One of the shortlisted novels, Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy, has already appeared on the longlist for this year’s Orange prize for fiction as well as the shortlist for the John Llewellyn Rhys award. Written in homage to the author’s father, and partly based on interviews with him, it tells of a boy’s epic journey across Africa in the 1930s, drawing on the African griot or “praise singer” tradition of delivering history.
Another title, Ned Beauman’s darkly funny murder mystery Boxer, Beetle, offers the reader an inventive narrative featuring what Armitstead called “bravura post-modern flights of imagination”. The story, related by a collector of Nazi memorabilia with a chronic sweat problem, is set partly in contemporary times and partly in the East End of London in the 1930s.
The third novel on the shortlist, Maile Chapman’s Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto, challenges convention with its seemingly obscure subject: a group of elderly female patients in a Finnish hospital in the 1920s. The story tells how the arrival of a new patient, a former ballroom-dance instructor with a bad temper, upsets the complex dynamics on the ward.
In Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, the journalist Kathryn Schulz asks us to rethink our attitude to our own fallibility, arguing that our discomfort with getting things wrong erodes our relationships, whether in the domestic sphere or on an international scale. Drawing on thinkers from Augustine and Darwin to Freud and even Groucho Marx, she argues that we should instead see error as an essential part of human creativity.
The final book on the shortlist is Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper by Alexandra Harris, which turns on its head the concept that the artists and writers of the 1930s and 1940s were in love with a provincial world of old churches and tea shops.