The Gordon Burn Prize, run as part of the Durham Books Festival, seeks to reward writing reflective of Gordon Burn’s novels: forward thinking, ambitious literature that takes its inspiration from today’s socio-cultural concerns. Here, our reviewers offer a run-down of each novel on the shortlist ahead of the prize’s announcement.
Tabitha Lasley’s Sea State, reviewed by Georgia Hall.
Tabitha Lasley’s Sea State documents the lives of oil rig workers in the North Sea, seeking to discover “what men are like when no women are around”. This part-journalistic account, part-memoir came into fruition following a complete upheaval of Lasley’s life: ending a relationship, leaving her job, moving to Aberdeen and writing her book. Documenting illicit affairs, drug and alcohol abuse, and the damage caused by large oil companies, Sea State creates a vulnerable and honest depiction of the lives of those who work offshore and the physical and emotional damage that comes with the job. Lasley effortlessly shifts between her personal life and the lives of the 103 men she interviewed; exploring issues of social class, relationships, mental health and the conflict between desire and morality in an engaging and powerful manner that certainly does justice to the stories it tells.
Jenny Fagan’s Luckenbooth, reviewed by Aoifke Madeleine.
Strange and unnerving, Jenny Fagan’s Luckenbooth has everything a scary story needs. Set in Scotland using Scots language, the novel is in touch with the country’s folklore and— much like Fagan’s previous works— accompanied by anger and humour in its writing.
The characters are diverse in both their stories and identities, all under the shadow of socio-economic depravity. Set between 1910 and 1999, Fagan manages to cover Scotland’s turbulent political history through the gothic imagination. Edinburgh becomes central to the story and the characters who are navigating themselves and their situations— for example, in the opening chapter, we see a young woman row to Edinburgh in a coffin, guided by her late father who is the literal devil.
Elements of the horror genre combined with these outcast characters navigating their complex lives, the novel proves itself to be a both an ode to the modern day and the historical horror folkloric genre.
Salena Godden’s Mrs Death Misses Death, reviewed by Imogen Marchant, Books Editor.
Salena Godden’s debut novel smacks of experimentation. It takes a shapeshifting grim reaper as its protagonist, and begins to share these stories gathered in a lifetime spent among the unseen, unheard and abandoned. It is somehow miraculously light-hearted, despite its dizzying allegorical, topical and generic range. It could be called part Joyce, part Beckett, but this is diminutive. It is entirely Godden’s. The poetic background that is Godden’s bread and butter is evident – only a poet’s eye could create a work comprised of sidelong nods to our surroundings. No subject is left untouched and nothing is sacred – but it is beautiful, heartbreaking and brave.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat, reviewed by Sarah Henderson.
A Ghost In The Throat is a captivating prose debut from Doireann Ní Ghríofa. It details her love story with a poem by an Irish woman in history, hoping to bring her voice to life in the present day.
History is intricately woven with lived experience to create a poignant tale of grief, desire and motherhood. In a triumphant blend of autofiction, biography and memoir, Ní Ghríofa lingers on the moment Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill drank the blood of her dead husband and in this moment of grief – like Eibhlín Dubh- Ní Ghríofa draws strength from struggle and emotional conflict to lift the voice of another. At the beginning of the book, Ní Ghríofa writes that “this is a female text”. There is something quite haunting about the voices lost to history that linger in the throats of readers. For every moment of apprehension, Ní Ghríofa illuminates the voice of Ní Chonaill so beautifully, showing her gift as a translator and her dutiful care for the text.
Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Little Devil in America, reviewed by Cerys Edwards
“There is no church like the church of unchained arms being thrown in every direction in the silence of a sleeping home.” The equally jubilant and mournful nature of this image, in many ways, sets the tone for A Little Devil in America, Hanif Abdurraqib’s collection of essays which explore how Black performance (in a range of media: dance, music, comedy) is significant to modern American culture. It’s a broad subject matter, and Abdurraqib bounces between big names (Beyonce, Aretha Franklin) and relative unknowns (Joe Tex and Bill Bailey), allowing unique parallels to be drawn between culture, history and personal experience. The overriding discussion is centred upon how Black culture has influenced white America, with comparatively little influence on everyday racism. In particular: how Merry Clayton’s 27 seconds of vocals on The Rolling Stone’s ‘Gimme Shelter’ is greedily consumed by white audiences, without consideration for her talent or agency. It’s a timely message communicated in chatty and lyrical prose, often punctured by anecdote. Abdurraqib has a lot of important things to say, and reading about them feels a lot like dancing alone in a dark house.
Image: Imogen Marchant.