As a proud City of Literature, it’s always nice to be involved in one of the biggest literary events of the year. This year’s Man Booker shortlist features some of the best and brightest English-speaking authors on the market right now, and last night Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts centre was treated to a reading from three of the shortlisted authors. Hosted by UNESCO City of Literature director Sandeep Mahal, the event boasted an all-female panel of novelists including Emily Fridlund, Fiona Mozley, and Ali Smith.
An instant seat-filler, the Djanogly Theatre was heaving from the get go as the novelists took to the stage. In an impassioned introduction Sandeep extols the virtues of her adopted city, describing Nottingham as a ‘city that embraces difference’, a ‘perfect canvas’ for a rich and vibrant culture. With plugging and patriotism out of the way, the novelists take to the pew, reading short segments from the shortlisted novels.
First up is Emily Fridlund, whose debut A History of Wolves is a solemn retrospective centred on an adolescent girl’s experiences in an isolated Minnesota town. The novel is somber exploration of memories, bouncing from one thought to the next, fully enriched in the sensory – smells and textures are focused on in as much detail as the narrator’s own interpretation of them.
Next we have Fiona Mozley, another debut in novel-writing with her Yorkshire-based coming-of-age story Elmet. Poetic and frank, Elmet takes a look at the lives of a small community in the northern backwaters of Yorkshire through the eyes of two children, Daniel and his older sister Cathy. The language is lyrical but frank, rooted in the landscape and the bodies of its characters, and Mozley explains in the Q&A that the novel and its worldview are an experiment in exploring themes and ideas without sounding dogmatic.
The final reader is four-time shortlister Ali Smith, whose novel Autumn takes a look at how twee village life becomes a knife-edge in the wake of a post-Brexit Britain. Characters admit with gentle candor that they are ‘tired of the news’ (I know the feeling well, if I’m honest), and there is a light-hearted and oftentimes funny tone as the story explores the dark topic of cultural isolationism.
With the readings concluded the floor is opened and the audience Q&A begins. The authors discuss how, in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts”, the novel takes on an important role as a tool that allows us to understand the truth. Each novel touches upon isolation, be it in the form of a small town cut-off from society by mountains or a British village intentionally cutting itself off from its surroundings, and each novelist addresses the ways in which culture as a whole will have to address and respond to isolation in the coming months. Finally, in a fitting end to the evening, the subject of feminism is addressed. Each of the authors discuss the ways in which their texts could be classed as “feminist”, touching upon how characters may or may not adhere to traditional gender roles, and how the experiences of female characters differ to those of their male counterparts.
All in all, the event was a fascinating look into some of this year’s shortlisted novels, and the themes and ideas contained within. Youth, future, isolation and time all seem to stand out as key concepts in the three readings, and it isn’t hard to imagine that said concepts are on everyone’s mind at the minute. If the readings at the Djanogly Theatre are anything to go by, this year’s Man Booker is going to be worth keeping tabs on.