckily, she'd worn her walking shoes that day and her tale will be one of survival and personal discovery, her transformation is a joy to read.
Debra Lewis is a Park Ranger, recently divorced, getting through her days with an always topped-up thermos flask of merlot. When the missing plane call comes, she finally has a reason to do something. The helicopter doesn’t find Cloris, but Lewis knows she’s out there. They send a retired ranger to help. Bloor and Lewis make a distinctly odd couple, he’s strangely tolerant of her drunkenness and attitude.
The mountain terrain is dangerous, all those critters, rocks, fast currents, changeable weather and other humans too. As Cloris discovers, she's rarely completely alone. As for Debra, she needs to find a way into recovery: will Bloor and the search for Cloris be the answer?
The Death of Vivek Oji - Akwaeke Emezi
Review by Holly Porter
Emezi continues to explore the theme of identity in their third novel The Death of Vivek Oji, a deeply sentimental narrative about the complexities of love and acceptance. The author associates these themes with the contemporary issue of gender and explores it within a context unfamiliar to many, with the novel being set in Owerri, Nigeria. The book opens somewhat abruptly with a reminder that the titular character is already deceased, before proceeding to tell us the story of his life (and death) through the narrative perspectives of the ‘dead’ Vivek, an omniscient narrator and Vivek’s lover, Osita. Vivek and Osita’s relationship is beautifully depicted though unfortunately clouded, not only by the fact that same-sex sexual activity is illegal in Nigeria, but the truth that they are cousins, a possible point of contention in this otherwise genuine and alluring relationship.
Although the title of this book suggests a story preoccupied with death, it delivers quite the opposite. At its core, The Death of Vivek Oji is a wholly immersive tale of rebirth that will educate you with empathy and reminds us that no one is ever really gone – ‘I was born and I died. I will come back’.
Pew - Catherine Lacey
Review by Rebecca Forster
Pew by Catherine Lacey is a mysterious fable about a stranger showing up in a Southern town in the week before an annual ritual. Pew’s narrator, homeless, mute and amnesiac, wakes up one Sunday in the middle of a church service, observing everything like an alien anthropologist. The stranger’s gender, race, and age are entirely unclear, so the Reverend suggests the name “Pew”. The drama over deciphering Pew’s identity plays out against the preparations for the enigmatic Forgiveness Festival and increasing unrest over racially motivated disappearances. Troubling but strangely compelling, this is perfectly suited to fans of Shirley Jackson and Flannery O’Connor.
Review by David Hebblethwaite
The narrator of this novel is an individual with no memory or identifiable characteristics. They're dubbed Pew because they are found in the church of a small American town. The townsfolk welcome Pew at first, but Pew's reluctance to say anything unnerves them, and their attitudes change. There will be a Forgiveness Festival in town at the end of the week, and the reader has reason to suspect that this may not be as wholesome as it sounds…
With Pew staying silent, conversations are one-sided. Pew becomes an empty presence, and the town's inhabitants fill the void with their own stories. The novel explores questions of what makes a person, and how individuals and communities relate to each other. Underneath it all is the figure of Pew, who might be looking for a place to belong, or might not need one after all. Catherine Lacey's book is enigmatic, thought-provoking, and a pleasure to read.
Luster - Raven Leilani
Review by Yap Khai Jian
“Imagine living life so carefully that there are no signs you lived at all”
Luster is what we categorized recently as "millennial fiction". Millennial culture is the biggest cultural touchstone for the past decade. A lot of millennial writers have come up with novels that centre around this culture. Luster is definitely at the top of the pack. The story revolves around a young black woman Edie, who is in her 20s, and her relationship with an older married man, Eric. The story takes a huge turn when Edie is pulled into Eric's life and his family (his wife, Rebecca, and their adopted black daughter, Akila).
Luster examines an ample of interesting millennial issues: urban disaffection, the “adulting” process, self-actualization, millennial burnout (caused by stagnating wages, economic downturn, societal pressure), casual substance abuse, racism, and non-committal sex and relationship.
What amazes me is Leilani's ability in crafting a complicated characterization and relationship especially between Edie and Rebecca (Eric's wife). Edie's loneliness, driftlessness, and aimlessness as a millennial in a big city are brilliantly fleshed out through her monologues. Leilani’s writing is courageous, unrestrained, and unconventional. Luster is messy, filthy, and depressing at times, which is reflective of the "Gen-Y" culture.
Review by Alex Alderson
“The last time I painted, I was twenty-one. The president was black. I had more serotonin, and I was less afraid of men.”
– Luster, p. 17
Raven Leilani’s recent debut release, Luster, is a darkly funny and oddly charming novel, discussing complex relationships and the everyday struggle of survival in the adult world.
‘Taut’, ‘brutal’, and ‘brilliant’, are just a few words Zadie Smith has used to describe this excellent novel. Leilani writes with a dry, effortless, and yet completely resolute voice.
Her writing is fast paced, keeping you poised and alert in the intricate web she weaves with her storytelling. Leilani’s narrative has a romantic flair, but the themes she covers, such as racial politics and fragile families, are far from this. She has a penchant for the slightly grotesque, and oversharing is a given with our offbeat protagonist, Edie.
Brit Bennett, author of The Vanishing Half. Candice Carty-Williams, author of Queenie. Dolly Alderton, author of Ghosts. These authors have all praised Luster for its unique, resounding voice, and I for one am certainly impressed with a debut this strong. I expect more excellent novels to come from Raven Leilani.
My Dark Vanessa - Kate Elizabeth Russell
Review by Rebecca Forster
My Dark Vanessa is a narrative the author has been carefully honing over the last 18 years, imagining herself deeper into the psyche of Vanessa Wye, a woman in her early thirties who can’t bear to think about her affair with her boarding school teacher, Jacob Strane, which started when she was 15, as anything other than consensual. “Because if it isn’t a love story, what is it?” she asks her therapist.
Russell uses her dual timeline to great effect: one strand opens in 2000, when Vanessa is a new student at Browick; the other follows her in 2017, when various female students make allegations against Strane and Vanessa has to decide whether to tell a reporter her story. This utterly immersive first-person novel is also rich with allusions to other works of literature, from Nabokov to Swift.