International Dublin Literary Awards: Meet the nominees

The International Dublin Literary Award is unique. Each year Libraries around the world nominate a book to put forward for the award. This year's winner will be announced on Thursday 22 October.

Christchurch City Libraries nominated the very successful Auē! by Becky Manawatu. Although Auē! didn't make it to the shortlist, Becky Manawatu won an Ockham Award this year, and has been nominated for a Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel this October at Christchurch WORD festival.

The DubLit shortlisted books are intellectual, introspective literature, dealing with loss, grief, injustice and violence, from many parts of the globe. The fiction team at Tūranga have been reading their way through the list. Check out some of the books vying for the prize money of €100,000.

The Friend 

The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez. Reviewed by Fionaccl 

Sigrid Nunez writes a very inward-looking novel about writing, losing a friend and adopting a dog. As one door closes, another opens, so they say.

The narrator is grieving for her mentor, lifelong friend and one-time lover. Until she meets someone who is grieving for him more than she is. It's not wife number one, two or three, it's the dog he adopted while walking in the park.

The owner of the dog was something of a 'flâneur' - strolling out every day for inspiration, observing the life around him. One day he finds Apollo, a Great Dane who appears to belong to no one, looking for all the world like the mythical celestial guardian:

"...Standing on an overhang, silhouetted against the sky: the biggest dog you had ever seen." (p.36)

Interestingly, the human protagonists are never named.

Very introspective, the book employs magical thinking: a technique of coping with grief using writing, referred to by Joan Didion in her book, A Year of Magical Thinking.

Quoting the shared expressions and experiences of other writers, the narrator uses the story to work through her own feelings, musing over the (sometimes questionable) power of writing: as catharsis, evil, meditation, the healing power of journalling; and the dog.

As people do when they are grieving, memories pop up randomly, their threads taking the narrator on tangents. If not for the dog, the narrator might well never surface for air.

Drive your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Drive your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk. Reviewed by Caitee Clarke

This book is an ecstatic read; quirky, crafty, thick with snow and pollen. 'Drive the Plow over the Bones of your Dead' is a dark feminist comedy, a plea for the animals and to remember that old women are people too. Set in a bleak, empty Polish village, where a string of strange murders has left the small community frozen with concern. The best crafting of characters and their friendships I have read in a long time. This book was an absolute joy to read. 

Washington Black

Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan. Reviewed by Pru Musso

I was captivated by this gripping and thought-provoking novel of friendship, travel, and adventure. 

Exploring poignant themes such as freedom, humanity, and the history/morality of slavery, the story centres around young Washington Black, a slave boy living on the same Barbados plantation where he was born. 

Unfortunately for him, he is saddled with a particularly vicious and sadistic master, and here we glimpse just some of the abhorrences of slavery at work. But one day, Washington is plucked from this dismal life by none other than his master's brother- a scientist (and abolitionist) in need of an assistant for one of his latest exploratory ventures involving a hot-air balloon. 

Tackling his new role with gusto, Washington joins his new master on a thrilling and perilous journey across the world in the balloon, and a friendship between them evolves; for the first time in his life, Washington is treated as a fellow human. 

On their travels the two encounter adventure after adventure, and although danger is never far behind, the thrill of new discovery spurs them on. Read for the striking atmosphere and sense of place, and Edugyan's masterful storytelling which is never short on imagination and action. 

 

All the Lives We Never Lived

All the Lives We Never Lived, by Anuradha Roy. Reviewed by Crystal Betito

Roy adeptly weaves a striking tapestry of intertwined lives heavily defined by internal struggles waged amid external wars such as the World War II and India’s fight for independence in the early 1930s. It pivots on Myshkin, a 60-year-old horticulturalist whose misunderstood peace derived from his beloved trees is continually punctured by the pain and confusion of his abandonment by his mother at age 9.

A chance to make sense of this loss arises when he receives a box of letters that his mother Gayatri had written for a friend. Through these letters and his own reminiscences, Myshkin’s past unfolds and reveals an artist mother whose happiness and creativity were hampered by his husband’s disdain for her art and an academic father whose patriotic ideals of freedom contrasted with how he controlled his wife and son. As Myshkin carefully explores how these realities influenced the moulding of his own, Roy subtly but effectively expounds this contemplation to tackle enduring and often conflicting concepts of individual freedom, societal conformity, gender politics, and power structure -,deftly veering her work away from being merely another nostalgic trek.

But did Myshkin eventually achieve closure? The answer is for the reader to glean. However, Roy’s subdued but potent prose also convinces that realisation of human nature’s complexity and the recognition that every individual life is an attempt to find truth amid the confusion this complexity consistently creates maybe enough to provide adequate inner peace.

An American Marriage

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones. Reviewed by Caitlin Adams

Celestial and Roy are educated, upwardly-mobile African Americans whose lives are suddenly torn apart when Roy is unjustly accused of an horrific crime and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Roy's arrest is the central to the story, but the couple's relationship remains the focus throughout. 

While Roy serves his sentence and reconnects with a figure from his past, Celestial's career as an artist starts to skyrocket. The couple's lives continue to diverge, putting strain on their already fragile and still relatively new marriage, which ultimately leads Celestial to turn to her best friend Andre for comfort. 

The slow demise of Roy and Celestial's relationship is cleverly reflected in the narrative structure - initially, we read alternating viewpoints from the protagonists as they document their marriage leading up to the arrest. While Roy is in prison, the narrative takes on an epistolary form and this was my favourite part of the novel; the letters provided a compelling and intimate portrait of the factors that put mounting pressure on Roy and Celestial's marriage. 

The final section switches back to first-person narrative, and the addition of Andre's point of view reminds us that he is not the true villain in this relationship, rather criminal injustice and systemic racism are to blame for the destruction of this American marriage. Indeed, there's no happy ending to this beautiful, slow-burning love story, but that just serves to make it all the more heartbreakingly real.

 

Milkman

Milkman, by Anna Burns. Reviewed by takeclare

With the stream-of-conscious, digressive narrative voice of the protagonist, Milkman doesn't make for easy reading. But I persevered, because despite at times putting the book down when weary, I found myself thinking about it, kind of hypnotically.

It's a book that asks for time and space in which to read it, for a reader's absorption and attention.

It's set in the time of the Troubles in Ireland, though for the first few pages I couldn't place this, and it had a surreal quality that made me wonder if it was set in some near-future dystopian police state. A sense of dread and the psychological effects of the political climate permeate the book as the protagonist (unnamed, except in reference to her relation to others - "middle sister", "maybe-girlfriend", "daughter") is stalked by a menacing paramilitary.

Numbed and emotionally dissociated by the stress and fear of being stalked, the boundaries of her life shrink. No longer does she feel free to "walk-while-reading", run long distances alone, or to tell anyone of her plight - silenced by a collective understanding that emotional violence against women does not constitute reaction.

A novel which provokes reflection on power, freedom, how we relate to others, and the societies that shape us, Milkman rewards the persistent reader.

Disoriental

Disoriental, by Négar Djivadi. Reviewed by fionaccl

Punk-rocker Kimiâ is twenty-five. As she contemplates her future and the possibility of having a child, she looks back on her life and the stories of the generations who went before her. These stories take physical form as her Sadyr forebears appear to her, complete with harems.  

At ten years old, her mother took Kimiâ and her sisters to France, leaving Iran far behind to reunite with Kimiâ's father Darius, a writer. Their tale of escape is epic.

For many opponents of the Shah, life after the revolution that deposed him was worse than his corrupt regime, driving them out to parts of the globe where they could dress, move and speak freely without fear of persecution.

Disoriental explores what the theme of what it is like to be be displaced, in exile, not really belonging in either place; themes also explored in Persepolis and The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. Its as richly described as the cover suggests.

"To really integrate into a culture...you have to disintegrate first."

Djavadi's protagonist, a modern woman torn between tradition and integration; or 'being disorientalised'; variously channels ancient poet Montazemolmolk and Scheherazade to convey an absorbing tale of the trials of modern Iranian history. Her characters are engaging, her writing richly beautiful, a see-saw of lyrical, then cynical prose, as she takes us on a literary magic carpet ride through history, complete with footnotes for those who are ignorant about Iran (a thing that obviously frustrates the narrator).

A complexly imagined debut, translated by Tina Kover and already gaining accolades in France.

There There

There, There, by Tommy Orange. Reviewed by fionaccl

Tommy Orange, (Cheyenne, Arapaho) has taken the title and setting of his debut novel from a quote about Oakland by writer Gertrude Stein : “there is no there there.”

The quote refers to the fact that the Oakland of Stein's childhood no longer exists. 

This phrase has a much deeper meaning in the context of Orange's book: the tribal grounds and traditions of the Native American people have been all but wiped out through violence, genocide and colonisation. 

Orange populates his book with a great many characters who are engaging and believable. Tony Loneman's thread is the pivot of this tale. Affected by alcohol at birth, he hatches a plan to rob the big Powwow. His story is an allegory of the gun-centred way of American life. The other characters provide light relief but also portray the collective experiences of everyday life and relationships.

Orange's people seek to bring pride back to the word Indian, which has for far too long used in a disrespectful way. In the same breath, the author asserts that traditional rites seem out of place in the modern world. Indeed he spells out that the nostalgic portrayal of their lives in the big wide open of America has already been done to death by tokenists such as John Wayne and Kevin Costner.

Although the book appears full of righteous anger, the reader is ultimately left with hope, albeit small. Hope is, after all, one of the strongest drives of the human race. 

I'm loving reading this point of view. American Indian writers such as Rebecca Roanhorse, (who writes urban fantasy with Indian monster mythos and Star Wars), are taking the literary world by storm. I expect Tommy Orange to too.

We didn't manage to cover these last two, but they are still worthy of mention: Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls, depicting a female perspective of war in the Iliad, has been nominated for several awards since publication, while History of Violence is an autobiographical novel by the acclaimed French author Edouard Louis, depicting his experience of rape and commenting on racism and the homophobic attitudes of French Society.

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