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Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4 (Granta: The Magazine of New Writing) Paperback – 16 Apr 2013
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Packed full of sparky, though-provoking pieces. Altogether a fine tote bag of youthful talent for the summer. --'Summer Reads', The Times
Granta's Best of Young British Novelists 4 should be in the library of everyone who cares about contemporary fiction. That's not just because some of the writing is compelling; one also wants to see whether the young writers shine beyond Granta's pages. --Mail and Guardian SA
About the Author
John Freeman's criticism has appeared in more than two hundred newspapers around the world, including The Guardian, The Independent, The Times (UK), and The Wall Street Journal. Between 2006 and 2008, he served as president of the National Book Critics Circle. His first book, THE TYRANNY OF EMAIL, was published in 2009. HOW TO READ A NOVELIST will be published in 2013. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker and Zyzzyva.
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The first to catch my eye was Steven Hall's `The End of Endings' whose opening sentence - `This is what I know for sure.' - is remarkably similar to Christopher Priest's start of `The Affirmation' (`This much I know for sure:...'). I was also reminded of B S Johnson because Hall, not content with black letters on a white background, presents us, every other page, with white characters on a dark background, which is also vertically inverted. So, derivative? No: Hall is his own man, and these two apparently linked tales hint at a forthcoming work of some complexity. His first novel `The Raw Shark Texts' also tinkers typographically. He made me want to read his work in full. Hall could be one to watch.
Adam Thirlwell's piece `Slow Motion', also from a novel in progress, drew me in effortlessly. What do you do if you wake up in a strange room next to a girl who appears to be sleeping but, judging by the blood on the pillow, may, in fact, be dead? It's a funny piece, despite the subject matter, although it's clear that there is a serious intention. And we are entertained by the narrator's monologue as he attempts to come to terms with the situation. Comic, stream of consciousness, existential panic. Another one I'm looking forward to reading in its entirety.
`Just Right' by Zadie Smith (novella in progress) is written in an assured style with a voice both innocent and knowing. A delight to read for the prose alone. Set in the USA, it appears to be a piece about the childhood discovery of self.
And the rest? Well, it's a bit like reading through a gauze. Someone left the fiction-writing machine on `pale and wan'. You're always aware you're reading a construction with little tangible reward. Unadventurous, some felt like autobiography, and I just wasn't interested. I kept having to force myself to read on.
Gauze plays a part in the authors' photographs, too. Nadav Kander appears to have shot all twenty writers through a fine curtain, unless it's a post-production conceit. The pictures are contrived and I learnt more about the man behind the lens than those in front. I should have been happier if they had all been given five pounds, asked to go the photo-booth and come back with four different poses each. Revelation rather than concealment is always preferable.
As for the fiction, what might Burgess have made of it? I don't know: perhaps he'd have preferred it if someone had sneaked into the fiction-writing factory overnight and turned up the dial on all the machines from `limp' to `f- the consequences'. Now, that would have been interesting.
1983 was a golden year - you can't help making comparisons - and I doubt whether any selection of under-forty talent could ever be as rich. The 2013, with exceptions, is a light bronze. Is it worth spending £12.99 on? Possibly not, but Amazon's cut-price deal makes your choice easier.
My favourite of the examples of work given here is Sarah Hall's 'The Reservation', a story fragment with wolves. Her writing is, as always, exceptionally fresh, sensual and evocative. Another favourite was Ross Raisin's 'Submersion' a wonderful account of a flooded town, during which two brothers see their father fast asleep in his armchair, carried along with the flood. Raisin is able to evoke the natural world even in a bizarrely unnatural viewpoint, with such a steady, engaged and sympathetic eye.
Of the others I especially liked Helen Oyeymi's piece, 'Boy, Snow Bird' which has an off-beat, wry humour. I have always wondered why judges seem to prefer serious and studiously literary values over the wit and mischief of say, Tom Rachman, who is mentioned in the introduction as having, at one time during the judging, a "groundswell" in his favour. It didn't outlast more sober considerations unfortunately. 'Arrivals' by Sunjeet Sahota was the most memorable of all the pieces; it's subject was the cruelties and unfairness of the shifting fortunes of a group of male immigrants. The piece was not long enough to for me to decide whether I would want to read more, since it mostly told of a desperate and often hostile and unforgiving community of men, a theme used much more subtly and successfully in David Szalay's far more engaging excerpt: 'Europa'.
I also liked the pieces by Kamila Shamsie, Evie Wyld, and Ned Beauman. I might have liked Steven Hall's excerpt from his novel 'The End of Endings', if I'd understood it better. Unfortunately others eclipsed it with their ease of access and I am not keen on the gimmickry of upside-down black pages. I'm afraid I found Adam Thirlwell's foreshadowing of short paragraphs irritating and the excerpt wasn't long enough for me to decide whether I might grow to appreciate it. But on the whole, this is a very credible and creditable selection.