Reviews: The Gordon Burn Prize 2020 shortlist

By Aimee Dickinson, Katie Tobin, and

Every year, the awarding of the Gordon Burn Prize is one of the most anticipated events of Durham Book Festival. This year, like much else, it will be carried out online. Here, our contributors review some of the nominated books. Also nominated are ‘This Is Not Propaganda’ by Peter Pomerantsev (the subsequent winner of the Prize), ‘My Name Is Why’ by Lemn Sissay, and ‘Three Women’ by Lisa Taddeo.

Rainbow Milk

Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez is one of a growing tradition of books that queers the coming of age novel. However, it avoids the clichéd and homogeneous approach that some queer coming of age novels fall into. Instead, this novel is authentic, raw, and unmistakably real, uniquely exploring the intersection between racial and sexual identity. 

The novel explores two related narratives. The first tells the story of Norman, a Jamaican immigrant who arrives in Birmingham’s ‘black country’ during the post-war Windrush. Norman’s initial idyllic view of Britain is stripped away along with his eyesight (his blindness is, ironically, caused by the non-existent British sunshine) as he faces increasing discrimination and racism. As he remarks regretfully, “We leave the garden of Eden for the land of milk and honey and find Sodom and Gomorrah”.  Mendez uses dialect incredibly effectively in this first section to bring the voices of his characters to life.

Authentic, raw, and unmistakably real.

The second and main narrative of the novel explores the life of Norman’s grandson Jesse 50 years later, a black boy raised by devout Jehovah’s witness parents who becomes a male prostitute. The book provides a painful depiction of the self-hatred and repression that religion can instil in young people who are struggling to accept their queer identity. Jesse not only has to deal with homophobia but the fact that he will always feel “too black” for those around him, so he breaks free from his family and starts a new life in Birmingham. 

The novel unashamedly explores both the positive and negative aspects of Jesse’s sexual awakening, with the joyful and the desolate, the beautiful and the ugly all mixed together. The novel directly confronts the fetishization of the male black body, as Jesse struggles to establish his identity as a gay black man against a backdrop of damaging stereotypes. Music takes a specifically important role throughout the novel, as Jesse’s identification with certain musical styles and lyrics becomes an important part of his self-expression. 

The brilliance of Mendez’s novel comes from its refusal to sanitise reality, as its evocative sensory description paints a graphic and often bleak picture of the gritty lives of those who are othered by British society. However, while parts of the book are certainly difficult, the moments of tenderness and beauty shine all the more brightly when offset by brutal honesty of Mendez’s writing style. The book ends on a hopeful note, with the promise that Jesse will obliterate the self-destructive narrative society seems to have set out for him by becoming an author and writing his own narrative. Mendez is, without a doubt, the literary voice that 2020 needs to hear. 

Motherwell

“The people of Motherwell were used to being part of something much bigger than themselves,” Deborah Orr tells us. “When it went, so quickly … [it] became a town without a purpose.” A former giant of Scottish industry, Orr’s posthumously published memoir depicts her youth in the quaint Lanarkshire town of Motherwell.

Motherwell: A Girlhood is a tale that seamlessly blends together the political and the personal. The world in which the reader is so vividly transported by Orr’s playful writing style is one foregrounded by the town’s – and her family’s – dependence on industry. Rocked by Thatcherism from the late 70s, Orr carefully paints a portrait of the working-class casualties of Thatcher’s policies.

Orr’s melodic and almost-achingly slow prose perfectly captures the awkward purgatory of childhood. She spares no detail in painstakingly constructing the underlying toxicity of her parents; her mother and Essex native Win, and John, initially the subject of Orr’s idolatry, who is slowly revealed to be a drinker, gambler, and man of a “great temper”.

Orr’s melodic and almost-achingly slow prose perfectly captures the awkward purgatory of childhood.

The book is primarily an examination on the toxicity of a marriage in which both partners are vehemently, but oh-so-misguidedly, committed to upholding their idealised version of the other. Echoing the tumultuous relationship between Nick and Amy Dunne in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Orr’s narrative is an exploration of how her parents’ relationship and characteristic narcissism led to her self-hatred, which she boldly defied. Perhaps counterintuitively, it is here where the book offers a hope that we are not defined by our childhood. Deborah forged a brilliant career as an outspoken and quick-witted journalist, using her childhood to propel her writing. 

Motherwell: A Girlhood is not a classically “fun”, light read, but it wonderfully captures the innate peculiarity of childhood. I would highly recommend Orr’s memoir for a poignant, nostalgic, and introspective read.

Notes Made While Falling

Jenn Ashworth’s Notes Made While Falling (2019) begins with a haemorrhage after a caesarean. Ashworth, numbed by the epidural, hasn’t noticed she’s bleeding out, but her husband sees the red blooming and he thinks someone’s spilled Ribena. This is typical of Ashworth’s style, flipping registers from comic to tragic to stomach churning.

Ashworth describes the resulting surgery with a claustrophobic intensity but makes it clear that she would prefer to suffer it again for the rest of her life “rather than fall into the madness that followed.” The book takes us on her downward trajectory. Ashworth cannot sleep, she cannot write as she lacks faith in linear narratives, and she drinks heavily while watching true crime (this gory sensibility is in her descriptions of hot entrails and gaping wounds). She is convinced her skin is so weak that one harsh stop in her car will send her seatbelt through her middle, bursting her entrails through her skin, Alien style. She’s tongue in cheek when she states, ‘‘I’ve gone leaky, my border control policy needs tightening up”, but furious at a doctor who claims her post-surgical anxieties are “nothing to write home about.” I thoroughly enjoyed her sincerity in exposing those ugly parts of herself, hissing with rage at those who do not understand.

Drifting in and out of literary criticism, she takes cultural snippets and places them in dialogue with her own experiences

Ashworth’s book, like her skin, has weak border control, but this porousness of form becomes an asset. Not strictly a memoir, she allows everything in: the Bulger case, King Lear, Charles Dickens, Susan Sontag, Chernobyl, the Addams Family, to name a few. Drifting in and out of literary criticism, she takes cultural snippets and places them in dialogue with her own experiences, interrogating how they correspond.

Sure, some of the tangents Ashworth sutures into her book are dangled without deeper engagement and arguably left to hang like a bad skin graft. However, her work is not about stitching together meditations that neatly contribute to a cure or an epiphany. Instead, Ashworth provides a crucial manifesto of empathy by recognising that we all have the capacity to fall, and that we should stop focussing on the landing. Foregrounded by the X-ray on the cover, Notes Made While Falling is about bearing all to heal, and that is sometimes messy and left open, but always authentic and raw.

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