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Recommended reading from our Book Prize finalists (1 of 2)
From a banned Chinese novel to the sociology of the British estate, here's what our finalists have been reading
We asked the finalists for this year’s Orwell Prizes for Political Writing and Political Fiction for the best piece of political writing - fiction or non-fiction, book or journalism - they’ve come across recently, and they didn’t disappoint. Think of it as two reading lists for the price of one.
Part 2, featuring the rest of our finalists, to follow. Plus, we’ll be asking what they would most like readers to take away from their work. And - why do they write?
I recently re-read the 2009 novel The Fat Years, by the Chinese writer Chan Koonchung. Banned in his own country, it is a masterful satire on tyranny and historical manipulation. It is set in a booming and increasingly prosperous China, where an entire month in the recent past has gone missing, seemingly erased from the official record and collectively forgotten about. Records have been digitised in order to facilitate the rewriting of history and the authorities put an ecstasy-style drug in the water supply, so that people felt nothing but great love for the leaders. With its echoes of the suppression of the memory of Tiananmen Square and a cast of characters that includes greedy foreigners prepared to look the other way in pursuit of China business, it is a metaphor for modern China.
Ian Williams, author of The Fire of the Dragon (Birlinn)
“I’ll forgo the ranking of ‘best’ and opt for something which I felt did its job very well: Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture by Lisa McKenzie, which I’ve recently read though it was published in 2015. It’s an academic text but accessibly written and brimming with humanity as much as with social theory. McKenzie combines her personal experience as a resident of St Ann’s estate in Nottingham with a sociologist’s perspective on poverty, community and culture. I loved that she refused simplistic narratives of either good or bad, producing a thoughtful and rigorous account of life in a notorious and stigmatised place. I also appreciated her dedication to going deep into the life of a community before trying to make pronouncements about the practices therein – something our politicians could learn from.”
Emily Kenway, author of Who Cares? (Headline)
This year I’ve been reading Trollope’s ‘Palliser’ or ‘political’ sequence – Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn, The Eustace Diamonds, Phineas Redux, The Prime Minister and The Duke’s Children – with awe and sheer delight. Across six huge and interconnected novels, written over fifteen years, Trollope creates a busy, breathing political world: as readers we attend Cabinet and set-piece parliamentary debates, and are encouraged to care about the fluctuating fortunes of Irish land reform and Church disestablishment. Even more impressively, we apprehend politics as the creation of individuals, hunkering together for mutual protection, subsisting on gossip and promises, actuated by egotism, self-interest and personal enmity – but also by loyalty, principle and honour. And we follow many of these individuals far beyond their political associations and identities – into their friendships and social routines, their familial relationships, their romantic lives, their long, uneasy marriages. What Trollope shows us – and I think this is an unprecedented and unparalleled achievement – is that politics is not a separate or separable sphere, but only another aspect of life. These are novels about politics and the behaviours it encourages and rewards, but they are also about the position of women and the performance of masculinity; about crime, class, prejudice, money and love; about the factors that draw people together, and those that force them further and further apart. To read these books is to encounter an entire society in miniature.
Tom Crewe, author of The New Life (Vintage)
There are a great many fine and recent books to choose from, of different genres. The one that most immediately comes to mind is Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe. It often takes an outsider to tell us stories about ourselves, a Northern Ireland and colonial and discriminatory legacy that much of Britain and its establishment seems not to wish to much know about. An excoriating and deeply painful tale, offered in a rivetingly intimate prose.
Phillipe Sands, author of The Last Colony (Orion)
Like almost everyone I know I have been glued to the final series of Succession. The challenge for the novelist is to defy the demand by readers for likeable characters you can root for, for it is their flaws that make them human, not cartoon baddies and that is true even of monsters. A piece by Linda Holmes on the NPR website examined the moral universe of the series and its leading characters, Kendall, Shiv, Roman, Logan, Greg and Tom. Despite the brilliance of their creation the final episodes lead, she says, not to empathy, but to the point at which we say, so what? Yes, they are human but the consequences of their awfulness are borne by all of us. It’s a huge risk for the series to take but one which nails the trouble with capitalism. ‘Because what matters is the machine, not the complex humanity of its operators when your being crushed in its gears.’
Linda Grant, author of The Story of the Forest (Virago)
I feel that political writing is all I ever read at the moment, but among the best has been Paisley Currah’s Sex Is As Sex Does, which looks at how gender categories are decided by government agencies in the United States. The way each agency determines a person’s sex or gender – which can differ depending on the agency – is a function of their official remit. These remits, Currah shows, serve the wider political aims of the state, which throughout history have included upholding heterosexual marriage, patriarchy, and white supremacy. This book is a calm, practical reminder that the issues of official categorisation faced by transgender and non-binary people in fact affect us all.
Angela Saini, author of The Patriarchs (4th Estate)
I thought Kojo Koram's Uncommon Wealth was brilliant, in clearly drawing the lines from the past to the present. It changed my way of looking at the country.
Peter Apps, author of Show Me The Bodies (Oneworld)
Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes encircles many pasts that are still present to us: white supremacy, histories that cannot be kept in glass cases, books that continue to call out, and poetic, persisting forms of Black knowledge. I felt that I could sit at the feet of this book and listen. In 248 notes, Sharpe moves between unsparing dissolutions of white innocence and tender recuperations of Black lives; the last note reads, “This is a love letter to my mother.”
Selby Wynn Schwartz, author of After Sappho (Galley Beggar)
Read an extract from all of this year’s shortlisted books via Exact Editions.