Gordon Burn was a writer for whom no subject or character was beyond fictionalizing. Burn loved to take characters already burnished in the celebrity spotlight and explore the darkness beneath. Sometimes he would choose fiction to do this, as in his Whitbread Prize-winning debut, Alma; other times — and sometimes within the same book — his methods and intentions were more ambiguous. The reader begins to question the very nature of what he is reading. Fiction? Non-fiction? Faction? Or, as celebrated by the likes of Norman Mailer in the late sixties, the non-fiction novel.
In 2013 the Gordon Burn Prize was launched “to reward fiction or non-fiction written in the English language, which in the opinion of the judges most successfully represents the spirit and sensibility of Gordon’s literary methods: novels which dare to enter history and interrogate the past…literature which challenges perceived notions of genre and makes us think again about just what it is that we are reading.” The prize is a jointly organised by the Gordon Burn Trust, New Writing North and Faber & Faber.
This shortlist was announced on July 12th. Some of the selected books have not yet been published in the U.S. The final awards event will take place at the Durham Book Festival on October 11th when ultimate prize winner will be announced.
Census by Jesse Ball
When a widower receives notice from a doctor that he doesn’t have long left to live, he is struck by the question of who will care for his adult son—a son whom he fiercely loves, a boy with Down syndrome. With no recourse in mind, and with a desire to see the country on one last trip, the man signs up as a census taker for a mysterious governmental bureau and leaves town with his son.
Traveling into the country, through towns named only by ascending letters of the alphabet, the man and his son encounter a wide range of human experience. While some townspeople welcome them into their homes, others who bear the physical brand of past censuses on their ribs are wary of their presence. When they press toward the edges of civilization, the landscape grows wilder, and the towns grow farther apart and more blighted by industrial decay. As they approach “Z,” the man must confront a series of questions: What is the purpose of the census? Is he complicit in its mission? And just how will he learn to say good-bye to his son?
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H(a)ppy by Nicola Barker
Imagine a perfect world where everything is known, where everything is open, where there can be no doubt, no hatred, no poverty, no greed. Imagine a System which both nurtures and protects. A Community which nourishes and sustains. An infinite world. A world without sickness, without death. A world without God. A world without fear.
Could you…might you be happy there?
In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne
For Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf, growing up under the towers of Stones Estate, summer means what it does anywhere: football, music, freedom. But now, after the killing of a British soldier, riots are spreading across the city, and nowhere is safe.
While the fury swirls around them, Selvon and Ardan remain focused on their own obsessions, girls and grime. Their friend Yusuf is caught up in a different tide, a wave of radicalism surging through his local mosque, threatening to carry his troubled brother, Irfan, with it.
Crudo by Olivia Laing
Kathy is a writer. Kathy is getting married. It’s the summer of 2017 and the whole world is falling apart. Fast-paced and frantic, Crudo unfolds in real time from the full-throttle perspective of a commitment-phobic artist who may or may not be Kathy Acker.
From a Tuscan hotel for the superrich to a Brexit-paralyzed United Kingdom, Kathy spends the first summer of her forties adjusting to the idea of a lifelong commitment. But it’s not only Kathy who’s changing. Fascism is on the rise, truth is dead, the planet is heating up, and Trump is tweeting the world ever-closer to nuclear war. How do you make art, let alone a life, when one rogue tweet could end it all?
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The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy
The Cost of Living explores the subtle erasure of women’s names, spaces, and stories in the modern everyday. In this “living autobiography” infused with warmth and humor, Deborah Levy critiques the roles that society assigns to us, and reflects on the politics of breaking with the usual gendered rituals. What does it cost a woman to unsettle old boundaries and collapse the social hierarchies that make her a minor character in a world not arranged to her advantage?
Levy draws on her own experience of attempting to live with pleasure, value, and meaning—the making of a new kind of family home, the challenges of her mother’s death—and those of women she meets in everyday life, from a young female traveler reading in a bar who suppresses her own words while she deflects an older man’s advances, to a particularly brilliant student, to a kindly and ruthless octogenarian bookseller who offers the author a place to write at a difficult time in her life. The Cost of Living is urgent, essential reading, a crystalline manifesto for turbulent times.
I’ll be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.
Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called “the Golden State Killer.” Michelle pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark—the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death—offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth. Utterly original and compelling, it has been hailed as a modern true crime classic—one which fulfilled Michelle’s dream: helping unmask the killer.
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