The Goldsmiths Prize celebrates novelty in novels – “fiction that breaks the mould”. This usually results in the most interesting shortlist of any of the annual literary prizes, and so it is again this year. Each of these six books is in some way new, surprising or delightful – and a few are all three. Here’s my digest of them.
By Paul Griffiths
Henningham Family Press, £12.99
Griffiths is an Oulipian – one who writes using formal constraints – and an excerpt from his novel let me tell you (telling Ophelia's story using only the words she speaks in Hamlet) was a highlight of last year's Penguin Book of Oulipo.
His new novel imagines a journey by Beethoven to the US in 1833 to write and perform a “biblical oratorio”. It’s pure fantasy – Beethoven died in 1827. But Griffiths tells the story while meticulously setting out the research that limits what could have happened in reality (“How about this?”), and trying out alternate versions of scenes, so convincingly that I didn’t know whether the characters were historical or invented. (Googling them aptly means the reader becomes involved in the creative process, too.)
He also allows his Beethoven to speak only words that are known to be attributed to the composer in reality. This approach slows down the story – “Get on with it”, he has the reader interject halfway through – but this sort of playful creativity is the essence of what the Goldsmiths Prize is about. As the book has it, “A work of art had to be beautiful, of course, but beautiful in a new way.”
The Mermaid of Black Conch
By Monique Roffey
Peepal Tree Press, £9.99
Anyone who has read Roffey's siege novel House of Ashes knows she writes tension brilliantly, and this novel opens with breath-catching scenes of drama as a mermaid is pursued and captured by fisherman off a Caribbean island in the 1970s.
What follows is more meditative and various, switching between an omniscient eye roaming the village, the words of centuries-old mermaid Aycayia dropping down the page like poetry, and the journal of islander David Baptiste, who rescues her from the fishermen.
The fable-like framing means Roffey gets away with the foreseeable developments – love between David and Aycayia, a conflict near the end – while studding the story with surprises including some literal heavy weather. Also, we get the explicit man-mermaid sex scene that Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah never quite delivered in Splash.
By Anakana Schofield
Irish-Canadian novelist Schofield says that it was only after a review of Bina in this paper that the book found a UK publisher. Fame at last! Bina, like the book's central character, is a spiky creation. A seventysomething woman jots down her thoughts on scraps of paper, so the story is presented in fragments and the reader has to do the joining up.
Bina is worried about her son Eddie, who is not really her son, and there’s some strange stuff going on with her friend Phil, who is a woman. And what exactly did she get up to at Shannon Airport?
Schofield combines brilliant comedy and righteous fury like nobody else currently writing. Bina is the darkest, most glittering star yet in her extended universe of fiction.
A Lover's Discourse
By Xiaolu Guo
Chatto & Windus, £14.99
Guo, who was named in Granta's last crop of best young British novelists, has produced what feels like the most traditional piece of literary fiction in the Goldsmiths shortlist. It tells the story of a cross-cultural relationship, from eyes meeting over elderflowers in Clapton to the full nappy of parenting.
The Chinese narrator has a problem with British idioms and names, giving us a running joke that doesn’t always land (“Dumfries.” “Dumb fleece?”). But most of the book is a lively and light-touch exploration of art, authenticity and love, in conversation with the work of Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Adolf Loos and, er, The Scorpions’ pomp-rock anthem Wind of Change.
Guo delivers sprightly nuggets of thought in digestible bites, if you like that sort of thing. I do. She also coins the word “Brexhausted”, which is something we can all identify with.
The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again
By M John Harrison
Like his old pal Iain Banks, Harrison writes both science fiction and mainstream novels, though "mainstream" is a slippery concept, like everything else in this book. For one thing, without any formal or structural novelty, he has somehow produced the strangest novel on the shortlist.
It’s about two people (“jigsaws that would never complete”), Shaw and Victoria – though here even names are uncertain – who pursue an on-off romance while individually drifting into a world of esoterica, hidden voices and conspiracy theories, where people appear and vanish like lighthouse beams. The dreamlike narrative means that at times each paragraph seems like a non-sequitur from its neighbours, linked by themes of evolution and collapse.
A book that wriggles like a fish, impossible to pin down, it feels like the most modern novel on this year’s shortlist, from the oldest author of the lot.
Meanwhile in Dopamine City
By DBC Pierre
Pierre's hyperkinetic new novel is designed to reflect our modern life, attention attenuated by smartphones, where "notifications gang up like one of those maths questions" and likes give us little dopamine hits. He does this by adapting the split-page narrative previously used by the likes of JM Coetzee and Meena Kandasamy to reflect the split in our experience between online life and the "real world".
The central story – though the book deliberately makes it hard to focus on one thread – is about widower Lon Cush and his struggles with parenting, but we hear from others too, all in an antic style not unlike early Martin Amis. Or indeed early DBC Pierre. Well, at least he hasn’t mellowed. It’s apt that our annoying, crazy times should be represented by an annoying, crazy book.