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The Etisalat Prize: Shortlist review

The winner of the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature will be announced any day now. The Etisalat, a new prize for debut novelists from Africa, offers a modest cash award (£15,000) along with a few products, which is rather nice. Perhaps most importantly of all, though, the winner also gets the Etisalat Fellowship at the University of East Anglia, which gives the opportunity to be mentored by Professor Giles Foden (author of The Last King of Scotland), the chance to meet other writers and publishers, and, the prize-givers hope, work on that critical second book that can settle a writer into a career rather than disappear into one-hit wonder-dom.

Of course, the Etisalat aims at more than the promotion and nurturing of one promising writer and one great book. As the Prize’s homepage says, “The Prize aims to serve as a platform for the discovery of new creative talent out of the continent and invariably promote the burgeoning publishing industry in Africa.” The greatest value of the big-time established prizes, for writers and publishers, lies in their ability to cut through market saturation and badge books as quality, exciting, worth reviewers’ time. If the Etisalat can do this for books by African writers, it will be a valuable service not just to the books, and writers, who win it.

I am rather ashamed to admit that my reading of African novellists has been extremely limited until now, and predominantly concentrated in white male South Africans (Andre Brink, J.M Coetzee, playwright Athol Fugard) although I have read Nadine Gordimer as well, and, representing not South Africa but still the white men brigade, Alexander McCall Smith. That this is an omission worth rectifying goes with saying, so I seized on the Etisalat as a kickstarter to this project happily.

Having done so, as the Prize announcement approaches, I thought it might be interesting to look at the three shortlisted books, and try to make a guess as to which will carry it. (Caveat – my record with picking prizewinners is a bit iffy. I picked the 2012 Booker – Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies – and the 2013 Hugo – John Scalzi’s Redshirts – but both of those were pretty easily the stand-outs in their pool, and I haven’t got one completely right since. Thus, take what I say with a grain of salt!)

For the Etisalat shortlist, we have three books by women: NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, Karen Jennings’ Finding Soutbek, and Yewande Omotoso’s Bom Boy. I have read all three of these books, although it’s been some time since I finished We Need New Names – it was on the Booker shortlist last year as well, and I read it back in September as part of that process.

The first thing I like to do with prizelists is to see if there are any obvious themes or preferences that the judges are manifesting in what they’ve selected. Every judging panel ever in the history of the world likes to cite ‘reflections on the human condition’ or some variant thereof as the connecting theme in their shortlists, but I personally find this a little disingenuous. Any book good enough to be on a literary prize shortlist is going to be, primarily, about ‘the human condition’ in some shape or form.

This list of three is about that (of course) but I would say it’s also a list characterised heavily by loss and damage, and the long shadows they cast. Each book has at least one key protagonist who is deeply damaged, and manifests that damage in strange and various ways. This is probably most evident in Bom Boy’s Leke, but there is no way in which I read Anna from Finding Soutbek as less than damaged, nor indeed, in certain critical ways, We Need New Names’ Darling. Certainly all the books have other themes, but the many ways life and other people hurt us are core to each of the stories.

The plots are ostensibly quite different, and certainly the writing styles are very distinct. Omotoso’s quiet, measured, aching study is almost like a still life in the way it captures tiny, unimportant, insignificant moments in an ultimately unspectacular life, and made me care desperately about Leke, his biological and adoptive parents (especially his adoptive mother, Jane), and all those who cross his lifeline. Bulawayo’s book is, by comparison, very loud, very busy, and very bright; all the colour and movement and disaster is crammed into a riveting but, it must be said, crowded plot, which is rendered both strange and compelling through being primarily seen through 11-year-old eyes.

As for Jennings’ book, it pulls off that often-attempted and rarely-delivered trick of successfully running two narratives, one past, one present, in tandem, and bringing them together plausibly but unexpectedly. Indeed, as a student of history, I was particularly taken with Jennings’ musings on the nature of history and revisionism; the dry assessment of the dubious historian, Terence Pearson, is particularly biting: “He had moulded the past into a suitable present, giving people historical proof of what they already believed.” It is frequently, and with justice, suggested that this is the core project of conventional history, something that Jennings drives home as she unpacks the past/future of this small divided South African town.

So when it comes to picking a winner, I find it hard, as I suspect the judges will; these are all strong books, all re-readers for sure, and the things that appealed to me in each were quite different, so it’s like comparing apples, oranges and strawberries. (I like them all! Fruit salad prizes for everyone!)

When it comes down to it, though, I would give the prize to Finding Soutbek over the other two. I think We Need New Names is hampered slightly by trying to do All The Things in the one book, and while I loved Bom Boy dearly, it is ultimately a small story, a perfect essence of one life. There is nothing wrong at all with the small and wonderful – indeed, it has often been a complaint of mine in the past that prize committees overlook contained stories, no matter how well written, in favour of sprawling novels that take on big themes in a grand, albeit messy, fashion. That said, when a life study is competing against a novel as multi-layered as Soutbek, I think the larger canvass has an advantage, and thus it’s where I’d probably put my vote, assuming I had one.

All in all, though, the Etisalat is off to a cracking start as a literary prize. There was no weak book on this shortlist; each of them will repay your time handsomely, and hopefully each of the writers is destined for many more novels building on the strength of their debuts.