I have been reading two of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlisted books ahead of the announcement of the winner this Wednesday. I won a copy of ‘Stay With Me’ by Ayobami Adebayo via a competition on Twitter (thanks, Canongate!) and I recently bought a copy of ‘The Dark Circle’ by Linda Grant.
Set in Nigeria during a period of political turmoil in the 1980s, ‘Stay With Me’ tells the story of Yejide who is married to Akin and has struggled to get pregnant after four years of marriage. Akin’s family decide that he must marry a second wife, Funmi, to bear the children that Yejide is apparently unable to carry. After a long phantom pregnancy, she eventually does conceive but the spectre of sickle-cell disease looms over the family. Years later, Yejide is due to attend Akin’s father’s funeral where she must face further consequences of past events.
The narrative alternates between Yejide and Akin’s perspective of events and the precarity of their relationship is mirrored in the backdrop of political upheaval in the region. The subject matter of childlessness and bereavement is a painful one and the number of domestic tragedies becomes almost relentless. However, there are plenty of surprises along the way, particularly in Adebayo’s multi-layered portrayal of Yejide and Akin. Their individual responses to grief and the mistakes they make under the weight of expectations from their families on both sides are presented sensitively. Yejide has been affected by the death of her mother in childbirth while Akin holds unexpected secrets, eventually revealing vulnerabilities of his own. ‘Stay With Me’ is an excellent debut novel which shows a lot of promise. It is not a book I could turn away from easily and I think Adebayo is an author to watch in the future.
In ‘The Dark Circle’, Jewish teenage twin siblings, Lenny and Miriam Lynskey, are living in London in 1949 facing the grim realities of post-war austerity. When Lenny attends a medical examination after being conscripted for national service, it is discovered that he has contracted tuberculosis which he soon passes on to his sister. They are both sent to the Kent countryside as two of the very first patients to receive free healthcare under the newly-created NHS at the Gwendolyn Downie sanatorium which was originally set up as a private facility. The twins meet several other patients from a range of backgrounds including Valerie, an Oxford graduate who introduces Miriam to literature, Hannah, a German music teacher and Arthur Persky, an American merchant seaman. Experimental new treatments for the disease are being tested on the patients with varying degrees of success including the new “miracle” antibiotic Streptomycin.
Grant is excellent at bringing period detail to life whilst simultaneously addressing modern debates about the future of the NHS and the status of refugees. It is notable that the government underestimated the number of middle-class citizens who would use the service. Many believed free healthcare would create a nation of “scroungers” using language which is remarkably similar to the arguments made today in the right-wing press. This makes ‘The Dark Circle’ a very timely read and poses lots of questions to the reader about the underlying effects of rose-tinted nostalgia, the famed British stiff upper lip and how much (or how little) societial attitudes have changed.
‘The Dark Circle’ is also about recovery beyond drugs such as the role of books, music and good company in restoring health. It is a particularly pertinent theme in the post-war context of a nation still recovering itself from the devastating effects of war. The final part which tells us what happened to the patients decades later isn’t really essential to the plot but it does emphasise how a disease once regarded as a serious and often deadly public health threat has been virtually eradicated in a relatively short space of time.
The other books shortlisted for this year’s Baileys Prize are Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, The Power by Naomi Alderman, ‘The Sport of Kings’ by C. E. Morgan and ‘First Love’ by Gwendoline Riley. Of the four I have read, I would like to see ‘The Power’ take the overall prize as a win for this speculative novel about what could happen in a world where women are more powerful than men would be a powerful statement indeed in 2017.