One-Minute Book Reviews

April 8, 2008

Why Do Unworthy Books Win Awards like Pulitzer Prizes? Quote of the Day (Neville Braybrooke)

In last night’s post, I listed some classic American novels that didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, given yesterday to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. A related question is: Why do unworthy book win awards? One obvious answer is that most prizes are given out annually, and every year may not bring a great book in a category.

But more subtle factors may come into play. A truism of literary prize-giving is that awards often go to everybody’s second choice. Judges may split into two camps with each side fiercely opposing the other’s first choice. To reach a decision, they may choose a second-rate book they can all support.

Judges tell many stories in among themselves about such compromises but rarely discuss them publicly. Who wants to admit to having honored a clinker? But Neville Braybooke suggests how the practice can work in his preface to the Every Eye, the elegant second novel by his late wife, Isobel English. Braybooke writes that English refused to add the happy ending that an American publisher wanted to her to give her first novel, The Key That Rusts:

“More significantly, during these early days of her career, came the news that The Key That Rusts had been shortlisted for the Somerset Maugham Award, tying for first place with Iris Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net. In the event, the judges were unable to decide who should be the winner, so they gave the prize to the runner-up, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.”

Neville Braybrooke in Every Eye (David R. Godine/Black Sparrow, $23.95) www.blacksparrowbooks.com.

Comment by Jan:

Braybrooke may have been willing to tell this anecdote partly because there would have been no shame in losing either to Lucky Jim or Under the Net, both modern classics. And few critics would argue that Amis’s comic novel was unworthy of an award. The Somerset Maugham Award is given annually by the London-based Society of Authors www.societyofauthors.org to the writer or writers under the age of 35 who wrote the best book of the year.

Do you think any unworthy books have won awards? What are they?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved. www.janiceharayda.com

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December 10, 2007

Isobel English’s Elegant Novel, ‘Every Eye,’ Makes Its American Debut

A slender classic follows a couple from England to Ibiza on a belated honeymoon

Every Eye. By Isobel English. Introduction by Neville Braybrooke. David R. Godine/Black Sparrow, 192 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

This elegant novel might sound like the literary godmother of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Like that Man Booker Prize finalist, Every Eye is a slender book about an English couple on a honeymoon – in this case, belated – near the ocean. And like On Chesil Beach, it comes from a distinguished British author who writes about how early misunderstandings can reverberate for a lifetime.

Yet Every Eye is everything that On Chesil Beach is not – subtle, persuasive and rich in insight. Hatty, the narrator, is a piano teacher who was born with a “lazy eye” that affects her view of herself long after surgery has corrected the problem. She marries late, well into her 30s, and recalls her awkward early years on a honeymoon trip through France and Spain to Ibiza with her intelligent young husband. And her apparently successful marriage suggests that her strains have eased. But a final, startling discovery awaits her when the parallel narratives of the novel, which glide between past and present, converge brilliantly during a visit to an abandoned hermitage on Ibiza. The last pages of the book do what all great endings should do but few achieve: They open up the novel and make you want to go back to the beginning and read it again.

Every Eve has equally fine observations on place and character. Hatty finds a wry comfort in learning that an acquaintance with whom she has little in common will attend a family party. “At least we had the barren fields of our incompatibility between us, which made us better than strangers,” she reflects in a phrase that might have come from Elinor Dashwood. When she begins to date men at last, Hatty feels a slight thrill at “the almost human expression of the hard blocked toe-caps of their shoes” with their requisite perforations.

Critics have compared English to Muriel Spark and Anita Brookner – both of whom admired her work – but she is less austere than Spark and takes more risks than Brookner. English has a voice all her own, and it is more interesting than that of many better-known writers. At this writing On Chesil Beach ranks #184 on Amazon www.amazon.com, and Every Eye #864,564. If the bestseller lists were a meritocracy, those numbers would be revered.

Best line: Hatty’s husband, Stephen, says, “People sometimes go though their whole lives without reaching the moment when they are exactly the person they want to be.”

Worst line: One of the few off-key phrases is “she said managingly to me.”

Recommendation? An excellent choice for reading groups that enjoy mid- to late-20th-century British female authors but have run through many of the stalwarts, such as Spark, Brookner and Penelope Fitzgerald.

Published: Every Eye was first published in England in 1956. The Black Sparrow www.blacksparrowbooks.com edition is its American debut. The novel is the second by English (1920-1994), the pen name of June Braybrooke. who wrote two others, Four Voices and The Key That Rusts, and the short story collection, Life After All, winner of the PEN/Katherine Mansfield Prize.

Furthermore: English’s husband, Neville Braybooke, has written a wondeful introduction to Every Eve. It includes this arresting passage: “Never did I read a complete manuscript [by English] until it was ready to be professional typed. Then, after it was returned, June wrapped it in a silk scarf, as was her custom, and delivered it hy hand to her publishers — in this case the firm of André Deutsch. All four of her books were delivered in this manner and the scarves sent back in the stamped, addressed envelopes that she had enclosed.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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