Durham Book Festival Review: The Gordon Burn Prize 2016

By Jessica Derwent

I attended The Gordon Burn Prize 2016 not really knowing what to expect from the evening. I wasn’t sure how such a variety of novels and writers could possibly be compared. The selection ranged from And the Sun Shines Now by Adrian Tempany, about his experience as a survivor of the Hillsborough Disaster and the after effects on football; to Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, a thriller about an unassuming woman in 1960’s America who dreams of escaping her disturbed life in the dreary city.

Yet there was something very different, and touching, about this ceremony. All of the six shortlisted writers were judged to have written their novels in the spirit of Gordon Burn’s unusual sensibility. The portrait painted of Gordon Burn was one of a talented and flexible writer who used his journalistic skills to write kaleidoscopic fiction: he was referred to as a ‘Renaissance Geordie’ by his friends and colleagues.

The prize was unusual; an opportunity to undertake three months at a writer’s retreat at Gordon Burn’s beautiful cottage in Berkshire on the Scottish borders where he found inspiration and comfort to write. The prize winner would also win a mounted gold leaf award and a cheque for £5,000, yet these seemed secondary in comparison to the opportunity to stay in such a creative and unique space.

It was made clear that Gordon Burn appreciated a breadth of fiction and celebrated diversity in subject, style and structure. To introduce the evening there was a short film produced by Faber and Faber, which featured close friends, his wife, and colleagues discussing his life and work, as well as the ideas behind the prize.

The winner was David Salzay for his novel All That Man Is, who concluded in his acceptance speech that to him it seemed the shortlisted works were ‘books that Gordon Burn would have liked.’ He further commented that he couldn’t think of a more fitting and touching tribute to a writer’s life than the prize.

All That Man Is is a modern day exploration of masculinity through the nine lives of various male protagonists. The ‘stylistically ambitious’ novel is made up of nine chapters, or individual stories, with each new male protagonist being five to ten years older than the previous. There was a hint of Joyce’s famous A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, but with Sambuca, prostitutes, and a depressing conclusion on modern day masculinity. What struck me most about the novel’s subject and the extract that David Szalay chose to read was its strikingly modern tone and language.

There was something down to earth and almost boring about it, yet somehow that is the reflection of modern life Szalay aimed to depict. During the question time with host Peter Guttridge, David Szalay said he wrote in ordinary language and described the work as ‘one organic thing.’ It focused on bored and washed up characters leading slightly problematic lives. Szalay suggested the ‘nine characters… become a composite character.’

Also celebrated were Jeremy Gavron’s A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Sons Search for his Mother and Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier. The moving A Woman on the Edge of Time is based on Gavron’s experience of losing his mother to suicide at the age of four, and trying in adulthood to rediscover her. Talking to his mother Hannah’s childhood friends, fellow students and collegues, Gavron builds a picture of his mother he hadn’t been able to before, and lifting a silence on his life.

Anatomy of a Soldier was based on Harry Parker’s experience of losing both legs in Afghanistan, as told through inanimate objects present at the time, like a blood donor bag. He revealed that he had initially a chapter told entirely from the perspective of ketamine, but it had been cut by his editor.

The judges revealed the winner by citing its European travel and stand out quality of being ‘re-readable’ as reasons for the award. I was confused as to why a novel being re-readable was a way of measuring its worth and wondered what the late Gordon Burn would make of that idea. However, I was sure he would have approved of flaming Sambuca shots in Bosnia and the search for an elusive definition of masculinity in the modern age.

Photograph: Jessica Derwent

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