Friday, July 21, 2006

Unbelievable

The Guardian reports on the longlist for the inaugural Dylan Thomas Prize.

I've read only one of the list: Ian Holding's Unfeeling, and I'm staggered that it has been selected. It was the subject of my first review for the TLS last year (online only to subscribers). I was particularly disappointed with the novel's predictable form. The main character sits out in the African open where "the haunting sound of a boar rose again, sticking hard in his skull like a razor-edged arrow splintering the bone, slicing cleanly into his brain." The judges could mitigate this, I suppose, as overwriting is appropriate for a prize named after Dylan Thomas.

However, when a debut novelist resorts to wordy third person narration, you know he hasn't too many doubts about the form. You might think this is a purist's complaint; only someone who has read too much would make it. For the average reader, it's an engaging and relevant story about post-colonial Zimbabwe. He or she gets to learn about this troubled land through the imaginative empathy of one of its most eloquent citizens.

Unfortunately, the form also reveals more than the author might be wish to confront. In the review, I noticed that
Each black person is a caricature, a psychopathic monster at one extreme or a grovelling servant at the other. If [the white characters] can be imagined empathetically by the author, why stop there? The lack of an original black character has ramifications which Holding is apparently unwilling to explore.
There are good reasons why awarding prizes for novels is a problematic enterprise. What, for instance, is it rewarding exactly? The usual defence is that it gets more people to read, but would they say the same thing about a BNP pamphlet going through every letterbox in the country?

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